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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
Readings about A Winter's Tale
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0450  Tuesday, 18 August 2009

From:       Gerald E. Downs <
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Date:       Monday, 17 Aug 2009 23:51:50 EDT
Subject: 20.0445 Readings about A Winter's Tale
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0445 Readings about A Winter's Tale

Two accessible articles influence my thinking on _The Winter's Tale_. 
First, Howard Felperin's "'Tongue-tied our queen?': the Deconstruction 
of Presence in The Winter's Tale" in _Shakespeare and the Question of 
Theory_ (1985, 3-18). The title puts me to sleep, but the author 
disguises an interesting bit of traditional criticism to better fit with 
"Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism" and 
such like; he begins with a disavowal of his analysis, but I like it anyhow.

Felperin observes that Leontes "stakes . . . everything . . . on his 
interpretation of behavior partly available and partly unavailable to 
him, and partly represented and partly unrepresented to us." He then 
asks, "On what authority do we [unanimously] assume that Hermione is in 
fact innocent of Leontes' suspicions . . .?" Aside from the 'fact' that 
Hermione was found guilty (Leontes being judge, jury, and star witness; 
Paulina "Mrs. Johnnie" notwithstanding), Felperin allows that the king's 
passion is not altogether unfounded. Since he reacts to "behavior taking 
place before his eyes . . . there must be some empirical ground, as it 
were, for his suspicions" (7). (On the first point, Leontes was not 
knowingly risking the loss of his son).

"Are these gestures . . . 'too hot,' or the paddling palms, pinching 
fingers, practis'd smiles, and heartfelt sighs . . . as adulterous as 
Leontes suggests?" Felperin recognizes that these "questions are 
necessarily a matter of theatrical production." Now what production in 
the last few centuries portrays Leontes other than a lunatic and what 
'accused' players are concerned enough, what audience near enough, for 
such nuances to come through? To Felperin, "the impossibility of 
rendering theatrically the suggestive force of the word 'virginalling' 
must stand as a perennial caveat to those who maintain the primacy of 
performance over text."

There is surprising ambiguity in the dialogue. When we come to this 
revelation late we might sympathize with Leontes, who enumerates some 
evidence he had overlooked during gestation. Felperin concentrates on 
the iffy Delphi info, but lists other matter too. Here are a few items 
that may be significant:

1. Polixenes turns white when he learns that he is under suspicion, but 
before he learns why. We credit his interpretation of Leontes' looks, 
even though the king had promised to seem friendly. Must we reject 
Leontes' more specific list of lovers' behaviors? At any rate, Polixenes 
lights out, leaving the queen to fend for herself.

2. While listing the clues Felperin quotes A. Nicoll: "Who can fail to 
wonder whether the man so amicably addressing this expectant mother may 
not be the father of her child? For what other possible reason can 
Shakespeare have contrived the conversation so as to make him specify 
nine changes of the inconstant moon? These things are not done by 
accident." Well, the duration of the visit must be noted; but I do agree 
(always will) that Shakespeare, of all people, will have known and 
therefore will have intended his ambiguity.

3. Nobody has believed in the Oracle at Delphi for millennia, so why 
should Leontes? Felperin observes that Mamillius (the heir to the 
throne) was ill and may have died of natural causes. More importantly to 
my mind, and not noticed by Felperin, is Cleomenes I of Sparta, who is 
historically convicted of bribing the Oracle at Delphi. Is it possible 
that Shakespeare's supplicant to Apollo was one Cleomenes, without at 
least a hint of tampering? Cleomenes himself states to Leontes 
('alleged' destroyer of his royal family) to begin Act 5: 'you haue . . 
. pay'd downe more penitence then done trespass'.

The last five pages of Felperin's article pay homage to Theory and are 
not worth the trouble. For example, he sees a 'lunatic-lover' in a 
'self-contradiction at the trial:'

Hermione: Sir,
You speake a Language that I vnderstand not:
My life stands in the levell of your Dreams.
Which Ile lay downe.

