Leontes through the Looking Glass: from Linguistic Opacity to Theatrical Transparency in The Winter’s Tale

Par Stéphanie Mercier
Publication en ligne le 17 octobre 2013


The Winter’s Tale is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s plays most concerned with the notions of opacity and transparency: morphing as it does from the opaque closed-in mirror world of Leontes, King of Sicily, through the looking glass of Time and into the open-air transparency of Bohemia. Put differently, Shakespeare takes his audience from a chaos created by the poor linguistics of: « A language which I understand not » (III.2.79), to the constructed intelligibility of theatrically created speech. Stage directors have kept this theatrical momentum up by their own successive re-readings and rewritings of Shakespeare’s page as it is transformed on stage. This paper will thus be looking at how contemporary performances of the play strive to produce the transparency of Shakespeare’s text as understood by twentieth and twenty-first century theatrum mundi. To do this, I will how different productions use both what the text says, and what it does not say – in other words the sounds and silences of the playwright’s drama. In so doing, they give new life to a « sad tale[’s] best for winter » (II.1.25), and allow for the audience’s clear-sighted participation in the dramatic experience of Shakespeare’s Romance.

L’opacité et la transparence sont deux thèmes majeurs du Conte d’hiver de William Shakespeare. En effet, au fil de la pièce, nous assistons à la métamorphose de l’univers clos et obscur de Léonte, Roi de Sicile, qui semble passer à travers le miroir du Temps, en un univers ouvert et accessible, celui de la Bohème. Autrement dit, Shakespeare modifie un langage singulier et mal compris — « a language which I understand not » (III.2.79) — en une parole universelle créée par le théâtre. Les metteurs en scène ont maintenu cette impulsion par leurs relectures et réécritures successives de l’écrit quand il est transcrit sur scène. Nous allons donc examiner comment les mises en scène de notre époque œuvrent à reproduire, voire à réinventer, la transparence comme entendu par le theatrum mundi contemporain. Pour ce faire, nous étudierons la question en tenant compte de comment les mises en scène utilisent à la fois ce que le texte dit et ce qu’il ne dit pas — autrement dit, les sonorités et les silences de l’art du dramaturge. Ce, afin de faire voir comment celles-ci donnent une nouvelle vie à un triste conte d’hiver — « a sad tale[’s] best for winter » (II.1.25) — pour faire apparaître avec clarté toute la Romance shakespearienne.  

Texte intégral

1Stephen Orgel dedicates six pages in his eighty-eight page introduction to The Winter’s Tale1 to Obscurity and Elucidation. He concludes that the « linguistic opacity 2» that has been widely debated since the play’s first appearance in 1611, is mainly the result of spectators’, rather than the characters’, ignorance and certitude3. This: « transaction between actors and audiences4 » will thus be the crux of the issues debated, for misunderstanding can be regarded as only a static half of the story. Indeed, if in Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy the concept of murky yarn spinning is a fundamental one, it is also a fable that is paradoxically very much about a search for the simplicity of truth; something which blossoms only after the tragedy. This is why my discussion will revolve around the dynamics of opacity and transparency in the play and explain why the two ideas are so important with regards to the Romance of the plot.

2« Opacity », first used in the sixteenth century, comes from Latin and means « dark, dull », from opãcus, which means « partly through5 ». « Transparent » originated a century earlier with the Medieval Latin trãnspãrens « that can be seen through6 ». If taken at a purely etymological level then, to associate the two terms would seem rather a difficult task, in The Winter’s Tale, however, they are closely intertwined and one cannot be looked at without the other. Hence, I will be arguing that the obscurity of meaning that Orgel refers to, is unintelligibility designed to act as a foil to understanding. Furthermore, I will postulate that the movement from opacity to transparency is hinged upon « parody7 »; a device which allows the playwright to enable the audience to perceive plainly. It follows on from this that Shakespeare achieves theatrical transparency by his use of carefully constructed « show business ». In other words, an accumulation of artificial tricks designed to enable us to see through the cloudy time and space of Leontes’ closed-in court in Sicily, then through the looking glass of Time out into the open-air world of Bohemia where he insists we open our eyes and ears to fully apprehend his art.   

I. Linguistic opacity

3Language is very much a question of transmission: a speaker or writer sending across lexical elements and grammar from a starting point of « I », « here » and « now8 » in order to create discourse. This idea is a problematic one from very early on in The Winter’s Tale, because what is going on in Leontes’ mind9 is poisoned by the king of Sicily’s private fears of losing a wife (Hermione) and a friend (Polixenes) and Shakespeare has language show that he is totally incapable of making this public in a coherent manner:

But not for joy, for joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent – ‘t may, I grant
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers
As now they are, and making practised smiles
As in a looking glass (I.2.110-116).

