The debate of art versus nature is pervasive. Art is understood to be the act of human intervention by means of cognition and imagination to alter what nature has already created. The question at hand is: can and should art be used as means of perfecting nature? It is generally asserted that nature is superior to art. This is an unfair assumption. In The Winter’s Tale, the debate between art and nature is palpable. The two countries, Bohemia and Sicilia can be used to represent the two opposing ideas. The first setting of the play, Sicilia, or the court, represents art and artifice. The court follows rules and structures established by human intervention. After Act III, the story is ...view middle of the document...
You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.” (IV.iv)
Polixenes argues that art is needed to “mend” nature. In addition to this, he proffers that art itself is natural. Perdita permits this contention, but continues by saying that she would want to plant the “bastard” flowers, “no more than were [she] painted [she] would wish/This youth (Florizel) should say 'twere well and only therefore/Desire to breed by [her]” (IV.iv). Perdita expresses that if make up were the only way to win Florizel’s affection, she would forgo their marriage.
Polixenes and Perdita’s deliberation does not provide a conclusion to the debate; rather, it provides an intellectual template from which the play develops significance.
The image of rejecting hybrid flowers as “bastards” recalls the rejection of Perdita by Leontes earlier in the play. In Sicilia, the concept of art is conveyed through the use of language. The well-structured language used in the court is embellished to highlight the distinction between art and nature. Hermione uses exaggerated metaphors when addressing Leontes’ suspicion (I.ii). Similarly, Polixenes fires off illustrious metaphors to Camillo when planning his departure from Sicilia (I.ii).
Extravagant language and manners can be deceptive, as Perdita implies of art. Hermione’s coaxing of Polixenes, for example, is a great example of how human intervention can be misinterpreted. Leontes takes Hermione’s conversation and interaction with Polixenes to be flirtatious. Leontes shares with the audience what he perceives: “How she holds up the neb, the bill to him!/And arms her with the boldness of a wife/To her allowing husband!” (I.ii). Hermione’s artistic persuasion of Polixenes sends Leontes spiraling into a jealous rage.
Leontes goes on to challenge nature with art. During Hermione’s trial, Leontes depends greatily on the assumed power of language, stating: “He who shall speak for [Hermione] is afar off guilty/But that he speaks” (II.i). Language, an artistic medium, is a great power that man has. When it’s fueled by power greater than its natural use, however, it can be destructive. Leontes abuses this power when he says, “There is no truth at all i' the oracle:/The sessions shall proceed: this is mere falsehood” (II.ii). As soon as the words leave his mouth, all goes wrong. Leontes immediately recognize he has made a mistake, stating: “Apollo's angry; and the heavens themselves/Do strike at my injustice” (II.ii). Art, such as language, and the power...