I want to examine two literary texts, a familiar one and a strange one. The familiar text I have in mind is Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The strange one is Robert Greene’s Pandosto. While they are very different at the level of language—words, phrases, and sentences—at the level of plot and character they are much alike. That’s what makes the comparison interesting. You can line them up, character for character, and incident for incident, and they match pretty well. But not completely. It’s those few differences that made the comparison an interesting one.
Family Problems in the Early Modern Era
Greene first published Pandosto: The Triumph of Time in 1592 while The Winter’s Tale was written in 1611, almost twenty years later. The similarities between the two are so striking that it is all but certain that Shakespeare derived his plot from Greene’s. But they are not quite the same. In fact, since The Winter’s Tale ends in happy triumph while Pandosto’s ending is, at best, bittersweet – Pandosto commits suicide even though the young lovers are united – one might reasonably judge them to be quite different. That is what makes these two texts so interesting.
This table lays out the correspondence between the characters in the two texts:
Neutral Pandosto Winter’s Tale King Pandosto Leonates Queen Bellaria Hermione King’s son Garinter Mamillius King’s daughter Fawnia Perdita King’s Friend Egistus Polixenes Friend’s son Dorastus Florizel Shepherd Porrus Old shepherd
The first part of the story goes like this: The King and Queen have been married for a number of years and have a son. The King’s childhood friend is visiting and the King decides that his wife, the Queen, has been having an affair with this Friend, who is also a king. The Queen denies it as does his kingly friend, but the King is convinced they’re lying. The Friend leaves and the Queen is imprisoned. A messenger is sent to consult an oracle on whether or not the Queen is guilty. In Pandosto, it is the Queen who requests this; in Winter's it is the King. Meanwhile, the Queen gives birth to a daughter who is brought before the King. The King denies his daughter. The infant daughter is set adrift in the ocean. Meanwhile, the messenger returns from the oracle and declares the Queen to be innocent. The son dies and, upon hearing that news, the Queen faints. In Pandosto Bellaria, the Queen, dies. In Winter’s Hermione does not, she hides away. The audience knows this but Leontes, the King, does not.
In Greene, the oracle says:
[Para. 29] The Oracle. Suspition is no proofe: Jealousie is an unequall judge: Bellaria is chast: Egistus blameless: Franion a true subject: Pandosto threacherous: his babe an innocent, and the King shall live without an heire: if that which is lost be not founde.
In Shakespeare, this:
Officer[Reads] Hermione is chaste;Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontesa jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten;and the king shall live without an heir, if thatwhich is lost be not found.
Notice that Shakespeare retained the phrase, “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” This seems quite important, both for its import—the continuity of the King’s bloodline—and for its form, the phraseology is the same. If the King is without heir, then his family is at an end.
In both stories the daughter miraculously ends up in the country of the King’s childhood friend where she’s raised by an old Shepherd and his wife. In time the daughter matures and falls in love with a prince, who returns her love. The prince is none other than son to the King’s childhood friend. The prince’s father finds out about his beloved and forbids them to marry; after all, she is but a shepherd’s daughter. So the prince and the daughter decide to flee the country. They end up back in the King’s land where the daughter’s true identity is discovered. Now that she is known to be of noble birth, the marriage can proceed.
In Pandosto, the King commits suicide. The Winter’s Tale ends quite differently. Paulina has Hermione mount a pedestal and brings her out of hiding as a mere statue. And then the statue comes alive. And all are amazed. The King is thus reunited with his Queen and his daughter is about to marry her prince.
That’s most, but not all, of the pattern that interests me. Obviously, Pandosto cannot be reunited with Bellaria because she is dead. That is, when Shakespeare allowed the queen to live, but in hiding, he created an option not open to Greene. When Greene had Belleria die he blocked any possibility of Pandosto being reunited with her.
But why does he have Pandosto commit suicide? Couldn’t he have him remarry, have another child? Or kill him off in battle? Well, I suppose he could have—for all I know he may have considered such possibilities. All we know is what’s in the text we’ve got.
And in that text Pandosto commits suicide out of shame, in part over the compounded mistakes he made long ago. But there is another reason for shame. When he first saw his daughter, whom he did not recognize as such, he experienced sexual desire for the young woman, and even propositioned her. Thus, the desire:
[Para. 101] Having thus hardly handled the supposed Trapalonians, Pandosto contrarie to his aged yeares began to be somewhat tickled with the beauty of Fawnia, in so much that hee could take no rest, but cast in his old head a thousand new devises: at last he fell into these thoughtes.
