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Further Reading: The Winter's Tale

Adelman, Janet. “Masculine Authority and the Maternal Body: The Return to Origins in the Romances.” In Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to the Tempest, pp. 193–238, esp. pp. 219–38. New York and London: Roudedge, 1991.

In her feminist psychoanalytic study of The Winter’s Tale (WT), Adelman traces the movement from “a sterile court in which the maternal body and the progeny which bear its signs” must be exorcised to a court in which that body is radically recuperated, “its regenerative sanctity recognized and embraced.” The shift from a male pastoral (static and nostalgic) to a female pastoral (creative and full of hope), with the corresponding shift in presiding deities from Apollo to the goddess Nature, epitomizes the turn from tragedy to romance. Where Leontes and Polixenes base their masculine identity on separation from the female (1.2.85–101), Florizell finds his in the fertile promise of Perdita (4.4.49–53, 134–56, and 569–70). Patriarchy is affirmed in the final scene, but it is “grounded in a benignly generative maternal presence”: Leontes’ power remains contingent on the return of Hermione.

Bartholomeusz, Dennis. The Winter’s Tale in Performance in England and America, 1611–1976. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

In addition to analyzing the earliest performances of WT at the Globe and Whitehall in the first part of the seventeenth century and David Garrick’s adaptation in the eighteenth, this examination of sixty-two productions pays special attention to revivals by J. P. Kemble, William Charles Macready, Samuel Phelps, Charles Kean, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Harley Granville-Barker, Peter Brook, and Trevor Nunn. Bartholomeusz observes the interactive influence of critics and actors/directors in interpreting the play, particularly its mix of diverse elements and its treatment of Leontes’ jealousy and the “resurrection” of Hermione. While modern productions have achieved a certain brilliance in their emphasis on symbolism, “there has been no automatic rising curve of progress” since Granville-Barker’s effort in 1912 to recover “the Elizabethan principles at work in Shakespeare’s theatrical art.”

Barton, Anne. “Leontes and the Spider: Language and Speaker in Shakespeare’s Last Plays.” In Shakespeare’s Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, edited by Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank, and G. K. Hunter, pp. 131–50. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. Reprinted in Barton’s Essays, Mainly Shakespearean, pp. 161–81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Barton finds in Leontes’ spider passage (2.1.47–63) the stylistic key to Shakespeare’s late plays in general and WT in particular. In these plays Shakespeare subordinates character to plot, deliberately destroying the “close relationship between language and dramatic character” he had so successfully forged in the tragedies. Language is used no longer to reveal a character’s nature and intentions but to emphasize the “impersonal quality” of the dramatic occasion; as a result of this gap between language and speaker, characters remain unaware of what is clear to the audience—the primary, but to the speakers “involuntary,” meaning of their words. “The involuntary plays a significantly new part in the Last Plays.”

Bethell, Samuel L. The Winter’s Tale: A Study. London: Staples Press, 1947.

In this first book-length study of the play, Bethell reads WT as a dramatic illustration of Christian humanism. Numerous anachronisms combine with the pervasive presence of such concepts as grace, sin, penance, conscience, redemption, and the Pauline view of a “resurrected life” to result in “a timeless Christian story in no place and every place.” The dramatic synthesis of natural and supernatural, medieval and classical, sacred and secular, and symbolic and realistic makes WT “the supreme literary expression of the Baroque.” The playwright’s great achievement is his fusion of Hellenic-medieval romance (the Florizell-Perdita story) and the “unromantic otherworldliness of orthodox medieval religion” (the Leontes-Hermione story) to reveal “the work of Providence in individual and national history.”

Biggins, Dennis. “ ‘Exit pursued by a Beare’: A Problem in The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 3–13.

After agreeing with those who claim that the beast in the stage direction at 3.3.64 was first impersonated by an actor rather than played by a real bear, Biggins turns his attention to the structural, tonal, thematic, and, most important, symbolic significance of Antigonus’ “disposal.” By pursuing the agent of tyranny and sparing the innocent baby, the bear functions as the symbol of “destruction, broken integrity, and Heavenly vengeance” and thus makes possible a more serious than comic response to this “atmospherically ticklish moment.”

