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THE THEME OF JEALOUSY
The first part of the play introduces Leontes' jealousy immediately. It is set against nobler feelings of purity, loyalty and integrity. Jealousy strikes him suddenly and inexplicably like a pestilence. "Infection" is Shakespeare's key word in describing it. The blight is fearful as it is almost without any external support. Hermione is impeccably behaved, and everyone in the play but Leontes knows and proclaims her innocence. Paulina brands Leontes as the sole traitor who has betrayed "the sacred honour of himself". Antigonus tells his King: "You are abused, and by some putter-on that will be damned fort. Would I knew the villain".
The villain is Leontes' vile imagination. From its sullen embers, jealousy rises like a foul phoenix. To prove that the evil is purely subjective, the gods themselves speak flatly against Leontes' suspicion. Divine intervention here takes the form of the message from the Delphi oracle. With only enough mystification to carry on the plot for three more acts, Apollo's oracle is read aloud in the court of justice: "Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten...". In a state of insane fury, Leontes dismisses the oracle and Leontes is punished for his jealousy. His son Mamillius dies. He is separated from his wife Hermione and daughter Perdita.
Leontes' self-induced jealousy is countered by the integrity of Paulina and Camillo and the simplicity of Perdita. The compromising wisdom and noble intentions of the older characters bridge the pure extremes of evil and of innocence. Outside the mind of Leontes, and a sudden tempest or a carnivorous bear, there is no essential evil in the play. Court and country alike are good. Honorable intentions are the rule, and every character can maintain that he or she means well.
The apparent lack of motivation for Leontes' jealousy is often criticized as a weakness in the play. However, Shakespeare does hint at its growth. It arises from within the soul of Leontes, rather than from an outside source. It may be pointed out that Shakespeare's purpose in this play was not to analyze jealousy; instead, he uses it as the beginning of the thematic cycle of evil, followed by repentance and reconciliation. Perhaps Shakespeare's audience would have accepted the suddenness of the emotion more easily than a modern one invested in a more psychological world view. The Renaissance audience might have seen it as an attack of a melancholy humor; one of the four bodily fluids believed to shape one's temperament.
THE THEME OF FORGIVENESS AND RECONCILIATION
There are many themes in The Winter's Tale but they all seem to arise from the basic theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. At the beginning, the evil that arises, apparently quite spontaneously, within Leontes causes the death of Mamillius and the supposed death of Hermione, as well as the separation of Perdita. Here, evil seems to have triumphed as a destructive force. But in terms of Shakespeare's plan, Leontes is eventually redeemed and good triumphs.
A long period of penance and mourning is therefore required. This remorse is indicated at the beginning of Act V when Leontes speaks of the way in which he has mourned for his dead wife and has refrained from remarrying. Repentance is followed by forgiveness and mercy as embodied in Hermione. She retires from the world until Leontes is ready for the final reconciliation. She, of course, forgives and shows mercy toward him. At the same time, justice is done to Leontes as he is made to suffer for his sins. His wife and daughter are almost miraculously restored to him, after he has gained self-knowledge. Thus, this thematic cycle is completed: repentance brings forgiveness, which in turn leads to reconciliation.
THE THEME OF REGENERATION
The theme of regeneration pervades the play. This is another significant theme in The Winter's Tale, with its emphasis on fertility in the figure of Perdita. In fact, in some ways, the whole play can be read as a fertility myth or allegory. Perdita and Hermione disappear: Hermione, in effect, goes to the 'underworld' (Hades), so also does Perdita, as in the Proserpine (fertility) myth. Hermione's pregnancy is discussed by her ladies in terms of a joy in fertility and the renewal of human life. Similarly, in the lengthy fourth act, Perdita, in her own speech, expresses the same joy in the fertility and creative power of nature. Perdita herself represents the power of nature, uncorrupted by civilization.
The marriage of Perdita and Florizel symbolizes the meeting of civilization and nature as well as engenders the cycle of procreation, regeneration and fertility. The recovery of Hermione for Leontes transforms the winter of their lives into a new spring. In other words, they achieve immortality through their children. In the marriage of Perdita and Florizel, the old people -- Polixenes, Leontes and Hermione -- experience a sense of regeneration.
THE THEME OF NATURE VERSUS ART
The theme of nature versus art crops up in Act IV, Scene 4, during the discussion between Polixenes and Perdita about flowers that have been grafted and those that are "naturally" created. Perdita appears like Goddess Flora herself at the sheep-shearing festival. She welcomes the disguised Polixenes and Camillo and offers them flowers as greetings. She presents them with rosemary and rue, herbs that keep their shape and savor through the winter and which are symbolic of grace and remembrance. Polixenes comments that she has chosen flowers of winter for them, well- suited to their age. With the greatest respect, Perdita tells the gentlemen the reason for her choice is that these are the only flowers in the garden, since she does not care for flowers that are usually in season at this time which are carnations and gillyvors (gillyflowers, or clove pinks -- another kind of carnation), which some call "nature's bastards" because they are the result of artificial crossbreeding. Perdita objects to the art that is used to improve on "great creating nature".
Polixenes does not agree with the young girl and argues that art, which improves on nature, still has its basis in nature itself, and therefore, should not be discriminated against. He praises grafting greatly then comments that, "A gentler scion to the wildest stock" in order to combine the best qualities of both. "And make conceive a bark of baster kind / By bud of nobler race". This practice, he claims, is an art, which improves nature, but "the art itself is nature". He then exhorts her to fill her garden with carnations and gillyvors and not to call them bastards. Fearlessly, Perdita answers Polixenes and flatly refuses to have such flowers in her garden. Yet ironically enough even though Polixenes espouses such views about "cross-breeding", when he discovers that his son is in love with a peasant girl, he promptly attempts to break up their union.