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Shakespeare Quarterly 55.3 (2004) 253-278

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Visual and Ethical Truth in The Winter's Tale

Nothing is more free than the imagination of man. . . .1

At the end of the winter's tale, Shakespeare offers a scene so improbable that in order to perceive it, Paulina informs Leontes, "It is requir'd / You do awake your faith" (5.3.94-95).2 What we are about to see, of course, is the living statue of Hermione—art become life, imagination turned into reality. This theatrical spectacle is paradigmatic of a Shakespearean aesthetic in which characters and audience alike are confronted with an impossibility that somehow gestures toward a deeper truth. The invitation to accept the living Hermione is powerful, leading to the conclusion that the playwright's gift is an invitation to accept the openness or, in more recent critical terms, the indeterminacy of both art and life. Yet the final scene is prefigured by another, less-positive encounter with an impossible image, the product of Leontes's frantic response to Hermione and Polixenes in the opening scenes of the play. In this essay I will argue that the two scenes are more alike than is generally acknowledged, that Leontes's dilemma in facing each image involves not a choice between certitude and openness—between understanding and faith—but an ethical judgment: a response to a demand from another. And while there is no doubt that his first response is wrong, the fact that he makes a choice constitutes the ethical nature of his character contra indeterminacy, against endless deferral. It is in this choice that he asserts his responsibility and enables his future redemption. [End Page 253]

To place Leontes's response to Polixenes and Hermione in Act 1 in the same category as his later response to the statue in Act 5 is to read against the grain of the theme of redemption that many critics argue structures the play. In such a reading we can identify Leontes's irrational jealousy as an example of moral depravity, which can be redeemed only by divine intervention. The final offer of redemption, recognized as the good, provides a counterexample to the evil experienced earlier and is readily visible to all. As comforting as this reading is, it relies on a knowledge of the proper response to each scene, which can become clear only after the fact. That the final scene requires a leap of faith—demanded by Paulina—and an acceptance of magic underscores the lack of a prescriptive notion of responsible action here. The action's emphasis rests on the moment of decision, when any knowledge of the correctness of the choice is utterly unknowable. Thus while there is no doubt that the Leontes of the first acts is a jealous tyrant, his tyranny is a result of his flawed response to the demands of an image beyond his understanding, an image of alterity, in the sense given to that term by French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas—the unknown and unknowable other person.3 Leontes is not, however, the essence of tyranny, or ontologically tyrannical. Rather, his actions in the moments leading up to his horrific response to an imagined infidelity produce for us (and for the characters in the drama) the concept of tyrant. If Leontes were a tyrant in an ontological sense, his redemption would be impossible. When the final scene reenacts the ethical situation of the opening scene, offering the same character another impossible image and a second chance to respond, only then does Leontes allow his response to proceed from the other. His redemption is not an evasion: in answer to Paulina's offer to "forbear" and "depart" (5.3.85, 97), admitting that some might deem her work "unlawful business" (l. 96), Leontes is unequivocal, issuing the command for her to "Proceed" and adding that "[n]o foot shall stir" (ll. 97-98). His willingness to affirm the unknown constitutes a risk that is the guarantor of an ethics freed from the restrictions of prescriptive thought (prescriptions, for example, of...


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