Cavell, Stanley. “Recounting Gains, Showing Losses (A Reading of The Winter’s Tale).” In Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare, pp. 196–206. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Reprinted in Cavel’s In Quest of the Ordinary Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism, pp. 76–101. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Cavell examines WT in the context of philosophical skepticism, finding in Leontes “a portrait of the skeptic as fanatic.” What interests the author is the “intersection of the epistemologist’s questioning of [the] existence . . . of the external world . . . with Leontes’ perplexity about knowing whether his son is his.” Neither knowing by telling (language) nor knowing by observing (empiricism) can confirm or deny his paternity. Cavell considers the complex relationship between Leontes and Mamillius to be a variation on the Oedipal conflict: instead of being initiated by the son’s wish to remove or replace the father, the conflict in WT “seems primarily generated by the father’s wish to replace or remove the son.” The son’s death functions as wish fulfillment, thereby enabling Leontes to disown his role in the procreative act, free himself of the responsibilities of fatherhood, and cling to fantasies of childhood innocence. The first half of WT constitutes a study of skepticism; the second, a study of the search for recovery from it. The final scene is one of “issuing” in which Leontes and Hermione each awaken and create one another, thus showing “what it may be to find in oneself the life of the world.”

Clubb, Louise G. “The Tragicomic Bear.” Comparative Literature Studies 9 (1972): 17–30.

Clubb shows how Shakespeare’s use of a man-eating bear in the stage direction at 3.3.64 to effect the transition from tragedy to comedy “accords with the ambiguity attached to the bear and distinguishing it from other beasts in sixteenth-century Italian pastoral tragicomedy.” The animal traditionally thought of as unformed at birth and licked into shape is “both more and less terrible” than other wild beasts; savage and yet tamable, potentially tragic or comic, the bear served as an “emblematically appropriate” figure for playwrights experimenting with mixed genres. “For transitions, especially, the bear is a tragicomic beast par excellence,” ensuring “the tempering of pain or laughter.”

Greene, Robert. Pandosto. The Triumph of Time (1588). In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, edited by Geoffrey Bullough, vol. 8, pp. 156–99. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

This prose romance, first published in 1588, was the primary source for Shakespeare’s WT. While clearly indebted to its plot, especially in the first three acts of his play, Shakespeare changed names, reversed locales (Leontes’ counterpart presides over Bohemia, while Polixenes’ rules Sicilia), introduced new characters (e.g., Paulina, Antigonus, and Autolycus), treated Leontes’ jealousy as a surprising explosion rather than something building over time, quickly passed over the interval of sixteen years, and developed the sheepshearing festival from a brief allusion into a full-blown scene. Shakespeare’s decision to “resurrect” Hermione, eliminate attempted incest by Leontes, and forgo his suicide resulted in multiple reunions and a tonal atmosphere far different from that of Greene’s conclusion. Minor sources include Greene’s “Conny-Catching” pamphlets, which carry significance for the creation of Autolycus, and book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which deals with the Pygmalion story of a statue come to life.

Hunt, Maurice, ed. The Winter’s Tale: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995.

The first part of this anthology (following an introductory overview of the scholarship and performance history related to WT) provides nineteen critical commentaries spanning the years 1817 to 1995; the second part is devoted to theater reviews covering productions between 1802 and 1988. Along with observations by William Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Harley Granville-Barker, and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the critical essays contain F. David Hoeniger’s “The Meaning of The Winter’s Tale,” Northrop Frye’s “Recognition in The Winter’s Tale,” Edward W. Tayler’s “Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale” (from Nature and Art in Renaissance Literature), Inga-Stina Ewbank’s “The Triumph of Time in The Winter’s Tale,” Robert G. Hunter’s “The Winter’s Tale” (from Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness), Joan Hartwig’s “The Tragicomic Perspective of The Winter’s Tale,” Peter Lindenbaum’s “Time, Sexual Love, and the Uses of Pastoral in The Winter’s Tale,” Howard Felperin’s “Our Carver’s Excellence: The Winter’s Tale” (from Shakespearean Romance), Carol Thomas Neely’s “The Winter’s Tale: The Triumph of Speech,” Patricia Southard Gourlay’s “ ‘O my most sacred lady’: Female Metaphor in The Winter’s Tale,” Richard Proudfoot’s “Verbal Reminiscence and the Two-Part Structure of The Winter’s Tale,” Russ McDonald’s “Poetry and Plot in The Winter’s Tale,” Kay Stockholder’s “From Matter to Magic: The Winter’s Tale” (from Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare’s Plays), Maurice Hunt’s “The Labor of The Winter’s Tale,” and David Bergeron’s “The Apollo Mission in The Winter’s Tale.” In addition to nineteenth-century productions by J. P. Kemble, Samuel Phelps, and Charles Kean, the theater reviews relate to revivals by Granville-Barker (1912), Peter Brook (1951), Trevor Nunn (1969), John Barton and Trevor Nunn (1976), Jane Howell (for the BBC in 1981), Terry Hands (1986), David William (1986), and Peter Hall (1988).

Morse, William R. “Metacriticism and Materiality: The Case of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.” English Literary History 58 (1991): 283–304.

