The “Divine Comedy” in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

While the words “Divine Comedy” naturally recall Dante’s classic poem in which the poet descends to the underworld of the Inferno, ascends Mount Purgatory, and rises to the heavenly Paradise, the phrase also applies to Shakespeare’s tragi-comedies (The Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale) that begin with a sudden fall from high to low precipitated by the sin of pride. Yet these plays that begin with injustice, violence, and death culminate in the miracle of good coming out of evil, joy out of sorrow, and life from death. While The Winter’s Tale begins in an idyllic scene of reunion between two dear friends bonded by a shared childhood of innocence that they happily recall, the play abruptly changes from happiness to misery.

As Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, enjoys a long visit in the court of Leontes in Sicily, they renew their bond of affection as they fondly reminisce of their days as “boy eternal.” When Leontes pleads with Polixenes to extend his stay and prolong their happy reunion, Polixenes refuses the gracious invitation, explaining that nine months has been a long absence from his kingdom (“My affairs do drag me homeward”). However, when Leontes asks his wife Queen Hermione to intercede, her gentle persuasion and natural charm move the guest to change his mind—a turn of events that makes Leontes’ furious jealousy imagine some clandestine affair between his wife and dearest friend. Leontes’ blind rage or “madness”—based exclusively on his own subjective private judgment with no other validation—incites the tragedy that follows.

Convinced by unfounded suspicions of adultery between Polixenes and Hermione and believing himself a cuckold, Leontes calls his wife an adulteress and a harlot (“My wife’s a hobby-horse, deserves a name/ As rank as any flax-wench that puts to/ Before her troth-plight”). Leontes then commissions his servant Camillo to poison Polixenes for his treachery, he imprisons Hermione for adultery, and he labels the child Hermione gives birth to in prison (Perdita) a bastard. Next he orders the child’s execution by fire which he then modifies to an abandonment of the baby to some desert: “This brat is none of mine. It is the issue of Polixenes.” Thus the happy reunion of old friends that prolonged their joys for nine months ended with Leontes’ wild accusations about an illegitimate child, drastic measures of cruelty, and orders for death. The wheel of Fortune turns as tragedy changes joy to sorrow, life to death, and good to evil. Leontes’ subjective view of truth blinded him to objective reality.

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Leontes reached all his erroneous conclusions on the basis of private judgment without any other confirming proofs. The testimony of a host of witnesses vouches for Hermione’s innocence, a woman with a spotless reputation throughout her entire marriage. Hermione’s own eloquent self-defense pleads “my past life/ Hath been as continent, as chaste, as true, /As I am now unhappy.” The maid Paulina calls Leontes “tyrant” for “this most cruel usage of your queen” founded on “your own weak-hinged fancy.” Even when Paulina confronts him with the birth of his baby daughter and her unmistakable resemblance to her father (“the whole matter/ And copy of the father—eye, nose, lip… ,” Leontes rejects the evidence of his senses and every appeal to reason. The innocent child Leontes calls “brat” and “bastard” Paulina sees as “So like to him that got it.” In his erratic judgment based only on his own irrational reactions, Leontes rejects the entire experience of his past relationships with Hermione and Polixenes, the unanimous consensus of all the trusted advisors and eye witnesses of the court, and the self-evident fact of the baby’s marked resemblance to her father. Even after the final verdict of the divine oracle judges Hermione innocent, Leontes still spurns the truth: “There is no truth at all i’ the oracle… This is mere falsehood.” Like Montaigne in his essay “On Repentance” who confesses, “I rarely repent … my conscience is content with itself, not as the conscience of an angel or a horse, but as the conscience of a man,” Leontes claims that he is the ultimate judge in matters of right and wrong, not some higher authority or greater source of truth. Once man makes himself a god, he suffers the tragic consequences of hubris.

Just as tragedy precipitates a sudden reversal from high to low as Aristotle explained in the Poetics, tragedy also depicts a dramatic change from ignorance to knowledge—wisdom that comes too late after irreparable harm and suffering have occurred. When Leontes comes to his senses, finally repents, learns humility, and realizes all the evil he has inflicted, he moves from ignorance to knowledge. He ruined a lifelong friendship and attempted to kill his best friend, impugned the reputation of his chaste wife and imprisoned her like a criminal, abandoned his own daughter to perish in a remote land, indirectly caused the death of his son Mamillus heartsick at the punishment of his mother, and bore some responsibility for Paulina’s husband Antigonus’s death when attacked by a bear after leaving the baby on an island. Tragedy brings irrecoverable losses. Hermione, though absolved of guilt, has reportedly died. The baby girl, Perdita, has presumably perished. Leontes’ former friendship with Polixenes is in a state of ruins. Tragedy has destroyed a marriage, a friendship, a family, and innocent lives. When private judgment supersedes divine authority, natural law, and self-evident truth, tragedy inevitably follows.