4Indeed, there is no « liberty » of expression in this language and the King, who should be its agent, is caught in a word trap which renders him a completely passive participant to what he imagines is taking place. Leontes’ language emerges in a disjointed fashion and Shakespeare throws his thoughts back at him in a verbal jumble. In other words, communication cannot be coherent as warped reflective images render spatial or temporal markers unworkable. Without any « here » or « now », there can be no interaction between « I » the speaker, here the character of Leontes, and the « I/eye », or the ear, of the spectator. Theatrical exchange is at best unclear or denied altogether and language becomes an audible representation of faulty microcosmic relationships on stage. John Pitcher notes how this closed in « looking glass » trope has been depicted visually, « by making Leontes and Polixenes almost identical [even if] the roles are impossible to double onstage10 ». This was done in « the 1910 New Theatre production in New York, directed by Winthrop Ames, where the two kings [Charles Balsar as Polixenes and Henry Kolker as Leontes] were nearly indistinguishable » and the « You have mistook, my lady, / Polixenes for Leontes » (II.1.81-82), became both a plausible visual and audible staged reality. Here the destructive potential of language was used to the full and audiences made aware of the fact that « the kings [may be] twin manifestations of one identity[something which] can be truly disturbing11 ».

5Added to the display of marital misunderstanding, Leontes verbally flounders with regards to filial affection (I.2.107-117). This would seem logical as linguistics is also very much related to legacy; in that the power of speech is something that parents usually transmit to their children. Here though, the king is imprisoned in his own pre-lapsarian reflection, either still addressing himself: « Art thou my boy? » (I.2.117), or speaking at, rather than to, his son Mamillius: « They say it is a copy out of mine » (I.2.121). Shakespeare uses the third person plural and singular to vocally emphasise the distance between the king and his heir and « boy » is also substituted by the pronoun « it » (I.2.121), to further underline this semantic detachment. (Indeed, in Trevor Nunn’s 1969 production of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company: « Hermione [Judi Dench], Leontes [Barrie Ingham] and Polixenes [Richard Pasco] entered playing tag with Mamillius being ‘it’12 »).The evidence that Mamillius is Leontes’ son is physical evidence, that of likeness: « I am like you, they say » (I.2.206), but reproduction has become a shadowy affair in the Sicilian court. Nunn’s production showed the inner shading outwardly by a use of colour changes on stage. These were childlike, as was the overall tone of the production, easily recognisable and designed to appeal to « an audience educated in the film technique of visual ‘telling’13 ». The metonymic palette went from:

the colour of the nursery, then the symbol of the asylum, [to] red [which] stood for Leontes’ incandescent jealousy. The key was Autolycus’ enigmatic line ‘the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale’ (IV.3.4), which for Nunn contained encrypted knowledge about the pathology of boy-men who couldn’t mature14.

6In Act II scene 3 however, the shadows thicken to darkness. Hermione is now imprisoned for supposed adultery; she has been literally obscured as a symbolic representation of her husband’s cecity and the black out was transposed scenically in the 1981 production of the play directed by Ronald Eyre: « The dominant visual motif of [was] that of theatre, of performing a story […] but [props] were gradually stripped away [and] walls that surrounded the rostrum and the surrounded areas created space blocked from the view of the audience15. » The absent queen is compensated for by Paulina, a resistant presence, who presents Perdita to Leontes in an attempt to put into words what the King has been unable to visualise. Her parrêsiashould logically convince Leontes to change his mind and reverse the destructive process caused by his opaque reasoning but her use of blazoned prose uncannily reminds the king of the absent queen’s presence. This is because it creates a linguistic bond with Leontes’ own disjointed rhetoric in the first acts of the play and Paulina’s attempts at persuasion are doomed to failure:

Although the print be little, the whole matter
And copy of the father – eye, nose, lip
The trick of the frown, his forehead, nay, the valley,
The pretty dimples of his chin and cheek, his smiles,
The very mould and frame of his hand, nail, finger. (II.3.98-102).

