Reading The Winter’s Tale after the Trump Years

With my novel finished, I’ve gotten back to work on some languishing poems. To get my head in the right space, I decided to read Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which I read years ago, and is replete with some of Shakespeare’s most transcendent poetry. What immediately struck me, though, was how much I disliked both Leontes and Polixenes. In truth, we’re supposed to dislike them. Each, in their turn, is vicious, cruel and tyrannical, but what disturbed me now was less their viciousness than the assumed prerogatives of wealth and class that allowed them to act without compunction or consequence—ostensibly a play about two rich and entitled men who inherited their wealth (and haven’t we had enough of those these last few years)?

The aristocracy and royalty were the oligarchical billionaires of their day, and almost uniformly corrupt. The Europeans who fled to the United States in the 18th century were damned well fed up with these kinds of families. At the founding of the United States, the following was added to the Constitution:

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

If Prince Harry were to become a naturalized US citizen, he would have to renounce his title. But none of this has prevented the US from creating its own aristocracy. The only difference is that we call them one percenters instead of “Your Excellency”. And just as in the Europe of prior centuries, they wield outsize influence on the political process through their wealth and loyalists (read Royalists if you like). They are the Koch brothers, the Murdochs and the Trumps, rewarding their loyalists with the cash needed to maintain and share in their political power. The loyalists, in turn, reward these families with lower taxes, fewer regulations and the government levers needed to crush unions, depress wages, write laws that favor them or, more mundanely, seize federal lands for their own profit. The Trump years subjected the United States to a family who treated the US no differently than the various royals, aristocrats and theocratic mobsters of pre-20th century Europe—who asserted, in one form or another, their entitlement to rule and their entitlement to the wealth over which they ruled.

So when I read the first act of The Winter Tale, I felt like I was reading about a familiar family, class and wealth bracket. I was much less interested in their tender fates as compared to the first reading and wasn’t even sure I desired a happy ending for any of them. The play begins with Leontes suddenly seized by a rabid fit of jealousy that would have embarrassed Henry VIII. He suspects that his wife, Hermione, has been cheating on him with his childhood friend, Polixenes. What does a rich and entitled man with unimpeded power do? He considers murdering her as though her life were nothing more than a formality to be relievedly dispensed with:

Say that she were gone,
Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest
Might come to me again.

Winter’s Tale Act 2.3: 7-9 | Norton Digital Edition

He orders that his erstwhile best friend, Polixenes be murdered first, by poison, then that his pregnant wife and child be burned alive.

A callet
Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband
And now baits me. This brat is none of mine;
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam
Commit them to the fire!

Winter’s Tale Act 2: 90-94 | Norton Digital Edition

It needs to be emphasized that Hermione, at this point, is nine months pregnant. Leontes’ comments are in response to Paulina, wife of a nobleman and vociferous defender of Hermione. What does Paulina get for defending Hermione against a rich man with absolute power? She’s all but called a bitch and her husband pussy whipped: says Leontes of Antigonus, “He dreads his wife.”

In short order, the character Hermione gives birth, off-stage, to Leontes’s daughter (presumably precipitated by the horror of Leontes’s jealous rage). When Paulina brings the newborn to Leontes, he also orders the newborn burned alive:

Thou, traitor, hast set on thy wife to this.
My child? Away with’t! Even thou that hast
A heart so tender o’er it, take it hence
And see it instantly consumed with fire.
Even thou and none but thou. Take it up straight.
Within this hour bring me word ’tis done,
And by good testimony, or I’ll seize thy life
With what thou else call’st thine. If thou refuse,
And wilt encounter with my wrath, say so.
The bastard brains with these my proper hands
Shall I dash out. Go, take it to the fire,
For thou sett’st on thy wife.

