Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ – Why is time so important?

I take a look at one of Shakespeare’s great plays and how the whole story could have been different if there was just a little more time…

Time has a key role to play in The Winter’s Tale. What creates tragedy in a play or book is that time runs out. E.g. we are saddened if the hero arrive five minutes too late to save the hostages. In comedies, there is just enough time: the hero disarms the bomb with one second to go. In this case, Leontes realises his mistake too late. It is the expectation of tragedy that allows for this comic relief. In The Winter’s Tale the hope that Leontes will see his blunder before Hermione before something happen he will later regret. Both his son and his wife die before it dawns on him what has happened. However, the comic relief at the end of the play is only able to happen with the death of Hermione. This is why The Winter’s Tale has been called a tragicomedy.  Hartwig states that the experience of Hermione’s apparent reincarnation is “discovery of that joyful truth is so exhilarating that no one worries about the trickery involved in creating it.” We suspend our disbelief while we enjoy the miracle before us. The play itself is set in no particular era; it is simultaneously subject to both time and timelessness.

The opening of the play shows a heavily pregnant Hermione trying to persuade Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to stay with them for a while longer. This arouses the suspicion of her husband Leontes, King of Sicilia, who starts to believe that she is having an affair. Polixenes has already stayed with Leontes and Hermione for nine months, a time universally recognized as the length between a baby’s conception and its birth. The fact that Polixenes has stayed with them throughout this time is obviously playing on Leontes’ mind, yet he puts two and two together and comes up with five. The king is tortured by the belief his childhood friend has betrayed him. His unfounded ideas lead to his deteriorated mental state and act as a catalyst to the remainder of the action in the play.

The Winter’s Tale is not the only Shakespeare play where men are driven mad by the thoughts that the women around them are deceitful beings. In King Lear, Lear is sent insane by the exposure of Goneril and Regan as cruel and merciless daughters. In The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice Othello is tormented by the belief that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio.

Leontes is told by Hermione and Polixenes that he is wrong, echoed by many of their friends and acquaintances: one lord tells Leontes “the queen is spotless”, Camillo pleads with Leontes to “be cured / of this diseased opinion” and Paulina tells him “I am no less honest / than you are mad.” Despite all this, Leontes answers their pleas with “You’re liars all” and he declares he is in “a nest of traitors.” The longer that Leontes is obscured by his distrust, the less time he will have to resolve the situation before something irreversible happens.

Leontes demands an oracle and it reveals what we all know: that Hermione and Polixenes are both innocent. However, it also tells us “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” Strangely, even this divine oracle does nothing to persuade Leontes that his assumptions are groundless. During this trial, a servant runs in and tells the court that Mamillius has died. Hermione collapses with grief and is taken out. It is in this moment Leontes finally comes to his senses. He sees how he was “transported by [his] jealousies / To bloody thoughts and to revenge.” Unfortunately it’s too late: time has run out. Hermione and Mamillius are dead, and his daughter is lost.

Act IV opens with Time itself acting as a narrator. It tells us that sixteen years have passed since the day of the trial. In Sicilia, it appears as if no time has passed; Leontes has shut himself up in isolation. In contrast, time in Bohemia has allowed Perdita –  the “lost one” – and Florizel to blossom into young adults and fall in love. The name Florizel seems to be suggestive of flowers and nature, things we associate with growth and the passing of time. In their introduction to The Winter’s Tale, Synder and Curren-Aquino say that time in the sixteen years gap passes “hurriedly in Sicilia, leisurely in Bohemia”.  In act V, Paulina asks Leontes to promise never to marry again without her permission and if he is to marry, she shall pick his queen. They are in limbo: stuck in purgatory until the oracle is fulfilled and their lives can carry on. They talk about when Leontes will marry again and Paulina talks in prophetic terms. On first reading we take it to mean he may never marry again, yet on second reading of the play, we see what Paulina has planned. Suddenly, Florizel and Perdita appear in Leontes’ kingdom, asking for his help. It seems fate has led them here. That which was lost has been found, and they can now look to the future.

Paulina reveals the statue of Hermione and it is Paulina that brings Hermione back to life. Hermione has healed from the hurt and shame that Leontes has caused her, and she is finally ready for the “re-establishing [of] an intimate bond with Leontes.” It almost seems as if she has been in hiding for sixteen years, being cared for by Paulina. This now gives more meaning to Paulina’s earlier statements regarding when Leontes will re-marry; “She shall not be so young / As was your former” and “when your first queen’s again in breath.” We can now see that Hermione has aged too, waiting for this moment.

It is this reincarnation of Hermione where we see time’s “most amazing triumph: the rebirth of a marriage…” Time has allowed the reunion of Leontes and Hermione as a happily married family. Time has made the heart grow fonder and as Leontes and Hermione embrace, there is no hint of any bitterness or resentment. Not only are they reunited with each other; they are reunited with their lost daughter; Leontes is reunited with Camillo and Polixenes and Florizel is reunited with his father. We now realise that Paulina “has known and controlled the central miracle.” She has been the stage director. This moment of pure delight was saved by Paulina until the right moment. Just as Hermione has forgiven all wrongs, so does the audience. We forgive Leontes for his previous errors and we join the characters in their moment of raw pleasure. The absence of Mamillius is the only thing which makes this incident any less satisfying.

Time is important in The Winter’s Tale for many reasons. Shakespeare uses time to create suspicion, heartache and joy. If only Leontes had spent more time thinking about what he was accusing Polixenes and Hermione of, he would have realized his mistake and the following tragedies would have been averted. He is then stuck in a period of remorse and grief until the oracle is fulfilled. Sicilia has become a timeless state until Perdita “the lost one” is found. Time has not stood still in Bohemia however; it has permitted Perdita and Florizel to grow up, which is fundamental for the play to progress. Time is the only reason Hermione has been reincarnated. Time has healed her wounds and allowed Leontes to reflect and learn from his experiences. Time is central to the plays advancement. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays, which last a very short period of time, The Winter’s Tale had to be set over a long period of time to make it the play that it is.