7In reconstructing the whole again she remarks: « No yellow in’t » (II.3.106), so as to exclude any purported treason and in an attempt to reconcile the royal couple. However, the king refuses to hear or see reason and stubbornly resolves to atomise his daughter – the metaphorical linguistic fragmentation becoming literal in this way. Leontes’ failure to « see through » Paulina’s description of Perditia shows how the mirror of the king’s jealousy has twisted the mirror image he should see in his daughter’s features to realise that she is in fact his child. It follows on from this, that if words have no meaning then seeing cannot be believing; to Leontes, Perdita is no longer his daughter but: « the issue of Polixenes » (II.3.93), and should be burnt. Darkness has destroyed everything as represented by his warped language, the seemingly disjointed baby on stage or the elliptical queen.

8Moreover, the potentiality of language seems to run out altogether after Mamillius’ death (III.2.143). Indeed, if there is a term for losing one’s parents (orphan) or losing one’s spouse (widow or widower), no word exists in the English language for the loss of a child; as if denied inheritance should result in linguistic disintegration. In this respect, the initial tragedy of The Winter’s Tale can said to be one of opacity; or Leontes’ confused mimetic analogy of friend-spouse-legatee doubled in the diegetic parallel of myth-tale-dream/vision:

Hermione: You speak a language that I understand not,
My life stands in the level of your dreams,
Which I’ll lay down.

Leontes: Your actions are my dreams.
You had a bastard by Polixenes,
And I but dreamed it. (III.2.78-82).

9Our post-Freudian intelligence would have us postulating that Shakespeare is now delving into the realms of the unconscious, but the pre-Freudian playwright may rather have been indicating that the plot is about to evolve. For, if the king is unable to communicate with those around him, this will either result in death: « My life […] which I’ll lay down » or in hybridism, as the term: « bastard » suggests, in an attempt to converse in a universally accessible manner. From this angle, the heir’s demise is more than just to create dramatic pace as it becomes emblematic of a wintry void calling for the spring-like « re-creation16 » of meaning later in the play. This is why the barren brother figure is progressively transplanted by that of the sister, in other words Perdita, whose potential fertility is echoed in the metaphor of Bohemian spring. The change is foregrounded in the plot by the multilaterally tragi-comic figure of the Clown who points audiences to what is now a double vision of death, as symbolised by Antigonus, and renewed life, as personified by the bear:

I have seen two such sights, by sea and by land (III.3.80)17.

10The latent feminine fertility has been suggested on stage by using Perdita as Hermione’s doppelganger. In Nunn’s 1969 production, Judi Dench played both Hermione and Perdita, something which was intended to represent the renewal and « hadn’t been done since Mary Anderson did it at the Lyceum in 188718 ». Renaissance was also made likely in Ronald Eyre’s 1981 production at the Barbican where, from the outset, « Hermione’s crown is reminiscent of a garland, and the print on her dress is of flowers, stalks and leaves, which all anticipate her daughter’s appearance in 4.4 as a floral goddess19 ».

11In this way, Sicilian double vision is given a new perspective and the obscure ideas, emotions and sensations of the first three acts of the play are to be made clearer when the plot navigates the looking glass of Time from sterile Sicily to fecund Bohemia, where the potentiality of an unadulterated Time20 takes on a nascent reality. The « wide gap » (IV.1.6), of sixteen years entails both a temporal and spatial leap leading to the play’s reversal of circumstances so that the broken syntax of wintry Sicily can be righted as Shakespeare transports the play into its second stage of existence and confronts audiences with a different perception of events. It is here too that linguistically isolated Leontes leaves the stage and takes his shady semantics with him; so that his tragedy may be parodied in an artistic conceit designed to rediscover: « that which is lost » (III.2.134).

II. The performative power of parody

12In Act IV Scene 3, the plot moves from winter to spring-cum-summer21. The scene begins with Autolycus’ first two-verse ballad which describes the sap rising to make iciness a thing of the past. Autolycus is made to verbally repeat past dramatic action in a comic counterpoint to Leontes’ tragic misdeeds in the first three acts of the play and this is set to music so as to reactivate the audible and visual reception of his stage craft in a different way. In other words, the playwright is setting up two contrapuntal voices sharing the same melodic material, with one voice passing to the other. Moreover, the character of Autolycus is textual interplay itself because he is already his own double. In Ovid he is the son of Mercury: « the patron of thieves and liars22 ». His mythological twin, Philammon, was the child of Apollo, the God of music and himself became a famous musician. Stephen Orgel notes that: « the ballad singing Autolycus is impersonating his twin23 » and that: « the myth is relevant both to the twinship fantasy of Leontes and Polixenes and to the larger and more vexing question of the determination of paternity24 ». Autolycus’ tale is hence doubly relevant to The Winter’s Tale as a whole because it allows for the structural interaction which enables Shakespeare to sing his tale in a different key.

