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Winter’s Tale – Linear Vs. Cyclical Time Essay, Research Paper
Benjamin W. Cheng
Princeton University ‘00
LINEAR TIME VERSUS CYCLICAL TIME IN THE WINTER’S TALE
In his 1639 painting A Dance to the Music of Time, Nicholas Poussin suggests two
different ways of thinking about the nature of time. On the sides of the picture, we see
two putti, one blowing a bubble and the other holding an hourglass. These cherubic
figures seem to imply that happiness is transitory, and that once the joyous years of life
have passed, they can never be experienced again. This depiction of time as linear and
irreversible suggests that what’s done cannot be undone – there is no going back.
However, we also see a second way to characterize time through the four dancing women
in the center of the painting. Scholars have interpreted these dancers in a variety of ways.
Some believe that they represent the four seasons of the year, while others assert that they
symbolize various stages in human life. Because the women are holding hands and
dancing in a circle, the painting implies that time is also cyclical in nature. Bad times in
life are bound to improve, and good times must eventually take a turn for the worse;
what’s lost can be recovered, and there are opportunities for redemption. In William
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, we see both the linear and the circular aspects of time.
Indeed, in the courts of Sicilia, where most of the play’s tragic events occur, Shakespeare
characterizes time as forward-moving and irreversible. In contrast, he depicts time as
cyclical in the idyllic pastures of Bohemia. While linear time serves to drive the plot of
the play by emphasizing the tragedy that has befallen the court, the role of circular time is
to bring The Winter’s Tale to a happy resolution.
Almost from the very beginning of the play, we see the court’s linear
characterization of time through the nostalgic words of some of its inhabitants. As
Polixenes reminisces in Act I Scene ii, he and Leontes “were as twinned lambs [during
childhood], that did frisk i’ th’ sun, / and bleat the one at th’ other; what we changed / was
innocence for innocence” (The Winter’s Tale, ed. Frank Kermode [New York: Signet
Classic, 1963], 1.2.67-69). Indeed, they were “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). However,
he continues, those happy times would eventually come to an end, for “temptations have
since then been born to ’s” (1.2.77). By emphasizing how ideal his boyhood was,
Polixenes reveals a wistful longing for the good old days before he had lost his purity to
lustful passions. But because he has already “slipped,” he knows that he can never again
experience the innocent bliss of his youth (1.2.83). Those days are over, and there’s no
going back. Thus, as a result of time’s irreversibility, Polixenes can only reminisce about
the idyllic life he had given up.
We see the court’s linear notion of time even more clearly through Paulina’s
insistence that what is lost cannot be recovered. After Hermione’s “death,” Paulina
declares that the consequences of the king’s jealousy are “gone and past help,” and for this
reason, he should not even bother repenting (3.2.220). By telling Leontes that his sorrow
is useless, Paulina asserts that nothing can undo the damage he has already done.
Moreover, she forbids him from ever remarrying because Apollo’s oracle had declared:
“The King shall live without an heir, if [his lost daughter] be not found” (3.2.132-133).
By causing his son Mamillius to die of a broken heart, Leontes had deprived himself of
his only successor. Paulina’s insistence that he should not marry again reflects her belief
that no matter what Leontes does (save finding Perdita), he will never regain an heir to his
throne. Indeed, she declares in Act V Scene i that the prospect of his doing so “is all as
monstrous to our human reason / as my Antigonus to break his grave, / and come again to
me” (5.1.41-43). Paulina’s words suggest that because time is linear and forward-moving,
the tragic consequences of the king’s irrationality cannot be reversed. Leontes had
destroyed his family and lost his successor, and that will not change regardless of how
many times he remarries. What’s done cannot be undone.
In the pastures of Bohemia, however, Shakespeare characterizes time as more
cyclical in nature. We most clearly see this alternative notion of time through the rustics’
tradition of holding sheep-shearing festivals. During these annual events, they strip the
sheep of their wool, knowing that it will grow back in time for the next year’s festival. In
the country, unlike in the court, what is lost can in fact be regained. Moreover, we also
see this circular depiction of time through the reversal of the shepherd’s misfortunes.
Many years before, the old man had a wife who served as the “mistress o’ th’ feast” during
the sheep-shearing celebrations (4.4.68). Even though she did pass away, the void she left
was subsequently filled by Perdita, who now takes her place as the hostess of the festival.
Hence, losses seem only temporary in the country – all that is gone will eventually be
At the same time, we also notice that unlike the court, the country offers
opportunities for redemption. Because it seems unlikely that anyone can ever reverse the
tragic effects of Leontes’ jealousy, the king is ostensibly doomed to an eternity of misery
and regret over what he has done to his family (well, at least until he’s dead). Indeed, we
can think of the mood in the court as permanently trapped in a state of winter, the season
Mamillius had associated in Act II Scene i with sadness. In the pastures of Bohemia,
however, there are second chances. As Perdita’s resemblance to Flora in Act IV Scene iv
suggests, Shakespeare associates the country with the onset of spring, which symbolizes
rebirth and renewal. Because of what the pastures represent, Leontes’ lost daughter,
originally condemned by the court to die, was given a chance to live. Even Autolycus,
who had gotten himself “whipped out of the court” by Florizel (4.3.90), later has another
shot at reconciling with his former master thanks to the Clown’s promise of a “good
report” (5.2.160). Thus, the country’s cyclical time, unlike the court’s linear time, allows
for the consequences of one’s past mistakes to be reversed.
Both the linear time of the court and the circular time of the country play integral
roles in the development and resolution of the play’s plot. By depicting time in the court
as forward-moving and irreversible, Shakespeare leads us to believe that Hermione is
gone forever, never to return again. Moreover, because Leontes’ loss of his son is
permanent, the play arouses our pity for the penitent king who can do nothing to bring
Mamillius back. Thus, the linear characterization of time helps drive the plot by
emphasizing the tragedy and despair that has befallen the court. However, the country’s
cyclical notion of time provides us with the hope that the court’s misfortunes can in fact
be reversed. In fact, it is precisely this circular time which allows for the joyous reunion
at the end of Act V. Even though Leontes loses his son in the first half of the play,
Florizel in effect replaces Mamillius in the second half by becoming the king’s son-in-
law. Similarly, Hermione’s “death” is offset by her “revival.” The painful separation of
Leontes and Polixenes is finally ended by their reunion sixteen years later. Even Paulina’s
loss of Antigonus is compensated for by her impending marriage to Camillo. Indeed,
almost everyone ends up getting a second chance. Hence, the cyclical time of the country
mainly serves to bring The Winter’s Tale to a happy resolution.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s decision to incorporate both linear time and circular time
into the play reflects his belief that the audience needs one to truly appreciate the other.
For example, only by making us think that Hermione is gone forever can Shakespeare
really surprise us at the end with the queen’s miraculous “resurrection.” At the same time,
if Mamillius was not dead, then we would not feel the same relief upon hearing in Act V
that Perdita has been found, and that Leontes once again has an heir. Thus, because
Shakespeare emphasizes the tragedy in the court through the use of linear time, we
appreciate more the happy ending that cyclical time makes possible. Therefore, we can
think of the court’s linear depiction of time as a way for Shakespeare to emphasize the
healing power of the country’s circular time.
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