Heavy Matters, Heavy Matters!

The Winter’s Tale, Act Three: Scenes 1-3

Paulina steals the play in this act. I’ll get to her in a moment.

But woe unto the pathetic King Leontes, who not only stubbornly persists in accusing his wife of adultery and treason, but who compounds the plight of all by defying the pronouncement of the Delphic Oracle when its judgment reveals the innocence of Queen Hermione.

Could it get any clearer?

OFFICER [Reads]: Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten, and the king shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found.

Any self-respecting Greek should know that you never dare defy the Oracle. And yet, the fit of jealous madness that has come over Leontes leads him to do that very thing:

LEONTES: There is no truth at all i’ th’ oracle. The session shall proceed. This is mere falsehood.

At that moment, everyone within earshot should be screaming, “Run, run for your lives!”

Sure enough, a servant enters to announce that the king’s son — his firstborn heir and prince — is dead.

His mother swoons. She is carried off as the still clueless Leontes starts coming around to his senses. Paulina understands right away what Leontes refuses to grasp:

PAULINA: This news is mortal to the queen. Look down

And see what death is doing.

To which Leontes blithely replies [“It’s just a flesh wound.”]:

LEONTES: Take her hence.

Her heart is but o’ercharged; she will recover.

I have too much believed my own suspicion.

Beseech you, tenderly apply to her

Some remedies for life.

Nope. Too late. For the queen, too, is dead.

If this isn’t a tragedy, it will take some twist in the fourth and fifth acts to make it otherwise. But before I move on to the fate of Antigonus, who carries out the orders of the king (with a twist), I must underscore the remarkable presence of Paulina as she defies her rank, gender and station to basically bitchslap the hapless (and feckless) king:

PAULINA: What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?

What wheels, racks, fires? what flaying? boiling

In leads or oils? what old or newer torture

Must I receive, whose every word deserves

To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny,

Together working with thy jealousies,

Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle

For girls of nine, O think what they have done,

And then run mad indeed, stark mad, for all

Thy bygone fooleries were but spices of it.

That sass, that brazen attitude, that stone-cold angry defiance of the king is one of the best moments in literature that I have ever read. Her speech goes on for half a page more, pure rage that elicits a “back off” from an attending lord no less, but which the king allows because he knows he is getting exactly what he deserves.

If I fault the scene, it’s because the turn of wits in Leontes seems quixotic. He began the play as chum to the King of Bohemia, a boyhood friend, launches off on his heretofore trustworthy wife who has borne him a son and is about to bear a daughter, defies the Greek Oracle only to bring down its infernal wrath… only to recver his wits, say whoopsies, and I suppose I’ll have to pick up the check.

I assume this has to do with Renaissance notions of madness as fits and humours. I can only guess that it must be something “come over” the king that he could not himself explain. Nevertheless, the consequences are real, and keep unfolding.

In the third scene we catch up with the infant daughter being delivered to the pummelled shores of Bohemia. Antigonus has brought her there because Queen Hermione has appeared to him in a vision, letting him know that these are her wishes. He is to drop her off with the given name “Perdita” for lost one. His punishment for having done this service is to lose his life and never again get to see his wife.

As in fairy tales, a shepherd comes across the infant child. But at those exact moments, Antigonus is being ripped apart by a bear, and the ship he sailed in on is being swallowed by the sea.

[Note to self: never defy the Delphic Oracle.]

I love one of the lines the shepherd gives:

SHEPHERD: …thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born.

Here, if anywhere, lies the rub of Greek theology. However cracked and faulty its method, providence provides for the continuation of life. Nobody save Leontes has deserved his fate till now. But all that karmic heaviness is being balanced by the rescuing of the innocent daughter, taken in by the kind shepherd.

Love it, hate it… that’s just the way life goes.


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