13In contrast to the verbal jumble of the first half of the play though, it is an absence rather than a profusion of spoken language which makes plain what has happened earlier in the plot. Rather, it is body language which empowers communication and other art forms are called upon to compensate semantic fragmentation. Indeed, « Richard McCabe, as Autolycus, supported by balloons, [came] down from the heavens to surprise Graham Turner as the Clown in the 1992 Royal Shakespeare Company production at Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Adrian Noble25 » and Ian Hughes as Autolycus, in Gregory Doran’s 1999 production, used the non verbal language of costumes as he literally took the shirt off the Clown’s back to clothe himself before leaving the stage with the hapless rustic left standing in his underpants. What was shown was that the farce of Autolycus’ cony-catching is clearly to parody the tragedy of: « Virtues […] whipped out of the court » (IV.3.87-88), or Hermione’s figurative and literal stripping of her courtly attire.

14Moreover, and if Leontes claimed to be metaphorically hurt by his friend’s insistence on leaving, an imaginary wound inflicted by his « brother » Polixenes, Autolycus is also hurt, literally so26, in a perfect spoof of the paradigm of a play within a play, because he is acting at having been attacked by himself. And, if Leontes spoke to himself, Autolycus is speaking about himself, and he is thus able to exteriorise what the king kept inside. Furthermore, as the audience is privy to Autolycus’ true nature, spectators are given the impression of a perception that was lacking beforehand in the plot27. What is made clear is that disjointed language wields oppression, but that democratic comprehension is made possible thanks to the performative power of theatre. Thus, and if Autolycus’ only contribution to the workings of the drama is his « knavery » (IV.4.677), in helping the characters and the plot return to Sicily, he has a more emblematic role to play in the action; to re-tell what Baldwin Maxwell termed as a: « remote and marvellous tale28 » so as to render it less remote, but no less marvellous, for audiences or readers to enjoy. Furthermore, in Act IV Scene 4, we are presented with what may be termed as a parody of Pastoral fiction. Indeed, by Shakespeare’s time Pastoral was no longer idyllic memory or: « escape literature, something to be read for entertainment alone » but had become something where: « the intelligent reader was expected to discover there notable images of virtues to be imitated and vices to be shunned29 ». Shakespeare’s Bohemian sheep shearing festival is logically then a plausible hands-on experience where the play’s participants grapple with dramatic issues in a very down to earth manner. In Brook’s production: « The costumes were English, though not Tudor, as they had been in the first half of the play; they now echoed Hardy’s Wessex30 » to stress this point.

15Despite the realism, we are nonetheless presented with multiple layers of meaning. For instance, Perdita, the: « boy acting girl who is a princess supposed to be a shepherdess acting as a make believe princess31 », is now Flora: « mistress o’ th’ feast » (IV.4.68), and she has come out of the dark in the manner of her mythological literary predecessor, Proserpina, to tell a new tale32. The simultaneously life-like, and symbolic, character will shed light on the shadows emerging from the philosophical debate that she undertakes with the Bohemian king, Polixenes. Both characters ostensibly argue over the hegemony of art, or nature’s creation, over artifice, a creation of a man-made kind. The dichotomy is underlined by Polixenes, unsurprisingly so, as he was himself charmed by Hermione’s court rhetoric in Act I Scene 2. Nonplussed by the incongruously rustic setting, he continues to use flowery language in what he sees as a battle of words over botanical grafting:

Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean; so over art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. (IV.4.89-92)     

16However, Polixenes’ prose is characteristically circular, just as Leontes’ word play had been and Shakespeare has Perdita pointedly rebuke his condescending endearments such as: « you see, sweet maid » (I.4.92), because she refuses to be duped by words as her mother was before her. On the contrary, her steadfast opposition to meaningless language underlines the direction the plot is taking; towards meaningful speech:

No more than, were I painted, I would wish
His youth should say ’twere well, and only therefore
Desire to breed by me. (IV.4.100-103)