After a period of sixteen years in which Leontes undergoes great contrition, sorrow, and purification, he sees no future before him. Without an heir, wife, or children he continues to lament his past life of sin with no hope of happiness in store. All has been lost or destroyed. However, surprising visitors from Polixenes’ country of Bohemia arrive in Sicily. Florizell, the son of Polixenes, and Camillo, the servant who refused to poison Polixenes and left his native land rather than commit murder, have come to Sicily. The elderly Camillo wants to end his days in his native land, and Florizell seeks asylum to marry the shepherdess whom he loves that Polixenes forbids his son to wed—an embarrassing, humiliating match for a prince. The father learning of the flight of his son follows him to intervene and prevent the marriage. All who left Sicily sixteen years ago—Camillo, Polixenes, and Perdita (the baby daughter abandoned to the wild beasts but discovered and raised by a shepherd in Bohemia)—return to the location where the play begins in Act I. This return marks the mystery of good coming out of evil and joy out of sorrow. After sixteen years the same characters in the same place—after severe trials and afflictions—experience a more copious, abounding joy than the happiness they knew in the reunion of good friends and the bond of a happy marriage celebrated in Act I. Good can come out of evil only when honesty and humility acknowledge the simple truth and call evil evil and good good.

Soon the articles of clothing left with Perdita (meaning “lost”) identify the shepherdess as indeed the daughter Leontes sent to perish in some foreign land. The lost is found, and life comes out of death: the child sent to her death was discovered and saved by a shepherd. Soon old friends are reconciled, and past evils are forgiven—Camillo and Leontes reunited as lord and servant and Leontes and Polixenes reunited not only by their ancient friendship but also by the love and marriage of their children. When Paulina sees the remorse and penance of Leontes for his past sins, she leads everyone to behold a statue of Hermione who reportedly died in prison when condemned for adultery. As they marvel at the likeness between the statue and the original, Leontes remarks in wonder, “Thou are Hermione,” and he then observes, “Would you not deem it breathed?” Art’s imitation of nature is so strikingly lifelike and real that Polixenes too stands in awe: “Masterly done/ The very life seems warm upon her lip.” Leontes likewise looks in amazement as he gazes at the beautiful reproduction of the wife whose soul shines through the art: “The fixture of her eye has motion in’t, /As we are mocked with art.”

Life comes from death: Hermione “died” but has been living in exile after sixteen years, reappearing only after being cherished. Good comes out of evil: Leontes repents and grieves for all his sins, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. Joy comes out of sorrow: the happy marriage of Florizell and Perdita heals a broken friendship. The lost is found: the king’s rejected “bastard” daughter is discovered by a shepherd who calls the gift of life “fairy gold.” The play ends as a divine comedy as all the characters contemplate the miracle of Divine Providence whose strange workings take the beautiful, precious goods rejected by blind, ignorant man only to return them to be valued and esteemed with endless gratitude and the tears of happiness. The cup of happiness overflows when glad hearts rejoice at finding the lost, recovering the priceless, and appreciating what they took for granted.

The play that begins in the mirth of a happy reunion of friends and a happy marriage climaxes in a superabundant joy that transcends all the earlier delights enjoyed at the height of bliss. Just as art perfectly imitates nature when the characters admire the lifelike statute of Hermione, so nature most approximates the Supernatural when human events mysteriously converge and evoke wonder at the reality of the hand of Providence that intervenes in human events to order all things for the good. These happy coincidences beggar all description as all who witness them can only exclaim, “There might you have beheld one joy crown another … for their joy waded in tears…. Our king, being ready to leap out of himself for joy of his found daughter … cries ‘O thy mother, thy mother!’ ”

Just as the king’s daughter appears as a princess in the clothing of a shepherdess and the king’s real wife appears disguised in the form of a statue, so also the miraculous hides in the natural, and the providential conceals itself as the accidental or coincidental. Though hidden, they are only half-concealed and half-revealed. While everything about Perdita indicates the humble origins of shepherdess, her regal nature shines out: “the majesty of the creature in resemblance of the mother, the affection of nobleness which nature shows above her breeding, and many other evidences proclaim her with all certainty to be the King’s daughter.” Likewise, future joy can be camouflaged in present sorrow, new life in old age, and heavenly joy in ordinary human happiness.


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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