I do not see how anyone could read Shakespeare’s late play ‘The Winter’s Tale” (first published in 1623) as “placid.” Antigonus being slain by a bear is not a usual transition for a courtier to the pastoral! The first three acts constitute a tragedy of jealousy (Leontes has no Iago—Camillo is Iago’s antithesis— his paranoia bout being cuckolded is spontaneous) followed by the next generation’s romance, which the audience knows reconciles the estranged former friends. Romeo and Juliet starts as a comedy and ends as a tragedy (as, more murkily, does Troilus and Cressida); The Winter’s Tale starts as a tragedy and ends as a comedy. I am disappointed that the climactic reconciliation scene is told rather than showed, even if another happy ending is still to come.
(Hermione reviving from having been a statue)
I am not convinced that Leontes is a character and not a type. What I find most striking is the contrast between the view of adolescence of the old shepherd who finds and rears Perdita and Polixenes, (her future father-in-law talking to her mother Hermione before Perdita’s birth). The shepherd wishes that “there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty” or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting” (3.3.58-62), while Polixenes recalls a male-male paradise before the temptations of (owning?) women intruded:”Temptations have since been born to ‘s (1.2.78). In contrast,
We were as twinned lambs, that did frisk i’ th’ sun,
and bleat the one at th’ oher; what we [ex]changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did… (1.2.66-71).
It is Leontes who has since then tripped and jealousy unhinges him—to the extent of defying the judgment of Apollo and living long after to regret his badness (madness?) before undeservedly having friend, daughter, and wife restored.
(The more deserving Paulina is also to wed the wise Camillo who went with Polixenes when Leontes was going to murder Polixenes.)
©1996, Stephen O. Murray