The Winter’s Tale Act 2.2: 130-141 | Norton Digital Edition

So. Shakespeare really piles it on. It’s clear that we’re not meant to like or feel much sympathy for Leontes. However, the play is considered a romance in the sense that there will be redemption and a happy ending. This is where I get tripped up. After witnessing four years of cruelty, corruption, banality, and incompetence, and after being subjected to the sneering lies of Trump and the Trump family, I’m not interested in redemption or, as the party of Trump cynically labels it: “unity”. Before having witnessed this kind of corruption first hand, the characters of Leontes and Polixenes were fairytale-like figures—the kinds of stock characters that simply serve as foils. The fabulists and tellers of fairy tales who riffed on Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses didn’t do so out of any love for these people, but because they were the Marvel super heroes of their day. They possessed unlimited power—not confined by poverty or social class. The story teller didn’t need to explain how or why a given character had the freedom to do X, Y, or Z. If they were a prince or princess, their extraordinary privilege was assumed, along with the extraordinary trials that confronted them. What evil fairy princess, after all, is going to waste her time cursing the daughter of some serf or peasant? What Prince is going to give a damn if some peasant girl is buried alive in a glass coffin by a bunch of dwarfs?

As it turns out, it’s just this dynamic that plays out in Act 4. In Act 2, Leontes orders Antigonus to take his newborn daughter (who he believes to be the bastard child of Polixenes) into the wild and leave her there (hopefully to be torn to shreds by a passing carnivore). As it turns out, the baby, Perdita, is rescued by a Shepherd. Act 4 moves us forward in time and Perdita is a marriageable, teenage girl. And as it happens, Polixenes son, Florizel, stumbles on her and straightaway falls in love. No one suspects that Perdita is actually the child of nobility and so Florizel’s amorous attention is a deadly threat to Perdita and she knows it.

Oh, but sir,
Your resolution cannot hold, when ’tis
Opposed, as it must be, by th’ power of the King.
One of these two must be necessities,
Which then will speak that you must change this purpose,
Or I my life.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 35-39 | Norton Digital Edition

By “I my life” she doesn’t mean my life will be changed, rather, I will lose my life. But that doesn’t stop Florizel who, until meeting Perdita, has presumably lived a life of entitlement. Despite her protestations, he insists that not only will he marry her but that he would rather surrender all the benefits of his wealth and station than not marry. Shakespeare intends the audience to appreciate Florizel’s earnest love, though not, perhaps, his naïvety. Sure enough, his father, Polixenes, shows up in disguise and susses out what’s going on. Things don’t end well. Polixenese, who, until this point, had been the sympathetic and wrongly accused childhood friend of Leontes, turns out to be just as much of a tyrannical SOB:

Mark your divorce, young sir,
Whom son I dare not call. Thou art too base
To be acknowledged. Thou a scepter’s heir
That thus affects a sheephook? —Thou, old traitor,
I am sorry that by hanging thee I can
But shorten thy life one week. —And thou, fresh piece
Of excellent witchcraft, who of force must know
The royal fool thou cop’st with—

SHEPHERD Oh, my heart.

POLIXENES —I’ll have thy beauty scratched with briars and made
More homely than thy state. —For thee, fond boy,
If I may ever know thou dost but sigh
That thou no more shalt see this knack—as never
I mean thou shalt—we’ll bar thee from succession,
Not hold thee of our blood—no, not our kin—
Far than Deucalion off. Mark thou my words.
Follow us to the court. [to SHEPHERD] Thou churl, for this time,
Though full of our displeasure, yet we free thee
From the dead blow of it. [to PERDITA] And you, enchantment,
Worthy enough a herdsman—yea, him too,
That makes himself, but for our honor therein,
Unworthy thee—if ever henceforth thou
These rural latches to his entrance open,
Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to’t.

Winter’s Tale 4.4:408-432 | Norton Digital Edition

Polixenes has learned nothing from his experience with Leontes. First he declares that Perdita, who everyone still thinks is the Shepherd’s daughter, too low class for his royal and aristocratic blood. His son “thus affects a sheephook?” he asks. Next he declares that he will hang the Shepherd (the girl’s father), regretting only that the Shepherd is so old as to make the effort hardly worthwhile. After that Polixenes declares that he will have Perdita mutilated: “thy beauty scratched with briars and made/More homely than thy state.” How dare any mere commoner presume to marry into Polixenes’ aristocratic/royal family? He further declares that if Perdita nevertheless pursues Florizel, he will have her killed as cruelly as possible.

