Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: Loss and Transformation in The Winter’s Tale - Part I - Leontes’ Jealousy

by Murray M. Schwartz

August 25, 2005


I argue that a close examination of the text and of relations between characters reveals a complex fabric of motives for Leontes' paranoid response to his fear of separation from idealized others. Leontes' madness can be explained as an attempt simultaneously to act out and to repudiate fears of sexual and social violence. Unlike his double (or 'brother'), Polixenes, who avoids his ambivalence by idealization, Leontes follows a regressive path toward the object of his ambivalent desires, Hermione, and he attempts to destroy her in order to re-unite himself with a fantasized ideal maternal figure. At the root of his paranoid jealousy is a fear of maternal engulfment, symbolized by the spider (II. i. 39-45).' What Freud said of Schreber applies to Leontes: “The delusional formation, which we take to be the pathological product, is in reality an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction.


Part I

Leontes’ Jealousy

Fatum est in partibus illis quas sinus abscondit.


Criticism of The Winter’s Tale discloses an almost uniform denial of significant motivation in the representation of Leontes’ jealousy. Norman Holland (in his pre-psychoanalytic criticism) writes; "In fact, [Shakespeare] is really quite perfunctory about the source of trouble; he doesn’t even bother to motivate Leontes’ jealousy." 1 Frank Kermode thinks that "Shakespeare removes Leontes’ motives for jealousy."2 G. W. Knight, committed to theological notions of Shakespeare’s divine inspiration, says "His evil is self-born and unmotivated." 3 A. D. Nutall, to my mind the play’s most responsive critic, courts "Freudian" suggestions in the text but tactfully avoids a psychoanalytic reading of Leontes’ delusions.4 J. H. P. Pafford, the editor of the Arden edition, states flatly: "Causes of the jealousy are no concern of ours."5 D. A. Traversi speaks only of "The evil impulse which comes to the surface…."6 Implicit in this dominant attitude toward Leontes’ jealousy is the proposition that its specific expressions lack coherent psychological significance. Leontes simply goes mad without cause. In the language of the French psychoanalyst J. Lacan, we can say that these critics refuse to take Shakespeare’s metaphors seriously as "significant."7

      Of course, these critics are responding to one aspect of the play’s dramatic reality. There is no external explanation of Leontes’ behavior provided for us. What the critics call lack of motivation is lack of rationalization. Yet, even if there were external motivation, a critical response that denies unconscious motives would impoverish the power of Shakespeare’s over determined language.8 In psychoanalytic terms, we can say that the literary creation is always an attempt to synthesize private and unconscious motives with public forms of comprehending the meanings of experience. Such a synthesis is what we mean by symbolic discourse.9 The Winter’s Tale, then, can be understood to dramatize not "motiveless" jealousy, but jealousy whose motivation is embodied in the structure of linguistic and personal relationships acted out on the stage (and in our minds). The function of criticism is to locate the stylistic terms of its expression and the unconscious significance of those terms.

      Three psychoanalytically informed critics have preceded me in the analysis of Leontes’ jealousy.

      J. I. M. Stewart was the first to recognize that Leontes’ jealousy can be partially explained by applying Freud’s formula to the play: "I do not love him; she does."10 In this explanation, Leontes converts the sexual motive of his tie to Polixenes into a perverse relationship between his wife and his friend. Hermione replaces Leontes and, in his fantasy, acts out the prohibited homosexual role Leontes repudiates in himself. This seems plausible, although Stewart reaches far for justification when he accepts Dover Wilson’s suggestion that Leontes confesses actual "immoralities" to Camillo, his "priest-like" vehicle of purification. No actual homosexual event need precede the onset of such jealousy as Leontes’, and the play gives us at best only unspecified suggestions of boyhood events, as when Leontes, facing Florizel in Act V, says:

            Were I but twenty-one,

Your father’s image is so hit in you,

His very air, that I should call you brother,

As I did him, and speak of something wildly

By us performed before. (V.i.124-29)11

Besides, even if we hypothesize some actual homosexual violation, a procedure which seems to me itself to violate the boundary between the play as a work of art and the play as a transcript of life, we gain little, for the focus of Leontes’ rage cannot be accounted for if we assume that Hermione is merely a surrogate for himself in relation to Polixenes. Freud’s formula, taken in itself and without consideration of the whole dynamics of Leontes’ "disease," has little heuristic value. It closes off rather than opens up a consideration of jealousy in the play as a whole.12

      C. L. Barber, in his sensitive essay on the play, accepts Stewart’s application of Freud but goes on to suggest a deeper fabric of motives:

I have found Stewart’s application of Freud convincing and I think one can make the case even stronger by close analysis of the opening scene. homosexual wish.” Beneath this level of psychological extrapolation there is another, still less directly demonstrable, that relates Leontes’ jealousy to very early levels of infancy, when the child, though he communicates richly with the maternal side of the mother, fears and hates the father’s power to possess her sexually. The projective jealousy can put the rival in the position of the archaic father. An accepted and accepting relation to the father is a condition of positive relationships to other men, so the onset of jealousy means as important a loss of relation to the crucial man as to the crucial woman, crucial in the sense that they are those in whom is invested the core of love which has its root in childhood and is the ground of piety toward the larger powers of life which we encounter first through the parents.13

Leontes in his jealousy, then, loses contact with the benevolent aspects of both parents and, in the concluding scenes, regains access to the maternal Hermione after first reconciling himself to Polixenes though his intercession on behalf of the magical pair of children, Florizel and Perdita. The psychology of this loss and recovery is immensely complex in the play, as Professor Barber realizes, and I believe that his suggestion, that we need a closer analysis of the first scenes to see how this complex projective process develops, can be followed fruitfully. Let me suggest here that the maternity of the mother is not wholly benevolent; we may find that deeper determining motives than those involved in the split between mother and father inform the unconscious logic of the play.

