The Winter’s Tale is a play of extremes of character, mood and genre, the play therefore cannot easily be categorised. As a result, in considering a question such as this we must be conscious of the fact that we are measuring the comic elements’ relative value against, for example, the tragic or romantic sides of the play. The comedy must therefore be gauged in the context of the piece as a whole. Contextually, comedy was of course very important in contemporary live performance as it is today on stage.
It is often easy to forget that a playwright can and will blend genres, a technique that modern critics will often explain away as a method to increase tension. For example, it has been said that the comedy of the drunken porter in Macbeth does not vitiate but rather increases the tragic momentum. 1 These sorts of effect are undoubtedly achieved; this fact does not however diminish the spontaneous comic value of a moment in a live performance. The term ‘tragicomedy’ has been has been employed to describe The Winter’s Tale and plays similar in genre-structure to, such as Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
These plays tend to have more than just a glimpse of relieving comedy; the humour usually has a significant role in the development of the play and its ideas. Shakespeare conforms to his own, and classical tradition, with his approach to seasonal changes, in fortune, “No enemy / But winter and rough weather”2, and tone as the plot progresses into the fourth act of The Winter’s Tale. The court of Sicilia is the setting for the tragic suspicions of Leontes; the subsequent flight of Polixenes and Camillo; the trial of Hermione and the fates of the two children, Mamillius and Perdita.
The playwright designates Sicilia to be the land that is set in the audience’s mind as wintry, bleak and ill fortuned in the first three acts of the play. The second episode, in the pastoral setting of the Bohemian countryside contradicts the harsh tragedy of Sicilia, by introducing shepherds, clowns, rogues and young lovers. Shakespeare’s introduction of these stock comic figures, classically optimistic images and his adoption of the pastoral backdrop is as formulaic as a fairy tale, which is indeed the effect the playwright is trying to create.
The only real humour in Sicilia is Mamillius’ playful flirtation with the first and second ladies in the first scene of the second act. His elaborately adult description, “I learned it out of women’s faces,” of what he believes to be eyebrows that “become women best” is childishly amusing but can be seen as little more than a playful mock, perhaps ingratiating Mamillius with the audience before his tragic death. It could be said that this image of a comic child in an extremely grown-up and humourless environment is meant to look out of place.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s vision of childhood is meant for that of the carefree Bohemian countryside, not that of the central pressure of being heir to the Sicilian throne. His playful admission that “A sad tale’s best for winter” shows his regular childish love of fantasy. However this also perhaps suggests the imprint of adult time restrictions on his young mind and his love for spring and humour, trapped inside the bleak, grown-up winter of jealousy and deception is not a just place for the young prince. It could be said that much of the humour in Bohemia derives from a childish sense of comedy that is lacking in Sicilia.
Childhood could be seen as the ‘spring’ of life, where comedy and vivacity prevail over responsibility. Autolycus of course possesses a certain air of a timeless traveller and Peter Pan-esque, ever-young quality that can easily be associated with childhood. The optimism and comedy in fact truly begin with Perdita’s survival and adoption; this ensures for an audience that the play is not destined for misery but for a new beginning, “thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn. ” The baby’s discovery by the Old Shepherd is comic given his rural innocence and admiration for the child, “A very pretty bairn-a boy, or a child, I wonder? The shepherd’s soliloquy is completely opposite in nature to those of Leontes in the first three acts of the play. Where Leontes’ are to convey his true jealousy, the shepherd’s takes on an almost pantomimic form. The monologue is suggestive, “some behind door work”, appealing to the sexual humour of the audience and the words are dialectic and endearing, “This is fairy gold, boy, and ’twill prove so. ” The shepherd’s overall appeal is his discursive, humorous relationship he quickly forms and maintains with the audience when in soliloquy. Both the clown and the shepherd are emphatically simplistic in their speech and story telling.
Their stories are gossipy and exaggerated, which makes them seem foolish but harmless throughout, “how the poor souls roared, and the sea mocked them; and how the poor gentleman roared, and the bear mocked him; both roaring louder than the sea or weather. ” We do not see the shepherd and his son alone again until they shed their “first gentlemanlike tears”, in the second scene of the final act. Shakespeare seems to mock the lower classes here, as he does implicitly in the fourth act, just as Leontes is belittling and even scornful to Florizel when he believes that Perdita is a peasant.
Acting as a link between Sicilia and Bohemia, Time as a mechanism to move the play on sixteen years is perhaps comic in its artificiality, though its tone is not inherently humorous as much of the fourth act is. On top of the baby Perdita’s discovery, Time is a key factor that confirms the play’s imminent change of tack from the tragically serious to the light-heartedly comic. It is, in my opinion, the comic rogue Autolycus, named after the god Mercury’s mythical Odyssean son, who provides much of the humour.
His rugged charm and varying persona, “I am a courtier” to “the peddlar”, fuels the comedy in this act providing much of the very obvious and largely formulaic humour. The situations of comedy turn on deceptions, confusions and false identities, which mock particularly the lower class characters. He is the instigator in making most of the fourth act extremely farcical, inducing misunderstanding and comedic situations predominantly for his own gain. Autolycus is essentially in control of his actions, a “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles” through being a man of many guises, from the grovelling “O, that ever I was born! to the joyously satisfied “A merry heart goes all the day. ” The key to the comedy of his introductory scene, the clown’s pick pocketing, is the speed of the dialogue, the spontaneity of the rogue’s loosely constructed alibi, and the sense of classic dramatic irony that Shakespeare is not afraid to adopt, “You ha’ done me a charitable office. ” When Autolycus describes the man who allegedly robbed him, comically, he describes himself, “that’s the rogue that put me into this apparel. In winding-up the clown’s opinions of this mystical ‘Autolycus’, the audience takes delight in this mockery of the fool, whilst also hearing the humorously exiting description of the rogue’s life of short-term commitments in many “knavish professions”. Beneath the obvious fact that Autolycus is a rogue, lies the essence of his mythical namesake, the god Mercury, not only god of theft and lying (Autolycus meaning “lone wolf”) but also paradoxically of eloquence and presidency over the truths of hermetic philosophy.