17Perdita’s words show us that Shakespeare’s true debate is one concerning the vice of misconception, which is seen here as something impossible to reconcile with fertility. As there can be no real dispute over the fact that Perdita is contradicting herself (nature’s improvement by man is in fact nature, as man is natural in the first place33) then we must look elsewhere to try and grasp the playwright’s point. His argument is that Perdita reiterates the chastity that befitted a Renaissance female such as her mother or herself, whilst at the same time underlining a linguistic purity that widens the play’s horizons and can be seen as a self-conscious statement on artistic invention. In this way, love making, whether this be of a physical or a literary sort is clarified, and personified, by the character of Perdita/Flora. There are no longer any confused associations concerning love and innocence34, on the contrary, the concept of reproduction takes on a larger meaning as it becomes focused on the representatives of natural and literary inheritance and Perdita’s symbolic flower distribution to Polixenes and Camillo reflects the linearity of existence35. The evolution is both on a mimetic level (from child to adult, heir to throne, life to death) or on a diegetic one, as the numerous intertextual mythological references in the scene show. This is thus what allows for a dual perspective upon the play’s ending. That is, Hermione’s rhetorical forgiveness of her husband or a sacrifice for her daughter’s sake:

In the St. Petersburg Maly Theatre production that toured the United Kingdom in 1999 […] directed by Declan Donnellan, [at the end of the play the actress playing Time] entered, but not alone. She was hand in hand with Mamillius […] The little boy […] approached his father. He raised his hands above Leontes’ head, as if to give a blessing, whereupon the stage suddenly went black. [This] leads us back to the opposing kinds of time in The Winter’s Tale, time used up and wasted, as against time stored up and impossible to lose36.

18Successive layering of theatrical conceits, rather than adding confusion to spectators’ perception of events, makes them easier to apprehend and leads to writer-reader/spectator communication. In this manner, clarity conquers ambiguity and another analogy emerges – that of music-mime-mythology. The third correlation reverses the prism of understanding and serves to demystify the dangerous fable set up in the first part of the play. Thus, darkness can be triumphed over in this particular version of Pandosto, TheTriumph of Time37. Moreover, if in Greene’s prose work the eponymous king commits suicide, Shakespeare has his theatrical successor widen his horizons to embrace an enlightened cycle of re-birth and reconciliation. I would thus argue that the force of The Winter’s Tale derives from the parody of its definite article which opens up not one, but infinite, possibilities for interpretation. Put differently:

in The Winter’s Tale unity is achieved and coexists with the disparate and contradictory elements of existence which it attempts to actualise. The task of the director in the theatre is to preserve the play’s disparate life whilst at the same time reaching for the organic unity which wields that life into a harmony of design38.   

III. Theatrical transparency

19Not the least of these possibilities is provided by the ambiguity of the last scene. Indeed, Autolycus’: « double occasion39 » in helping the shepherd and his son to navigate their way towards the truth of Perdita’s identity is a binary means to make a whole, as it leads to the off-stage reunion of Leontes, his daughter and future son-in-law, when the plot returns to Sicily. This also highlights the new underlying rhythm of the drama: the dual movement of the tragi-comic plot and its romantic ending. In other words, reunification occurs as the characters circulate from one mimetic here, and hearsay, to another and is also due to the diegetic collision of narrative past and present as the « old tale » becomes an immediate fictional reality. Likewise, it is during the scene involving the off-stage reunion of Leontes and his daughter, in Act V Scene 2, that the « I », or reason, and the « eye », or wonder, is truly reconciled, paradoxically so, as in this scene audiences actually see nothing40. However, as boundaries have been blurred by Shakespeare’s use of parody, readers and spectators are able to cross over into a world of theatrical illusion because the communicational triad of ego, hic and nunc has been totally restored to them.

20Peter Brook’s 1951 production at the Phoenix Theatre, in London, with John Gielgud as Leontes, Flora Robson as Paulina and Diana Wynyard as Hermione is a case in point. The queen seemed to emerge from a dream, something which meant that the « sudden, insensate jealousy of the Sicilian king seemed no longer unbelievable [as] He emerged as a man most credible in his folly and immensely moving in his repentance41 ». The staging also gave a dual perspective on the statue itself, because it was represented as « both sacred and human42 »:

In shining, visionary, white, a statue that with eyes lowered, open hands, arms slightly bent was strikingly beautiful [as if Brook had taken] his poetic vision of the scene from the dream of Antigonus [but] as the production evolved the vision was touched with Shakespearean reality [and] Hermione’s justly celebrated wrinkles were given their true importance 43.