      The most extensive discussion of Leontes’ jealousy is Stephen Reid’s hypothetical reconstruction of the Oedipal dynamics which must underlie so extensive a breakdown of the capacity for reciprocal relations with others. Shakespeare, Reid argues, presents us with a pathological condition involving the following determinants: (1) an original incestuous wish toward the mother; (2) a subsequent placating attitude toward the father which activates the very fear of castration it was intended to ward off; (3) a final turning toward the protective strength of the mother as a defense against the original wish and subsequent fear. In the departure scene (I.ii), Leontes turns toward the protective strength of Hermione only to fantasize that she has betrayed him by reviving the homosexual attraction he has been covertly striving to control. Reid believes that Leontes’ delusional jealousy centers ultimately in his inability to accept his "feminine self," and that the rest of the play is designed to recover, by a mixture of mimetic drama and allegory, the original bond between the men by embodying the fulfillment of homosexual attraction in the love of Florizel and Perdita. "Perdita is Leontes’ feminine self; Florizel is Polixenes’ masculine self. Their union is the fulfillment of Leontes’ homosexual wish."14

      Professors Barber and Reid seem to agree that the crucial relationship restored symbolically and actually is the friendship between Leontes and Polixenes, whatever name we choose to give it. Yet, neither dwells on the actual nature of their bond as it is expressed in the text of the play. I believe, however, that the manifest and unconscious features of that bond reveal a special kind of relationship which Leontes, even in his jealousy, and the play as a whole, strive to reconstitute.

      In the opening scenes of The Winter’s Tale, before the shock of Leontes’ jealousy ruptures the intricate web of aggressive playfulness and formality that characterizes courtly dialogue, Shakespeare offers us two descriptions of the childhood affection between Leontes and Polixenes. The first is spoken by Camillo, and it recalls the image of the tree made whole at the end of Cymbeline:15

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia. They were trained together in their childhoods, and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now. Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters, though not personal, have been royally attorneyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, that they have seemed to be together, though absent; shook hands, as over a vast; and embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed winds. The heavens continue their loves! (I.l.21-32)

The more we read The Winter’s Tale, the more this speech becomes a metaphor of the whole. Variations of many words (and the evocation of ideal relationships in words) recur, gathering significance as their meaning and suggestiveness metamorphoses in new contexts. The hands, for example, here metonymic images of union, will shortly become the sign of the bond between Leontes and Hermione ("And clap thyself my love"). Then, as Leontes becomes immersed in a fantasy of betrayal, the hands become a symbol of boundary violation, "paddling palms, and pinching fingers," "virginalling/Upon his palm." The image of "a vast," an immense space (usually ominous in Shakespeare) suggests, in its temporal dimension, the "wide gap of time" to which Leontes refers in the play’s last lines. Just as here the "vast" is bridged by symbolic gestures which would undo the "necessities" of separation in space and absence in time, at the end, language, social discourse, fills the gap of time "since first/We were disserver’d." The story is filled in, and time, like a container, filled up. In the world of romance and in dreams, space and time are interchangeable categories.

      Interchangeable categories also function to provide the illusion of presence in The Winter’s Tale. The artifice of culture, "gifts, letters, loving embassies," substitutes for personal encounters. Interchange of symbols represents interchange of physical actions, a shaking of hands, an embrace. In the face of separation and distance, it is the work of art to mediate between "then" and "now," to express symbolic continuity. Symbolic action, then, counters the real divisions of "mature dignities and royal necessities." In the extent of their exchanges, we see the depth of their bond and the need for union that manifestly informs it.

      Yet, for all of Camillo’s emphasis on the efficacy of symbolic exchange, he is aware that his metaphors are not identical with reality. The embrace, after all, is only "as it were," and they only "seemed to be together, though absent." Separation is real, and they have been absent. As he praises the art of their exchanges, he also makes us aware of the realities which generate the need for and the limits of that very art. In art, they show themselves the way they want to seem and to be seen; they take and give symbols and metaphors.

      Why? Camillo has an answer for us, if we take the art of his metaphor seriously. The answer is that they want to preserve by symbolic means a childhood bond, an affective union at the root of the whole artifice of their culture. It is the symbiotic nature of this bond that his metaphor expresses, and even the subtle ambiguity of "branch" (it suggests both separation and growth) retains the idea of a common root. The process of growth and separation is here imagined in terms of dual unity.16 Leontes and Polixenes shared a communion, rooted deeper than their conscious wills; it "cannot choose but branch now."

      Dual unity is a psychoanalytic paradox in which two equals one, as in "The Phoenix and the Turtle":

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;

Distance and no space was seen

‘Twixt this Turtle and his queen:

But in them it were a wonder. (29-32)

But the turtle here is at one with his queen, not his boyhood friend. The rooted affection of Leontes and Polixenes is itself rooted ontogenetically in the mother-child relationship, as we shall see. The myth of childhood affection, I am suggesting, preserves in masculine form a narcissistic and idealized version of the mother’s dual unity with the son. Notice how in Camillo’s speech there is no differentiation of one king from the other, either in image or in action. The speech implicitly denies any difference between the two. Indeed, the deepest function of their exchanges is to deny or undo change itself. The denial of difference (spatial) and the denial of change (temporal) leaves us with the fantasy of perfect mutuality. The Winter’s Tale is a play about how this fantasy of perfect mutuality can be made to survive the impact of "great difference" (I.i.3) and yet remain itself; or, in psychoanalytic terms, how Shakespeare seeks to realize the wish for oral perfection without the denial of social and sexual differences either through violence or through individual infantile regression.

