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The Winter’s Tale /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: The Winter’s Tale

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of The Winter’s Tale, for example, you will find the words sneaping (i.e., nipping), bawcock (i.e., fellow), pash (i.e., head), and hoxes (i.e., cuts the hamstring muscles). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In The Winter’s Tale, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of The Winter’s Tale, for example, the word embassies has the meaning of “messages,” subject is used where we would say “people,” jar o’ th’ clock is used where we would say “tick of the clock,” and fabric where we would say “edifice.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scenes of The Winter’s Tale, for example, Shakespeare conjures up the “magnificence” (meaning “splendid ceremony, liberal expenditure, and good taste”) with which “Sicilia” (i.e., King Leontes) has been entertaining his lifelong friend “Bohemia” (i.e., King Polixenes) for “nine changes of the wat’ry star,” or nine months. (“Sicilia” and “Bohemia” are used to name both the kingdoms and, on occasion, their kings.) The conversation among Leontes, his queen, Hermione, and the couple’s friend Polixenes recalls the kings’ “unfledged days,” when they were “pretty lordings.” Then suddenly for no good reason Leontes suspects an affair between Hermione and his friend Polixenes; he drops out of the three-way conversation, heaps abuse on Hermione as a “slippery” wife, a “hobby-horse,” and a “bed-swerver,” and describes the covert sexual activity of the couple—“paddling palms,” “meeting noses,” “horsing foot on foot.” Leontes’ queen and court suffer intolerably as they are subjected to his “dangerous unsafe lunes,” “tyrannous passion,” “humor,” and “weak-hinged fancy.”

Then as suddenly as Leontes’ court is transformed by his insane jealousy, the world of the play is transformed again when the scene shifts from Sicilia to the fictional seacoast and countryside of Bohemia. First, Bohemia is created as the site of terrifying natural disasters with terms such as “grimly” skies, “blusters,” and “creatures of prey.” Shortly thereafter, the play’s language constructs it as beautiful and desirable, a place where “gillyvors,” the “crown imperial,” and the “flower-de-luce” grow, and the people perform in “Whitsun pastorals.”

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. (Sometimes the language of The Winter’s Tale steadfastly resists being reduced to any clear meaning. But the actors will, nonetheless, clarify as far as the words and sentence structure allow.) When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Title page of the novel dramatized in The Winter’s Tale.

Father Time, from Jean de Serres, A generall historie of France ... (1611).
Father Time. (4.1)
From Jean de Serres, A generall historie of France … (1611).

Shakespeare often, for example, rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In The Winter’s Tale, when Leontes says “So stands this squire” (1.2.214–15), he is using such a construction. Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Hermione’s “This satisfaction the bygone day proclaimed” (1.2.40–41) is an example of such an inversion, as is her “Th’ offenses we have made you do we’ll answer” (1.2.105). (The “normal” order would be “The bygone day proclaimed this satisfaction” and “We’ll answer the offenses we have made you do.”)

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word. Take, for example, Hermione’s “But I, though you would seek t’ unsphere the stars with oaths, should yet say ‘Sir, no going’ ” (1.2.60–63). Here, the clause “though you would seek t’ unsphere the stars with oaths” separates subject (“I”) from verb (“should . . . say”), while the adverb “yet” divides the two parts of the verb “should say.” Or take Leontes’ lines to Camillo:

                                                   Ay, and thou,

His cupbearer—whom I from meaner form

Have benched and reared to worship, who mayst see

Plainly as heaven sees Earth and Earth sees heaven

How I am galled—mightst bespice a cup

To give mine enemy a lasting wink.


Here, the subject and verb “thou mightst bespice” are interrupted by the insertion of the appositive “His cupbearer” and by two extensive clauses that emphasize, first, Leontes’ past promotion of Camillo and, second, what Leontes believes is the obviousness of the offense against him. In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“I should say ‘Sir, no going’ ”; “Thou mightst bespice a cup”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Locating and then rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages that repeatedly separate basic sentence elements by long delaying or expanding interruptions, a common feature of dialogue in The Winter’s Tale. One prominent example is Leontes’ question to Camillo (“Ha’ not you seen or heard or thought my wife is slippery?”), which becomes rather difficult to grasp because Leontes keeps interrupting himself to insist that it is impossible for Camillo not to have noticed:

LEONTES                Ha’ not you seen, Camillo—

But that’s past doubt; you have, or your eyeglass

Is thicker than a cuckold’s horn—or heard—

For to a vision so apparent, rumor

Cannot be mute—or thought—for cogitation

Resides not in that man that does not think—

My wife is slippery?


