The “collision” of tragedy and comedy in The Winter’s Tale
The Winter’s Tale is one of William Shakespeare’s later plays that does not conform to classical generic norms of either tragedy or comedy, but displays elements of both, often leading it to be labeled a tragicomedy. Tragicomedy has been defined in various ways, with Janette Dillon locating its essence in “the coming together, the collision even, of tragedy and comedy” (Dillon 169). This description best resembles what we find in The Winter’s Tale, in which Shakespeare constructs a number of diametric oppositions between the tragic and the comic: there is the opposition between the physical worlds of Sicilia and Bohemia, between two vastly separated segments of time, and between the play’s first half, with its motion toward tyranny and death, and the second half, with its motion toward reconciliation. Through Shakespeare’s plot, these opposing elements are made to collide, resolving their antagonisms into what may be called tragicomedy. The play’s final scene is representative of Shakespeare’s masterful unification of the tragic and the comic, alluding to the unredeemed deaths of innocents (no comedy could end as such) while simultaneously celebrating love, forgiving wrongdoing, and renewing life; Shakespeare’s ability to push the boundaries of dramatic genre and challenge theoretical understanding of it is rarely more evident.
The Winter’s Tale can be identified as a tragicomedy by observing Shakespeare’s deliberate juxtaposition between tragic and comic elements, most obvious in the characterisation of two contrasting kingdoms: Sicilia and Bohemia. Acts I-III, the play’s tragic half, are mostly confined within Sicilia’s palace antechambers and prison rooms, signifying the characters’ imprisonment within a rigid linear motion toward devastation, wherein “the causal chain unwinds inexorably towards destruction, cutting off alternative possibilities of escape or potential new beginnings” (Snyder 85) With the movement to Bohemia, however, the setting is exteriorised, leaving “the increasingly dark and poisonous world of Leontes’ court” (Dillon 179) to “a Desert Country near the Sea” (3.3 stage direction), an open space which alludes to the pastoral tradition, and shifts reality from a lawfully fixed state to a “mutable and malleable” one (Snyder 85).
Other elements of each kingdom assist Shakespeare’s contradistinction between them, such as the fact that characters in Sicilia consist largely of figures of the political establishment, such as royals, nobles and their servants, while Bohemia focuses on the lives of shepherds, indicating Shakespeare’s distinction between the class composition of tragedy and comedy. While the play’s first, tragic half focuses on “events of great magnitude and persons of exalted estate” (Snyder 85), namely the descent of Leontes into corruption and tyranny, the comic latter half features “more ordinary characters, who evade death and disgrace and move on to marry and procreate” (Snyder 86) Furthermore, the action of characters within each setting further mirrors tragedy’s obedience to law, however tyrannical, and comedy’s oft-chaotic disobedience, and the triumph of the sex drive. In Sicilia, amid trial, persecution and death, most characters act at the behest of Leontes in his blind crusade against a non-existent threat to his masculinity. Those who try to resist the tragic process – such as the falsely accused Hermione, who pleas that “innocence shall make / False accusation blush, and tyranny / Tremble at patience” (3.2.30-32) – are at first consumed by it. Tragedy is not reversed until Antigonus, an agent of Leontes’ will, practices disobedience, placing Leontes’ condemned baby, Perdita, in Bohemia instead of killing her. Here the divine authority of the King, which had previously been driving the string of tragic events, is negated. Antigonus’ deed makes possible the renewal of Perdita’s life, and oversees the play’s “retreat to a serene, enchanted world” (Witmore & Hope 135) where characters’ actions are more autonomous and gravitate toward a more comic conclusion. Here, Shakespeare’s tragedy is realistically interrogating “political questions of rule, [and] the rights and duties of rulers and subjects and the possibility of resistance,” before, in contrast, his comedy may romantically “resolve difficulties in fantastical ways” (Dillon 180).
Having dichotomised elements of tragedy and comedy throughout the play, Shakespeare largely maintains the isolation of each from its other until the final act, which “brings these oppositions together – father and child, old friend and enemy, Bohemia and Sicilia, country and court, death and rebirth, suffering and reconciliation” (Hirst 32). The final scene, on the surface, seems a classic comic resolution, with the promise of marriage, reconciliation of families and kingdoms, and resurrection of Hermione. However, Shakespeare strips the resolution of utopianism by alluding to the play’s tragic beginnings, engendering powerful emotional friction. Dillon notes that The Winter’s Tale is not a tragicomedy in technical terms, because “Mamillius and Antigonus do not return, and their deaths are not forgotten”(Dillon 182). There is in fact a direct allusion to Mamillius’ line, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (2.1.33) when Paulina reacts to Hermione’s rebirth: “That she is living, / Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale” (5.3.140-142). In subtly recalling the life and innocence of Mamillius, Shakespeare is elegantly invoking remembrance of “the child who has to die to bring his father to his senses”, incorporating this unredeemed element of tragedy “into the renewal of life now celebrated in this most daring of tragicomedies” (Dillon 182). David Hirst may be correct in his assessment of the formula of drama at hand, that “a period of wandering in exile has the force of a pilgrimage and is rewarded with forgiveness, reconciliation and rebirth” (Hirst 26). Indeed, Leontes is forgiven, virtually all living characters are reconciled, and Hermione is quite literally reborn. To describe the tragicomedy of The Winter’s Tale as a motion “from tragedy through suffering to a happy outcome”(Hirst 26), however, is an oversimplification; despite the immediately breathtaking effect of Hermione’s rebirth, the play’s outcome is not happy in an absolute sense, it is not happy for Mamillius or Antigonus, nor is the reconciliation of order entirely smooth and conclusive, as will be discussed.