      The second description of childhood affection bears out the implications of Camillo’s metaphor, but its dramatic context extends the consequences of the wish for dual unity. After being convinced (should we say "seduced"?) by the power of Hermione’s words ("a lady’s Verily’s/As potent as a lord’s" [I.ii.50-51]) to remain in Sicily longer, Polixenes responds to Hermione’s probing of his and Leontes’ boyhoods with a denial of difference and an assertion of innocence:

Her.              Was not my lord

          The verier wag o’ th’ two?

Pol.   We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk I’ th’ sun,

  `       nd bleat the one at th’ other: what we chang’d

          Was innocence for innocence; we knew not

          The doctrine of ill-doing, not dream’d

          That any did. (I.ii.65-71)

He insists on identity, mutuality, a time prior to the frustration of time and the vicissitudes of socially categorized guilt. A few lines later he explicitly dissociates that time from the "hereditary" guilt of original sin:

Had we pursu’d that life,

And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d

With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven

Boldly ‘not guilty,’ the imposition clear’d

Hereditary ours. (71-75)

Polixenes’ language suggests that the fall into post-edenic guilt involves the "imposition" of phallic desire ("The expense of spirit in a waste of shame"), with a consequent splitting of their masculine egos:

                                       O my most sacred lady,

Temptations have since then been born to’s; for

In those unfledg’d days was my wife a girl,

Your precious self had then not cross’d the eyes

Of my young playfellow. (76-80)

His repeated "then" expresses the tension adhering to this developmental fantasy. Now, in the immediate relationship with Hermione, he would preserve her as an idol ("sacred," "precious") even as he imagines her to be the source of sexual temptations. In her sacredness Hermione embodies for men the antidote to separation inherent in all religious structures, and this attribute of herself remains in precarious contact with its opposite, as she points out when she says, "Of this make no conclusion, lest you say/Your queen and I are devils" (81-82)The sacred is the realm of infantile desire raised to the level of collective ideal identities beyond change, but the devil is a shape-shifter in the minds of men; hence the play’s obsession with forms of constancy, fixity, with oaths and vows. Polixenes’ metaphor of birth ("born to’s") suggests both that the men themselves are the source of "temptations" and that they identify with the woman as a mother. (There is even a hint, in "cross’d the eyes," of the visual intoxication that will be brought to full expression in the final scene and reiterated throughout when sacred boundaries are confirmed or jeopardized.)17

      Hermione probes Polixenes’ idealization, puts the myth in perspective, so that we recognize the wish simultaneously with the actuality of the present. They are not innocent, and the heritage of they myth is the ambivalence it denies. The realm of the sacred is inseparable from the realm of guilt; the obverse of the wish for communion with a narcissistic version of oneself is a defensive splitting of the ego. The myth of "twinn’d lambs" is a retrospective idealization of boyhood in the interest of clinging to a paradisal version of pre-Oedipal existence when confronted by the temptation toward sexual contact. Michael Balint points out that "a truly narcissistic man or woman is in fact a pretense only. They are desperately dependent on their environment, and their narcissism can be preserved only on the condition that their environment is willing, or can be forced, to look after them." 18 In their attempt to arrest time, the men of the play are forced to seek the image of the past in every present gesture. This explains why Polixenes so readily acquiesces to Hermione’s verbal manipulations. He will not risk the loss of her as a "kind hostess" (I.i.60). His constancy consists in the capacity to change in ways that preserve her sacred status, or, to put it negatively, to change in ways that express his ambivalence while preserving him from its consequences.

      Leontes and Polixenes may be manifest opposites in Act I, but latently they remain as identical as twins, each a mirror image of the other. Great difference, on one level, is no different at all. Each is absolutely dependent on external sources of narcissistic supplies, each projects a split image of woman (the maternal nourisher becoming a malevolent seductress when they feel deprived of signs of love), each succumbs to change in the interest of validating the identifications and values he believes he shares with the other. Polixenes avoids contact with Leontes’ jealousy in a way which affirms the system of internalized controls that Leontes sexualizes:19

                                        This jealousy

Is for a precious creature: as she’s rare,

Must it be great; and, as his person’s mighty,

Must it be violent; and as he does conceive

He is dishonour’d by a man which ever

Profess’d to him; why, his revenges must

In that be made more bitter. (I.ii.451-57)

From the perspective of the internalized taboo. Leontes must become violent and seek the restoration of purity through vengeance. Within the structure of the sacred myth he acts out a psychologically appropriate pathology. He contains the disease which corresponds to the religious therapy the play as a whole acts out.

      In respect to narcissistic self-definition and the split conception of woman, Polixenes, Loentes, Antigonus and Camillo are doubles of one another. Each reflects a specific orientation toward the taboo on sexualized touch which is an integral part of the Platonized conception of woman. Camillo "cannot/Believe this crack to be in my dread mistress/(So sovereignly being honourable)" (I.ii.321-23). And Antigonus offers us a version of masculine pathology second in its primary process logic only to Leontes’ confusions:

                           Be she honour-flaw’d,

I have three daughters: the eldest is eleven;

The second and the third, nine and some five;

If this prove true, they’ll pay for ‘t. By mine honour

I’ll geld ‘em all; fourteen they shall not see

To bring false generations; they are co-heirs,

And I had rather glib myself, than they

Should not produce fair issue.20 (II.i.143-150)

In this confusion of his own potency with feminine loyalty, in the view of women as the guarantors of masculine honor, and in his insistence on the economics of moral debt, Antigonus duplicates the dynamics of the disease he manifestly repudiates. He becomes, therefore, the surrogate for his mater and the carrier of Paulina’s curse (II.ii.76-79), the vehicle for Shakespeare’s displaced exorcism of Leontes’ jealousy.

