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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 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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The mauling of Antigonus is unusual on several levels. First of all, it is very unexpected. The tension builds with the storm and the dastardliness of the act of abandoning a child, but that it would culminate in a man in a furry suit chasing the actor off the stage could not be foreseen. It is too bizarre not to laugh at, but it is such a horrible event, that laughter seems inappropriate. The situation from here becomes increasingly comical. The remainder of the fate of Antigonus and the storm-wracked sailors is related by a clown:
O, the most piteous cry of the pour souls! sometimes to see 'em, and not to see 'em; now the ship boring the moon with her main-mast, and anon swallow'd with yest and froth, as you'ld thrust a cork into a hogshead. And then for the land-service,--to see how the bear tore out his shoulder-bone; how he cried to me for help, and said his name was Antigonus, a nobleman:--but to make an end of the ship... (III.iii.90-99)
The language is clownish. The events of this disaster sound funny coming from the clown. This is not only a breach of genre, it is a demonstration of the power of the artist. In life, these events could not be laughed at;2 in art, they can provoke any reaction the artist chooses.
This collision of moods closes the first half of the play and Time appears as chorus to introduce the second half, as well as to say a few words on the power of art. Everything that time says could be spoken by the dramatist himself. Time can "please some, try all," (IV.i.1) like the experimenting artist. He brings "both joy and terror / Of good and bad," (1-2) just as The Winter's Tale stirs mixed feelings. "[I]t is in my power / To o'erthrow law, and in one self-born hour / To plant and o'erwhelm custom," (7-9) as it is in Shakespeare's power, both in ability and in right, to defy laws of nature in his fiction and to break with literary conventions.
By granting Time, a force of nature, a voice, Shakespeare is displaying one of art's unrealistic abilities: personification. This is just one of the wonderful things that art can do. What it cannot do is perfectly imitate nature. Nothing could imitate time. The debate about whether it is right to tamper with nature, as one supposedly does in telling hyperbolic tales, is allegorised in Perdita's and Polixenes' discussion of flowers. Perdita disapproves of streaked gillyvors because, "There is an art which, in their piedness, shares / With great creating nature" (IV.iv.87-88). Polixenes responds:
Yet nature is made better by no mean,
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. (IV.iv.89-92)
In other words, fancy is just as natural as the apes who engage in it, and the creation of things never before seen, such as streaked gillyvors, dark humour, or magic realism, cannot be objected to on the grounds of tampering with nature. There's more to nature than reality, namely imagination.
In fact, it is the attempt to reproduce nature in art which is the greatest sacrilege. There is a double-entendre at work in the passage, "prepare / To see the life as lively mockt as ever / Still sleep mockt death" (V.iii.18-20). The attempt to mock (mimic) life makes a mockery of it (Kiernan 68). It is presumptuous (and arguably blasphemous) to attempt to create life on one's own. This neither should be the goal of art, nor could it be an attainable one: "what fine chisel / Could ever yet cut breath?" (77-78).
The statue in the play does in fact come to life, but this is precisely the unrealistic sort of thing the memetic dogmatist would object to. In so objecting, she would reveal her own awareness that perfect imitation is an impossible ideal.
To bring the issue into a contemporary context, Shakespeare drops a contemporary name, that of sculptor Julio Romano. In the play, Romano is so good a sculptor that his work is not just lifelike, but comes alive. The idea is absurd. Achievement in a field that sets goals is measured in terms of approximation to that goal. If the goal of art is to imitate life, then the perfect work would achieve perfect imitation. But perfect imitation is reproduction, which is impossible through any but biological means. If the impossible were achieved and art became life, it would no longer be art. Once it is shown that the memesis theory of art entails that the highest aim of art is to destroy itself (which, fortunately, is impossible) its fundamental error becomes obvious.
Art instead impresses on life. Life imitates art. Throughout the play we are led on an emotional rollercoaster at the hands of a master artist. Through the text, using language, traditional associations, environment, timing/placement of elements, the work is causing physical changes in the temporal world: heart rate increases, laughter, tear production, etc. The psychological impression left by a well-written drama will also influence the future behaviour choices of an audience member. The success of a work is not to be measured in terms of its resemblance to nature, but in its power to move. The shepherd's son stumbles on to the point: "I love a ballad but even too well, if it be doleful matter merrily set down, or a very pleasant thing indeed and sung lamentably" (IV.iv.190-191). To be moved is the goal of the audience member, sadly, or happily, or both, by means sensible or fantastic.
As things come together in the final act, and all the living characters are reconciled, there is much made of the mixed tragic and comic elements, "the wisest beholder...could not say if the importance were joy or sorrow" (V.ii.17-19); "Our king, being ready to leap out of himself for joy of his found daughter, as if that joy were now become a loss, cries, 'O, thy mother, thy mother!'" (50-53). It is made clear that neither element is to dominate the play. The ending restores some losses and leaves others. Antigonus and Mamillius remain dead, but Paulina gets a new husband, and Leontes is joined with his daughter and wife.
The final scene commits the play's ultimate act of naturalistic treason: it resurrects the dead through art. As Antigonus prophesies the bear in reference to tales, so also he speaks of resurrection, "I have heard,--but not believed,--the spirits o'the dead / May walk again" (III.iii.16-17). Antigonus places such events in the realm of fable, and the stuff of fables is ambrosia for lovers of tales and ballads, "such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour, that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it" (V.ii.24-26).
It is only in art that such a thing could occur as the animation of a statue and that is precisely why the artist should portray it. Were someone to claim to have witnessed a resurrection in real life, their report, "should be hooted at / Like an old tale," (V.iii.115-116) but in fiction such an event can be witnessed and delighted in. The delight is precisely in seeing the impossible, and "Our part, as audience, is not to 'pretend' that a fiction is reality, but to believe in the fiction as fiction" (Kiernan 108). To enjoy the illusion as illusion one must suspend reason and prejudice: "It is required / You do awake your faith. Then all stand still; / Or those that think it is unlawful business / I am about, let them depart" (V.iii.93-96). This could have been included in a prologue to the play, addressed directly to the audience, whose response, if the play is successful, will be as Leontes': "If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating" (109-110).
To criticise A Winter's Tale for geographical errors, such as Delphos on an "isle" (III.i.2), or the "shores" of Bohemia (III.iii), is to miss the point of the play. The title states that it is a tale because it has no aspirations to realism. Repeatedly throughout the play, the resemblance of events to old tales is remarked on, and the plot is admitted to be "monstrous to our human reason" (V.i.40). Leontes refers to the impossibility of Hermione's body appearing "on this stage" (V.i.57). All these devices serve to exaggerate the artificiality of the work, while celebrating its power, as fiction, to move real audiences. The play is pushed past believability as part of an agenda to flout the demand that plays be realistic. A Winter's Tale directly addresses the established literary ideology of its day, and represents Shakespeare's most explicit extant essay on aesthetic theory.
Kiernan, Pauline. Shakespeare's Theory of Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Mackinnon, Lachlan. Shakespeare the Aesthete. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Shakespeare, William. Complete Works. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1996.
1 ...a word whose proper domain is ethics, not aesthetics.
2 ...at least in the 17th Century.
Bloom, Harold. The Winter's Tale (Modern Critical Interpretations). Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.
Granville Barker's Prefaces to Shakespeare: A Midsummer Nights Dream: The Winter's Tale: The Tempest. Granville Barker. Heinemann, 1994.
Innes, Sheila. The Winter's Tale (Cambridge School Shakespeare). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Pyle, Fitzroy. The Winter's Tale: A Commentary on the Structure. New York: Routledge & Paul, 1969.