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.
Youth, Age, and Time Theme Icon

Shakespeare’s play signals its interest in time rather obviously in the beginning of act four, when Father Time himself comes on-stage and introduces a (remarkable) sixteen-year jump forward in the play. Time’s inevitable movement forward affects everything in the play: thanks to the temporal jump forward in act four, we see time age Leontes, Polixenes, Paulina, and others. We also see Perdita grow from an infant to a young woman ready for marriage. Even the statue of Hermione at Paulina’s house seems to age with time, as in act five it appears to have acquired some wrinkles over the sixteen years since its being made. (However, this may simply be Hermione herself; critics disagree about whether the statue is real or simply Hermione in disguise, who never actually died.) As the play emphasizes the progression of time, it repeatedly glorifies the innocence of youth. In the opening scene, Camillo says that the young Mamillius gives otherwise hopeless old Sicilians a reason for continuing to live. And Polixenes compares Leontes and himself as children to two “twinned lambs” who were innocent even of original sin. The inevitable process of aging is thus somewhat tragic, represented as a loss of innocence.

But, the play does show some possibilities for finding happiness amid the unstoppable progression of time. One such remedy is through children. When Leontes sees Florizell, he is amazed at the young man’s resemblance to a young Polixenes. The older generation of characters in the play is able to relive their youth to some extent, or at least see their youth reborn in the younger generation of their children. Moreover, the play ends with Leontes looking optimistically toward the future. He encourages Paulina to remarry with Camillo, rather than dwelling on the unhappy end of her former husband Antigonus. Thus, while not abandoning the memory of the past, the play concludes by suggesting hope for improvement in the future. No one can escape time’s constant movement forward, but the progression of time and aging need not be entirely cause for lament.

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Youth, Age, and Time ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Winter's Tale related to the theme of Youth, Age, and Time.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.

Related Characters: Camillo (speaker), Mamillius
Page Number: 1.1.39-44
Explanation and Analysis:

In this opening scene of the play, Camillo and a courier from Bohemia named Archidamus discuss visiting each other's countries, saying that the King of Sicilia (Leontes) owes the King of Bohemia (Polixenes) a visit. The reason a visit is owed is since Polixenes has stayed in Sicilia for so long. The discussion between Camillo and Archidamus mainly serves as exposition, explaining the situation and setting of the play's beginning. We learn that Leontes and Polixenes are childhood friends.

Here, toward the end of the short scene, they discuss Mamillius, the promising young son of Leontes. Camillo says that there is a lot of hope for the young prince, a "gallant child." The hope they see in the boy invigorates Sicilians, making old people wish to live longer so that they can see him become a man. Immediately, the promise of the young in contrast with the old, and the tension of time and aging is introduced into the play. Here aging is not tragic, but is rather exciting and empowering. The old, who might wish for time to slow down, desire for time to speed up so that they can experience Mamillius' growth into manhood. This wish will be fulfilled in between acts III and IV, when Father Time himself announces that 16 years have passed.


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Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher rear'd
With stronger blood, we should have answer'd heaven
Boldly 'not guilty;' the imposition clear'd
Hereditary ours.

Related Characters: Polixenes (speaker), Leontes
Page Number: 1.2.85-94
Explanation and Analysis:

Hermione has persevered and persuaded Polixenes to extend his stay. Now that he's convinced, she takes the opportunity to ask him about his childhood friendship with her husband, Leontes. Polixenes responds with the poetic lines excerpted here, comparing himself and Leontes to "twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun." He describes a picture of complete youthful innocence, saying the pair had no conception of doing wrong and could not even dream that anyone would.

If they had continued in this way of being, Polixenes says, and if they hadn't been raised with strong blood (royal bloodlines and lineage), they would have boldly been able to answer "not guilty" at their final judgment. However, Polixenes will go on to explain that the two men grew up, lost their innocence, and fell in love with their wives. The youthful innocence described here offers stark contrast with the jealous convictions that will soon overtake Leontes and the actions his jealousy will lead him to.

