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violent measures with which his father purposes to break off his attachment, the young Prince Florizel flies by the advice of Camillo to Sicily, where by the strangest chances in the world the Princess's foster-father, and his son, arrive about the same time, and Polyxenes likewise sends after the Prince. By certain marks on her person, Perdita is recognised as the daughter of Leontes, and the Princess, so long supposed to be dead, comes forth from her concealment, and the whole concludes in a tumult of happiness and rejoicing. The story is borrowed from Robert Greene's pastoral romance, “A Pleasant Historie of Dorastus and Faunia,” first printed, according to Farmer, in 1588. By various alterations and additions (in Greene's story, Hermione, i. e. Bellaria, really dies, and the characters of Antigonus, Paulina, and Autolycus, are altogether wanting) Shakspeare has contrived out of a tasteless, affected romance, of at most a passing interest, to make a truthful and immortal drama.
In its general basis and structure, this play is, it is obvious, the direct opposite of “As You Like It.” The passionate temperament of Leontes, and his subsequent repentance, the exposure of the infant, the seclusion of the Princess, and the attachment of the Prince for the beautiful and lovely shepherdess, although of rare occurrence, are not improbable; the characters too are worked out with greater consistency, and do not exhibit any sudden and unaccountable changes. The details, on the other hand, are more fanciful; here accident and cross purpose reign supreme, and all the minor incidents are at least remote from common experience. Not merely is the truth of space violated by Bohemia being made a maritime country, but that of time also is as recklessly disregarded, by the Delphian oracle and Giuilo Romano being brought together, but still more by inconsistent allusion to christianity and christian institutions. By the caprice of chance, the Princess is rescued at the very moment that the nobleman by whom she had been exposed is torn in pieces by a bear; while his ship, with all on board, is lost on its return, so that no intelligence of the place of her exposure could be carried back to Sicily. By the same fortuitous luck, the Prince of Bohemia strays into the woods, and meets with the shepherds with whom the Princess is living. A similar freak of chance repairs all former accidents, and by uniting all parties in Sicily, brings about a happy result. As, therefore, the unreal and fantastic is expressed in the details, rather than in the general basis of the drama, so it is objective, rather than subjective contingencies that prevail throughout, and which, by their mutual action, effect that dialectic of irony, by which, in spite of all seeming improbabilities, the rational and the right is ultimately brought about.
It is exactly this reign of outward chance that constitutes that legendary character which has given its name to the piece. For the absolutely accidental, which interrupts the ordinary course of nature, and by forcing itself as a foreign element into the midst of objective phenomena, destroys apparently the causal connection of things, possesses in truth the closest affinity with the marvellous. But the marvellous is not merely the form or outward dress of a legend or tale ; on the contrary, it is essential to it, as resting fundamentally on a mystic view of things which regards life itself and the world simply as the outward manifestation of a profound and unfathomable mystery, and to which, consequently, everything appears in the light of an unintelligible wonder. What, therefore, from ignorance of its reason and necessity, we call chance, is the ruling principle of the legendary tale, and in order to project itself as such clearly and distinctly, it is outwardly manifested in such singular, arbitrary, and fanciful forms, as do despite to ordinary reality. The legendary, therefore, is a legitimate ingredient in the comic view of the world; but of the comic alone. A perfectly tragic legend would be a poetical abortion. The wide comprehensiveness of his artistic genius rendered Shakspeare unwilling to neglect this element of comedy. He has not, however, included the whole realm of wonder in his “ Winter's Tale:" it is not so much in its outward form, as in its essential matter, that he has here exhibited the legendary. The mystic view of the world, as here presented, is confined to the secret influence of objective contingeney, and of its wonderful connection with the actions and fortunes of the dramatic personages. By this limitation Shakspeare has brought the whole nearer to the reality of life, and has enhanced its charm and effect; while by the quiet introduction
of the wonderful into the fable, as if it were the commonest and most ordinary matter, the narrative itself has gained in poetic beauty and impressiveness.
After the preceding remarks, my opinion must be apparent, that the particular modification which Shakspeare has here given to this general comic view is derived from the manner in which the poet has regarded life itself, as a strange, exciting, but cheerful Winter's Tale : such as on a rough, inhospitable, wintry evening, a venerable dame would love to recount to a merry circle of children and grand-children assembled round the blazing hearth, whose enjoyment of this warm shelter and happy union is rendered more intense by the exciting interest of the awful tale, and by the cold pitiless tempest without. It owes this character to the mysterious influence of chance, which spreads its veil over the whole drama. It is cheerful, because through the mist of suffering there glimmers a bright cheering ray of a better future, while we feel that the mysterious gloom which is spread over the present, must, by a necessity no less obscure, be eventually dissipated. And yet a gentle shudder runs through our whole frame, when we witness the irresistible force of sin and passion seizing upon a character so good and noble as Leontes, and prompting him upon the weakest grounds of suspicion to seek the death of the intimate and beloved friend of his youth, to repudiate his noble Queen, the model of all matronly virtue, to expose his own child to death, and to brand, with the foul crime of treason, his tried and honest servant Camillo ; when we see, by some secret connection, external misery following close upon the footsteps of sin, and threatening the welfare of a whole nation, or when we behold chance as an avenging deity, seizing and destroying those who were at most but involuntary instruments of guilt, and lastly the complicated results of crime, extending the menaces of destruction to the hitherto happy and innocent family of the shepherd.