21This allows for the still amazed king to look upon what he sees as an effigy with passionate longing: « For I will kiss her » (V.3.79), whilst clear-sighted Perdita’s reason recognises the « carver’s excellence » (V.3.30), for what it is; the consequences of a craftsmanship which recalls the topos of Ovid’s Pygmalion story and provides a logical explanation for events44. This is also why Paulina’s ostentatious artifice is safely contained within the framework of her role as mistress of ceremonies; so as to avoid any final tinge of opacity that may taint the purer art of the romantic restoration of the « dead » queen. What is more, Shakespeare uses this theatrical pretence as a foil with which to glorify his own poetry, for, when the playwright places Hermione before Leontes and Perdita he creates a moment of complete aesthetic concord. As the queen stands between her husband and daughter she is at once a work of art, or a « dead likeness » (V.3.15), and a living thing, for readers of the text are aware that she is only: « [standing like a statue] » (V.3.19), and even first-time spectators are made aware of her: « much wrinkled » (V.3.28), appearance. Nonetheless, as has been shown, what is important to the playwright is the evolution of the plot towards a theatrical truth, or as Raphael Lyne puts it: « In the end the vital thing is that romances excite both wonder and reason, defying the possibility that they exclude one another45. »

22Ocular reunion is also underlined audibly because the exclusive « we46 » of the first scenes is transformed into an inclusive « I » here, as if Shakespeare intended the audience to permeate the king’s eyes and ears in order to share the experience of Hermione’s resurrection. Indeed, whereas before Leontes was an on-stage observer, now he almost seems to have left the stage to become a spectator himself:

What you can make her do
I am content to look on, what to speak
I am content to hear (V.3.91-94).

23So, what was out of focus in the Tragedy is now the clearly the centre of attention. That is, a final parody of speechless observation, in other words, a parody of the audience itself47. Furthermore, Shakespeare has Paulina’s theatrical deceit outmanoeuvre Leontes’ poor linguistics altogether in this final scene of the play. For as she recreates a parallel framework of artistry to the king’s opaque perception, he is forced to come to the conclusion that we, spectators and readers, are being: « mocked with art » (V.3.66), and the only option left open to us is to silently marvel.

24The Oracle warned that: « the king should live without an heir if that which is lost be not found » (III.2.133), but it needed the magic of theatre and several happy co-incidences to invert the destructive process of sterile circulation around the closed circles of Leontes’ court. Shakespeare’s artistic management of proceedings widens the Pandosto narrative so as to espouse something new and the fairy tale trope of a sixteen-year slumber transforms the noise of Leontes’ jealous ravings into a music made possible by the parody of things past. Speech and stage craft create a dramatic reality which plays on the murkiness in both the characters’ and spectators’ minds and the satire crosses spatial and temporal boundaries to let in new and more clear-sighted « I/eyes ». Details evocative of folklore such as Paulina’s « cure » of the king and Hermione’s mock death allow for the creation of the Romance pattern which overlaps the Tragedy and Comedy and is itself overlapped by the Morality pattern exemplified in Perdita’s tale.

25Hence, when the plot returns to Sicily, refreshing theatrical standards have been grafted onto traditional ones and if winter turns to spring again, the macrocosm unchanging, the microcosmic court has had its circle enlarged to embrace a different form of dramatic government. Paulina’s sculptor and musicians are the creators of such a reality in the last part of the plot and the playwright also ensures that audiences are aware that they are ultimately of his own creation. Indeed, when Paulina « draw[s] the curtain » (V.3.68), it is not to reveal « reality » but another representation of what Leontes and spectators are willing to believe and the word « curtain », apart from the drama metaphor the word contains, becomes a parody of itself in the sense that there is nothing left to hide. Paulina’s stage directions are Shakespeare’s way of showing us that the performative power of art and words can suffice to play on imagination and that artificiality and contrivance can serve as a subtext to underline a greater theatrical truth of a capacity for renewal. Shakespeare’s « excellence » lies in how he shows audiences the workings of this drama whilst his tale telling makes spectators willing to forget that the theatrical machinery is there. In other words, this is the playwright’s ultimate Triumph of Transparency.


Works cited

Adamczewski, Henri and Delmas, Claude, Grammaire Linguistique de l’anglais, Paris, Armand Colin, 1982.

Bartholomeusz, Dennis, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in Performance in England and America, 1611-1976, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Bate, Jonathan and Jackson, Russel (eds.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage, Oxford, Oxford University Press, [1996] 2001.

Hadfield, Andrew,« The ‘ sacred hunger of ambitious minds’: Spenser’s savage religion », in Religion, literature and politics in Post-Reformation England, 1540-1688, edited by Donna B. Hamilton & Richard Strier, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Joly, André & O’Kelly, Dairine, Grammaire systématique de l’anglais, Paris, Nathan, 1990.

