Liberty Matters

Tyranny in The Winter’s Tale, Part 2: Lord Acton redux


The Two Kings—Then and Now
I have promised a theory for the jealous rage of Leontes and his descent into tyranny.  Shakespeare’s portrayal of the causes of the rupture between Leontes and Polixenes is subtle and elusive. A full explanation would take far more than my allotted words, as will even this abbreviated version. So I must be concise where prolixity is required.
The play opens as Polixenes, King of Bohemia, prepares to leave the Sicilian court of his childhood friend Leontes. He has been there for “nine changes of the wat’ry star”, i.e., nine months, and his kingly duties, to say nothing of his wife and son at home, call him back after so long a visit (1.2.1).  He fears he has  overstayed his welcome. Besides, the two will soon see each other again, since Leontes is scheduled to visit Bohemia “this coming summer.”
It does seem a good time for Polixenes to leave, but on the day before his scheduled departure one of the most remarkable events of a play filled with them occurs: Leontes becomes quite insistent that Polixenes remain one week longer. One week after nine months! What can be the reason for his insistence on an extra week when the reasons for his friend’s departure are so solid?  This question is worth pursuing because in seeking to prevail, Leontes enlists Hermione, his wife, to plead his case with Polixenes, in which effort she proves successful. It is her success, it seems, that triggers Leontes’s jealousy. So the question of why Leontes wishes so much for that extra week looms as the first pressing question.
The two have not seen each other since they were boys, though they have kept up on Facebook and exchanged Amazon gift cards (1.1.25-31).  We are several times presented with descriptions of their boyhoods together.  In the very first scene, Camillo, of Leontes’s court, tells how the two youths “were trained together in their childhoods and there rooted betwixt them such an affection...” (1.1.21-24). In the next scene Hermione quizzes Polixenes about the kings’ time together as boys.  Answers Polixenes: “We were, fair Queen, / Two lads that thought there was no more behind/ But such a day tomorrow as today,/ And to be boy eternal” (1.2.62-64). They lived in an eternal present—nothing to do but to be with each other. Even more revealing is Polixenes’s expansion on their early days together:
We were as twinned lambs, that did frisk And bleat the one at the other; what we changed Was innocence for innocence; we knew not the The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed That any did; had we pursued that life, And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven Boldly, “not guilty”, the imposition cleared, Hereditary ours (1.2.67-74)
Although there is more than a few hundred words worth to say about these two speeches alone, let us leave it at emphasizing two things: innocent intimacy. Polixenes’s phrase “twinned lambs” captures the idea well. So innocent were they that Polixenes can declare them innocent of original sin.  But he recognizes that as they went through puberty to adulthood and became separate persons they lost this innocent intimacy, never, he seems to accept, to be recovered.
Polixenes is an adult. He can look back to his innocence and to his and his friend’s intimacy with nostalgia and sense of loss, but with recognition that this is not to be in the future. But what of Leontes?  Why that one more week? For one last chance to capture that intimacy of long-ago youth, the loss of which he has not become so inured to as his friend has?  Though an adult in years, he is not quite an adult in understanding or emotion. Polixenes’s unwillingness to stay must strike him as one more piece of evidence of the lost unity of the two. They are no longer all for all for each other, dwelling effortlessly in an eternal youth.   
We do know some very important facts about their present situation, and can infer the psychological consequences of those facts.  In the very opening speech of the play we find Archidamus (of Polixenes’s court) apologizing for how poor Bohemia is compared to Sicilia. Polixenes will never be able to repay the splendid hospitality Leontes has shown the Bohemians.  The point of this opening exchange becomes clear when contrasted to the description of the two kings as boys—twinned lambs.  Now they are no longer twinned, nor are they lambs.  “Rooted betwixt them” as boys is a deep affection which, Camillo tells us, “cannot choose but to branch now.” Camillo may mean “branch” in the sense of flourish, as some notes to this passage have it, as when a tree branches out.  But on the basis of what we have just heard of the two kings in their present, “branch” has quite a different meaning—to diverge. The two metaphors, “twinned lambs” and the “roots betwixt” that “branch, capture in a very few words the complex background in the relations of the two that begins to make explicable the onset of Leontes’s jealous rage.
