Spiritual Journeys in The Winter’s Tale

Throughout the semester we’ve been discussing the importance of spiritual growth to the development of characters in Cervantes’ novellas and Shakespeare’s plays. The concept of a spiritual journey is certainly not unique. Many authors have employed the idea that characters do need to change and grow in order to hold the attention of the audience. In stories like “The Jealous Hidalgo” and “The Liberal Lover,” Cervantes shows how some characters absolutely need to change the way they think and act before they can consider themselves worthy of the women they love. Shakespeare follows this pattern of spiritual growth and restoration in The Winter’s Tale. This play is somewhat unique in that nearly all of the principle characters have to improve themselves in some way, whether it is learning humility or learning to trust true vision. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare displays the destructive power of jealousy and the incredible potential for redemption that all humans possess through the spiritual journeys of his characters.

As the play opens, all seems right with the world. Leontes is teasing his friend Polixenes, trying to convince him to extend his visit by just a few more days. Polixenes, who has been away from his throne for nine months, feels that it is time he returned to his own country and attended to his responsibilities. When Leontes can’t convince Polixenes to change his mind, Leontes asks his wife, Hermione, to try persuading him as well. Hermione is possessed of great wit and intelligence, and she uses that to her advantage when she invites Polixenes to remain in Sicily for a while longer. She teases Polixenes and says he would “Force me to keep you as a prisoner, not like a guest…How say you (I.ii.52-54)?” Essentially she says she’ll have to lock up Polyxenes in order to keep him as a guest like she and her husband want to do. Leontes sees Hermione and Polixenes having this intimate conversation and touching each other’s hands and, without so much as asking the two of them, assumes that they are having an affair.

This inherent mistrust for women is nothing new, especially in Shakespearean times. Leontes can’t trust Hermione because he can never know for sure that a child she carries is his. There is always that possibility that she may have cheated on him and conceived the child with another man. This kind of mistrust was incredibly apparent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It helps to explain why women were married off at such a young age and kept under constant supervision.

Hermione and Polixenes have no idea that Leontes suspects such a thing. The three of them have been good friends for many years, which explains why Hermione feels comfortable enough in Polixenes’ presence to offer him her hand or sit very close together. Leontes, however, is incredibly narcissistic and sees every action in the context of how it will reflect on him. He doesn’t recognize Hermione as an individual person, but as an extension of himself. Because of this, Leontes feels as though he has cheated himself when he suspects Hermione of committing adultery. Once he makes these accusations, his incredible pride prevents him from seeing any other possible explanation for Hermione’s and Polixenes’ actions.

To punish his wife and friend, Leontes has Hermione imprisoned and instructs Camillo to poison Polixenes. Camillo reflects, rather wisely, that very little good ever came to the man who was responsible for killing a king, and instead of poisoning Polixenes as he promised Leontes he would do, Camillo warns Polixenes and they escape to Bohemia together. When Leontes discovers this, he says, “Camillo was his help in this, his pandar: there is a plot against my life, my crown; all’s true that is mistrusted (II.i.46-49).” He sees it only as further proof that Polixenes was up to no good and that he probably hired Camillo from the beginning to help in his seduction of Hermione. Leontes even begins to suspect that his son, Mamillius, may not even be his. He is also convinced that the baby Hermione is carrying has to be Polixenes’ child.

Hermione delivers her baby while in prison, and has Paulina show the baby to Leontes, hoping that the innocence