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Shakespeare's Characters: Leontes (The Winter's Tale)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 12. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

Leontes is chiefly affected by the insult of the fate that he stupidly and groundlessly hugs to himself. He thinks not not he, of the pity of the supposed fall of so complete a paragon, but pursues her as an enemy with rancorous and publicly proclaimed animosity. Such temper shows most grossly when the object of it is a lady whose nature is not only alien to such falsehood but unsuggestive of it a lady who with clear and steady intellectual light illuminates every perversity in her husband's course. Had the victim of Leontes been a wife in whom conjugal affectionateness and not matronly dignity and the grace and pride of motherhood prevailed, his conduct would have seemed too intolerably brutal for any reconciliation, and the reuniting link of common parental affection would have been wanting, to render it acceptable to our sympathies and convictions. Neither would it have been natural for such a heart to have remained in seclusion so long, feeding on the hope of a daughter's recovery, nor brooding over the lost love of her husband. Desdemona, affectionate and devoted, is the object of love of a husband whose bitterest trial in jealousy, sensitive as he is in honour, is still the loss of her trusted and tender heart. The submissive love of Desdemona faints into a tint of the weakness that invites misfortune, and is the worst of all fatalities; the graceful majesty of Hermione is inclined to the side of sober self-command, and for this, when attempered with tenderness and truth, fortune has ever in reserve a happiness at last.
Lloyd: Critical Essays on the Plays of Shakespeare.

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The most remarkable stroke of genius in this play of Shakespeare is that he turned only into a comedy a subject which could furnish the most sombre of tragedies. He understood admirably that however violent and tragic were the acts, such a character would be necessarily comic. Indeed, so comic, that it is exactly the one which our Moliere has drawn in Sganarelle, ou le Cocu imaginaire. Leontes is formidable otherwise than the poor bourgeois of Moliere, for his folly is supplied with far different means of action; but they are brothers, if not in rank yet in nature, and their souls plunge into the same grotesque element.

Montegut: Euvres completes de Shakespeare.

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Leontes and Othello Contrasted.

The idea of this delightful drama is a genuine jealousy of disposition, and it should be immediately followed by the perusal of Othello, which is the direct contrast of it in every particular. For jealousy is a vice of the mind, a culpable tendency of the temper, having certain well- known and well-defined effects and concomitants, all of which are visible in Leontes, and, I boldly say, not one of which marks its presence in Othello; such as, first, an excitability by the most inadequate causes, and an eagerness to snatch at proofs; secondly, a grossness of conception, and a disposition to degrade the object of the passion by sensual fancies and images; thirdly, a sense of shame of his own feelings exhibited in a solitary moodiness of humour, and yet from the violence of the passion forced to utter itself, and therefore catching occasions to ease the mind by ambiguities, equivoques, by talking to those who cannot, and who are known not to be able to, understand what is said to them in short, by soliloquy in the form of dialogue, and hence a confused, broken, and fragmentary manner; fourthly, a dread of vulgar ridicule, as distinct from a high sense of honour, or a mistaken sense of duty; and lastly, and immediately, consequent on this, a spirit of selfish vindictiveness.
Coleridge: Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare.

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In The Winter's Tale, the jealousy of Leontes is not less, but more fierce and unjust, than that of Othello. No lago whispers poisonous suspicion in Leontes' ear. His wife is not untried, nor did she yield to him her heart with the sweet proneness of Desdemona :

"Three crabbed months had sour'd themselves, to death
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand.
And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter
'I am yours forever.'"
Hermione is suspected of sudden and shameless dishonour she who is a matron, the mother of Leontes' children, a woman of serious and sweet dignity of character, inured to a noble self-command, and frank only through the consciousness of invulnerable loyalty. The passion of Leontes is not, like that of Othello, a terrible chaos of soul confusion and despair at the loss of what had been to him the fairest thing on earth; there is a gross personal resentment in the heart of Leontes, not sorrowful, judicial indignation; his passion is hideously grotesque, while that of Othello is pathetic.

The consequences of this jealous madness of Leontes are less calamitous than the ruin wrought by Othello's jealousy, because Hermione is courageous and collected, and possessed of a fortitude of heart which years of suffering are unable to subdue:

"There 's some ill planet reigns;
I must be patient till the heavens look
With an aspect more favourable. Good my lords,
I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are ; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here, which burns
Worse than tears drown. Beseech you all, my lords,
With thoughts so qualified as your charities
Shall best instruct you, measure me; and so
The king's will be performed!"
But although the wave of calamity is broken by the firm resistance offered by the fortitude of Hermione, it commits ravage enough to make it remembered. Upon the Queen comes a lifetime of solitude and pain. The hopeful son of Leontes and Hermione is done to death, and the infant Perdita is estranged from her kindred and her friends. But at length the heart of Leontes is instructed and purified by anguish and remorse. He has "performed a saint-like sorrow," redeemed his faults, paid down more penitence than done trespass:
"Whilst I remember
Her and her virtues, I cannot forget
My blemishes in them, and so still think of
The wrong I did myself; Which was so much
That heirless it hath made my kingdom, and
Destroyed the sweet'st companion that e'er man
Bred his hopes out of."
And Leontes is received back without reproach into the arms of his wife; she embraces him in silence, allowing the good pain of his repentance to effect its utmost work.
Dowden: Shakespere.

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