Resentment and Projection
After having politely but firmly been resisted by Polixenes, Leontes turns to Hermione and requests that she add her pleadings to his.  She too is rebuffed at first, but when she puts the request in such terms as lead Polixenes to believe he would offend his hosts by leaving as planned, he accedes to their request.  As presented, it is his sense of what good manners requires in the situation more than anything else that sways him. Surely the circumstances do not fit Leontes’s suspicion that there is some love interest behind Hermione’s pleading or Polixenes’s acquiescence, for she is nine months pregnant and soon to give birth, not an ideal condition for illicit romance.  Nonetheless, Leontes comments on hearing of Polixenes’s decision to stay: “At my request he would not” (1.2.87). This comes immediately after the “twinned lambs” speech, i.e., after the evocation of their earlier intimacy and innocence.  Leontes’s reaction: “Too hot, too hot!/ To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods” (1.2.108-110). He sees in Hermione’s success a sign of a kind of deep intimacy between his wife and friend, an intimacy that now in less innocent adulthood amounts to “mingling bloods.”
Against the backdrop of his still yearning for unity, soul to soul, with his friend, he fears or posits a kind of unity between wife and friend.  He suspects his wife’s unfaithfulness going all the way back to the conception of their son Mamilius (1.2.119-120). Of course, any unfaithfulness then could not have been with Polixenes. Apparently he can attribute her alleged deeds to womanly inconstancy.  But why might he now suspect his friend of such a thing?  Not only have they lost the “twinned lambs” character of their original relationship, but they have “branched,” with Leontes the more eminent and successful of the two.  As the exchange between Camillo and Archidamus reveals, it is understood in both courts that Leontes is in an enviable position compared to the Bohemians.  Although he never says so, Leontes surely shares this view or at least knows that it is widespread.
Though we see no evidence that Polixenes in fact envies or resents Leontes, it is natural for the latter (as the Sicilian courtiers appear to do) to assume that Polixenes feels his inferiority and resents Leontes’s relative position.  To this resentment Leontes may attribute their lost intimacy.  But seeing the success of Hermione’s plea, he may carry his surmise of Polixenes’s resentment and envy one step further and project onto his one-time friend a hostile intention toward him, a desire to even things up by harming him by striking up a not-innocent intimacy with his wife.  As the sequel reveals, especially in the trial scene, Winter’s Tale is a play of projection and delusion. Leontes displays the frame of mind of the typical conspiracy theorist—every fact and event is taken to prove the conclusion he has drawn in his head—President Bush brought down the Twin Towers, or Polixenes is having an affair with Hermione—no fact can penetrate or undermine the construct the theorist projects onto the situation and in terms of which he understands it. (See e.g., 2.1.149-154). Just so is Leontes acting when he first accuses Hermione of adultery.
On Tyranny
The preceding argument is, as I will be the first to admit, highly conjectural. But having gone so far, let us speculate further and explore some of the broader implications of what Shakespeare has shown us.
Once we understand Leontes’s jealous rage, only two further insights are needed to understand his fall into tyranny.  First, as part of his paranoid-conspiracy mentality he projects a conspiracy against his life, led by Hermione and Polixenes.  He must rid himself of them—legally or not—to protect himself and his regime.  Even more, Leontes admits his need for vengeance:
For present vengeance Take it on her.  Camillo and Polixenes Laugh at me, make me their pastime at my sorrow; They should not laugh if I could reach them, nor Shall she within my power.
He feels diminished if he cannot get revenge. He has been contemned; he feels they are gloating at his expense. It is that that galls him the most.  His descent into tyranny derives from his preexisting delusions, producing feelings of physical and moral vulnerability. Unlike his youth, when he and Polixenes “knew not/ The doctrine of ill-doing1.2.69-70, nor dreamed/ That any did,” he now knows and attributes  “ill-doing” quite readily to others ().  Self-regard lies behind both of Leontes’s fears:  he cares for his particular life, body, and rule; he cares even more perhaps for the esteem or contempt others have for him. This care for self contrasts strongly with the unself-conscious intimacy of the boys, an intimacy for which Leontes still yearns.  Leontes points to something both powerful and paradoxical in the human soul: the desire to affirm and even elevate the self combined with a desire for an intimacy and union with others that overcomes self. It is the task of human beings to somehow negotiate this janus-like feature of human nature. That negotiation is always in danger of failing, as it does in the case of Leontes. As James Madison said, “If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control” against tyranny. To some large degree Shakespeare agrees, and though he does not accept the thesis that it is the possession of power per se that tends to corrupt, he seems to accept that the possession of power can facilitate an urge to tyranny arising from more complex motives inherently part of human selfhood, as he shows in The Winter’s Tale. This far he agrees with Lord Acton.