      In his paranoid delusions of betrayal, Leontes acts out the whole range of pathological boundary violations that define the lower half of the circle of grace. Unlike his double, who avoids conflict until Act IV and who, significantly, never actually has the wife he mentions (even at the end when three other pairs are created), Leontes becomes the play’s vehicle for the release of the repressed. Shakespeare condenses in him the fragmented components on the de-differentiated psyche symbolically represented in Cymbeline by a whole range of characters—Cloten, Iachimo, Posthumus, and Cymbeline. In his jealousy, we see the great difference between accommodation of oneself to the myths of ideal mutuality and feminine sacredness and the precariously contained psychic realities that give rise to those myths. In The Winter’s Tale, jealousy and the sacred are dialectical terms; each implies the other, as separation implies union or winter spring.

      In the departure scene (I.ii), Leontes is reticent until he erupts (at line 109), and he seems less than determined to reciprocate Polixenes’ rich compliments. After Hermione succeeds in retaining Polixenes, he seems defeated in comparison to her. In lines that seem manifestly designed to compliment her, he evokes the sense of his deprivation:

                                       Why, that was when

Three crabbed months had sour’d themselves to death,

Ere I could make thee open they white hand,

And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter

‘I am yours forever.’ (I.ii.101-105)

He seems to be analogizing past and present: now, by the power of her words, she has kept Polixenes’ presence, just as then she vowed her own presence. But the lines are obliquely accusative, as if to say, "Then you vowed to be mine forever, but now you have violated that vow in giving yourself to my rival. Then I felt as deprived of love as a child abandoned by a mother (soured to death) and now I feel just as excluded."21 Almost immediately after he speaks Hermione gives her hand to Polixenes, and Leontes is instantly jealous.22


                                      [Aside] Too hot, too hot!

To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.

I have tremor cordis on me; my heart dances,

But not for joy—not joy. This entertainment

May a free face put on, derive a liberty

From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,

And well become the agent: ‘t may, I grant;

But to be paddling palms, and pinching fingers …


As Professor Barber points out,23 "mingling friendship far" is as appropriate to his relationship to Polixenes as it is a distortion of present reality. Beneath the myth of ideal masculine correspondence there lies a deeper set of fantasies in which the brothers are rivals for maternal love, the "fertile bosom" Leontes imagines violated by sexualized contact. Leontes fantasizes the loss of the boundary between sublimated forms of erotic involvement and usurped gratification in defiance of the superego. As his disease develops, we see a massive projection of the contents of his psyche, an attempt simultaneously to relieve himself of an inner burden of guilt and to seek punishment for his forbidden wishes.

      Paranoia is a form of psychic imprisonment in which the loss of ego boundaries makes the external world nothing but a confluence of symbols, selected according to subjective and ambivalent wishes and fears. For the paranoid, others become what D. W. Winnicott has called "subjective objects," embodiments of psychic realities that exist only in relation t the subject.24 Others lose their otherness. In this sense, paranoia can be seen as a radical denial of separation, a perversion of the mutuality of the boyhood myth which shares with it a crucial element. In his delusions Leontes identifies with both Hermione and Polixenes and tries desperately to exclude himself from the fantasies he projects on to them.

      Leontes surrenders to Polixenes and Hermione the impulses and identifications he harbors in himself. We can find all of the components previous critics have identified, but this does not seem to get at the unconscious strategies of his disease. Polixenes does become the archaic image of the father Leontes fears, the "harlot king" (II.iii.4) of childhood fantasy.

                          Fie, fie! No thought of him:

The very thought of my revenges that way

Recoil upon me; in himself too might,

And in his parties, his alliance; let him be

Until a time may serve. (II.iii.18-22)

And Hermione is transformed in his perception into a container of disease, at once infected by genital penetration and possessed as a narcissistic ornament by the intrusive other, Polixenes, "he that wears her like her medal, hanging about his neck …" (I.ii.307-308). In his psychic decomposition Leontes descends, "o’er head and ears a fork’d one" (I.ii.186), into a nightmare world where the fluid boundary "twixt his and mine" (I.ii.134) threatens him with the psychotic loss of the distinction between perception and hallucination, even to the point of somatic enactment of the punishment he dreads:

You smell this business with a sense as cold

As is a dead man’s nose: but I do see’t and feel’t,

As you feel doing thus; and see withal

The instruments that feel.25 (II.i.151-154)

His ego devolves to the condition of bodily responsiveness; he cannot choose but branch the horns of the cuckold, nor deny by projection the identifications within him. Like Posthumus in Cymbeline, Leontes can only expand the circle of contamination in his effort to rid the borders of his consciousness of the internalized parents he imagines his wife and friend to be. Paranoia is a defense which fails at the moment of its enactment, for to externalize what is internally intolerable is to find it everywhere, and to risk the emptying of the self in the effort to restore inner and outer purity. It corresponds to the effort of the infant who projects aggressive wishes on to the sources of nourishment only to "discover" outside the transformation repudiated by the ego.26 Once projected, the inner wishes and objects seem utterly alien to the ego, and yet Leontes clings to his fantasy as if his life depended on it:

                                                  Is this nothing?