It must be apparent that such a view of life as contemplates human existence as a rare “ Winter's Tale,” is far from being given as the full and complete truth. It is placed, in short, within the comic view, which invariably seeks by contrast to establish an opposite principle. And, yet, the drama involves the profound truth, that human life does not lie before man in pure and brilliant transparency, like a bright cheerful summer's day, but that a secret veil never to be raised completely in this life-an obscure power, whose action is neither always nor everywhere traceable, hangs over and constrains him. It conveys the intimation that it is only by a strict adherence to the law of God, that man can emancipate himself from its mysterious agency; and that if he wanders ever so little from the right way, he inevitably falls a prey to it, and becomes the plaything of its good or ill humour. If, in the present piece, the humour is good, and restores all the wanderers into the beaten track again ; still, this is only a chance, which moreover was necessary to satisfy the requirements of the comic theory. If, on the other hand, this mysterious power had been understood in its immediate truth as the eternal justice of God, and the moral law of universal order, it must have appeared in a tragic form; such, for instance, as it has taken in “Othello."
Perhaps the objection may be brought against the “Winter's Tale," that it is tragical in the first three acts, but comic in the last two. Apparently, no doubt, this is the case.
But the objection holds good only on a superficial and external consideration of the piece, and at most is only applicable to particulars of detail. Viewed externally, the comic does seem to be reserved to the two last acts. But the attentive reader will discover even in the first three the cheerful comic view on which the whole intrinsically rests. The jealousy of Leontes, his repentance and sorrow, and the misery of his wife, are lightly sketched, and painted without any strong or broad touches; the colours are laid on in mild and soft tones. Thus, too, to come to details, the declaration of the oracle evidently alludes to a happy event. And even on this account the comic scenes appear naturally enough confined to the merry festivities of the shepherds in Bohemia, and afterwards in Sicily. The contrast, no doubt, is not altogether removed by these considerations; but, on the other hand, whatever of it still remains, is perfectly agreeable to the legendary character of the whole, which, with great propriety, it also serves to throw out the more strongly. As is common in tales of marvel, here, also, pain and anxiety are mingled with fantastic pleasure and grotesque merriment.
It will be sufficient to have called attention to the rare beauty with which the different characters are shaded off, as well as to the
contrasts by which they are thrown out by the groups into which they fall, and the harmony which results from their co-ordination. How nobly does the mild dignity, the majestic sweetness and pure womanly feeling of Hermione, contrast with the Duke's unmanly and unworthy passionateness, as well under his unmerited insults as in the revenge which she takes for her own wrongs and agonies, and by which she works the repentance of her suspicious husband. The fidelity of Camillo and Paulina are undismayed by any threat or
sacrifice. How artlessly does Perdita's innate nobility of soul shine forth amid her rude and ill-assorted companions ! how exquisite is the impression of her beauty and graceful demeanour! with what correct taste does the heart of the young Prince distinguish her from all others ! How significantly is the simple, joyous, and peaceful life of the Shepherd contrasted with the splendid misery of the throne! The reader who enters heartily into the poem, will at once recognize the beauty of the composition, the propriety of the characters, and the rich coruscations of thought which sparkle throughout.
Most critics agree in placing the “Winter's Tale” between 1610 and 1613; in which date they are supported both by the diction and characterization. Even Malone, who at first assigned it the early date of 1594, and then of 1604, afterwards changed his opinion in favour of its later origin; and as to the view of Pope, that it was an unsuccessful production of Shakspeare's youth, it has no better foundation than his own incorrect estimate of its poetical merits. Very recently, however, Collier has proved, by means of a recently-discovered document, that it was acted on the 15th of May, 1611, and that, as Malone had previously shewn, it was first licensed by Sir George Buc, who did not enter upon his office of Master of the Revels until 1610, so that it is now clearly established that the “Winter's Tale” must have been finished some time between August 1610 and May 1611, when it was first acted. Yet it is not improbable that the present drama is but a recast of an earlier piece. In the Stationers' Register a work is entered as early as 1594, with the title, “ A Winternyght's Pastime.” This is probably the same drama as we now have, which, upon its revision, received a name more suited to its altered form. The shepherd scenes are probably a remnant of the earlier piece, a fact which may perhaps account for its fresher and brighter