Liberty Matters

Tyranny in The Winter’s Tale, Part I


A Shakespearean play that speaks in a pointed way to the set of issues John Alvis first raised is The Winter’s Tale, a play hitherto unmentioned in this discussion. Leontes, the ruler of Sicilia, is apparently not acase of Creonism, as Alvis and I have been speaking of that. He has been a ruler for a longish time,and from all evidence has been a good ruler, surely not a tyrant. He has a loving wife and loyal and admiring courtiers.  There is no sign that his people are restive or dissatisfied under his rule. And yet, at a certain moment, he becomes a tyrant. He plots the death of his old friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia; he accuses his wife of the crime of adultery without any evidence against her; and he stages a “trial” in which he will be accuser, judge, jury, and executioner.  He plans the death of his own newborn child, believing her to be the offspring of his wife’s adulterous relationship with Polixenes.
Leontes’s corruption or descent into tyranny does not appear to fit the Acton-mold. But, Alvis might say, he does not wield absolute power and thus is not a good test of Acton’s law. Well, we do not know just how much power he holds as king—Shakespeare does not give us a disquisition on Sicilian constitutional law.  But we might infer from events following his turn to tyranny that he does in effect have absolute power.  He is successful in establishing a “trial” for his wife that violates every norm of due process.  He is able to intimidate into silence all in his court but Paulina.  The only limit on his power seems to lie in his inability or unwillingness to act openly against Polixenes, for he plans a clandestine assassination.  So Leontes possessed absolute or near absolute power for some number of years without succumbing to being “absolutely corrupted.” His power was not the cause of his corruption. This is not to say that Shakespeare is signaling his approval of absolute power, for he shows us that even if power did not corrupt Leontes, his more-or-less unlimited power allowed him to act in a frightfully tyrannous way when the temper overtook him. We come away from the play with a reminder of the need for checks and limits on power, a timely reminder in the Stuart England in which Shakespeare was writing. The king, James I, was notorious for putting forward a theory of divine right of kings, which was at the same time a theory of absolutist monarchy. The Winter’s Tale can be seen as in indirect response to James’s theory as well as a warning evocation of the actions of another king, Henry VIII, whose accusation of adultery against his Queen, Anne Boleyn, and less-than-fair “trial” that found her guilty of a capital crime remind more than a little of the action in The Winter’s Tale. Shakespeare is putting in a quiet word for the more constitutionalist side of the English political tradition, a tradition challenged by the Tudors and now by the Stuart king.
One of the mysteries of the play, however, is to identify what produced Leontes’s corruption, for all of a sudden, as Polixenes prepares to return home, Leontes contracted a ferocious suspicion of his wife and his friend, leading to a certainty in his mind that they have been having an illicit affair during the entire nine months Polixenes has been visiting his court.  It is a common if not universal view of critics that Shakespeare has not provided sufficient motivation for Leontes’s sudden outbreak of jealousy, which in turn led him to tyranny. Consider E.M. Tillyard’s 1938 judgment on this aspect of the play:  “Leontes’s obsession of jealousy is terrifying in its intensity. It reminds us not of other Shakespearian tragic errors, but rather of the god-sent lunacies of Greek drama.… It is as scantily motivated as these, and we should refrain from demanding any motive.”[48]  But should we refrain? If we wish to gain some wisdom from Shakespeare on those forces that corrupt rulers and produce tyranny, is it not worth probing the text to see if Shakespeare has not planted the materials from which we may piece together an explanation for Leontes’s “obsession  of jealousy”? I have a theory, which I will float by my fellow discussants in my next post.
[48.] E.M. Tillyard,  Shakespeare’s Last  Plays, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1938), p. 41.