Leontes: Your Actions are my Dreames.
You had a Bastard by Polixenes,
And I but dreamed it:

"What begins as a just recognition of the autonomy of the imagination 
turns into a wilful insistence on its referentiality." And so on. But we 
should keep in mind that WT is corrupt; Folio punctuation and emphases 
are stabs in the dark. Sarcasm is not self-contradiction:

Your actions are my dreams?
You had a bastard by Polixenes,
And I but dreamed it??

This wilful insistence helps to bring up the other article; Felperin 
also misunderstands the (de facto) most important passage in the play. 
(I had meant to respond to Val McDaniel's question of June 10 (WT Crux) 
on 1.2.138ff). Felperin supposes 'Affection? thy Intention stabs the 
Center' refers to the 'unreality' of an unfaithful Hermione and he 
agrees after all that Leontes is nuts. But the 'monologue' must be 
judged in the context of the surrounding lines and of the king's 
presumption of the queen's guilt. Charles D Stewart does a very good job 
with "Beyond Commission" in his 1914 _Some Textual Difficulties in 
Shakespeare_ (96-109). The whole chapter is on the Net at Google Books 
and the book itself is a good read. Stewart begins by quoting Collier to 
the effect that the text of the crux cannot be trusted. I agree, but it 
is not hopeless. A few excerpts:

"Leontes is preparing his mind for the resolve to kill his wife. He is 
clearing away a mental obstacle . . . by a course of reasoning." Leontes 
has not yet resolved to kill his wife, but he does plan to 'clear her 
away' once he solves his problem, which is the 'baffling' fact that 
Hermione is the mother of Mamillius, his beloved heir; "for how can he 
think the mother of such a boy utterly bad? . . . . He must convince 
himself that . . . she is not his parent in any deep essential way." 
This may be possible because Mamillius "is another Leontes in every 
detail . . ." (97-99).

"At great length . . . Shakespeare has preceded this passage [leading 
to] this necessary point of view. . . . In all, they are . . . 'almost 
as like as eggs.' . . . The boy takes after him and not his mother. . . 
. If we find a dark passage completely surrounded, and in the most 
methodic and philosophic way, with the one point of view, are we not to 
conclude that the dark passage has something to do with that same point 
of view? . . . . The woman was a mere medium . . . what he calls, in his 
revery, the 'sluice.' . . " (99-102).

"[T]he passage does not advance from one reason to another, by logical 
steps. . . . It is a continual repetition of the same thing in different 
words . . . . If they all fit the idea it must be because Shakespeare 
made them to express that idea. . . . ['Most dear'st; my collop: Can thy 
Dam, may't be] . . .' a collop was a small piece of meat cut off 
another. . . . Leontes has already conceived her as performing a mere 
animal function in motherhood: Here follows his answer to this query 
five times repeated.

1) Affection[!] thy Intention stabs the Center. 2) Thou dos't make 
possible things not so held, 3) With what's vnreall: thou coactiue art, 
4) And fellow'st nothing. 5) Then 'tis very credent, Thou may'st cojoin 
with something,

"We must remember that 'Affection' is the subject of all these 
sentences; it is the thing he is addressing, abstractly, throughout" 
(105). All this occurs not as a rationalization of Hermione's guilt (she 
is condemned), though 'affection' is hard to define: 'That which is 
affected' derives from the desires of the king and the realm (1.1.33-35) 
to become a force in itself as a sort of 'intelligent design' to clone 
the king. It got the job done, starting from scratch, whatever it was. 
Then Leontes does reach a conclusion:

Thou may's co-ioyne with something, and thou do'st,
(And that beyond commission) and I find it,
(And that to the infection of my Braines,
And hardning of my Browes.)

"One thing . . . would seem to be an obstacle to his conclusion . . . . 
It is the fact that [Hermione] did co-join." But she is now "eliminated 
from any relationship to the boy except in a mere material sense" (107). 
Stewart refers to 'commission' as a 'physical act,' but it would likely 
mean in this circumstance 'beyond the authorized.' Leontes then 'finds' 
Hermione no essential 'fellow' to the creation of Mamillius. She will 
not then be protected from punishment for the hardening of his brows, 
his cuckold's horns.

Gerald E. Downs

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