Why then the world, and all that’s in’t, is nothing,

The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,

My wife is nothing, and nothing have these nothings,

If this be nothing. (I.ii.292-296)

Love recoils to its opposite when confronted with what seems to be a challenge to its totality. The fantasy is globalized; on its truth depends the ontological status of the whole world, as if to lose the bond, however, painful, with the externalized embodiments of himself were to lose himself entirely. Paranoia is better than nothing, even if it hinges the universe on the contingency of a hypothesis. If his delusion is not real, then the world is empty of identities. And if it is real, then he is excluded from the world of others, like a child who suddenly perceives that parental intimacy is not just for him, but has an autonomy of its own.

      In his progression from the sudden flooding of his ego in scene ii to the apparently catastrophic loss of his wife and children in the clamor of Act III, Leontes grasps simultaneously for external validation of his condition and for means of annihilating the monstrous conception at its source. It is as if his disease acts out a grotesque parody of creation itself, a mockery of the larger fertility Hermione’s generativity symbolizes. "Go, play, boy, play: thy mother plays, and I/Play too; but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue/Will hiss me to my grave" (I.ii.187-89). Imagining himself deprived of nurturant relatedness, hating the violations he fantasizes, yet terrified of losing contact with symbolic others, Leontes "gives birth" in an abstract version of the primal scene, the intercourse of something and nothing:

Affection! Thy intention stabs the center;

Thou dost make possible things not so held,

Communicat’st with dreams;--how can this be?—

With what’s unreal thou coactive art,

And fellow’st nothing: then ‘tis very credent

Thou may’st co-join with something; and thou dost,

(And that beyond commission) and I find it,

(And that to the infection of my brains

And hard’ning of my brows). (I.ii.138-146)

The disease happens to him; in effect Leontes watches himself get lost and then finds himself in the fantasy to which he himself has metaphorically given birth. We witness his regression in process.27 Camillo and Polixenes confirm the nature of this process even as they avoid its issue:

Pol.                                    How should this grow?

Cam.          I know not: but I am sure ‘tis safer to

                   Avoid what’s grown than question how ‘tis born.


Fantasizing the loss of "some province, and a region/Lov’d as he loves himself" (I.ii.369-370), Leontes fills the vacuum with pathologically conceived violations of the sacred space Hermione occupies in the minds of the others at the court. The opposite of symbiotic relatedness is the narcissistic confusion of self and other by the generation of a pseudo-universe, an autarchic assumption of omnipotence. Even if he plays a dis-graced part, he writes the play himself.28

      But only to a degree, for Shakespeare does not risk degree in this play, but keeps Leontes bounded by others’ refusal of collusion in his delusions, and by structural and linguistic ironies that reveal in instance after instance that his projections are self-descriptions and that his assumption of autonomy is based on a sequence of dependency relationships. As he moves toward cloture with the parental authorities who will subdue his violence by the counter-violence of the sacred the play is designed to validate. Paulina, and above her, Apollo, reassert the ontological status of the identities Leontes contaminates.

      His jealousy saturates Leontes’ language with overdetermined meanings and condensed fantasies. Metaphors of violent punishment intrude upon his effort at self-vindication, making his articulation of imaginary betrayal into a confession of anxiety related to all psychosexual levels. For example, he says to Camillo:

Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,

To appoint myself in this vexation; sully

The purity and whiteness of my sheets,

(Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted

Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps)

Give scandal to the blood o’ th’ prince, my son,

(Who I do think is mine and love as mine)

Without ripe moving to ‘t? Would I do this?

Could man so blench? (I.ii.325.333)

His effort at rhetorical negation of the fantasy succeeds only in elaborating the ambivalence he would deny. Anal contamination is denied and expressed, castration anxiety accompanies the thought of contaminated purity, superego anxiety leads him to externalize mockery, and doubt of his paternal role is triggered by the fear of losing possession of the pure woman. On one level, Leontes fantasizes himself replaced by Polixenes:

Go to, go to!

How she holds up the neb, the bill to him!

And arms her with the boldness of a wife

To her allowing husband! (I.ii.182.185)

Here Polixenes is virtually invited to usurp oral gratification. A few lines later Hermione becomes his property, the imagery becomes genital, and there is a clear implication that Leontes identifies with the woman:

And many a man there is (even at this present,

Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,

That little thinks she has been sluic’d in’s absence

And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by

Sir Smile, his neighbor: nay, there’s comfort in’t,

Whiles other men have gates, and those gates open’d

As mine, against their will. (I.ii.192.198)

The genital violation of the woman-as-property is equivalent to homosexual assault. He is not differentiated from her, nor is his own psychic activity. He is not differentiated from her, nor is his own psychic activity (for he is "angling now" [I.ii.180]) differentiated from the fantasized activity of others. Neither are Hermione and Polixenes differentiated from one another:

                                                    Is whispering nothing?

Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?

Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career

Of laughter with a sight (a note infallible

Of breaking honesty)? Horsing foot on foot? (I.ii.284-288)

Yes, Freud’s formula applies, "I do not love him, she does." But it is only one of the operative variables. Leontes’ imagery also signifies, "I do not love her in this perverse and taboo way, he does." And, "I do not identify with her and her with myself, he does." He substitutes identifications for identities, assimilating social differentiation of roles to a private system of unstable, vivid impositions. Finally what Leontes cannot abide is the fact that the sacred institution of marriage actually requires sexual contact between different sexes to propagate the human race. At the deepest level of his psyche (which is the potentially psychotic level of Shakespeare’s psyche), bodily contact itself is dreaded whenever it is imagined outside the boundaries of institutionalized legitimacy. Outside those boundaries, mutuality becomes the loss distinction itself in both its moral and psychological senses.