Often in The Winter’s Tale, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Shakespeare uses a version of this construction more than once in the speech in which Camillo attempts to answer Leontes’ accusation that he has been negligent, foolish, and cowardly:

CAMILLO                                  In your affairs, my lord,

If ever I were willful-negligent,

It was my folly; if industriously

I played the fool, it was my negligence,

Not weighing well the end; if ever fearful

To do a thing where I the issue doubted,

Whereof the execution did cry out

Against the non-performance, ’twas a fear

Which oft infects the wisest.


Because Camillo does not know what he has failed to do, he is not about to confess to the accusation that Leontes has leveled against him, but Camillo is too accomplished a courtier to suggest in any way that his monarch is making a false accusation. Camillo’s solution is to admit the possibility that he has failed his king in all kinds of ways, but to admit his failure only as a possibility, not as a demonstrated fact. He emphasizes the as yet only provisional status of the king’s accusations by beginning each part of his excuse with a conditional clause (If ever I were willful-negligent”; “if industriously I played the fool”; “if ever fearful to do a thing where I the issue doubted, whereof the execution did cry out against the non-performance”).

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Even among Shakespeare’s later plays, in all of which words are frequently omitted, The Winter’s Tale stands out for the frequency of its omissions. Ellipsis (omission of words) is particularly evident in many of the rapid conversational exchanges that take place between characters. The following is just one example:

LEONTES                 Didst note it?


He would not stay at your petitions, made

His business more material.

LEONTES                                     Didst perceive it?


To fill in these ellipses, making Leontes say “Didst [thou] note it?” and “Didst [thou] perceive it?” and having Camillo say “[He] made his business more material,” not only would destroy the rhythm of the verse but would also purge the dialogue of its conversational flavor. To an extraordinary extent throughout The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare depends on the omission of explicit subjects before verbs to achieve an informal tone.

But he also employs ellipsis to create rising excitement in speeches. Leontes’ description of what he believes has transpired between Hermione and Polixenes becomes increasingly elliptical as it proceeds:

LEONTES                                  Is whispering nothing?

Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?

Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career

Of laughter with a sigh?—a note infallible

Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot?

Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?

Hours minutes? Noon midnight?


This speech begins with a complete sentence (“Is whispering nothing?”), and this sentence provides the model for the rest of the sentences in the speech even though no other sentence fully embodies the model. Instead, as the speech goes on, its sentences become progressively more elliptical. The first sentence element to disappear is the word “nothing”: “Is leaning cheek to cheek [nothing]? Is meeting noses [nothing]?” Then the verb “is” drops out so that the sentences consist only of their subjects: “[Is] kissing with inside lip [nothing]? . . . [Is] skulking in corners [nothing]? [Is] wishing clocks more swift [nothing]?” Finally, words are omitted from the subjects of the sentences as well: “[Is wishing that] hours [were] minutes [nothing]? [Is wishing that] noon [were] midnight [nothing]?” But the progression toward greater and greater ellipsis is so brilliantly controlled by the dramatist that the meaning is always clear, and the force of the (purely imaginary) intimate details that Leontes is itemizing is all the more powerful when they are unencumbered by needless repetition of other sentence elements.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. Puns in The Winter’s Tale usually play on the multiple meanings of a single word. While puns can convey a speaker’s sense of superiority or delight in language, they can also appear in quite different contexts. When, for example, Leontes puns early in the play, shortly after he has been overtaken by delusions about his wife’s infidelity, his wordplay conveys bitter irony. He addresses these words to his young son: “Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I / Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue / Will hiss me to my grave” (1.2.234–36). The meaning of the word play in this speech repeatedly shifts as Leontes puns on it. In “play, boy, play,” it means only “amuse yourself”; but in “thy mother plays,” plays means “amorously plays” or “has sexual intercourse,” referring to the adultery of which Leontes mistakenly thinks his queen, Hermione, is guilty. Finally, when Leontes says “I play . . . so disgraced a part,” the meaning of play changes once again in another pun, for now Leontes uses it to mean “play or act a part or role onstage.” More challenging to reader and editor alike than these puns on play is Leontes’ possible pun on issue when he says that the “issue [of the part I play] will hiss me to my grave.” Three meanings of issue are at work in this speech: (1) outcome; (2) offspring; (3) exit. As a consequence, Leontes says three somewhat different things all at the same time: (1) “The outcome of my playing the part of the betrayed husband will be that I am hissed to my grave”; (2) “My offspring or descendants will hiss me to my grave because of the part I’ve played”; (3) “My exit (from the imaginary stage on which I have played my part) will be that I am hissed to my grave.” Such complex linguistic play illustrates both the difficulty and the richness of The Winter’s Tale’s language.

