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Art and Nature in the Winter's Tale

Updated on December 17, 2012

The Winter's Tale

Original First Page from The Folio
Original First Page from The Folio | Source

"A Sad Tale's Best for Winter"

In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare advances the unique idea that art, not nature, has powerful redemptive qualities. The play’s pastoral elements endorse natural values and condemn the artifice of the court but the play also undermines the pastoral, complicating the one-sided view of a perfect countryside and a corrupt court. The play presents the country’s artlessness as problematic and highlights the unforgiving aspects of nature. The court offers a counterpoint, reminding the audience of the redemptive properties of art. Art in the play is not natural; it is supernatural and redemptive. Ultimately, the play argues for its own legitimacy as a piece of art, not nature.

The country’s hostility towards artifice is framed as potentially problematic. Shakespeare calls attention to the problem with favoring nature over artifice by drawing comparisons between abstract discussion and events in the play. Polixenes rebukes Perdita for saying that “carnations and streaked gillyvors” are “nature’s bastards” because they have been hybridized (IV.4.96-7). The image of rejecting hybrid flowers as “bastards” recalls the rejection of Perdita earlier in the play and strikes a powerful emotional chord. The play depicts the rejection of art as an injustice, associated with the attempted exposure of Perdita. Just as art takes the blame for the ill uses an artist may put it to, so Perdita takes the blame for the supposed sins of her mother.

The death of Antigonus and the sailors serves as an ominous opening to the introduction of the pastoral to The Winter’s Tale. While the scene certainly invokes humor, the mental picture the Shepherd’s son conjures of Antigonus “half dined on” by a bear negates the idea of the country as an inherently peaceful place (3.3.111). Nature is a dangerous place where people’s mistakes are not easily forgiven. At court on the other hand, Leontes is redeemed and is eventually granted a happy ending. Nature is not so forgiving. Rather, it harshly punishes the exposure of Perdita by destroying Antigonus and the sailors who manned his ship. This contrast between country and court sets up nature as destructive and art as redemptive.

Art in the play is a force of good rather than corruption. While the pastoral tradition saw art as inherently deceptive, the play suggests that deception can actually bring about positive change, such as the redemption of Leontes. Art, deceiving though it may be, can sometimes do what nature cannot. Only through art can such a positive change be made.

Because The Winter’s Tale itself is art, it is able to provide redemption for Leontes and give a happy ending to the characters. At court, it is art that brings the play to its positive conclusion. If the laws of nature were strictly observed in the play, it is unlikely Peridita or Hermione would have survived and Leontes might never have learned the error of his ways. However, as art and through art, the play brings the play to a positive conclusion.

The Winter’s Tale calls attention to itself as art with the potential for effecting positive change. Mamillius’ assertion that a “sad tale’s best for winter” reminds the audience that they are watching a “sad tale” (II.1.33). This tale, like the art within it, has the power to improve the lives of those in the audience, and Shakespeare emphasizes this by calling attention to the play as art. Leontes envisions Hermione’s ghost appearing on “this stage” he stands on similarly breaks the audience’s suspension of disbelief (V.1.69).

By reminding the audience of their place as spectators, Shakespeare calls them to think about the application of the play in their lives. By witnessing the tragic consequences of Leontes’ paranoia, jealous husbands in the audience might learn to avoid indulging in the “diseased opinion” that destroy’s Leontes’ family (I.2.361). Just as the statue of Hermione is capable of arousing guilt and repentance in Leontes’ mind, the play is capable of raising the same kinds of feelings in its audience members, shaping their perspectives through art just as effectively as Paulina works on Leontes’ misogyny and insane jealousy. The changing of perspectives is indeed a “magical” result of the beauty of art.

Art that invokes the supernatural imparts the moral lessons needed for human redemption in this play. Mamillius’ tale “of sprites and goblins” is a “sad tale,” a cautionary tale warning us how not to behave (2.1.33-4). In the same way, The Winter’s Tale as a whole is a cautionary tale. The power of such a tale becomes evident in the vivid imaginations of Leontes.

