An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

J’énonce que le discours analytique ne se soutient que de l’énoncé qu’il n’y a pas, qu’il est impossible de poser le rapport sexuel.

—Jacques Lacan

Shakespeare’s time believed in the Great Chain of Being: the idea that the cosmos is linked together by a natural order.  Human beings ascend above non-human animals; vegetation descends below both.  Inanimate matter has its place at the bottom of the hierarchy.  All entities are connected in relations of interdependence; every thing has its own place, and every thing is dependent upon every other thing.  There are hidden agreements between all things in the world.

Social classes, too, are organized by the Great Chain of Being.  Monarchies have their proper place and were preordained by the cosmos.  Shakespeare’s early and middle comedies shore up the idea that social order is a manifestation of the natural order.  As I have stated repeatedly, the comedies are works of conjugal propaganda in which the principals are coerced into marriage.  Marriage was seen as the threshold to total socialization, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  No matter what disturbances destabilize the relations between the characters in the first four acts, all of these relations will be restored in the fifth act with the compulsion of marriage.

This is not quite always the case in the problematic plays.  Love’s Labour’s Lost ends without ever really ending; it fizzles out with the vague promise of erotic fulfillment.  All’s Well That Ends Well only ends well from a purely formal and external point of view.  I have written that Shakespeare is both the most underestimated and the most overestimated of writers in the English canon, and this is absolutely evident when one considers that the order-restoring comedies (such as The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are overrated and the order-destabilizing comedies (if this is the right word) are underrated (though there has been a surge of interest in the latter in recent years).

The problematic plays show the unlinking of the Great Chain of Being.  The Winter’s Tale, which is one of Shakespeare’s late plays (composed circa 1610), does not allow the young boy Mamillius to be revived, even though both Perdita and Hermione are resurrected.  Though there is a reconciliation of what has been ruptured at the close of the play, it is a queasy and uneasy reconciliation.  These are discordances in the harmonizations of the Great Chain of Being.

Not only that: The Winter’s Tale is paradoxically heterogeneous and heterogeneously paradoxical.  One cannot, without simplification, say that the play is a comedy, nor can one say, with justification, that it is simply a tragedy or even a romance.  It is a gallimaufry of tragedy, comedy, and romance.  Boundaries are crossed within the play itself.  In Act Three: Scene Three, the Clown points out that the rain along the shore of Bohemia is so intense that he cannot tell what is sea and what is sky (though Bohemia does not have a shore, and this was generally recognized in the early sixteenth century!); the boundary between sea and sky has been traversed and has become indistinguishable: “I have seen two such sights, by sea and by land! but I am not to say it is a sea, for it is now the sky: betwixt the firmament and it you cannot thrust a bodkin’s point.”  While this might seem a throwaway line, there are no throwaway lines in Shakespeare.

Even the matter of the Bear is non-arbitrary, no matter how much its appearance evokes laughter in audiences.  Without the becoming-comedic of the action, the seriousness of the play would have become laughable.  The comedy of the third and fourth acts enhances the seriousness that precedes it.  With the intrusion of the Bear, which devours Antigonus, the play transforms from a tragedy to a comedy.  We get a prescient sense of this transformation when, at one of the darkest moments of the play, Antigonus says that the wrongful accusation of the queen will bring everyone to “laughter” [I:ii].  It is as if, when he says this, he is predestinating his own ursinely induced death, which will bring about a change in genre.

The Bear is at the center of the play.  By this, I do not merely mean that the intrusion of the Bear changes the play from a tragedy to a comedy (for what could be more laughter-provoking than an old man being eaten by a bear?).  I mean that the word bear, and variants thereof, proliferates throughout the text.

The overbearing King of Sicilia, Leontes, is convinced that his wife, Queen Hermione, has cheated upon him.  I shall return to his conviction that she is a barefaced adulteress below; it is most likely a bugbear of his imagination (please bear this in mind).  Leontes makes the bearish suggestion to Camillo, his lord, that the latter poison the man who allegedly cuckolded him: Polixenes, King of Bohemia.  Camillo is embarrassed by the idea and forbears from poisoning Polixenes.  He cannot bear the thought of killing the Bohemian king.  Leontes accuses all of his lords of treason and declares the bearing of his children, Mamillius and Perdita, to have issued from Polixenes.  The beardless boy that Hermione has borne, Mamillius, who is likely barely five years old, dies when he hears the unbearable news that his mother has been sentenced for adultery and treason.  Hermione cannot bear the strain and collapses.  The pallbearers take their bodies away to be buried in the same grave.  Antigonus leaves the barne Perdita in the barren wilderness of Bohemia, where Antigonus is devoured by the Bear.