      The extent of Leontes’ psychic decomposition forces us to seek an explanation of his pathology not so much in a variation of the Oedipus complex, although there are Oedipal anxieties involved, nor even in an earlier dread of retaliation for forbidden wishes, but at the deepest level of oral anxieties. At that level the infant craves love as nourishment and dreads the possibility of maternal malevolence. Identifying well-being with mother, he finds himself in the reflections of his surroundings. It is no accident that Leontes shifts craving confirmation of his manhood from his son to an attempt to elicit Camillo’s service in the poisoning of his double, Polixenes, to the violence of infanticide and to aggression directed at Hermione herself. He plays out, symbolically, a regression that leads to the source of nurturance, and he would destroy that source in the delusion that the woman and not himself contains the contamination he dreads.

      First he turns to his son. Identifying with Mamillius as a symbolic of phallic integrity, Leontes seeks to find himself externalized in the image of his offspring: "Why that’s my bawcock. What! Hast smutch’d thy nose?/They say it is a copy out of mine" (I.ii.121-122). But as Mamillius’ name implies, Leontes’ masculine image of himself is maternally fixated. Seeking "comfort" (I.ii.209) in the identity of father and son is a false therapy for him, since the identity fails to ward off a deeper ambivalence he harbors. Shortly, Leontes turns to Camillo in his desperation to restore the correspondence of inner desires and outer actualities. His wish for "servants true about me, that bare eyes/To see alike mine honour as their profits" (I.ii.309-310), bespeaks his growing obsession with converting the outside world into the form of his fantasy.

      To find a dependency he can trust involves for Leontes the murder of the external embodiment of himself by oral means. He turns to poison. Camillo, to prove his oneness with Leontes, must become the instrument of oral violation, "bespice a cup,/To give mine enemy a lasting wink;/Which draught to me were cordial" (I.ii.316-318). Polixenes’ death is Leontes’ oral gratification. Through Camillo, Leontes would act out an identification with an orally catastrophic mother; he would become actively the figure at whose hands he dreads to suffer passively. This strategy fails also, as Polixenes, "one condemned by the king’s own mouth" (I.ii.445), flees the court under the paternal guidance of Camillo, leaving Leontes to confront mother and child.

      In Act II, scene I, Hermione becomes the object of Leontes’ obstinate substitution of projection for perception. The scene is richly symbolic even before he enters, for Shakespeare enacts in miniature a version of the mother-child relationship Leontes has unconsciously failed to integrate. Hermione first rejects Mamillius:

Her.        Take the boy to you: he so troubles me,

               ‘Tis past enduring. (II.i.1-2)


Soon after, rejection is followed by intimate, seductive acceptance:


Mam.     A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one

               Of sprites and goblins.

Her.                                Let’s have that good sir.

               Come on, sit down, come on, and do your best

               To fright me with your sprites: you’re powerful at it

Mam.     There was a man—

Her.                                Nay, come sit down: then on.

Mam.     Dwelt by churchyard: I will tell it softly

               Yond crickets shall not hear it.

Her.                                           Come on then,

               And giv’t me in mine ear.      (II.i.25-32)

The pattern of rejection and return duplicates in the play’s reality precisely that rhythm which Leontes cannot tolerate in his jealousy.29 When he storms in, the son is whispering in his mother’s ear ("Is whispering nothing?" he had asked Camillo [I.ii.284]). Mamillius exists in a symbiotic relationship with his mother, as his later incorporation of her "shame" shows. Like the Queen-Cloten dyad in Cymbeline, mother and son exhibit reciprocal dependencies (but here the import of the relationship is positive rather than destructive). Leontes comes to rupture this mother-child intimacy. Symbolically, he wishes to destroy the symbiosis at the center of his own identity. In a crucial passage he articulates the deepest ambivalence in the play:30

                                        There may be in the cup

A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,

And yet partake no venom (for his knowledge

Is not infected); but if one present

Th’ abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known

How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,

With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.


The great difference between trust and oral violence is here condensed. Equating knowledge and visual awareness, Leontes is saying that the consciousness of the spider (what it symbolizes) breaks the boundaries of the body itself, and utterly inverts the expectation of nourishment, like the spider in Donne’s "Twickenham Garden":

             But oh, self-traitor, I do bring

The spider love, which transubstantiates all

             And can convert manna to gall;

And that this place may thoroughly be thought

             True Paradise, I have the serpent brought.

Lacking Donne’s irony, Leontes would violently eject the incorporated object. The spider symbolizes a fundamental threat to his existence, and its visual-oral context locates this threat unconsciously in the infantile nursing situation. Mistrust, helplessness, and the certainty of conspiracy accompany this image. What vision, then, leads Leontes to divorce the son from the mother with the line, "I am glad you did not nurse him" (II.i.56)? What does the spider signify?

       Psychoanalysis has shown that the spider, like the serpent, is an over-determined symbol. On one level, it represents the sexually threatening mother, contact with whom signifies incest. On a deeper level, it signifies the horror of maternal engulfment, frequently confused with the child’s own oral-aggressive impulses. The spider often emerges as a symbol when an intensely ambivalent person needs to ward off a completely break with reality. Melitta Sperling writes of patients suffering from spider phobThe list of attempted therapiesias:

When the phobic mechanisms as well as the somatic defenses were invalidates by analysis, the split-off pregenital and potentially psychotic core symbolized by the spider appeared. The spider was a highly condensed symbol containing the core fantasies and conflicts from various developmental levels. … the spider also represented both the patient and the mother in these fared and deeply repressed aspects.31

In seventeenth century Apulia, a spider scare led those suffering from the bite of the tarantula to invent songs and rituals designed to cure poisoning. One song goes like this:

It was neither a big nor a small tarantula;

It was the wine from the flask.

Where did it bite you, tell me, beloved,

            where it was.

Oh, if it was your leg, oh mamma!

