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.
Justice and Natural Order ThemeTracker
Justice and Natural Order Quotes in The Winter's Tale
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.