The Winter’s Tale
is a play which is resolutely ambiguous in many ways;for example, on the theme of art and nature. In the overall scheme of the play,certain characters embody either art or nature:Leontes, in his absurd, unfounded, self-generating jealousy and hate,represents art. His jealousy is artificial in the sense that he has constructed it outof so little; merely out of Hermione’s ability to convince Polixenes to stay, andholding hands. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy with not basis in reality (i.e. thenatural world). In this sense, his jealousy is
.Hermione and Perdita, meanwhile, embody nature. They are virtuous,innocent, wholesome, patient, and are ‘passive agents of redemption’ who do not‘initiate any action’.
They are the idealised feminine, and nature is always personified as a woman, a goddess (Persephone, Demeter). Interestingly, Leontescalls Perdita a ‘goddess’ when he first sees her (Act 5. Scene 1. Line 130).Autolycus, who plays numerous roles, from beggar to noble, symbolizesthe power of art. He is, however, ambiguous – he steals from people, but he alsokeeps it a secret that Florizel and Perdita have run away to Sicilia, although for the wrong reasons (4.4.675-8). He imitates, cons, lies, and counterfeits – allnegative aspects of art. Yet this deceptive character facilitates a happy ending.There is a moral ambiguity about this comic figure, which seems beyondresolution. Notice that in the general scheme of the play, it seems that art is negative; ittries to usurp nature, imprison it, imitate it. Art appears to be founded on lies andimitation; it is not the thing-in-itself, but a thing which is not what it seems.
It isdeceptive, and based on interference with nature. But nature, far from beingcompletely positive, is at work in the bear and storm too (3.3).
Can thisdichotomy between art and nature be resolved? It appears to be in the statue,which will be discussed later.
Dolora Cunningham, ‘Conflicting Images of the Comic Heroine’, in Maurice Charney (ed.)
“Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon
(London: Associated UniversityPresses, 1988), 120-9: 127.
However, art also leads, by way of the statue, to a resolution.
Cf.: William Shakespeare, and Stephen Orgel (ed.),
The Winter’s Tale
(Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1996), 39: ‘…the bear assures us that nature in this play is no kinder thancivilization.’