"The tarantists’ egos," writes Howard F. Gloyne, "tried methods other than phobia to defend against anxiety: sexualization of anxiety, intimidation of others, identification with the frightening objects, collection of external reassurances."32 The list of attempted therapies reads like a description of Leontes’ paranoid strategies.

      Shakespeare knew nothing of this outbreak of tarantism, but the conflicts embodied in Leontes parallel the tarantists’ disease. We need not go to Apulia, however, to confirm the maternal significance of the spider in Shakespeare. Richard II, returning to his motherland after his journey to Ireland kneels to the earth and says:

Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,

Though rebels wound thee with their horses’ hoofs.

As a long-parted mother with her child

Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,

So weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,

And do thee favours with my royal hands;

Feed not thy soverign’s foe, my gentle earth,

Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense,

But let thy spiders that suck up thy venom

And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,

Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet,

Which with usurping steps do trample thee… (III.ii.6-17)

Like Leontes, Richard confuses mother and child in himself, and he would split the catastrophic mother from her nourishing counterpart. Leontes’ final strategy, one which leads to Mamillius’ death and his own separation from Hermione, consists in his attempt to sacrifice the catastrophic mother he tragically confuses with his child-bearing wife. In vengeance he would fuse destruction and the re-creation of his bond with her.

                                                    … she

I can hook to me: say that she were gone,

Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest

Might come to me again. (II.iii.6-9; italics added)

Finally, the aim of Leontes’ paranoia is to reclaim his bond with the mother by means of the private magic which is his disease. He would sacrifice Hermione, paradoxically, to recreate the image of his sacred ideal, and to reclaim his own repose.33

      In the terrible irony of the court scene (III.ii) this strategy, too, breaks down, as Leontes moves from the wish for vengeance to his vow of ritualized reparation. His confusion of self and other is absolute: "Your actions are my dreams" (III.ii.82). attempting public vindication, he stages his own trial, articulates his own guilt, and, finally, accepts his sentence, to live without lineage (his "immortality" and his potency) in utter separation from the "sweet’st, dear’st creature" (III.ii.201) he could not separate from his infantile fears of her power. Like a child made submissive and ashamed of his aggression, Leontes exits from the world of the play under the guidance of Paulina, the representative of Hermione who embodies both her feared and ethically essential aspects. Mother and son are to be reunited in death, and Leontes’ rebirth, his "recreation" (III.ii.240), consists in his mourning for that lost bond.

      Leontes’ jealousy is far from motiveless. Shakespeare has articulated through his character precisely those aspects of his psyche—and, in a larger sense, of the collective idealizing imagination of Renaissance dramatists—that threaten the structure of sacred identities. In a sense, we can say that Leontes does possess a crucial knowledge, the knowledge of maternal malevolence. But his is a knowledge, like much knowledge we call paranoid, directed at the wrong people, in the wrong language, at the wrong time. What Freud said of Schreber applies to Leontes: "The delusional formation, which we take to be the pathological product, is in reality an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction."34 That process of recovery is the focus of Shakespeare’s theatrical magic in the sacred personalities of the second part of The Winter’s Tale.


Works Cited

1  The Shakespearean Imagination (Bloomington, 1964), p. 284.

2   Shakespeare: The Final Plays (London, 1963), p. 30.

3  The Crown of Life (London, 1947), p. 84.

4   Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale (London, 1966), p. 22.

5   “Introduction,” The Winter’s Tale (London, 1965), Arden edition, p. lxxii.

6   Shakespeare: The Last Phase (London, 1955), p. 112.

7   “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” in Structuralism, ed. J. Ehrmann (New York, 1970). In Lacan’s terminology, Leontes’ metaphors “signify” or represent unconscious traumas.

8   See Robert Waelder’s paper, “The Principle of Multiple function,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, V (1936), pp. 45-62.

9   See Marion Milner, “Psycho-Analysis and Art,” in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, ed. John D. Sutherland (New York, 1959), pp. 77-101.

10   Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London, 1949), pp. 30-39.

11   Quotations from The Winter’s Tale follow the Arden edition (London, 1965).

12   Contemporary analysts do not regard paranoia simply as a defense against homosexuality. See David Shapiro, Neurotic Styles (New York, 1965), Chapter 3 on “Paranoid Style.” Charles Rycroft writes, “Contemporary analysts tend to reverse the relationship and regard homosexuality as a defensive technique for dealing with paranoid fears by submission.” Quoted by Vincent Brome, Freud and His Early Circle (New York, 1969), p. 129. This defensive technique is precisely how Posthumus resolves his paranoia in Cymbeline.

13   “’Thou that begett’st him that did thee beget’: Transformation in Pericles and The Winter’s Tale,” Shakespeare Survey, 22, p. 75.

14   “’The Winter’s Tale,”’ American Imago, XXVII (1970), pp. 263-267. Reid builds his analysis in agreement with W. H. Auden’s conviction that “Leontes is a classic case of paranoid sexual jealousy due to repressed homosexual feelings.” “The Alienated City: Reflections on ‘Othello,’” Encounter, 1961, p. 11.

15   See Cymbeline, Act V, scene v, ll. 436-443.

16   See Geza Roheim, Magic and Schizophrenia (New York, 1955). The fullest expression of dual unity in Shakespearean language occurs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, scene ii, ll. 201-211.

17   See Weston La Barre, The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (New York, 1970), Chapter III, “The First World.”

18   The Basic Fault: Therapeutic Aspect of Regression (London, 1968), p. 55.

19   Later Polixenes make Camillo, in effect, into a maternal support from whom separation is equivalent to death. “I pray thee, good Camillo, be no more importunate: ‘tis a sickness denying thee anything; a death to grant this” (IV.ii.1-3). And a few lines later, “… the need I have of thee, thine own goodness hath made; better not to have had thee than thus to want thee” (IV.ii.11-13). This is the language of symbiotic relations.