This materialist-metacritical approach to WT questions the New Historicist claim of an absolute cultural hegemony in Shakespeare’s time that completely contained subversive tendencies. Morse views the “seemingly apolitical” WT as a site of conflict between dominant and emergent ideologies. Whatever the commitment of James I’s court to the ideology of absolutism in 1610, WT shows that the emergent anti-absolutist ideology “is already passing into a kind of cultural dominance, consigning the absolutist culture of the court to a residual status thirty years before political events confirm the shift.” Shakespeare’s self-conscious appropriation of the genre of romance disengages the audience and demystifies authority “through the deconstruction of the transcendent conceptions of metaphysics and rationality that privilege and sustain it.” WT’s conflicting modes of representation, its equal criticism of medieval analogical discourse and modern analytical-referential discourse, and its “incomplete” containment of subversive elements reveal a play of “radical political openness” and, by extension, a world “teeter[ing] in the gap” between contending ideologies.

Mowat, Barbara A. “Rogues, Shepherds, and the Counterfeit Distressed: Texts and Infracontexts in The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 58–76.

Mowat analyzes the matrix of printed discourse stratifying and complicating the surface meaning of WT 4.3 (Autolycus’ encounter with the Shepherd’s Son). One set of contexts—the Greek myth of the “master thief” Autolycus (the son of Mercury), Greene’s Second Part of Conny-Catching, vagabond songs, and picaresque tales—“makes of the dramatic moment a variously nuanced celebration of the cunning of the trickster.” Another set—a vast body of “rogue” literature that contributed to a century-long socioeconomic debate on the issue of vagrancy and the need to distinguish between the genuinely distressed and the counterfeit distressed—“makes the moment instead an enactment of frightening social conflict.” An intertextual reading of 4.3 allows one to recover the scene’s embedded complexity and “to exchange [its] amusing surface context . . . for a supercharged contextual world.” Mowat calls attention to the darker and more specific (even legal) semantics in Shakespeare’s time of the word “rogue,” the term used to characterize Autolycus in the list of dramatis personae.

Orgel, Stephen. “The Poetics of Incomprehensibility.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 431–37.

Orgel considers four obscure passages from WT (1.2.13–16 and 175–83, 3.2.46–51 and 111–13) to argue that “linguistic opacity” is a basic feature of the play. He cautions against imposing an arbitrary clarity where, even for Shakespeare’s audience, ambiguity was the desired end. Some lines, while definitely intended to mean something, are nevertheless meant to resist “paraphrasable meaning.” WT speaks “incomprehensibly.”

Schalkwyk, David. “ ‘A Lady’s “Verily” Is as Potent as a Lord’s’: Women, Word, and Witchcraft in The Winter’s Tale.” English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992): 242–72.

Schalkwyk views the exchange between Hermione and Polixenes at 1.2.50–70 as a microcosm of WT’s exploration of “the radical instability, for patriarchy, of [the female] word.” Informing both Sicilian and Bohemian society is the recognition that legitimacy of the bloodline, so crucial to patriarchal authority, depended on the woman’s word concerning paternity—a word, however, that was less trustworthy than man’s because “women . . . will say anything” (1.2.166–67). Accusations of witchcraft directed at women who “transgress the patriarchal order” further devalue female speech and erotic power. Rather than offering a regenerated world that recognizes the dignity of women, the final scene “rehearses the political need for men to escape their ideological impasse through the [containment and] appropriation of the potency of the female word and the concomitant silencing of women.” By justifying female virtue (i.e., asserting a woman’s chastity), “a pair of kings” (5.3.182) guarantees the honesty and worth of Hermione and Paulina, thus fulfilling male desires and furthering the ends of patriarchy.

Traub, Valerie. “Jewels, Statues, and Corpses: Containment of Female Erotic Power.” In Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama, pp. 25–49, esp. pp. 42–49. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. [An earlier version of this chapter appeared in Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 215–38.]

Traub explores the meaning of masculine anxiety toward female power within the context of recent feminist, psychoanalytic, and New Historicist criticism. Focusing on female chastity in Hamlet, Othello, and WT, she maintains that male anxiety toward female eroticism “is channeled into a strategy of containment; the erotic threat of the female body is psychically contained by means of a metaphoric and dramatic transformation of women into jewels, statues, and corpses.” Instead of privileging feminist values (see Adelman above), the final scene presents the return of Hermione, her sexuality “monumentally” displaced into a statue, as “wish-fulfillment” for Leontes, who recovers a virtuous wife and patriarchal authority over “all social relations.” Traub’s reading challenges the prevailing psychoanalytic interpretation of the romances as “reconstituting the broken families” of the tragedies: “the restraints of genre do not contain the erotic anxieties of gender.”