Hirst suggests that comic and tragic oppositions “are finally fused, but only at the end of the drama where the many tensions within the vast structure of the play are resolved”(Hirst 26); this is objectionable, because in The Winter’s Tale’s final act Shakespeare uses dialogue and caesura to ensure that the “collision” of tragedy and comedy is far from smooth and resolute. Ambiguity plagues the future of characters such as Paulina. While Leontes asserts that Paulina “shouldst a husband take by my consent” (5.3.164), the prospect of marriage being a key feature of comic resolution, Paulina herself expresses doubts about marrying Camillo, insisting that “I (an old turtle) / Will wing me to some wither’d bough, and there … Lament, till I am lost” (5.3.159-162). Furthermore, Leontes undermines this will of hers, telling Camillo authoritatively to “take her by the hand” (5.3. 172). Here arises the question of whether a marriage can be truly comic if it is insensitively enforced upon a woman who continues to mourn her dead husband, Antigonus. Perhaps more troublingly, Leontes’ dialogue is almost authoritarian; he wishes to control every aspect of this resolution, ordering the way forward in his final speech. Shakespeare thus has thrown into the air questions of political authority that were dealt with in the play’s dark first half, prompting audiences to question whether Leontes’ character has truly changed over the sixteen-year period, and whether his forgiveness was truly deserved. Special attention must also be paid to Leontes’ closing speech for its use of caesura, which Shakespeare scatters liberally throughout. This is very significant, considering that this rhythmic disorder is the final passage of a supposedly comic ending. Compared to the clean, neat passage that might conclude a purely comic resolution, such as Puck’s caesura-free speech of rhyming couplets that closes A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the composition of Leontes’ speech indicates that something is not quite right. While ambiguous, the heavy use of caesura may well be a vindication of the aforementioned accusation that Leontes’ absolutism remains unjustified, with his desire to control the situation invoking the emotional agitation that caesura represents. Alternatively, the caesura may indicate paranoia that he remains not entirely forgiven by all characters: “What? Look upon my brother: both your pardons, / That e’er I put between your holy looks / My ill suspicion” (5.3.175-177). In any case, the powerful conclusion to this tragicomedy is ambiguous and not without friction, as Shakespeare allows the grave themes of tragedy to penetrate comedy.
In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare constructs both tragedy and comedy within the play, and while they overlap to an extent, it is only in the last act that they collide, which according to Dillon is the defining feature of tragicomedy. The first three acts are tragic, with a king’s degeneration into tyranny causing “a break-up of the family unit leads to separation, banishment” and death (Hirst 26). The last two acts, contrastingly, consist of movement toward a comic resolution. Scene 3 of Act 5, however, is not purely comic; the new unity between the comic and tragic worlds is presented with unsettling friction and ambiguity, with Shakespeare alluding to the play’s unredeemed deaths as well as using characters’ dialogue and caesura to convey a sense that all is not as well as it may immediately appear. This tragicomedy perfectly exemplifies Shakespeare’s rejection of “high-minded anxieties regarding Aristotle’s unities” (Rankin 195) or classical formulas of dramatic genre; having already plumbed the depths of comedy and tragedy, he proceeds into the future seeking to challenge audiences to rethink their conceptions of genre.
Dillon, Janette 2010, ‘Shakespeare’s tragicomedies’, in De Grazia, Margreta & Wells, Stanley (eds.), The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 169-184.
Hirst, David, L. 1984, Tragicomedy, Methuen, New York.
Rankin, Deana 2007, ‘‘Betwixt Both’: Sketching the Borders of Seventeenth-Century Tragicomedy’, in Mukherji, Subha & Lyne, Raphael (eds.), Early Modern Tragicomedy, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge, pp. 193-207.
Snyder, Susan 2001, ‘The genres of Shakespeare’s plays’, in De Grazia, Margreta & Wells, Stanley (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 83-97.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. RSC edition. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009.
Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. RSC edition. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009.
Witmore, Michael & Hope, Jonathan 2007, ‘Shakespeare by the Numbers: On the Linguistic Texture of the Late Plays’, in Mukherji, Subha & Lyne, Raphael (eds.), Early Modern Tragicomedy, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge, pp. 133-153.