This is, of course, where Autolycus lives up to his roots; this is arguably where the humour’s significance lies beyond just being a break from the tragedy. We can see in this light that despite his moral shortcomings and the humour he provides, there is an air of social responsibility to Autolycus’ character, masked behind his seemingly carefree flippancy on the matter of human pride and honour, “Ha, ha, what a fool honesty is! And trust, his sworn brother. It is the melange of selfishness and social conscience that creates in Autolycus a ‘stage manager’ as pivotal as Paulina is in the final act. Shrouded in the humour of misinterpretation and ulterior motives of convincing the shepherd and his son, “rough and hairy”, that they are to be in serious trouble for their deception about Perdita, lurks a force both as self-interested as a rogue, but as deliberate as Paulina, pushing the family towards Sicilia.
It is Autolycus’ humorously deceptive persuasion that provokes the clown to concede to him that Perdita “’tis none of your daughter nor my sister. ” Although it is humorous that Autolycus has completely sold himself as a gentleman, “He seems to be of great authority”, to the father and son, who claim, “he was provided to do us good”, the rogue’s actions suggest a greater pattern to his comedy. The employment of the passive voice in the phrase “was provided” hints at a sort of godly purpose and prophesised destiny in Autolycus.
The play, it can be said, is one of circular movements all ending up where they begin. For example, the king and queen are reunited, Perdita and Camillo are returned to home soil and on a smaller scale the robbery of the poor shepherd and his son is deemed unimportant by their newly acquired positions of authority as gentlemen. Due to the inevitable demise of life, some key factors are dissipated in the mix, Mamillius, Antigonus and the sixteen years of disjointed Sicilian monarchy.
However, many other things get better than was previously thought possible superseding expectation, Hermione’s reanimation, Perdita’s return and the king’s forgiveness. The two main people involved in the maintenance of these circles are Autolycus and Paulina who both conform to the unavoidable cycle that is Apollo’s oracle. The oracle’s unrealistic and almost comically blunt message, “Leontes is a jealous tyrant”, stays true in its prophecies throughout the play. Autolycus can be seen as a funnier but less persistent Paulina, “O Hermione, / As every time doth boast itself”.
His oblivious introduction to the management of preordained fates, to which he is an involuntary aid, is very godlike in the true Greek sense of the word: lethargic, selfish and inherently humorous. His dishonesty is laughable just as a personified ancient god’s might be, but his role in the bringing together of the final reunion is irreplaceable. I believe Shakespeare is making some sort of ironic social comment about the value of nobility in his treatment of the predominantly ‘lower-class’ comedy.
Perdita’s unquestionable grace is developed and honed as a shepherd’s daughter but her blood is noble. Autolycus has also “served Prince Florizel” but his humour and roguish charm come from his experience of the ‘real world’. On top of these good ‘rural’ qualities, comedy and light-heartedness illuminate an optimistic charm that Shakespeare implies cannot exist in the tight, noble atmosphere of Sicilia. Despite portraying Bohemia as a land of clowns and buffoons, the playwright praises their freedom of expression in music, dance and art without the stilted contrivance of Sicilia.
Shakespeare also values the comedy as a release of the tension of the first three acts but also as an adverse perspective on how everyone else lives. To contrast the tragic format of previous, predominantly serious plays of focusing on a short period of time, the playwright expands the time period the piece occupies and concentrates on the lives of other characters in other locations. In doing this he removes some of the weight from the tragic episode. This technique of using humour and tragedy, a so-called ‘tragicomedy’, therefore gives an audience more scope, more themes and genres to concentrate on.
The employment of the comedy provides not only humour in itself but a positive realisation that life is not focused around negativity but spread over many moods and feelings, where laughter and optimism can prevail, as The Winter’s Tale has been said to have achieved. The impression on an audience after watching a production of the play is of course not one purely of the dangers of unwarranted jealousy in a position of power, but is amongst other things, a tale of redemption, reconciliation, vagabondage and good humour.
The sharp edge of the inexplicable rage is blunted by the comedy, but is not devalued by it. The comic moments are to introduce the things that really matter to Shakespeare in his last plays, reunion and re-growth. Shakespeare’s final moment in the play requires that we do “awake” our faith. In order for this sort of faith to be realised, a radical, unrealistic sense of humour must have been established in, and have remained on our minds by through the events of the fourth act.
The penultimate act’s gradual introduction to unconventional ideas allows us to laugh at them in comedy to prepare for Hermione’s awakening, which, without the fourth act’s careful preparation with humour, might seem funny when it is clearly not supposed to be. Comedy aids the play in its plot on a character level, on our understanding of the play’s message and how the ending can plausibly come about. We must remember that Shakespeare is also catering for a live audience in his use of the humour but is also exploring the fabric of reconciliation and forgiveness.
In my opinion, the major artifice or leap of faith cannot be taken seriously without the audience adopting what one could call a sense of humour, that is to say an open mind and an ability to mentally break convention. In order to have this ability to leave behind the pretence of the final scene of the play, an audience’s mind has to have been nurtured by the comic elements in the fourth act. This nurturing leads to an admission on the audiences part that this play is a work of art and must be accepted and appreciated as just that.