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh? —a note infallible
Of breaking honesty —horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Polixenes, Hermione
Page Number: 1.2.346-359
Explanation and Analysis:

To Leontes' assertion that Hermione is slippery, Camillo responds that Hermione is innocent, and that Leontes has never said anything less appropriate than such a false accusation. But Leontes is absolutely convinced, obsessed, and infuriated. Already certain, he looks back on examples of the close friendship between Hermione and Polixenes and retroactively attributes sexual undertones and signs of infidelity to them.

He begins "Is whispering nothing?" suggesting that the two have been known to whisper. He continues listing their supposed behaviors, questioning if any of them could really be nothing. Being close physically? Meeting noses? Kissing? Laughing together? The list goes on to include a romantic desire for time to speed up (note that the obsessed Leontes breaks time down into its deviations and specific hours), and the desire for all eyes to be blind but those of the supposed lovers, so they can act freely while remaining unseen. He asks is all of this nothing?

If so, Leontes concludes that the world and all that it contains is nothing, that the sky is nothing, Bohemia is noting, Hermione is nothing, nothing is nothing if these signs are not proof of what he knows to be true. Leontes has be come so thoroughly convinced that he feels like the fabric of the world and his very reality would cease to exist with the loss of this core belief.

Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

If she dares trust me with her little babe,
I'll show't the king and undertake to be
Her advocate to the loud'st. We do not know
How he may soften at the sight o' the child:
The silence often of pure innocence
Persuades when speaking fails.

Related Characters: Paulina (speaker), Leontes, Hermione, Perdita
Page Number: 2.2.46-51
Explanation and Analysis:

Paulina, the wife of the nobleman Antigonus, tries to visit Hermione in jail, but she is prevented by the guard. One of Hermione's attendants informs Paulina that Hermione has given birth to a daughter, and Paulina laments the terrible situation and the madness of Leontes that has resulted in Hermione's imprisonment. Here, she thinks of a plan to bring Leontes to his senses and help Hermione.

Paulina says that if Hermione will trust her with the newborn, she will take the baby to the King and advocate for Hermione's innocence. She believes that it is possible Leontes will "soften at the sight o' the child." Paulina says that "the silence often of pure innocence / Persuades when speaking fails." We can note two intertwined aspects of this plan to convince Leontes to release Hermione. First, note that this attempt means to use silence as opposed to language. All discussion of convincing Polixenes to stay in the first place was in terms of language and the tongue, but it has become clear that no amount of verbal reasoning or appeal can change Leontes' mind about his wife's infidelity. Second, Paulina plans to appeal with youth and innocence. Recalling Polixenes' lines about the innocent young kings, we know that youths are idealized as perfectly innocent, almost holy figures. Paulina hopes this innocence will translate from daughter to mother, aligning with the line that (according to Emilia) Hermione spoke to her baby in prison: "My poor prisoner, / I am innocent as you."

Act 3, Scene 3 Quotes

I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting.

Related Characters: Shepherd (speaker)
Page Number: 3.3.65-69
Explanation and Analysis:

Following the inversions that occur at the end of Act 3, Scene 2, this scene sets the stage for winter to become spring, for time to leap forward, and for tragedy to shift to comedy. The means for these shifts (and the signal that it is occurring) is the introduction of a level of absurdity and excess which drags the play beyond the tragic into a realm of ridiculousness, firmly cementing its status as a "problem play."

Moments before the Shepherd enters and speaks these lines, Antigonus abandons baby Perdita as he was instructed by Leontes. Antigonus leaves the stage with possibly the most famous stage direction ever written: "He exits, pursued by a bear." The introduction of a literal bear that follows him and kills him off stage is clearly tragic, but also appears too silly for a true tragedy. Lines later, this silliness is echoed in the form of excessiveness, when the Shepherd's Son says that he has witnessed both the bear attack and a violent shipwreck all in a few moments.

The lines of prose excerpted here are spoken by the Shepherd as he enters the stage, moments before he discovers Perdita. His complaints echo the tie between youth and innocence, and the notion that the passage of time and aging result in a loss of innocence. Ironically, after this scene ends the play will leap forward sixteen years and transition fully to the mode of comedy, seeming to reverse with a shift towards innocence accompanying age.

