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The Folger Spotlight

Slippery thoughts in "The Winter's Tale"

With The Winter’s Tale now onstage at Folger Theatre, we asked this year’s cohort of Folger Institute Research Fellows to pick a moment from the play and explain something that most people might not know. Below, we’ve shared a response from Douglas Clark, who in summer 2024 will explore “The Forgotten Manuscript Poetry of Early Modern England” as a residential research fellow at the Folger.

Leontes first articulates his fear about Hermione’s supposed infidelity in Act One, Scene Two. While reflecting on the extent of his “tremor cordis” (1.2.141), Leontes puts a new spin on an idea familiar to those living in Shakespeare’s time: that one could fish for people. When Polixenes and Hermione exit together in the middle of this scene, Leontes states that “I am angling now, / Though you perceive me not how I give line” (1.2.225–26).

This conceit is unique in two ways. First, it deviates from the figuration of Christ and his apostles as fishers. Many people across the sociopolitical spectrum of 17th-century society would have heard or read a version of Christ’s words to Peter and Andrew in Matthew 4:19: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”. It is clear, however, that Leontes is no evangelist looking to save a soul. He instead imagines himself as an angler looking for evidence of his wife’s moral corruption. Punishment rather than forgiveness is emphasized throughout Leontes’ later conversation on the topic with his attendant Camillo.

Imagining himself to be a subtle angler who may “give line” also breaks from a more secular, amatory literary convention, whereby individuals intentionally fished for (or inadvertently caught) admirers using their physical and rhetorical charms. Cleopatra, for example, likens romantic seduction to fishing in Antony and Cleopatra, exclaiming that she will consider “every one” of the fish drawn up by her own rod and “bended hook” to be “Antony” (AC, 2.5.14–17). Leontes is not, however, seeking to reel in his beloved, but is consumed with making Camillo believe that “my wife is slippery” (1.2.335). As the play unfolds to show, it is Leontes’ own “cogitation” (1.3.333), his power of thought, that is utterly wayward. The labours of his angling yields death and heartache. It is Leontes who slips in trying to catch a supposedly “slippery” wife.