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How does Shakespeare Develop the Character of Leontes in the Opening Scenes of the Play

In Act I Scene I, Camillo and Archidamus, two courtiers, introduce us to the character of Leontes. He is presented as a gracious host, kind friend and a loving father. On the surface, Act I Scene I seems to be a formal, courtly conversation but there is a foreboding atmosphere behind this pompous language hinting at what Leontes is to become. Shakespeare hints at this by using words like “seemed.”Leontes is presented as a conniving, bitter, twisted man, a shadow of his former self. He deliberately tries to trap Hermione into subconsciously admitting to her affair with Polixenes – if she can persuade him to stay then it is “proof” she has some sort of power over him. Leontes appears to hear the subconscious remarks of Polixenes and Hermione’s conversation – Polixenes’ “breed” and Hermione’s “gest” remarks – and takes this as further proof of their affair. He is obviously still resentful towards Hermione due to the “three crabbed months” which “soured themselves to death.” This spiteful remark shows how insecure Leontes is, as it took him three months to get Hermione to open her “white hand,” whereas in his mind it took Polixenes a matter of days – they later affectionately play with each others hands – “paddling palms and pinching fingers.”Leontes’ soliloquy in Act I Scene II shows the extent of his paranoia -“to mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.” This is the first time he voices his suspicion. Later, in Scene II, we get an insight into the malicious side of Leontes. The vicious imagery of the “pond being fished by his next neighbour” and the image of the “hobby-horse” show how caught up in his own incoherent, paranoid fantasy Leontes has become.The most important aspect of Leontes’ character is his jealousy. This irrational jealousy soon traps him in a vicious circle. It is due to his jealousy that Mamillius and Hermione both die, Camillo and Polixenes have to flee the country and Perdita is exiled. There is a childish side to Leontes jealousy; he thinks Hermione wants time to pass quicker so she can spend more time in Polixenes company, he thinks that she “wishes clocks more swift” and they are secretly “leaning cheek and cheek” and “kissing with inside lip.” Leontes becomes possessed masculine, territorial jealousy, claiming that Polixenes wears Hermione “like a medal hanging / About his neck.”The character of Leontes could be interpreted as emotionally starved. He has been deprived of Hermione’s affection for nine months; she has been too caught up in playing the kind hostess to Polixenes and has been busy with her pregnancy. Leontes comes across as an insecure, desperate man. He is willing to go against God and kill a king, who is also is best friend. There is, and perhaps always has been, an underlying violence in Leontes’ personality – for example his savage language in describing Hermione as “slippery” and a “hobby-horse.”The theme of relationships is dealt with in Scene I by the plant conceit used to describe Leontes and Polixenes’ childhood – they were “trained together,” there “rooted” between them “such an affection / Which cannot choose but branch now.” It is ironic that the overly optimistic Camillo means branch as in to blossom and bear fruit. Shakespeare uses prophetic irony in describing how “there is not in the world either malice or matter to alter it,” foreshadowing the breakdown of Leontes and Polixenes’ friendship. Relationships are presented as unstable in the opening scenes of the play, we see how Leontes’ relationships with those around him rapidly break down.Another important theme dealt with through Leontes and Polixenes’ friendship is that of childhood or what childhood represents, the transition from innocence to guilt. It is Hermione who introduces the theme of sin into the conversation by inquiring “of my lord’s tricks and yours.” Leontes and Polixenes’ carefree childhood days are juxtaposed to the repression and viciousness of the present day – they did not know the “doctrine of ill-doing.” It is ironic that Hermione talks about how herself and Polixenes’ queen are “devils” when this is exactly how Leontes feels. The innocent simile of the “twinned lambs that did frisk i’th’sun” describing Leontes and Polixenes is starkly contrasted with the present day Leontes’ malicious behaviour. Polixenes and Leontes’ childhood is juxtaposed to the present day, this shows how much things have changed between the two and how they have “tripped” since.The theme of illness is also introduced through Leontes. He himself talks about being “muddy” and “unsettled.” Camillo realises that Leontes is insane, that he is “in rebellion with himself,” and says that he needs to “be cured / of this diseased opinion.” Camillo later talks about Leontes “distemper,” he realises that Leontes is unbalanced physically and emotionally.Shakespeare uses prophetic irony in Act I Scene I, in describing how Leontes and Polixenes “seemed to be together” and how Mamillius makes the old “desire yet their life to see him a man.” Shakespeare also uses irony in Scene II in Polixenes’ subconscious references to pregnancy – “Nine changes of the watery star,” “breed” and “gest” – this is effective as the audience know of Leontes suspicions.Shakespeare develops the character of Leontes by presenting us with the picture of a kind, loving man through Camillo and Archidamus’ speech and then contradicting it by showing us Leontes’ true nature in his soliloquy in Act I Scene II. Shakespeare makes use of dramatic and effectively in Scene I. The character of Leontes is presented as a paranoid, irrational, bitter man, possessed by a childish, masculine jealousy. This jealousy destroys everything and everyone around him as he descends into his paranoid fantasy.

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