The Winter's Tale

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Themes and Colors
Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty Theme Icon
Friendship and Love Theme Icon
Youth, Age, and Time Theme Icon
Seriousness, Levity, and Humor Theme Icon
Evidence, Truth, Persuasion, and Belief Theme Icon
Justice and Natural Order Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Winter's Tale, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice and Natural Order Theme Icon

The Winter’s Tale abounds in unfair punishments and faulty attempts to enforce justice. Leontes unfairly punishes Hermione for a crime she hasn’t committed, leading not only to her death but also to the death of Mamillius and the abandonment of Perdita. And Polixenes, after discovering his son’s secret engagement to Perdita, drives him out of Bohemia and unfairly threatens to punish Perdita’s shepherd father for her relationship with his son. The play can even be seen as being divided into two halves, with each one dealing with a king’s misguided attempt to uphold justice.

If these two main characters who are so invested in carrying out justice are so mistaken, where is true justice to be found in the play? One answer is that actual justice in The Winter’s Tale is closely associated with things’ being in their rightful place, with a natural order being established and maintained. The escalating problems of the play can be seen as repeated disruptions of this natural order: Camillo is exiled from his rightful homeland; Leontes’ family is broken up and separated; Leontes and Polixenes’ friendship is ruined; Perdita goes from her rightful social standing to the low status of a shepherd’s daughter (though her naturally noble character is still apparent in her behavior); and Perdita grows up in the wrong household, with the wrong father. All of these reversals and disruptions are given a playful encapsulation in the sheep-shearing festival of act four, where all the characters are costumed and playing roles other than their natural identities. The king Polixenes, for example, is disguised as a mere citizen, while Florizell is dressed as a lowly herdsman.

Just as the sheep-shearing festival must end and everyone must return to their actual identities, the various displacements and disruptions of natural order are resolved in the play’s (mostly) happy conclusion. Perdita is returned to her rightful parents (who are themselves reunited), the shepherd and his son are cleared of any guilt and even given noblemen’s clothes, Florizell and Polixenes are reunited, and Leontes and Polixenes are reconciled. It is through this reestablishment of the natural order of things—and not through either of the kings’ deliberate dictates or actions—that justice is finally brought about at the end of the play.

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Justice and Natural Order ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Justice and Natural Order appears in each scene of The Winter's Tale. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Justice and Natural Order Quotes in The Winter's Tale

Below you will find the important quotes in The Winter's Tale related to the theme of Justice and Natural Order.
Act 2, Scene 3 Quotes

Mark and perform it, see'st thou! for the fail
Of any point in't shall not only be
Death to thyself but to thy lewd-tongued wife,
Whom for this time we pardon. We enjoin thee,
As thou art liege-man to us, that thou carry
This female bastard hence and that thou bear it
To some remote and desert place quite out
Of our dominions, and that there thou leave it,
Without more mercy, to its own protection
And favour of the climate. As by strange fortune
It came to us, I do in justice charge thee
On thy soul's peril and thy body's torture
That thou commend it strangely to some place
Where chance may nurse or end it. Take it up.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Paulina, Antigonus, Perdita
Page Number: 2.3.211-224
Explanation and Analysis:

The dramatic exchanges of this scene preceding the excerpted speech can be summarized thus: Paulina's plan to present Leontes with his newborn daughter and thereby exonerate Hermione fails miserably. Leontes calls Paulina a traitor, and calls her husband a traitor too, one who should be hanged for his inability to control Paulina. Members of the court try to intervene and save the child, but Leontes, believing to act with justice, behaves like a tyrant and refuses to hear them.

In this speech he makes his final decision regarding the life of the child, of Paulina, and of Antigonus. Beginning with "mark and perform it," meaning listen and do what I say, Leontes starts by saying that if Antigonus does not obey he and his "lewd-tongue wife" (whom Leontes for now has pardoned) will be executed. We can note that the tyranny that has been building in the scene has reached its climax, as Leontes has now switched grammatically into using the formal, royal "we," giving this speech the air of an official decree and reminding us that, though he is maddened by jealousy, he is still a king.

The instructions are as follows: take the baby away and bring her to a remote place outside of Leontes' kingdom; leave the baby there without help, so that its survival is completely dependent on chance. Leontes conceives of this as complete justice, failing to see a problem with the unnatural rejection of his own daughter.


