King Leontes of Sicilia is a middle-aged man, happily married to his graceful good-looking Queen, Hermione. He is father of young promising heir, Mamillius. When the play opens. Hermione is expecting a second child. King Leontes has an old boyhood friend. King Polixenes of Bohemia. After a long time he has come to his friend, Leontes in Sicilia, and for about nine months he has been enjoying the hospitality of his friend.
Queen Hermione treats him with respect and her hospitality starts Leontes’ suspicion regarding her faithfulness to him. The suspicion takes the form of sin of jealousy, when he requests Polixenes to stay for some time more, when Polixenes politely refuses him, expressing his urgent concern for his kingdom. Leontes requests his wife Hermione to make Polixenes stay for a week more. On her request Polixenes extends his stay and taking Hennione’s hand moves in the garden. Mrs. Inchbald terms this unprovoked jealousy in Leontes as improbable in the play. Quiller Couch observes, ‘hi Pandosto (Robert Greene’s novel which is the main source of Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale) Leontes’ jealousy is made by slow increase plausible. Shakespeare weakens the plausibility of it… as by budding up the jealousy in its motion so densely that it strikes us as merely frantic . . .’ This has divided critics. Some believe that the frantic jealousy of Leontes is sudden as a ‘vice of the mind’, and not in tune with the psychology of the character, whereas there are others who believe that the jealousy of Leontes is not sudden but gradual.
Jealousy is gradual
Edward Dowden, while comparing Leontes’ jealousy with that of Othello, says, “The jealousy of Leontes is not less but more fierce and unjust than that of Othello. “Hudson writes, “His jealousy shoots in comet-like as something unprovided for in the general ordering of his character.” Shakespeare’s usual way of writing is that he unfolds such passion in its rise and progress with it to its consummation. Hudson points out that in The Winter’s Tale Leontes’ jealousy is not sudden but gradual and rationally supports his action, hi the play Polixenes says :
‘Nine changes of the wat’ry star hath been The shepherd’s note, since we left our throne With but a burden
Leontes notices the prolonged intimacy between Hermione and Polixenes and Hudson refers to, “the secret thoughts which may have been gathering in the mind of Leontes …” hi Act I, Scene ii Leontes says that Camillo is either dishonest or a coward for how he could ignore the affair going on between Hermione and Polixenes. Even then Camillo assures Leontes that Queen Hermione is chaste. Leontes informs him:
Is whispering nothing ? Is leaning cheek to cheek ? is meeting noses
Kissing with inside lip ? stopping the cares
Of laughter with a sigh ? a note infallible Of breaking honesty-horsing foot on foot ? Sulking in corners ?
Leontes is convinced about Hermione’s infidelity and tells Camillo, “My wife is slippery ? . . . My wife is a hobby horse, deserves a name. It’s rank as any flax-wench . .. .” From such references critics suggest that the mad jealousy of Leontes is gradual and nine months’ time further makes Leontes suspect that the child in Hermione is the result of her adultery with Polixenes. He loses all reason and control over his self that he sets aside the advice of Camillo, the opinion of all his lords and to crown all, he declares even Apollo’s oracle as false and untrue. He openly accuses Hermione of adultery and even calls his infant daughter a bastard.
King Leontes’ jealousy makes him irrational and cruel. In the first place he expresses his ire against Polixenes and asks Camillo to poison him to death. Camillo convinced of Hermione and Polixenes’ innocence changes and helps Polixenes escape from Sicilia the same night. In the morning the news of Camillo’s treachery and Polixenes’ escape beyond the scope of his revenge convinces Leontes of his suspicion of Hermione’s infidelity and is determined to destroy her for her adultery. He separates Mamillius from her and imprisons her. At the same time he sends two emissaries to Delphi to seek divine justice through Apollo’s oracle to declare Hermione guilty of adultery and as such to be punished with death according to the law of his kingdom. On the other hand, he declares public trial of his Queen on charges of treason. Hermione to defend her honour asks for the oracle. The oracle declares her chaste, Polixenes innocent, Camillo a loyal servant, infant as legitimate child of Leontes a tyrant, hi his jealousy and rage King Leontes declares it as a lie and orders to carry on the trial. At this he receives the sad news that his son and heir, a promising lad Mamillius could not bear the shock of his mother’s plight and he is dead. Hermione swoons to hear the news. The shock of his son’s death makes Leontes’ announce that —
Apollo’s angry; and the Heavens themselves Do strike at my injustice.
He prays to Apollo for forgiveness. He understands his injustice to Hermione. Camillo and Polixenes. Paulina at this moment declares that Hermione is also dead. Leontes vows for penance in his grief and orders the graves of Mamillius and Hermione to be set together so that he can go to the chapel everyday and weep to absolve himself of his sin of jealousy. For sixteen long years he observes ‘saint-like sorrow’ and ultimately Cleomenes declares him that his penance has redeemed Leontes of his faults.
Cleomenes asks his lord to remarry for the sake of having an heir for the kingdom. Paulina, who knows that Hermione is alive, persuades Leontes not to marry but look for his lost child as per oracle. Leontes praises Paulina for her good advice and vows that he will not marry again. Leontes is certainly a changed man after his purgation. So oracle plays a significant part in the play and makes Leontes repent for his injustice and cruelty and also makes him follow the saner counsels in life.
Effects of Leontes’ jealousy
The evil effects of Leontes’ mad jealousy are not as bad as Othello’s. The desire to destroy is a very simple derivative from the power of instinct, the instinct which in its evil form goes by the name of the first of the deadly sins, pride. It was by this sin that the angels fell, and at the end of Othello, lago is explicitly equated with the evil. Following the Christian values of sin a forgiveness in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare makes the consequences of Leontes’ mad jealousy less calamitous than the ruin wrought by Othello’s jealousy. In the last act of the play (Act V) reconciliation is the theme of play. Hermione’s statue turns out to be live— Hermione in flesh and blood. She ‘forgives’ Leontes and embraces him, thus bringing the play to a fortunate and a happy end. Leontes is united with his beloved Queen, Hermione, his daughter, Perdita and time old friend Polixenes. The friendship of the two families is cemented with the marriage of Polixenes’ son Florizel and Perdita, the daughter and heir of Leontes. The kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia are thus united into one.
The Winter’s Tale thus becomes a unique play of Shakespeare different from his early comedies or tragedies. Though in the first three acts (Act I—III) the play is tragic and full of injustice and sorrow on account of King Leontes’ unaccountable but not impossible, frantic jealousy leading to the sad demise of his heir and promising son, Mamillius, and the death of his wife Hermione (declared by Paulina) and sixteen years of penance for the King and awful seclusion of Hermione in a solitary place. But the atmosphere of tragic first three acts is immensely relieved by the pastoral scene in Act IV, comedy and mirth brought by the clown and Autolycus and the sincere love of innocent souls, Florizel and Perdita. hi the last Act V of the play Leontes, a changed person is united with his wife, daughter, old friend and his son in new found son-in-law, Florizel, son and heir of Polixenes, King of Bohemia. The play becomes a tragi-comedy or a romance apart from Shakespeare’s earlier romance.