The use of art proves an effective means of keeping Leontes true to Hermione’s memory through its relation to the supernatural. Fear of the supernatural haunts the whole play but it is expressed vividly in Leontes and Paulina’s discussion on his remarriage. Leontes’ fear that remarriage would make Hermione’s “sainted spirit / again possess her corpse” and “incense him” to murder his new wife (V.1.68-75). The supernatural is not nature, it is the stuff of tales and of sorcery, both forms of artifice.

In the Renaissance, the supernatural had close ties to art. Art’s power on the imagination could produce “magic.” Montaigne writes that “the principle credit of miracles, visions, enchantments, and such extraordinary occurrences comes from the power of imagination” (Montaigne 70). The imagination of Leontes proves susceptible to the influences of art.

The miraculous return of Hermione was brought about through Paulina’s “art”. Whether Paulina used magic or deception, she would still be considered to use art. Hermione’s seemingly magical return from the dead uses the “supernatural” properties of art to bring about Leontes’ redemption. The line between art and magic is blurred from the start when Paulina presents the court with Hermione’s statue. Leontes notes that the statue has “magic” in its “majesty (V.3.45) even though courtiers claim that whatever lifelike qualities the statue has owe only to the “rare Italian master” who sculpted it (V.2.104). The ambiguity of the statue’s properties attests to the power of great art on the human imagination, and conscience. No matter how the statue has been made, the effect it has on Leontes is its most important attribute. The statue of Hermione affects Leontes so strongly he sees his “evils conjured to [his] remembrance” (V.3.46). Again, the statue has a seemingly magical power to affect Leontes, making him repent his sins once again. While the natural state of Hermione in death would be an absence from Leontes, through art, she remains with him, helping him to correct his faults.

Because of Paulina’s deception, Leontes changes for the better. He abandons his harsh misogynistic attitude as evidenced by his reception for her advice. The woman whom Leontes rejected as a “mankind witch” (II.3.84) becomes his trusted adviser and his “true Paulina” (V.1.102). When Paulina’s defense of Hermione is “proven” true by Hermione’s death, Leontes begins to realize he was wrong. Only by witnessing the full consequences of his insane jealousy and hard-hearted misogyny does Leontes begin to see the wrong he did and start on his path to redemption which is concluded with Hermione’s “resurrection.”

The return of Hermione links art, redemption, and the supernatural through religious ties. When Leontes and the court visit Paulina’s home to see the statue of Hermione, they must enter the chapel, moving from a secular space to a religious one. Art and artifice become part of the spiritual realm through moral as well as supernatural ties.

Art and deception are not opposed to religion. Art is an important component in the religious ideas in this play. Apollo was the god of music, among other things, in Greco-Roman mythology. As the deity of the oracle, Apollo becomes the champion Hermione lacks among the men at court. Art is the herald of truth. Leontes’ defiance of the oracle is a defiance of art as truth’s representative. Only when he embraces art, quite literally, in his reunion with Hermione is his redemption complete. By accepting the truth, Leontes accepts art, and through art his ways are mended.

Art is central to spiritual redemption of Leontes. The importance of art is cemented by the presence of the statue of Hermione in Paulina’s chapel. It is in this space that all the elements of the play come together, with art, magic, and religion working together to complete Leontes’ redemption. Paulina’s command that music “strike” to “awake” Hermione makes art the catalyst as well as the agent in this scene (V.3.124). Art signals the beginning of the animation of another work of art. The theme of redemption is also strong in the scene. Leontes is redeemed from sin, just as “dear life redeems” Hermione from death (V.3.129). Both “redemptions” are necessary for a happy end and neither could take place without art.

By blurring the boundaries between art, artifice, magic, and the supernatural, The Winter’s Tale crafts a powerful argument for the redemptive nature of art. The redemption of Leontes is achieved through art but the story of the play is itself art with its own redemptive powers.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Montaigne, Michele. “Of the Power of the Imagination.” The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. Donald M. Frame. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. 68-77. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1998. Print.


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