The Winter’s Tale brings to mind the Ed Hardy-clad Stefon of SNL’s Weekend Update fame. This play has everything! Death! Disguise! Mutilation! Heartbreak! Resurrection! Statues! Bears! Bill Hader would giggle and glance flirtatiously at Seth Meyers while adding,’and it spans 16 years!’ Seth would thank Stefon, but ask him to focus on what makes the play worth reading.
For me, it’s that while it contains just enough of several familiar Shakespearean elements – whimsy, tragedy, mistaken identity, and reconciliation – to make it deliciously satisfying, he doesn’t overdo any one of them, so it is neither treacly nor devastating.
I’d direct readers to this play, like Stefon sends revelers to clubs, because of an important theme that resonates strongly with me. In it, Shakespeare portrays jealousy and malice as infectious agents that cause disease, resulting in suffering and death. He depicts the cure as an awakening which cleanses and detoxifies and makes room again for health.
Jealousy infects Leontes, king of Sicilia, like a virulent virus. “Affection! thy intention stabs the center.” (I,ii,138) Here, the footnote defines “affection” as “jealousy.” (I,ii,note 138) Dictionary.com defines “affected” as “influenced in a harmful way; impaired, harmed, or attacked as by climate or disease.” Leontes is literally affected by affection.
Polixenes, king of Bohemia and long time close friend to Leontes recognizes this immediately as he becomes Leontes’ target. He likens the vitriolic jealousy to a destructive disease: “O then, my best blood turn/To an infected jelly,” and “…worse than the great’st infection/That e’er was heard or read.” (I,ii,417-8 and 423-4) Sicilian lord and Leontes confidante Camillo agrees and paints it as an epidemic that, like cancer, “will continue/The standing of his body.” (I,ii,431)
Leontes himself acknowledges how poisonous thoughts can cause illness. Once aware of the “venom”, (II,i,41) “he cracks his gorge, his sides/With violent hefts.” (II,i,44-5) Also, he admits that he is infected. “I have drunk, and have seen the spider.” (II,i,45) Like Othello, jealousy turns septic and taints the whole system. Leontes’ queen Hermione, like Desdemona, recognizes the ailment in her husband: “There’s some ill planet reigns;” (II,i,105)
His servant and courtiers diagnose it, too, and hope for an cure: “‘Tis hoped his sickness is discharg’d,” (II,iii,11) and “Do come with words as medicinal as true,” (II,iii,37), they implore. Lady Paulina offers herself up as “your loyal servant, your physician,” (II,iii,54) in hopes of treating the malaise. Hermione notes that “I am barr’d, like one infectious.” (III,ii,98) Shakespeare’s use of this medical language strengthens the association between the malevolent thoughts and their impact on the body and society at large.
But there is no remedy as long as Leontes submits to the pathogens. They cause fever, paranoia, and delusions. The plague proves fatal. His young son succumbs. He exiles his newborn daughter, believing her a product of adultery, to perish in the elements. Only Hermione’s death brings him to his senses and allows him to recognize the insidious nature of the germ’s infiltration and implantation. He hopes for “Some remedies for life,” (III,ii,153) but of course there are none, and he spends 16 years trying to exorcise the disease and repent its physical and mental fallout.
The detoxification process begins when his long lost daughter, aptly named Perdita, travels to Sicilia from Bohemia, where she was brought as a discarded infant. She returns on the arm of, and engaged to, Florizel, Polixenes’ son.
The healing process sounds very much like a leech-induced blood letting, with frequent references to the red stuff. When they arrive and seek an audience with Leontes, he greets them with the request that “The blessed gods/Purge all infection.” (V,i,168-9) The metaphor continues with images of the reconciliation: “bleed tears; for I am sure my heart wept blood.” (V,i,89) The sanguine imagery conjures a cleanse of all remnants of the infectious agent.
When the detoxification is complete, Hermione statue’s “veins/Did verily bear blood.” (V,iii,63-4) as the stone likeness comes to life. When Leontes expels the source of what ailed her, she can breathe again. Leontes concludes his repentance with a full confession. “Both your pardons,/That e’er I put between your holy looks/My ill suspicion.” (V,iii,147-9), fully recognizing the obsession’s nature and impact with his use of the word “ill.” His awareness, acknowledgement, and atonement provide the antidote to the affliction. His mindful compassion prove as life-affirming as his blind envy and vengefulness proved deadly.
That’s all he wrote. And, so, too, that’s all she wrote. After two years and nine months almost to the day, I close The Riverside Shakespeare and rest my pen with a mixture of satiety, joy, and melancholy. Shakespeare has had a profound impact on me. Although I see and hear him everywhere, I will miss spending part of each day with him on the page. Parting is, indeed, such sweet sorrow.