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“What do we learn about Leontes in Act 1 How does Shakespeare dramatically portray his character?”

Leontes is King of Sicilia and the main character of the play. However, as always in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the would-be hero has a fatal flaw which leads to his downfall. This often takes a long time to surface and be obvious to the reader. But this play differs from other such plays, for example ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Othello’. Othello’s fatal flaw is not truly apparent until act IV, when his jealousy first begins to surface, yet in a Winter’s Tale, Leontes’ paranoia is plain from the outset.We first notice something is amiss when Leontes enters for the second time in act I scene II, enquiring whether Polixenes is “won yet”, and will stay. Leontes’ wife, the Queen Hermione, proclaims that she has managed to win him over, something Polixenes dismissed earlier by saying”there is no tongue that moves, none, none i’th’world,So soon as yours could win me” (I.2.20-21)to Leontes. Leontes notices this and bluntly states “At my request he would not.” This could well be the first sign of Leontes’ paranoia. It shows that he sees a bonding between Hermione and Polixenes that enables her to persuade him to stay, where Leontes is powerless.The main blow for Leontes comes when Hermione offers Polixenes her hand:”…I have spoke to th’purpose twice:The one for ever earned a royal husband;Th’other for some while a friend.” (I.2.106-8)Leontes seems to understand the word “friend” to mean lover, as it so often did at the time. This travesty continues with a further confusion of conventional ideas of the time about friendship and love: ‘To mingle friendship is mingling bloods’ (I.2.109). The mingling of bloods, though thought a barbaric practice, was known as a sign of friendship. Also, the Greek philosopher Aristotle once referred to sexual intercourse as the mingling of bloods.Leontes’ paranoia increases, and his concrete belief that Hermione is being unfaithful to him causes him often to come across as being insane. He asks that Hermione and Polixenes go for a walk, and when they leave, admits aside that he is;”…angling now,Though you perceive me not how I give line.”Although the entire scenario is in Leontes’ head, he really believes that he is ‘playing’ them together, giving them a chance to be intimate together, and hopes to catch them in the middle of something. Of course, this would never happen, but again Leontes notes the smallest thing and uses it to convince himself of Hermione’s unfaithfulness. In this case, it is the speed in which the two leave; Leontes exclaims that they have “gone already!”, obviously believing they could not wait to be alone. The idea that Leontes is not mentally normal is a rather disturbing one, and Shakespeare uses the known human fault of insanity to portray Leontes in a very serious and dramatic light; one we find ourselves unnerved and often scared by.Later, he even dares Camillo to believe that he has made all this up in a state of near-insanity:”so muddy, so unsettled,To appoint my self in this vixation”As well as conversing with other characters, Leontes often speaks aside to the audience which gives us a direct insight into exactly what he is really feeling and thinking. Shakespeare often used asides when scripting villains, which may suggest Leontes’ thoughts to be villainous or evil. Leontes also appears to talk to himself as if he were thinking out loud. Although this is used by Shakespeare relatively frequently, Leontes speaks in monologue or aside rather over-frequently, illustrating his confused and irrational state of mind.Leontes’ sudden paranoid jealousy causes him to talk incoherently about anything that seems to enter his head, giving us snippets of information as to how he is feeling (“I have tremor cordis in me, my heart dances”).He asks his child, Mamillius, “Art thou my boy?”. This proves his paranoia, and shows that he has immediately jumped to the possible conclusion that his son was actually Polixenes’.He also seems to pay less attention to what others are saying, or answer and then break off on a tangent. After he directs the aforementioned question at his son, he begins, somewhat metaphorically, to talk of cows:”And yet the steer, the heifer, the calfAre all called neat. Still virginallingUpon his palm?-How now, you wanton calf!Art thou my calf?”After his hectic talk of animals, he turns his speech back to the same question he asked moments ago; whether Mamillius is his son. From this we learn that he is very erratic, and is thinking faster than he can talk. The fact that he asks the same question twice shows us that he is not in a fit mental state to take any information in, and although he seeks and receives reassurance, does not listen to it.One may notice that Leontes’ animal metaphors are a recurring theme. He exclaims that “my wife is a hobby horse”, obviously in belief that his wife is easily unfaithful sexually. Animals are not monogamous which could be why Leontes keeps bringing them into the conversation.Fish are another recurring theme of the animal basis. Fish were considered sexual at the time, and Leontes’ speeches are haunted by sexual imagery, some hidden, some more obvious; “his pond fished by his next neighbour” can be easily deciphered from its metaphorical state.Another subject which Leontes keeps returning to is that of a Cuckold. In Shakespearean times it was believed that if a man’s wife had an affair and the man did nothing about it, he would transform into a Cuckold, a beast with horns. The idea of horns and Cuckolds is referred to many times in Leontes’ speeches; “Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;”, “your eyeglass Is thicker than a cuckolds horn”, “o’er head and ears a forked one!” are a few examples. He also jokes with a sense of foreboding about the “hardening of my brows” as they transform into horns. Leontes repeated return to certain subjects on his mind show how random and unplanned his speeches are and give them an even more disjointed quality, serving to further show his confusion.Leontes seems so bitter about the situation that he does not attempt to hide his young son’s ears from the flow of innuendoes he speaks: “Go play, boy, play: thy mother plays”, the sexual allusion hidden in how she ‘plays’. The affectionate exchanges between father and son take on twisted double-meanings, and alternate with bitter asides and obsessive digressions. The ordinary, domestic setting contrasts heavily and painfully with Leontes’ distorted perception of reality.The King sees normally insignificant, meaningless things as clear deceitful acts. He suggests that they are “Kissing with inside lip”; inferring that a courteous and customary kiss of greeting / parting between Polixenes and his wife may have an underlying, secret and wholly more intimate meaning than what is visible from Leontes’ eyes.Another of Shakespeare’s recurring themes is the idea of the situation as an infection. In Leontes’ eyes, the infection is in his wife’s liver:”Were my wife’s liverInfected as her life, she would not liveThe running of one glass”The liver was believed to be the source of passion and sexual drive, and here Leontes believes that Hermione’s liver has been infected with the ‘disease’ of unfaithfulness. Camillo, on the other hand, thinks that it is his master, Leontes that has the disease, and, refers to Leontes’ Paranoia as if it were a illness that he had contracted, and one that is dangerous to Leontes’ sanity. He is extremely shocked at the idea that Hermione is being unfaithful to Leontes, and pleads:”Good my lord, be curedOf this diseased opinion, and betimes,For ’tis most dangerous”Camillo is polite, clear, direct, everything one would expect of a courtier, whilst Leontes is, at first, tangled up:”For to vision so apparent rumourCannot be mute – or thought – for cogitationResides not in that man that does not think -My wife is slippery?”and then suddenly frantic:”Is whispering nothing?Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?Kissing with inside lip?”The final blow for the audience and the point that really makes us doubt whether Leontes is totally sane is his ordering of Camillo to prepare a poisoned drink for his lifelong friend Polixenes. He says, clearly, that:”To give mine enemy a lasting wink;Which draught to me were cordial.”We learn here, that the poisoning of Polixenes would be the medicine of Leontes – this shows how much Leontes’ sudden hate has already grown. Shakespeare uses his unrefined and uncalled for bitterness to hint that he may not have been in a fit mental state from the outset.

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