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The Winter's Tale: Essay Q&A

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Essay Q&A

1. At what point in the play does Leontes become jealous?
Commentators often remark on how quickly Leontes' jealousy erupts, and with such little cause. But it is possible that Leontes conceives his jealous of Polixenes even before the play begins. It may be that he has been jealous of Polixenes for a long time and wants him to stay a week longer so he can catch him and Hermoine in the act before Polixenes has returned safely to Bohemia.
If the actor chooses to interpret the part in this way, he can make Leontes' first words sound ominous. Polixenes has just thanked him profusely, in elaborate language, for his hospitality, but Leontes' response is notably terse: "Stay your thanks a while, / And pay them when you part." Immediately following this, Polixenes says that he has stayed too long and Leontes must be tired of him. Leontes' reply is again brief: "We are tougher, brother, / Than you can put us to't," which means, on the surface, that he can stand any test of that kind that Polixenes can impose on him, but there may be a more sinister meaning as well that suggests almost a veiled warning to Polixenes.
A few lines later, Leontes' words to Hermoine, "Tongue-tied our queen?" (line 29) can sound like an accusation. Hermoine has been standing silent and dutiful, waiting for the outcome of the discussion about whether Polixenes will stay. Leontes chooses to bring her into the discussion in a way that carries a hint that she may be blameworthy or guilty about something. After Polixenes has agreed to Hermoine's request that he stay longer, Leontes says, "At my request he would not," (line 89) which might be taken to express some disquiet on his part.
All these hints and suggestions that all is not well in Leontes' mind precede the eruption of his full-blown jealousy at line 108, with his speech beginning "Too hot, too hot!"
2. Comment on the discussion between Perdita and Polixenes at Act 4, scene 4, lines 76-100.
Polixenes and Perdita engage in a debate about the practice of cross-breeding plants. The conversation begins when Polixenes tells Perdita that she has given him flowers of winter. She replies that her garden does not have the more seasonal flowers, such as carnations and gillyvors, because she does not like them. She points out that some people call these flowers "nature's bastards." On being questioned by Polixenes, she replies disapprovingly that these flowers do not occur naturally but are the result of cross-breeding. In other words, they are created artificially, in contrast to the "great creating nature" that she reverences. Polixenes replies that whatever means humans use to improve nature is also natural, since humans are part of nature. There is therefore no dichotomy between nature and art. Perdita at first pretends to agree with him ("So it is") but then reveals that she has not in fact changed her mind at all ("I'll not put / The dibble in earth to set one slip of them"). Polixenes produces the more sophisticated argument, as one might expect, but Perdita shows she is not intimidated. She sticks to her intuitive beliefs about what is natural and what is not.
3. Write a character sketch of Hermoine.
At the outset of the play, Hermoine shows herself to be gracious and friendly. She declares her love for Leontes quite spontaneously, and she is charming toward Polixenes, as she is required to be, since Polixenes is a guest at the Silesian court. She engages him in a conversational topic that she rightly assumes will be pleasing to him. Hermoine also has a sense of humor, as she shows when she jokes with Leontes (Act 1, scene 2, lines 90-101). In this scene she is altogether beyond reproach.
After Hermoine is accused by Leontes, her first reaction is that he must be joking. After that, she reveals more of her positive qualities. She does not lash out at Leontes or blame him. She simply points out to him that he has made a mistake. She explains the adverse situation she finds herself in by means of astrology; it must be caused by an "ill planet" and she must be patient until the bad influence passes. Hermoine exudes strength and dignity when she is hauled off to prison, even giving courage to her maids, telling them not to weep. There is no spirit of vengeance in her, only a calm, stoical endurance, and a belief that her innocence will be established. At the trial, she shows great faith, stating her belief that the gods will vindicate her.
The attitude of the other characters is also testimony to Hermoine's character. The words of a minor character, a Lord, are typical: "For her, my lord, / I dare lay my life down, and will do't, sir," he says to Leontes (Act 2, scene 1, lines 129-30). No one other than Leontes has a bad word to say about Hermoine, and Paulina is moved to defend her with all the energy she has.
4. What are the Unities and why does Shakespeare violate the unities of time and place?
The unities were principles of dramatic structure adopted by European dramatists during the sixteenth to eighteenth century. The principles were developed from the thought of Aristotle. The first unity was that of action (there should be no subplots); the second unity was that of place: a play should take place in only one location; the third unity was that of time: the action should take place over a period of only one day. Although Shakespeare was never especially concerned with observing the unities, in A Winter's Tale, his departure from two of them is particularly noticeable. He violates the unity of time by having the action extend over a sixteen-year period, and he violates the unity of place by setting the first three acts in Silesia and most of the last two acts in Bohemia. Perhaps the reason that he did this was because he wanted to directly show the effects of actions over a long period of time. He wanted to bring attention to how, over time, nature heals the wounds that humans inflict on themselves. By introducing the character of Time, as the chorus, at the beginning of Act 4, he deliberately draws attention to the passage of time. Another of Shakespeare's late plays, The Tempest, also shows the effects of actions over a long period of time, but in that play Shakespeare observes the unities. The long-ago events of the past that led up to the situation in the present is simply recalled by Prospero in the exposition, and the actual events of the play occur in only one day. Neither method could be called right or wrong, or more or less effective; they are simply different approaches to telling a story.
5. Shakespeare's late plays are often categorized as "romances." Is this an appropriate definition for The Winter's Tale?
A romance, such as Pandosto, the prose work by Robert Greene on which Shakespeare based his play, is often marked by improbable, miraculous, and supernatural events. Many of the events in The Winter's Tale are highly improbable: Leontes' apparently causeless jealousy; the "death" of Hermoine; the survival of Perdita; and all the events sixteen years later that lead to the reconciliations, especially the "resurrection" of Hermoine. A royal child who is abandoned, raised ignorant of its true status, and then rediscovered is the kind of conventional plot element to be expected in a romance. The audience does not hold a romance to the standards of realism. This does not mean, of course, that romance is "unreal" in the deeper sense. The events of The Winter's Tale can scarcely be believed at the literal level, but they may nonetheless become a vehicle for a truth about life to emerge (the need for forgiveness, for example). The audience is asked to suspend disbelief, enjoy the story, and perhaps later to reflect on its deeper meanings.
The Winter's Tale might also be called a tragi-comedy. The first three acts are serious and tragic. There is jealousy every bit as destructive as it is in Othello; there is also death (Mamilius, Antigonus); apparent death (Hermoine), and great suffering and injustice. Leontes also suffers a kind of spiritual death during his long sixteen-year penance. The last two acts are comic; and this leads to the happy ending. In general, however, although tragi-comedy would not be inaccurate as a definition of the play, scholars prefer the term romance, since that term better conveys the play's atmosphere.


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