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1 COMPABATIVE i ama Volume 30Fall 1996Number 3 "What means Sicilia? He something seems unsettled": Sicily, Russia, and Bohemia in The Winter's Tale R. W. Desai The opening scenes of The Winter's Tale bring together royalty from three different regions in Europe: Leontes, king of Sicily, which is in the extreme south, in the Mediterranean region; his wife, Hermione, daughter of the Emperor of Russia in the northeast; and Polixenes, king of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, also in the northeast. This joining of geographical regions has its counterpoint in the contemporary joining of the regions of literary and other forms of cultural discourse. New Historicism has challenged the long established assumption, theorized by New Criticism, that "Art" is an autonomous aesthetic region which transcends the society, ideology, and culture that forms its matrix. Denying this, New Historicism insists upon a different methodology, a cultural criticism that refuses to see literature and history as two distinct entities since such differentiation is a product of our own phenomenological cultural conditioning which can be altered if our perspective is shifted. My pur311 312Comparative Drama pose here is to attempt to shift our perspective on The Winter's Tale to show how Renaissance notions of ethnicity play a crucial part in the play's aesthetic. I In this article I shall survey rapidly various Eurocentrist views on race and ethnic differentiation present during Shakespeare's lifetime, and trace their presence in The Winter's Tale. These views seem in general to be in consonance with one another, and if they demonstrate how easily stereotypes came to be perpetuated from one period to the next during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this need not surprise us, since in our own experience today such cultural stereotyping continues unabated. In Norway as recently as 1972 when the last referendum on joining the European Union was held, the opposition's catchy slogan was: "Would you want your daughter to marry a Sicilian?" Hitherto The Winter's Tale has been viewed exclusively for its thematic concerns, no attention being paid to the racial and anthropological features that the play implicitly addresses. For example, though it has of course been remarked that Shakespeare interchanges the countries of origin of Leontes, the jealous husband , and Polixenes, the putative rival—Sicily and Bohemia, respectively, thus radically altering these details as given in Greene's Pandosto—the possible reasons for this intriguing transposition have not been investigated, as far as I am aware. Such an investigation, taking into account the ideological connotations involved, will, I think, bring to light the underlying assumptions of the Elizabethans on matters of race and ethnicity. (In any attempt to reconstruct attitudes to cultural issues, whether in the past or the present, some over-simplification and generalization are unavoidable. Having said this, it should not be necessary to punctuate every assumption here made with the warning that it is speculative.) I shall argue that the superiority claimed by the northern Europeans over their southern counterparts is a significant element in the multiculturalism that The Winter's Tale embodies. Yet, at the same time, I shall try to show that though initially seemingly subscribing to this popular belief, the play's final message is not its confirmation but rather its questioning and its rejection—up to a point at least. Viewed in this multicultural context , the play seems to embody a discourse in which populist notions are challenged, disjunction is harmonized, and irrecon- R. W. Desai313 cilable contradictions are transcended. Still, at the play's end, total harmony has not been achieved, and traces of certain elements which the narrative seemed to efface are still disturbingly present. In making the jealous husband, Leontes, a Sicilian belonging to the Mediterranean type of culture, Shakespeare may have been exercising discretion. His acting company having become the King's Men after the accession of James I to England's throne, Shakespeare may have been reluctant to offend the new monarch by showing a northern European consumed by an irrational sexual jealousy. As is well known, The Winter's Tale was one of the plays presented as part of the festivities devised to celebrate the marriage of the king's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 311-324
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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