Lyne, Raphael, Shakespeare’s Late Work, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007.

ONIONS, C.T. (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1966.

Overton, Bill, The Winter’s Tale: The Critics Debate, Hong Kong, Atlantic Highlands, Humanities Press, 1989.

Shakespeare, William, The Winter’s Tale, Alfred Harbage (ed.), The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, The Comedies and the Romances, London, Penguin books Ltd, 1981.

Shakespeare, William, The Winter’s Tale, Stephen Orgel (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, Oxford World Classics, 1996.

Shakespeare, William, The Winter’s Tale, John Pitcher (ed.), London, Arden Shakespeare, 2010.

Tatspugh, Patricia Elizabeth, Shakespeare at Stratford: The Winter’s Tale, London, Arden, 2002.

Productions cited

1910, New Theatre, New York, directed by Winthrop Ames.

1951, Phoenix Theatre, London, directed by Peter Brook.

1969, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Trevor Nunn.

1981, Barbican Theatre, London, directed by Ronald Eyre.

1992, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Adrian Noble.

1999, St. Petersburg/Maly Theatre production, directed by Declan Donnellan.

1999, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Gregory Doran.


1  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Stephen Orgel (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, “Oxford World Classics”, 1996, Introduction, p. 6-12.

2 Ibid., p. 9.

3 Ibid., Footnote, p. 12. « A.R. Braunmuller isolates the primary problem with analyses of speech in the play when he observes that ‘most discussion of fact, fancy and style has centred on the characters’ ignorance of certitude, rather than the audiences’. »

4 Ibid., p.10.

5 The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, C.T. Onions (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1966, p. 628.

6 Ibid., p. 937.

7 In the sense of « [going] beside the ode ». This is a parallel which allows the playwright to sing his song in another key. Ibid., p. 652.

8 Ego, hic and nunc or the three linguistic shifters the linguists André Joly and Dairine O’Kelly called la «  triade énonciative », Grammaire systématique de l’anglais, Paris, Nathan, 1990, p. 17-18.  « Personne, espace, temps sont trois représentations indissociables qui constituent le fondement de toute l’acte de l’énonciation. La personne du locuteur, ego, ou « moi » qui parle, ne se laisse pas se concevoir en dehors du lieu d’espace où elle se tient (hic, « ici ») source des repérages spatiaux, ni en dehors du lieu de temps où elle parle (nunc, « maintenant »), source de repérages temporels. On appellera cette relation ternaire obligée la triade énonciative. »

9  Henri Adamczewski and Claude Delmas underline the primordial importance of the speaker/writer in producing language. Grammaire Linguistique de l’anglais, Paris, Armand Colin, 1982, p. 5 : « Les énoncés d’une langue, ses phrases, sont le produit d’une activité non-consciente, le résultat de tout un travail interne qui précède nécessairement l’extériorisation orale ou écrite. Ces opérations cachées, inaccessibles à l’introspection ou à l’intuition, il appartient au grammairien-linguiste de les mettre au jour, car ce sont elles, et elles seules, qui constituent la grammaire interne, source de l’infinité des énoncés.  »

10  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, John Pitcher (ed.), London, Arden Shakespeare, 2010, Introduction, p. 115.

11 Ibid., p. 116.

12  Patricia Elizabeth Tatspugh, Shakespeare at Stratford: The Winter’s Tale,London, Arden, 2002, p. 36.

13 Ibid., p. 39.

14  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, John Pitcher (ed.), op. cit., p. 27.

15  Patricia Elizabeth Tatspugh, Shakespeare at Stratford: The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., p. 42.

16  A term Leontes uses himself (III.2.238).

17  We note that the sea is also a reflective surface, which further reinforces the mirror metaphor and may have been the reason why Shakespeare pointedly gave Bohemia a sea coast.

18   The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage, Jonathan Bate and Russel Jackson (eds.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, 2001, p. 205.

19  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, John Pitcher (ed.), op. cit., p. 33.

20 Truth is the daughter of Time was also the subtitle of the play’s source, Robert Greene’s, 1588 prose novella, Pandosto. See William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Stephen Orgel (ed.), op. cit., Appendix B., p. 234-276.

21  « Sheep shearing was done any time between mid-May and the end of July. » Ibid., Footnote, p. 164-165.

22 Ibid., Introduction, p. 50.

23 Id., and Footnote same page. The story is in Metamorphoses II. 303-317.

24 Id.

25  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, John Pitcher (ed.), op. cit., p. 63.

