There are several interesting relationships between men and women in Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale. It is clear that a twenty-first century audience will respond to these relationships in a different light from its initial seventeenth century audience as so many changes have occurred over the three centuries since it was first performed. Issues such as sexuality, status and the positions of men and women in society are explored in the play and are played out in the relationships that unfold as the play progresses.
The play is based upon the unfounded jealousy of the King of Sicilia, Leontes, who believes that his wife, Queen Hermione, is committing adultery with his best friend, the King of Bohemia, Polixenes. From the outset, the audience is made aware of the close bond that has existed between the two Kings since their earliest days:
They were trained together in their childhoods; and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection, which cannot choose but branch now (pp. 5-6).
However, this bond is not strong enough to prevent the stirrings of Leontes’ suspicion as he witnesses the friendly exchanges between Hermione and Polixenes and misinterprets them as the exchanges of secret lovers. A modern audience is able to identify with this situation as, regardless of the centuries that have elapsed, unfounded jealousy is still common today and still leads to unfortunate circumstances. To the audience, Hermione’s playful joking with Polixenes as she persuades him to stay is seen as nothing but friendly banter. However, Leontes’ simple question following this scene can be interpreted in two different ways thereby suggesting that his perspective on the relationship between his wife and best friend is very different. He asks his wife, “Is he won yet?” which can be considered a question relating to his wife’s success at persuading Polixenes to stay but can also be considered as a question relating to his wife’s success at wooing Polixenes. The relationship between Polixenes and Hermione is one that is cemented by their mutual love for Leontes.
This is likely to strike a cord with modern audiences just as it would have done in Shakespeare’s time. However, opinions about female sexuality were different in the seventeenth century as women’s sexuality was misunderstood and considered a powerful and even dangerous force if it was not bound by the conventions of the society at the time. Leontes’ fear that his wife is an adulteress, then, would have spoken to contemporary audiences of the fears within their society. Today, the acceptance that women’s sexuality is just as valid as men’s means that the play is interpreted from a different angle and Hermione is pitied even more. Unlike earlier heroines such as Desdemona who is unfairly accused of adultery in Othello, Hermione demonstrates emotional strength and is not solely defined in relation to her husband. This is shown in the trial scene when she appeals to her husband’s knowledge of her past life “as continent, as chaste, as true, / As I am now unhappy” (p.44). Shakespeare, therefore, while presenting the relationship between Leontes and Hermione as one in which Leontes has the power to impose judgment upon Hermione, there is also an inner power granted to Hermione whose integrity is not damaged by the accusations and treatment of her husband.
Just as Hermione suffers the torments of her tyrannical husband and loses first her son, Mamillius, then her newly-born daughter, Perdita, and then her own life, Perdita suffers what a modern audience might consider the injustices of a society that is ruled by social boundaries determined by differences in status. Perdita, who was raised by a shepherd after being sent away by her father as a baby and deserted in Bohemia, meets Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel, with whom she falls in love. Unlike the first half of the play which is characterised by tragedy due to the damage to the marriage between Leontes and Hermione and the friendship between Leontes and Polixenes, the second half of the play begins with a romance as Shakespeare depicts the love that has blossomed between the exiled princess and the prince. The words that the l