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

Your mother was most true to wedlock, prince;
For she did print your royal father off,
Conceiving you: were I but twenty-one,
Your father's image is so hit in you,
His very air, that I should call you brother,
As I did him, and speak of something wildly
By us perform'd before. Most dearly welcome!
And your fair princess, —goddess! —O, alas!
I lost a couple, that 'twixt heaven and earth
Might thus have stood begetting wonder as
You, gracious couple, do: and then I lost—
All mine own folly —the society,
Amity too, of your brave father, whom,
Though bearing misery, I desire my life
Once more to look on him.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Polixenes, Florizell, Perdita
Page Number: 5.1.157-171
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene returns to Sicilia, and shows Leontes repenting still for his errors that led to Hermione's death. He contemplates remarrying, but says that he will never do it. A servant announces that Florizell has come with his princess unannounced; Paulina remarks that it is shame that Mamillius is not alive, since he would have been the same age as Florizell now. The lines here are Leontes' greeting to the young Bohemian prince.

He begins by saying that Florizell's mother was surely true to wedlock, immediately referencing his own error and accusation of Hermione (either by accident or design). He affirms Florizell's parentage by saying that the young prince is a "print" of his father, and that if he (Leontes) were young, he would call the prince "brother" and think he was Polixenes himself.

Leontes then greets the princess and calls her a goddess. Unknowing of either her true or false lineage, Leontes is pleased with the pair. He then returns to repenting his own folly and all that he has lost, and tells Florizell that he hopes to make amends with Polixenes someday. Here we see that time has made Leontes more wise, reserved, calm, and repentant.

Act 5, Scene 3 Quotes

But yet, Paulina,
Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing
So aged as this seems.

O, not by much!

So much the more our carver’s excellence,
Which lets go by some sixteen years and makes her
As she lived now.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Polixenes (speaker), Paulina (speaker), Hermione
Page Number: 5.3.31-37
Explanation and Analysis:

Most of the play's tension has been resolved, with the reunion and reconciliation of Leontes and Perdita and Leontes and Polixenes taking place off stage in Act 5, Scene 2. Now, the whole group gathers to look at an incredibly lifelike statue of Hermione. Here, Leontes remarks that the statue seems more wrinkled and aged than Hermione ever was. Kind Polixenes jumps in quickly with a remark that she doesn't look aged by much. But Paulina reassures them that the artist has masterfully carved the statue to represent Hermione as she would have looked if she had lived the past 16 years.

This statue needs to be aged properly, of course, since it will soon come to life! In this crucial scene it is unclear whether Paulina brings the statue to life by a spell, introducing the miraculous or supernatural into the play (which is fitting given the absurdity found elsewhere), or if Hermione has been alive all along, waiting to return only when Leontes has fully repented and absolved himself, and is simply pretending to be a statue during this scene.

My lord, your sorrow was too sore laid on,
Which sixteen winters cannot blow away,
So many summers dry; scarce any joy
Did ever so long live; no sorrow
But kill'd itself much sooner.

Related Characters: Camillo (speaker), Leontes
Related Symbols: The Seasons
Page Number: 5.3.57-62
Explanation and Analysis:

The statue is so lifelike (or maybe is just Hermione herself) that Leontes becomes overwhelmed with regret and sorrow and begins weeping. Camillo, along with Polixenes, tries to calm him down and assure him that he has grieved enough and showed enough sorrow for his loss. Connecting back to the seasons, Camillo says that Leontes' sorrow was more than adequate, and that sixteen winters could not disrupt it, nor could the summers dry it. He asserts that no joy or sorrow has ever lasted as long as this grief.

The juxtaposition in these lines of summer and winter, grief and joy, reminds us of some of the lingering tragic elements in the comedic second half of the play, and ground the Winter's Tale firmly as a "problem play." Though the second act is comedic and set during a summer, we know that winters have passed and will also follow. There is much joy in the ending of the play, but Mamillius and Antigonus both remain dead.