The Power of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale

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The Power of The Winter's Tale Many of Shakespeare's later plays broke with customs of genre. The Merchant of Venice has all the elements of a comedy, but deals with very grave matters and ends ambiguously. Pericles foreshadows the novel in its romantic plot and use of narration. Such plays challenged prevalent Renaissance literary theory which demanded fairly strict adherence to classical values of realism and unity. The Winter's Tale is a self-conscious violation of these expectations, and a jibe at the assumptions behind them. Shakespeare uses the play itself to present his argument against what may be termed, "the mimetic theory of art." It was the established opinion of Elizabethan literati that art ought to imitate life (Kiernan 8). Shakespeare not only rejects this "ought,"1[1] but shows the absurdity of what it entails. The categories available to a dramatist are laid out by young Mamillius when he is asked to tell a tale, "Merry or sad shall't be?" (II.i.22). The dramatist is presented with the options of tragedy or comedy. This bifurcation is repeated throughout the play, which itself is cleft in two between a predominately tragic section and a predominantly comical pastoral section. For this act, tragedy is chosen, "A sad tale's best for winter," (24) and the story begins, "There was a man... dwelt by the churchyard" (28-29). Here is where the play's self-consciousness starts to appear. It is the play which is a sad tale about a man who dwells by the churchyard, namely Leontes, who mourns at the grave of the wife and son he damned. It is also at this moment that the tragedy of the play begins, when Mamillius' tale is interrupted by the arrival of Leontes to accuse Hermione of adultery. The tragedy progresses to a climax by Act III, Scene iii, when Antigonus arrives on Bohemia's shore. This is the execution of Leontes' greatest sin, his rejection of his daughter. This is also the point at which the mood of the drama turns to comedy. The segue from the Sicilian tragedy to the Bohemian comedy comes in the form of a bear. Prior to his departure for Bohemia, Antigonus refers to bears in the context of folktales, "wolves and bears, they say, / Casting their savageness aside, have done / Like offices of pity" (II.
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