When Autolycus puns, his tone, in contrast to Leontes’, is delight at his own superiority over those not as clever as he. In one case, for example, he steals the purses of the Shepherd’s Son and his friends, who were so busy learning a song that they were unaware of the theft. He speaks of his victims as “my choughs” at “the chaff,” punning on the two meanings of choughs: “easily captured birds” and “rustics” or “simple country people.” Autolycus also puns when he is directly addressing those he regards as his inferiors. Identifying himself as a courtier, Autolycus directs the attention of the Shepherd and the Shepherd’s Son to his clothes: “Seest thou not the air of the court in these enfoldings? . . . Receives not thy nose court odor from me?” (4.4.858–60). At first his phrase “air of the court” seems to mean simply “style of the court,” but when he goes on to mention “court odor,” then “air of the court” also comes to acquire the additional meaning “smell of the court.”

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. For instance, when Camillo says of the young Prince Mamillius that he “physics the subject,” Camillo is using metaphorical language to describe Mamillius as, by his very existence, providing restorative medicine (then called “physic”) to the subjects of Leontes’ kingdom. Leontes too employs a metaphor when he says to Hermione “Three crabbèd months had soured themselves to death / Ere I could make thee open thy white hand / And clap thyself my love” (1.2.130–33). In this wordplay Leontes expresses the harshness of months of anxious waiting by, in effect, turning them into sour-tasting crabapples.

While there are many metaphors in The Winter’s Tale and while many of them can be understood as easily as the two just analyzed, not all of them can be so readily grasped. The Winter’s Tale contains some metaphorical passages that have successfully withstood efforts by centuries of editors and commentators to explain them. One such famous passage is Leontes’ metaphorical representation of “affection”:

Affection, thy intention stabs the center.

Thou dost make possible things not so held [i.e., things thought impossible],

Communicat’st with dreams—how can this be?

With what’s unreal thou coactive art,

And fellow’st [i.e., share in] nothing.


All interpreters agree that Leontes is using a metaphor when he speaks of “affection” having both an “intention” and the power to stab. This metaphor is a personification because it endows the abstraction “affection” with capacities that are unique to human beings. “Center,” in the first line, is also a metaphor, but it is not at all clear what this “center” is. Nor is it clear what meanings are to be attached to either “affection” or “intention.” Some commentators understand Leontes to be commenting abstractly in this speech on the power of emotion (one possible meaning of “affection”) to find out the truth, or to be commenting, again abstractly, on the power of passionate love (another meaning of “affection”) to pierce the soul and “make possible things not so held.” Others think that Leontes is addressing his own “affection”—his emotions, or passions: more specifically, his jealousy of Hermione. On this interpretation, “intention” may refer to the intensity of his feeling, and “center,” according to this way of reading the passage, could mean Leontes’ center, his heart, which is wounded by his jealousy—or it could even mean the center of the Earth, which is shaken, for him, by his belief in Hermione’s adultery. These suggestions about how to read this passage by no means exhaust the readings to which it is susceptible. Irreducible uncertainty about the meaning of this passage and a number of others in The Winter’s Tale has led Stephen Orgel to locate in this play a “poetics of incomprehensibility.”

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When, in The Winter’s Tale 2.3.208–10, Leontes orders Antigonus to “Swear by this sword / Thou wilt perform my bidding” and Antigonus replies “I will, my lord,” it is clear that a sword is placed before Antigonus and that he places his hand on the sword’s hilt (which is in the form of a cross) as he obeys Leontes’ command to swear. When, a few lines later at 2.3.226, Antigonus says “Come on, poor babe,” it is equally clear that he then picks up a prop representing the infant Perdita.

Occasionally in The Winter’s Tale, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. Earlier in the same scene in which Antigonus picks up Perdita, for example, Leontes repeatedly orders his attendants, and Antigonus in particular, to remove Paulina. “Away with that audacious lady” (2.3.50), Leontes commands. Paulina remains. “Force her hence” (76) says Leontes, and Paulina tells his attendants: “Let him that makes but trifles of his eyes / First hand me. On mine own accord I’ll off, / But first I’ll do my errand” (77–79). And so she does, in spite of Leontes’ exclamations: “Out! / A mankind witch! Hence with her, out o’ door” (83–84). Finally, Leontes is obeyed. When he says, “Away with her!” (159), Paulina’s words indicate that his lords are moving to eject her: “I pray you do not push me; . . . What needs these hands?” (160–62). It is possible to stage this scene in several ways either in a theater or in one’s imagination: perhaps Leontes’ lords repeatedly lay hands on her in response to the king’s orders and a physically powerful Paulina resolutely, or even violently, resists their efforts until she has done her “errand.” Or perhaps her words combined with her looks freeze Leontes’ attendants in their places, and they never presume to approach her until just before she takes her leave. And there are a number of other possible stagings of the action. We as editors have inserted (bracketed) stage directions at what seemed to us the most probable places, but these are ultimately matters that directors and actors—and readers in their imaginations—must decide. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches a crucial scene like the statue scene in 5.3, in which implied stage action vitally affects our response to the play.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.