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Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

This sessions, to our great grief we pronounce,
Even pushes 'gainst our heart: the party tried
The daughter of a king, our wife, and one
Of us too much beloved. Let us be clear'd
Of being tyrannous, since we so openly
Proceed in justice, which shall have due course,
Even to the guilt or the purgation.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Hermione, Perdita
Page Number: 3.2.1-7
Explanation and Analysis:

In a court of justice, Leontes begins this scene and the trial with another formal speech given in the royal "we" tense. He claims that it is with grief that he must preside over these proceedings, since the one being tried is "the daughter of a king, our wife, and one / Of us too much beloved." One meaning of this last statement is that it is difficult to have this trial since Leontes loves Hermione so much, but another reading is that he loved her too much, meaning that since she was unfaithful, she was deserving of less love.

Leontes then tries to absolve himself of any tyrannous behavior, claiming to openly proceed in justice, which he says must be followed no matter if Hermione is innocent or guilty. We know, however, that Leontes will not be swayed no matter what. The jealous thought has become his core belief, the ground on which his reality stands, and despite his attempts to verbally or rationally appear just, he is still acting tyrannous.

Since what I am to say must be but that
Which contradicts my accusation and
The testimony on my part no other
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
To say 'not guilty:' mine integrity
Being counted falsehood, shall, as I express it
Be so received. But thus: if powers divine
Behold our human actions, as they do,
I doubt not then but innocence shall make
False accusation blush and tyranny
Tremble at patience.

Related Characters: Hermione (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.23-33
Explanation and Analysis:

In this long speech, Hermione proclaims her innocence, though she knows that her testimony will not be able to convince Leontes of the truth. Her testimony and language alone must change Leontes' mind, and she knows that her integrity is counted as falsehood. In other words, she knows that her testimony will not be believed, because her very integrity is under attack in the accusation. However, she remains proud, honorable, and hopeful, and she strives to tell the truth. Hermione appeals to divine powers, saying that if they happen to be observing (as she knows they do), then she knows that her innocence will end this false accusation and make "tyranny / Tremble at patience." This powerful, emotional language introduces an impressive performance in which she will compare the level of her current sadness to her consistent level of faithfulness.

O, think what they have done
And then run mad indeed, stark mad! for all
Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it.
That thou betray'dst Polixenes,'twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful: nor was't much,
Thou wouldst have poison'd good Camillo's honour,
To have him kill a king: poor trespasses,
More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter
To be or none or little; though a devil
Would have shed water out of fire ere done't:
Nor is't directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts,
Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
Blemish'd his gracious dam: this is not, no,
Laid to thy answer: but the last, —O lords,
When I have said, cry 'woe!' the queen, the queen,
The sweet'st, dear'st creature's dead,
and vengeance for't
Not dropp'd down yet.

Related Characters: Paulina (speaker), Leontes, Polixenes, Hermione, Camillo, Mamillius, Perdita
Page Number: 3.2.201-222
Explanation and Analysis:

In this stunning speech, Paulina chastises the King at length for his folly and the damage it has wrought. The "they" she refers to in the first quoted line are Leontes' jealous and tyrannical actions, which have caused terrible things to happen, all of which she will outline below.

Leontes betrayed his dear friend Polixenes over "nothing" (note the irony of this term returning after Leontes' earlier speech involving nothing). Leontes would have poisoned Camillo's honor, since he ordered him to commit regicide (kill a king). He cast off his daughter, a cruelty Paulina says surpasses even a devil, and caused the death of his tender son. But the climactic speech ends with a crushing final blow: Hermione too is now dead.

Paulina's fury is a staggering display of emotion and power over the king. This reversal of the natural order shows two traditional dichotomies flipped: subject over king and woman over man. What's more, a few lines later Leontes will say "Go on. Go on. / Thou canst not speak too much." He gives her leave, embracing his anguish and believing himself deserving of bitterness from all tongues.

Act 4, Scene 4 Quotes

The fairest flowers o’ th’ season
Are our carnations and streaked gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards. Of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren, and I care not
To get slips of them.

Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?

For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.

Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean. So, over that art
Which you say adds to nature is an art
That nature makes.
. . . This is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

Related Characters: Polixenes (speaker), Perdita (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Seasons
Page Number: 4.4.95-114
Explanation and Analysis:

Polixenes and Camillo have entered the feast in disguise, and now Perdita entertains and gives out flowers as the "mistress o' the feast." Perdita and Polixenes here discuss hybrid flowers known as "nature's bastards," an exchange that is humorous (and dark) since Perdita herself was banished since she was thought to be a bastard. Polixenes says that these flowers should not be neglected, and after a discussion of nature and art (he ultimately says that "art itself is nature"), he tells her not to call these flowers bastards.

Polixenes acceptance of the flowers and instruction not to call them bastards is ironic, since he will soon unknowingly reject Perdita, the supposed bastard (supposedly fathered by him) because he believes her to be a low-born daughter of a Shepherd.

Mark your divorce, young sir,
Whom son I dare not call; thou art too base
To be acknowledged: thou a sceptre's heir,
That thus affect'st a sheep-hook! Thou old traitor,
I am sorry that by hanging thee I can
But shorten thy life one week. And thou, fresh piece
Of excellent witchcraft, who of force must know
The royal fool thou copest with, —

O, my heart!

I'll have thy beauty scratch'd with briers, and made
More homely than thy state. For thee, fond boy,
If I may ever know thou dost but sigh
That thou no more shalt see this knack, as never
I mean thou shalt, we'll bar thee from succession;
Not hold thee of our blood, no, not our kin,
Far than Deucalion off: mark thou my words:
Follow us to the court. Thou churl, for this time,
Though full of our displeasure, yet we free thee
From the dead blow of it. And you, enchantment.—
Worthy enough a herdsman: yea, him too,
That makes himself, but for our honour therein,
Unworthy thee, —if ever henceforth thou
These rural latches to his entrance open,
Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to't.

Related Characters: Polixenes (speaker), Shepherd (speaker), Florizell, Perdita
Page Number: 4.4.490-518
Explanation and Analysis:

Polixenes has discovered that his son plans to marry Perdita without his knowledge. Infuriated, he removes his disguise and tells his son to "mark" his divorce, indicating that he does not approve of (and is in fact disgusted by) the marriage. What's more, he refuses to refer to Florizell as his son, threatening to disown him and remove him as heir to the throne. In this angry speech Polixenes then threatens to hang the Shepherd and to have Perdita's face "scratch'd with briers." 

We have seen many inversions take place in the shift from the first half of the play to the second. Now, it is Polixenes who becomes excessively enraged with his child, threatens death, and abuses his power; Polixenes has replaced Leontes as the tyrant (though he does not here slip into the royal "we" as Leontes did when making his decrees, a possible indication that they will not be carried out, or are not as serious as the order to abandon Perdita, which we know did take place).

Act 5, Scene 3 Quotes

O, peace, Paulina!
Thou shouldst a husband take by my consent,
As I by thine a wife: this is a match,
And made between's by vows. Thou hast found mine;
But how, is to be question'd; for I saw her,
As I thought, dead, and have in vain said many
A prayer upon her grave. I'll not seek far—
For him, I partly know his mind —to find thee
An honourable husband. Come, Camillo
And take her by the hand, whose worth and honesty
Is richly noted and here justified
By us, a pair of kings.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Hermione, Paulina, Camillo
Page Number: 5.3.170-182
Explanation and Analysis:

These are almost the last lines of the play. Paulina has made her dark reflection on her loss and consigned to lose herself in sorrow, but Leontes' joy at reuniting with his daughter and wife (despite his son still being dead) is enough to give a final push towards happiness and comedy. As king, he grants Paulina his permission to take a new husband, saying he wants to repay her for finding his wife again. He doesn't need to look far to find her a husband, suggesting she wed Camillo, "an honorable husband" whose "worth and honesty is richly noted" by the pair of kings, Polixenes and Leontes.

The play concludes with Leontes asking for forgiveness, and with the union of Polixenes' and Leontes' bloodlines through the marriage of Florizell and Perdita. The natural order is restored and even augmented by this new marriage. The friendships are repaired, and honesty is reaffirmed. Despite its strange, problematic beginning and some of its absurdities, the play ends on a classically light, comedic note.