26  « I am robbed, sir, and beaten » (IV.3.61), « I fear, sir, my shoulder-blade is out » (IV.3.71). 

27  For instance we are not aware that Hermione is still alive after (III.2).

28  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, The Comedies and the Romances, Alfred Harbage (ed.), London, Penguin books Ltd, 1981, Baldwin Maxwell, Introduction, p. 469. My emphasis.

29 Id.

30  Dennis Bartholomeusz, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in Performance in England and America, 1611-1976, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 176.

31  Bill Overton, The Winter’s Tale: The Critics Debate, op. cit., p. 69.

32  The story of the abduction of Proserpina by Dis, or Pluto, is in Ovid, Metamorphosis, 5-391, William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Stephen Orgel (ed.), op. cit., Footnote, p. 174 and Introduction, p. 45. « It is a myth which explains the cycle of seasons, the abduction of Ceres’ daughter, like the loss of innocence in Eden, is responsible for the fact that winter exists at all […] But the cycle also includes a time of restoration and reconciliation, with the annual return of Proserpina to her home in Sicily. »

33  Perdita agrees with Polixenes on this point: « So it is » (IV.4. 97). See also William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Stephne Orgel (ed.), op. cit., Footnote p. 172. « The controversy between the claims of art and nature was a Renaissance topos. Anlogues to Perdita’s argument can be found in Montaigne […] (‘Of the Cannibals’, Essays, trans John Florio (1632), p. 102) and analogues to Polixenes’ in Puttenham […] (The Art of English Poetry, ed. Willcock and Walker (1936) p. 303 ff.)… »

34  « We were as twinned lambs […] Your precious self had not then crossed the eyes/ Of my young playfellow » (I.2.66 and 78-79).

35  « Of middle summer, and I think they are given / To men of middle age. You’re very welcome » (IV.4.106-107).Thus Camillo is forced to admit:  « I should leave grazing were I of your flock, / And only live by gazing » (IV.4.108-109). Shakespeare links the visual and the audible by his use of paronomasia.   

36  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, John Pitcher (ed.), op. cit., p. 81-82.

37  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Stephen Orgel (ed.), op. cit., Appendix B, p. 234.

38  Dennis Bartholomeusz, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in Performance in England and America, 1611-1976, op. cit. p. 183.

39  « gold, and a means to do the prince my master good » (IV.4.826-827).

40  « In representing stories that recall an emblematic connection, but do not just act it out, they may draw attention to the artificiality and contrivance required to present such a notion. The nexus of truth and time, of seeing and believing, shows Shakespeare advancing, and returning to, a powerful and substantial structuring certainty both in truth and the idea that it can be seen and believed », Raphael Lyne, Shakespeare’s Late Work, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 43.

41  Dennis Bartholomeusz, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in Performance in England and America, 1611-1976, op. cit., p. 173.

42 Id.

43 Id.

44  « For Leontes this is a discovery, but for Pygmalion […] it is the result of work » Raphael Lyne, Shakespeare’s Late Work, op. cit., p. 122. On the previous page Lyne reminds readers that:  « Ovid’s Pygmalion story [is] in Metamorphoses 10 ».   

45 Ibid., p. 43.

46  « We are tougher brother / Than you can put us to it » (I.2.15): a « royal we » which excludes the person being spoken to and which can be defined as (I+I) rather than « inclusive we » (I+you). It can be noted that that the word « brother » crops up twice again in this last scene (in lines 5 and 53) but that the term has now has taken on a fraternal signification.  

47  Leontes is literally struck dumb by Paulina’s artifice: « I like your silence; it the more shows off / Your wonder » (V.3, 21).

Pour citer ce document

Par Stéphanie Mercier, «Leontes through the Looking Glass: from Linguistic Opacity to Theatrical Transparency in The Winter’s Tale», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°7 - 2013, mis à jour le : 17/10/2013, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=668.

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Professeur agrégé d’anglais, Stéphanie Mercier est doctorante à l’Université de Poitiers où elle prépare une thèse sur la notion de « commodification » dans le théâtre de Shakespeare. Elle a contribué à L'Œil du Spectateur (supplément aux Cahiers Shakespeare en Devenir) et aux Cahiers Élisabéthains. Elle a publié « ‘[T]he old fantastical Duke of dark corners’: Vincentio's Shadows in William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure » (Lectures de Measure for Measure, Rennes, PUR, 2012, p. 59-73), et son ...