Is Hermione an adulteress?  There is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is; there is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is not.  One of the many ambiguities of the play, Hermione’s putative adultery can neither be definitively affirmed nor definitively rejected.  Leontes is persuaded of her faithlessness when he sees her clasping hands with Polixenes.  On the surface, this appears to be a faulty inference from inductive logic.  In fact, it is a faulty inference from deductive logic.

Students of logic will recognize the distinction between inductive and deductive logic.  “Induction” comes from the Latin inducere, means “to lead into.”  It is logic that journeys into an assertion from evidence.  “Deduction” comes from the Latin deducere, which means “to move away from.”  It is logic that moves away from an assertion to evidence.

Leontes has decided in advance that Hermione is an adulteress, and this implies that he is practicing deductive logic, though fallaciously.  He begins with his fixed idea and then seeks evidence to support his idea.  He is engaging in confirmation bias: that is, he seeks out evidence to corroborate the hypothesis to which he is emotionally pre-attached.  All of the “evidence” that he uncovers is faulty; it does not prove what he wants it to prove.  However, the opposite is also the case: Anyone who says that Hermione is innocent is being suppositious; such an idea is purely notional in the absence of proof.  She might be innocent; she might be guilty.  The question of her innocence remains unanswerable.

Unlike Othello, who, at least, does not believe in his wife’s infidelity until he uncovers articles of ocular proof (which hardly prove anything at all), Leontes automatically (for once, the adjective is justified) believes in his wife’s infidelity.  Polixenes stays at his wife’s behest, not at his own.  Polixenes and Hermione clasp hands.  This is all of the “evidence” of his wife’s infidelity that Leontes requires.  The flimsiness of such “evidence”—or of such non-evidence—should nourish our suspicion that Leontes is finding what he is seeking.

Leontes is desperate to find a reason to condemn Hermione of faithlessness.  Hermione herself comments on Leontes’ insistent passionate desperateness to find evidence of treachery where there is none, to find a spider in the wine that he drinks when there is no such spider: “I’ll be sworn you would believe my saying, / Howe’er you lean to the nayward” [II:i].  Like all of the jealous, Leontes leans to the nayward: He is inclined to believe in infidelity of his wife, not to disbelieve in it.  When he is challenged by his retinue to give reasons for his suspicion, Leontes asks, rhetorically, “Why, what need we / Commune with you of this, but rather follow / Our forceful instigation?” [II:i].  Instigation: The word suggests impulsiveness without reason.

Jealousy makes projective interpreters of us all.  When we are jealous, we find what we project.  As La Rochefoucauld puts it, jealousy has much more to do with self-love than it has to do with love.

Leontes is married to his own opinion that his wife, Polixenes, and Camillo are treacherous, and this marriage-to-his-own-opinion throws him into transports: “How I blest am I / In my just censure, in my true opinion!” [II:i].  He delights when his fantasies of jealousy are imaginarily confirmed.  Why is this?

I would posit the following: It does not matter whether Hermione has cheated upon Leontes.  Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him.

The question now is not: Is Hermione unfaithful?  The question is rather: Why does Leontes need to believe that Hermione is unfaithful?  Why does he have the emotional and psychological need to believe that his wife is cheating upon him?

Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him because he wants her to be an impossibility.  He wants her to be inaccessible.  He wants her to be desirable yet without desire for him.  She can only remain desirable by having no desire for him.

Leontes is a masochistic narcissist.  Even if the husband were correct and Hermione were unfaithful, Leontes’ jealousy would still be pathological (to again channel Lacan).  He must sustain the fantasy of infidelity in order to maintain his status as the desirer of the impossible.  To be loved by a faithful wife would collapse the distance between the masochistic Leontes and the woman he desires.

When Lacan wrote, “Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant,” one of the things that he might have meant was that the desirer does not have a relationship with the one whom he desires.  The man who desires a woman is self-related; even if there is physical contact with the woman he desires, this is only the culmination of his self-relatedness.  If he experiences any pleasure, it is his own pleasure that he is experiencing.  He is only interested in the woman as a medium for his own pleasure (the masculine pronoun seems justified, since I am alluding to Leontes).  Sexuality forecloses a relationship, a rapport, with the other human being.  All eroticism is autoeroticism.  At this point, Professor Alain Badiou, former Chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, would interject that only through love could one gain access to the totality of the other human being, but this implication is not contained in Lacan’s statement.  And how could one ever gain access to the totality of another human being?

“Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant”: This means (among other things) that it is impossible to find love through eroticism, since eroticism is without relation to any human beings other than to the self.

At the conclusion of the play, a magnificent statue is unveiled before Leontes and his entourage.  It is the statue of Hermione.  This has led four centuries of readers and spectators to wonder: “Did she die and then come back to life?  Or was she alive all along, ensconced by Paulina?”  Even more strangely: “Is this really a statue that we are seeing, and, if it is, how could the statue have been reanimated?”

To turn to the first question: Did Hermione die, and was she then revived from the dead?  At the end of Act Two, we are told that both mother and son will be inhumed in the same grave—but were they?  This remains a supposition.  If Hermione does not die, why does she appear to Antigonus as a floaty revenant “in pure white robes” [III:iii]?  Or is this a dream?  Antigonus tells us that he does “believe / Hermione hath suffer’d death” [III:iii], but why should we believe what he believes?  In a play that is fraught with disguises and self-disguisings (Polixenes, Camillo, and Autolycus all dissimulate themselves), is it not thinkable that Hermione has been concealed for fifteen years until the mourning of the King has transmuted into full-blown melancholia?  What does Paulina mean when she says that she will “choose [for Leontes] a queen: she shall not be so young / As was [his] former; but she shall be such / As, walk’d [his] first queen’s ghost” [V:i]?  Such lines might fertilize our supposition that Hermione has never died and has been kidnapped by Paulina or that, still more incredibly, that Paulina has intentionally fashioned, Pygmalion-like, a statue that will come to life.  Is Paulina a thaumaturge who has fashioned a replica of Leontes’ dead wife and animated that replica?  Has Paulina orchestrated a tableau vivant?  Perhaps Paulina is practicing an art that does not perfect or supplement nature, but rather, is practicing “an art / [t]hat nature makes” [IV:iv], to cite Polixenes.  Is the new “Hermione” a verisimilar impostor—a work of art that is wholly natural?  Are we looking at the real living-and-speaking Hermione, or are we looking at her duplicate?  Is the Hermione at which we are looking a zombie?

None of these questions is answerable.  She might or might not be an Alcestis coming back to the overworld.  Whether Hermione is a zombie or not matters as little as whether she was unfaithful or not: This is one of the many ambiguities and paradoxes of late Shakespeare.  She crosses the distinction between livingness and unlivingness.  She is dead yet alive.  Is this not implied in Leontes’ seemingly necrophiliac remark that he would “again possess her corpse” on “stage” [V:i]?  In the previous act, Perdita denies that her beloved Florizel is “like a corpse” [IV:iii] (wonderful foreshadowing!), for she apprehends his living-and-speaking reality.  This is not the case for Leontes’ non-relation to Hermione, however.  The manifestation of the statue at the end of the play only proves that she is like a mechanical object: She speaks, but only in a mechanical way.  She appears to be artificial and without vitality.

What does matter, I propose, is that Hermione was always a stony image to Leontes.  She always was a lifeless-yet-living effigy to him; she was always a reanimated corpse-image, or perhaps an android or automaton, to him.  Leontes has long since, from the moment that he first saw her, sacrificed her living existence for an unloving-unalive replica.  Leontes’ narcissistic masochism demands that there be an infinite separation, an irrelative void, between him and the woman through whom he loves himself.  Let us not forget Lacan’s remarks on courtly love: The courtly-lover establishes obstacles / impedimenta between him and the object of his desire in order to perpetuate his desire.  He sets up artificial barriers to keep her at a distance.  She must remain remote, deathlike—an apparition of the courtly-lover’s desire for her impassivity.  This is precisely what Leontes does in The Winter’s Tale.  He idealizes and idolizes Hermione in order to compensate for the absence of a relation between them.  She is an idol and has always been an idol to Leontes, an idealized imago.  From the beginning of the play unto its deus-ex-machina ending, she has been a lithic Lilith.

Dr. Joseph Suglia


6 thoughts on “An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

  1. Pingback: SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia | Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

  2. I don’t run across too many people who quote Lacan and Shakespeare in the same narrative…in the blogosphere anyway! Excellent. I’ve been reading you sporadically but will start doing so regularly.

  3. Hello Dr Joseph Suglia – I am new to this and am so impressed by your history. I read your analysis of The Winter’s Tale – it was terrific, full of insight. “The Great Chain of Being” has always interested me – so apparently true, and yet ignored by most of us most of the time.

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