All the while, Shakespeare plays around with a common trope (found elsewhere in his other plays) that there is something intrinsically superior to the aristocratic/royal class. (It’s easy to see how this very prevalent attitude eventually led to the race “science” of the Nazis.) Earlier, both Polixenes and his advisor, Camillo, comment on Perdita’s aristocratic bearing:

POLIXENES This is the prettiest lowborn lass that ever
Ran on the greensward. Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.

CAMILLO [to POLIXENES] He tells her something
That makes her blood look on’t. Good sooth, she is
The queen of curds and cream.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 155-161 | Norton Digital Edition

She is “too noble” for this place. One need not imagine that the nobility of our own age fancy themselves intrinsically superior to the common run of human being. Trump has on numerous occasions made clear his contempt for dirty, low-class Americans (including those among the exceedingly gullible mob who stormed the capitol building); and has done so in just those terms. His family has also made clear that they share his contempt for the average American. There’s a reason Trump didn’t pardon a single protestor among those who stormed the capitol—they were dispensable. They weren’t worth his time. They were a means to an end (which didn’t materialize) and nothing more. They were like the easily dispensable peasants with whom European aristocratics waged war. True to form, Trump’s children all married within their class and station.

Florizel and Perdita flee, of all places, to Leontes (under the manipulative advice of Camillo who, literally, is merely looking for an excuse to see Leontes again). He couldn’t give a damn about Perdita, who, he well knows, will straightaway be murdered by Polixenes (once they catch up to the couple); but he knows that Polixenes will pursue Florizel and Perdita and so he’ll get a free ride to Sicilia. But what is that to the noble Camillo? As far as he knows (at this point in the play) Perdita is merely a dispensable means to an end; and once that end is achieved, she will be brutally and rightfully dispensed with. But so what? T’were as much as hang a dog from a tree. One wonders to what degree Shakespeare bought into all this. First thing to know is that this was not Shakespeare’s plot, but based on a story by Robert Greene (a deceased playwright and erstwhile rival). Was he just exploiting the literary tropes of the day? I think so. Shakespeare might have bought into the belief, to some degree, that class was intrinsic and not economic; but he was also keenly aware that the nobility didn’t behave any better than anyone else and wrote dozens of plays based on just that reality (Shakespeare had a keen nose for hypocrisy).

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 44

It’s my own belief that Shakespeare’s sonnets come closest to personal utterance. Those who exercise power without restraint, he suggests, though they might be deemed the very flower of their class and station, are “outbraved” by the basest weed in dignity. I personally doubt that Shakespeare would have had much sympathy for Leontes or Polixenes (neither could be said to have been like stone or to temptation slow) but he used the tropes of the day to dramatic effect. That said, it’s thought that Shakespeare endorsed the political hierarchies of the day. In his plays, at least, he comes down on the side of rule by aristocracy (which is really as much as to say that he preferred a functioning government—such as it was—to mob rule). Whenever Shakespeare gives voice to the common people they’re generally portrayed as a mob—as a dangerous and destabilizing force. That used to disappoint me, but having witnessed the mob instigated by the Trump family, I see it from Shakespeare’s perspective. It’s not that he thought particularly highly of the aristocracy, but he probably saw in them the closest thing to political and social stability that the Middle Ages had to offer. And why shouldn’t he? The enlightenment was still decades away.

When Perdita’s pedigree (as Leontes’s lost daughter) is finally revealed/discovered at the end of Act 4, then everything changes (though nothing about Perdita has changed). She was still raised by the Shepherd who discovered and saved her life (demonstrating incomparably greater integrity and kindness than any of the noblemen). Not only does Leontes recover his daughter (who he had threatened to burn on the very day of her birth and/or strangle with his own hands) but he also recovers his wife, Hermione—revealed to him by Paulina in the guise of a statue. (This is the same Leontes, in the same act who would have killed Perdita at Polixenes bidding prior to discovering her identity). All in all, I find it an undeserved happy ending for Leontes and Polixenes—or any of their venal hangers on (apart from Paulina). That said, if there’s a difference between Leontes and Trump, it’s that Leontes had enough self-awareness to spend his life, until his discovery of Perdita, regretting his wrongdoing and expressing humility. Trump isn’t even intellectually capable of the insight granted to a fictional pre-Christian King portrayed by a dramatist of the middle ages.

