Shakespeare’s ‘“The Winter’s Tale”: From Destructive to Harmonious Relations by Kristen Acevedo

The word Shakespeare can convey all sorts of images and conceptions, some will think of Macbeth and a bloody dagger, or Hamlet holding a skull. But do you ever think about a harmonious relationship between men and women with roles being expanded for women as characters? Most likely not, but that is what this post is here to help you discover, that Shakespeare was constantly messing with the concepts of men and women gender roles. In an article titled “Patriarchal Structures in “The Winter’s Tale” by Peter Erickson, he talks about how one of Shakespeare’s plays The Winter’s Tale actually does a good job of showing a harmonious relationship between man and woman, which comes from a complete turn around of destructive male dominance that makes up the first portion of the play. 

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Hopefully, by the end of the post you might be able to see Shakespeare in a different way instead of the tragedies that end in terrible death, which does happen, but this article sheds light on a major aspect of not only The Winter’s Tale but other plays as well. Now whether you’re a Shakespearean pro, or just starting to become interested in the many plays that he has written, it is important to know what The Winter’s Tale is all about. 

    The Winter’s Tale is about a king named Leontes who is married to Hermione. Together they have a son named Mamillius and are expecting another child. One of Leontes best friends, named Polixenes who is also a king, comes to visit them. During a brief interaction between the three of them Hermione is able to convince Polixenes to stay the night at their palace, but Leontes turns into a jealous rage and accuses Hermione and Polixenes of having had an affair with each other. Leontes also claims that the child that Hermione is carrying is an illegitimate child and is actually Polixenes’ kid. 

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Leontes orders that Hermione be sent to prison and then sends for the Oracle of Delphi to confirm his suspensions, which he is sure his suspensions will be revealed as true. The queen gives birth to a girl which her lady-in-waiting, Paulina presents to Leontes in hopes to change his mind about the assumptions that he has about his wife. Instead of making him consider his faults, Leontes only grows angrier and orders her husband, Lord Antigonus, to abandon the child. Meanwhile, the Oracle of Delphi has given back the information that Polixenes and Hermione are innocent, and he will no longer have an heir to the throne until his daughter is found. Leontes doesn’t believe the Oracle and it takes his young son, Mamillius, away from Hermione. Mamillius ends up dying from separation from his mother.Leontes realizes what he has done, but it is already too late for Hermione as she had died as well after giving birth. 

    Eventually the play turns to the young girl, Perdita that was the daughter of Leontes, is found by a Shepherd. She lives with the Shepherd for sixteen years until she falls in love with Polixenes son, Florizel. After a long draw-out exchange between father and son because Polixenes doesn’t want his son to marry Perdita. Florizel disobeys his fathers orders and ends up marrying Perdita anyways which is how the play ends.

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    Now don’t jump to any conclusions of Shakespeare plays just yet, but instead let’s get into the analysis of the article I had mentioned earlier. In The Winter’s Tale there is an obvious indication of “male-oriented” patriarchy that is clearly destructive in the play towards not only women, but also any men that stand against Leontes. Erickson states that, “The dramatic action consists partly in the fashioning of a benign patriarchy—in the transition from a brutal, crude, tyrannical version to a benevolent one capable of including and valuing women” (819, Erickson). So we can see here that there is a possibility in this play that the value and attitude towards women can change to one that is productive and respective. Before we continue with understanding how it changes from such opposite ends, we first need to analyze where this relationship of male dominance and disrespect begins in the play. In Erickson’s article, he indicates five separate ways that the play indicates male control which leds into the loss of that control: Gift Giving as a Male Institution, The Father-Son Relation, Reversal of Sexual Roles as a Threat to Male Control, Brothers and Brotherhood, The Role of Women. I will not be covering each of these topics, but the one I want to focus on is the Father-Son Relation. 

    The Father-Son relationship in The Winter’s Tale, or in any post Renaissance literature, held this type of relationship in high esteem because the man was the one that was always direct in line for the throne and gave the kingdom assurance of a royal bloodline. The importance of Mamillius in the play to Leontes is more important than the role of the queen. We see this in Act 2, Scene 1, “A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,/ And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge/ Is not infected. But if one present” (41-43). Leontes decides to take his son away from his mother so that he does not become infected with “poison” that his mother might tell him, even though Mamillius would rather stay with his mother than have to leave her. Erickson states that this is what ends up killing Mamillius because he was not able to be with his mother and have the maturing relationship that he needed as a young boy. This is a topic that Erickson also touches on as being a flaw in the father-son relation in the play that ends up being destructive. Leontes is more worried about keeping an heir to the throne than trusting and believing his wife, and in the end he ends up losing both. Erickson states that, “The patriarchal use of the father-son relation is shown to be problematic. The equation of father and son on which patriarchal continuity depends is the very one that destroys Mamillius. Leontes is left with an emotional vacuum that he tries to fill by turning to Mamillius” (821, Erikson). The male dominated world that this play was centered in, is showing that it had serious flaws in it that actually led to more destruction than peace and harmony which is what Leontes was trying to accomplish with the protection of Mamillius. 

    Another aspect that is central to the flaws in the patriarchal order, is that the unborn child that Hermione is carrying is looked at as sin, even though there is a possibility of Hermione having a boy for an heir. Shakespeare made a specific choice in deciding that the sexuality of the child that was to be born would be a girl because if it had been a boy, Leontes wouldn’t have let it die. “He thinks—nay, with all confidence he swears,/ As he had seen’t or been an instrument/ To vice you to’t—that you have touched his queen/ Forbiddenly” (412-414). Leontes accuses his wife of being adulterous and the child, that ends up being a girl, is cast to the side which is a lot like how society treated women during that time. Erickson states that, “The father-son relation is fundamental to patriarchal organization because it implies male control of reproduction. The mother is ordinarily included only as the vehicle that bears the father’s successor” (821, Erikson). The indicators in the play that show a flaw in male control is obvious, but this ends up turning around with the father-son relation to be cut and the importance of the father’s decision no longer a necessity. 

    This happens with Florizel who wants to marry Perdita, but Polixenes does not want them to continue their relationship due because she is of a lower class than Florizel, “Mark your divorce, young sir,/ Whom son I dare not call” (4.4.408-409). Because Florizel decided to marry Perdita he is disowned from his father, and while Polixenes is hoping that Florizel comes running back in order to gain his trust again Florizel does nothing of the kind and breaks the hierarchy of the male control father-son relation. Erickson considers this part in the play the turning point of the father-son relation, “Florizel poses a clear-cut threat to patriarchal order. Though Perdita readily acknowledges the image of the father by her expressions of fear, Florizel is absolute in his commitment to her as against his father. Florizel proves true to his word when he resolutely refuses to consult his father about his choice in marriage” (822, Erikson). This is the part of the play that shows a complete turn around from the beginning when the male control is eminent and the son did not usually have a say in who he was going to marry. Despite the belief that Shakespeare plays all end with tragic deaths, we can see from the analysis from both the play The Winter’s Tale and from the article by Erickson that there is a lot more than the mere tragic scenes that Shakespeare is known for, and instead has a lot of insight to offer when his plays are looked in closer detail. 


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Kiki Acevedo

                                                     Works Cited 

Erickson, Peter B. “Patriarchal Structures in The Winter’s Tale.” PMLA, vol. 97, no. 5, 1982, pp. 819–829. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/462173. Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

Shakespeare, William. “The Winter’s Tale” The Norton Shakespeare, Greenblatt, Stephen, Cohen, Walter, Norton & Company, 2016, 1655-1726.

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