A Pagan's Perspective in The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale depicts a family torn apart as a result of the jealous actions of Leontes, the King of Sicilia. The actions and personality of Leontes can also be
observed in Greek Tragedies by Homer and Sophocles. The relationship between the members of
the royal family portray direct and subtle parallels to the Classical works before it.
Louis Martz comments on the parallels between The Winter's Tale and Greek tragedies in
his article: Shakespeare's Humanist Enterprise: The Winter's Tale. Martz draws several subtle
parallels to Greek Tragedies with references to location, religion, syntax, speech, chronological
actions of a character and the concept of the tragic hero. Comparisons are drawn to the tragedies
of Agamemnon, Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Martz places emphasis on the characters of Leontes
and Hermione, but also to more subtle characters like the Shepherd and Autolycus. The concept
of The Winter's Tale as a trilogy is also introduced by Martz. The defiance of the Oracle, the
death of Mamillius, and the miraculous rebirth of Hermione are also vital aspects of the
tragicomedy discussed by Martz.
In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, King Leontes is introduced as a jealous ruler, acting
as a good host. His jealousy and suspicion toward his Queen Hermione and to his guest, King
Polixenes is rooted in the fact that Hermione is expecting a child. Leontes does not trust his
Queen's faithfulness and suspects that the unborn child is the son of Polixenes. Martz argues that
the jealousy in Leontes was present even before the opening of the play, but none-the-less,
escalated to it's heightened state during the course of act one. Martz comments: "Leontes has
been in the grip of jealousy before the play has opened, and that the play is best presented when
he is shown to be so gripped by disease, the madness that...destroying his deepest affections and
turning all to hate, as Clytemnestra or Medea." (129). Leonte's rage is the cause of the actions
throughout the course of events in the play, and can be considered his tragic flaw. Much like the
tragic heros of Oedipus, Agamemnon, or even Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, Leontes too, will
suffer as a result of a flaw.
Leontes deliberately defies the Oracle in a fit of rage and dismay. He speaks: "There is no
truth at all i' th' oracle. The sessions shall proceed. This is mere falsehood."(3.2.152-153.)
Much like Oedipus in Sophocles' tragedy, Leontes cannot escape the prophecy of the Oracle. In
the end, Leontes makes an effort to repent, but his tragic flaw has already caused him to suffer
Apollo, pardon my great profaneness 'gainst
thine oracle. I'll reconcile me to Polixenes,
New woo my queen, recall the good Camillo,
Whom I proclaim a man of truth,...