All this is to say, reading Shakespeare after the Trump years has changed everything. I now have a little taste for what life must have been like for those in the Middle Ages—ruled by entitled fools along with their retinue of corrupt courtiers, hangers on, grifters and opportunists. Some part of me still buys into the fairy tale tropes, but the greater part is not so inclined to overlook the venality of the nobility in The Winter’s Tale. If Leontes and Polixenes had accepted Perdita, as a Shepherd’s daughter, prior to discovering her true pedigree (probably an inconceivable outcome in Elizabethan England) then there might be some measure of redemption, but there is none. Both tyrants only accept the outcome after they get what they want. The prerogatives and entitlement of both men is reinforced rather than examined. That’s not redemption. No lessons are learned. I do recognize that Shakespeare’s job was to write a successful play and that involved fulfilling certain conventions and expectations. The Winter’s Tale should probably be read or watched as a kind of implausible fairy tale; and it’s success or failure should likewise be premised on its dramatic effectiveness rather than its moral or ethical assumptions. In that regard, I do get the sense that Shakespeare’s heart wasn’t really in it or that he was conflicted. He gives Paulina, who excoriates Leontes, all the best lines; so much so that the other characters comment on her unrealistic bravery (but maybe she speaks for Shakespeare). By the fifth act, rather than dramatize the revelation that Perdita is really Leontes’ daughter, Shakespeare assigns the revelation to a conversation between two Lords who rattle off the occasion with efficient and workmanlike prose. Should we read Leontes and Polixenes as little more than fairy-tale absurdities? One of the arguments Oxfordians put forward is that Shakespeare too accurately portrayed the court and court politics to have been, well, Shakespeare. But, as better scholars have pointed out (including near contemporaries), Shakespeare’s portrayal of the nobility and the court was patently inaccurate:

It follows, therefore, that the background of life in the plays is, and at the same time is not, the background of Elizabethan life. As an example — old Capulet is an admirable picture of a testy Elizabethan parent, and his behaviour to Juliet in the matter of the match with Paris reminds us instantly of the perpetually quoted account that Lady Jane Grey gives of her own noble father and mother. The human reality is faithfully portrayed, and at the same time the detail of the portrait is contemporary. If, however, we go on lightheartedly to assume that old Capulet in his behaviour as a “nobleman” bears any resemblance to an Elizabethan noble of similar standing we shall be hopelessly misled. If we compare him with the genuine article we realise at once that the intimate “realistic,” or Elizabethan, scenes in which he appears are purely “romantic,” or, if we prefer, untrue to the facts of contemporary noble life. Shakespeare may label Capulet the head of a noble household, who can treat Paris, “a young Nobleman, Kinsman to the Prince,” as his equal, and a proper match for his daughter; but when it comes to a scene like Act IV, Sc. iv, which shows the home life of this supposed nobleman, we realise that the setting is not Verona but Stratford, and that the most likely person to have sat for that very realistic portrait is John Shakespeare, or any of the good burgesses who were William’s father’s friends.

“The Social Background” | A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited Harley Granville-Barker and G. B. Harrison.

So, one could treat Leontes’ and Polixenes’ entitlement and murderous threats as more figurative than literal (if one were to act the play as a contemporary city drama); and I could accept that. On those grounds I might let the play’s “happy ending” slide (and the poetry of Florizel and Perdita’s love for each other is to die for); but taken at face value? No. We don’t live in the Middle Ages. I’m not feeling the happy ending of The Winter’s Tale any more than were the corrupt billionaire Donald Trump to escape the consequences of his crimes.

up in Vermont | February 6th 2001