20   Gelding daughters means destroying their genitals. Oxford English Dictionary under geld 1.b. says, “To extirpate the ovaries of (a female), to spay.” In 1557 Tusser first used the word in this sense, referring, of course, to animals. Antigonus’ fondness for viewing women as horse-like carries on a strand of imagery first articulated by Hermione (I.ii.94-96).

21   Reid recognizes the importance of these lines in the course of his own analysis of this scene. In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud lends support to my argument: “The loss of a love-object constitutes an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself affective and come to the open.” Standard Edition, XIV, pp. 250-251.

22   The Stage Direction at 1.108, “Giving her hand to Polixenes,” is not in the Folio, but it seems perfectly appropriate at that point, since it concretizes the growing suggestiveness of the play’s language.

23   Op. Cit., p. 76

24   “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites” (1963), in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New York, 1965), pp. 179-192.

25   “The instrument that feel” are, according to the Arden note, “presumably Leontes’ fingers,” but the line also carries genital significance, as the hands frequently do in Shakespeare. Compare Cymbeline, I.vii.99-112. See Eric Partridge, Shakespeare’s Bawdy (New York, 1960), entries under “instrument” and “finger.”

26   See Marion Milner, On Not Being Able to Paint (New York, 1957), p. 50. in one of her “free” drawings, she made the shape of a baby’s bottle which, instead of a nipple, has a mouth held up in a pleading posture. “And here I suddenly became aware of a reversal,” she says,” for the bottle was demanding from the baby, not the baby from the bottle.” This, in a kind of “original” crystallization, is a central strategy of Leontes’ paranoia. See also Harold Searles, “The Sources of the Anxiety in Paranoid Schizophrenia” (1961), in Collected Papers on Schizophrenia and Related Subjects (New York, 1965), pp. 465-486. On p. 466 Searles writes against the view that paranoia simply defends against repressed homosexual desires. “It seems to me a more adequate explanation to think of the persecutory figure as emerging into the forefront of the patient’s concern, not primarily because of repressed homosexual interest on the latter’s part, but rather because the persecutory figure is that one … who most readily lends himself to reflecting or personifying those qualities which the patient is having most vigorously to repudiate in himself and project on to the outer world.”

27   In the initial stages of his paranoia, Leontes retains the capacity for what Roy Schafer calls “reflexive self representation.” Only later, and especially in the court scene (III.ii), does he merge completely with his fantasy. See Schafer’s Aspects of Internalization (New York, 1968), pp. 85-97.

28   Northrop Frye has recognized this pattern. See his “Recognition in The Winter’s Tale,” in Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale: A Casebook, ed. Kenneth Muir (London, 1968), p. 194.

29   Philip E. Slater, in The Glory of Hera Greek Mythology and the Greek Family (Boston, 1968), finds this same configuration reflected in Greek drama. “The rejection of and dependence upon women mirror the mother’s own ambivalence” (p. 44).

30   The spider passage has no counterpart in Greene’s Pandosto, and it can be removed from its context in Leontes’ speech without losing any information. Shakespeare has converted a conventional superstition into a means of symbolizing the deepest motives he is dramatizing. The fact that this passage reads almost like a summary parable emphasizes its significance.

31   “Spider phobias and Spider Fantasies,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, XIX (1971), p. 491. See also Richard Sterba, “On Spiders, Hanging and Oral Sadism,” American Imago, VII (1950), pp. 21-28 and Ralph B. Little, “Oral Aggression in Spider Legends,” American Imago XXIII (1966), pp. 170-176. Sterba writes: “Both of these [the spider and the vampire] are symbols to us of the oral destructive danger of being loved and represent the endangered object as a victim of oral aggression.” In Renaissance emblems, the spider is associated with the sense of touch. Some emblems bear the legend, “Sed aranea (nos superat) tactu.” See Guy de Tervarent, Attributs et Symboles Dans L’Art 1450-1600 (Geneva, 1958). The fear of sexual contact is thus associated with the deepest infantile fears of the mother.

32   “Tarantism,” American Imago, VII (1950), pp. 29-42.

33   Of jealousy, Fenichel writes; “It is a striving to avoid the very situation which is longed for unconsciously. Where this attempt at avoidance originates from is clear. Like all infantile instinctual defenses, it comes from the anxiety which opposes the idea of instinctual action—in our case, from a fear of retribution for the patient’s oral sadism.” “A Contribution to the Psychology of Jealousy,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, First Series (New York, 1954), p. 359. Jealousy, vengeance, and deification share a common root. They are all extreme responses to deprivation, real or fantasized. See also Charles W. Socardies, “On Vengeance: the Desire to ‘Get Even’,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, XIV (1966), pp. 356-375. On p. 357 Socarides writes: “The originally deprived patient can no longer tolerate further deprivation; the originally satisfied (satiated) one is intolerant of any severe deprivation in adulthood.” The re-creative function of sacrifice is supported by Levi-Strauss: “Sacrifice seeks to establish a desired connection between two initially separate domains [the Human and the Divine].” The Savage Mind (Chicago, 1962), p. 255. Leontes’ fishing imagery, in addition to its phallic symbolism, is a magical attempt to deny separation from Hermione. See D. W. Winnicott, “String: A Technique of Communication,” op. Cit., pp. 153-157.

34   Standard Edition, XII, p. 71.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Murray M. Schwartz "Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: Loss and Transformation in The Winter’s Tale - Part I - Leontes’ Jealousy". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available December 5, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: August 25, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Murray M. Schwartz