[Para. 105] Fawnia, I commend thy beauty and wit, and now pittie thy distresse and want: but if you will forsake Sir Meleagrus [Dorastus in disguise], whose poverty though a Knight, is not able to maintaine an estate aunswerable to thy beauty, and yeld thy consent to Pandosto, I wil both increase thee with dignities and riches.
She refuses him.
The point is that he had the desire, and he made public expression of it. One of reasons he gave for his suicide was thus “that contrarie to the law of nature hee had lusted after his owne Daughter.”
And that’s the difference that I find most intriguing. In Winter’s Leontes does not proposition Perdita, nor does he even formulate explicit sexual desire for her. There is a hint of such desire in words he speaks upon first seeing her, but only a hint (act 5, scene 1, near the end):
PAULINASir, my liege,Your eye hath too much youth in't: not a month'Fore your queen died, she was more worth such gazesThan what you look on now.LEONTESI thought of her,Even in these looks I made.
But nothing comes of this. If Leontes felt sexual desire for Perdita, he gave no public expression of it, much less asked for her hand in marriage. Thus, when the truth was revealed, he was able to take pleasure in regaining his daughter, having a son-in-law, and in regaining his wife.
We have now counted four plot differences between Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale:
- Bellaria dies; Hermione does not.
- Pandosto propositions Fawnia; Leontes does not proposition Perdita.
- Pandosto is overcome with shame at having desired his daughter (though he gave up the pursuit when he knew who she was) and his shame drives him to suicide. Leontes has nothing to be ashamed of in his relationship to his daughter.
- Pandosto is not reunited with Bellaria; Leonates and Hermione are reunited.
It is my intuition, my contention, that these four differences follow from a single factor in the logic that underlies the actions in these two stories. These are not independent plot points. There is, as I’ve said, an obvious connection between 1 and 4. If the Queen is dead, then the King cannot be reunited with her. But what connects them with 2 and 3?
A Look into the Future
Before attempting an answer, I need to 1) emphasize an incident from the story that I had passed over without comment and 2) supply some socio-historical context. The incident concerns the King’s son, Garinter in Pandosto, Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale. In both stories he dies. News of his death reaches the King and Queen just as they’ve heard the oracle’s proclamation. As I’ve already indicated, it’s this news that distresses the two Queens, causing one to faint and the other to die. Greene gives no reason for the boy’s death, but Shakespeare does: “The prince your son, with mere conceit and fear/ Of the queen's speed, is gone” (III.ii. 144-145).
What’s the significance of the boy’s death? If the point of marriage is to forge an alliance and to produce an heir, and that certainly was the point of aristocratic marriage in Shakespeare’s day (our bit of context), then the death of the only son brings an end to the lineage and weakens the alliance with the spouse’s clan. Unless, of course, another male heir can be produced. The death of the wife forecloses that possibility. Unless, of course, the man can find another wife and produce an heir with her, though this might displease the first wife’s clan.
In Greene’s version of the story, then, we can read the King’s lust for the young woman, who just happens to be his daughter though he doesn’t know it, as also being consistent with a desire to continue his lineage by producing a male heir, though he says nothing about begetting an heir. In any event it shows that he hasn’t learned anything in the years since his wife died. Back then he let his imagination get away with him and lost his wife and son in consequence. Now he lets his libido run riot in his brain and again finds himself deeply in the wrong.
In Shakespeare’s version, though...Let’s step out of time for a moment.
Let us imagine, counter-factually, that marriage was conceived and lived differently in Shakespeare’s day, that it wasn’t all about alliance and lineage. Consider this passage from Milton's Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, published in 1644:
...God in the first ordaining of marriage taught us to what end he did it, in words expressly implying the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards, as being but a secondary end in dignity.
This conception was not commonplace in Milton's time, much less Shakespeare's - recall the many references to procreation which are part of the explicit ideology of marriage in Shakespeare. But we can find a similar sentiment from Shakespeare's time, in John Donne's "The Extasie." Using sexual orgasm as his vehicle, and after asserting that "Wee see by this, it was not sexe," Donne goes on to assert that
When love, with one another soInteranimates two soules,That abler soule, which thence doth flow,Defects of lonelinesse controules.
Like Milton, Donne is concerned with loneliness, the evil of solitary life. That is a question of attachment, not of sexuality. Yet the fact that Donne used sexuality as his poetic vehicle suggests that what he was after was a union of sexuality and attachment, of affection.
If that’s where we are, then Shakespeare’s version of the story is looking more interesting. Not only does it affirm the intrinsic importance of the relationship between man and wife by having Hermione return at the end, almost as a goddess on her pedestal, but it does so in a way that all but explicitly rejects procreation to extend the lineage as the end of marriage. Leontes’ lineage is over; he will not have a male heir to take over the kingdom. But he’s got his beloved wife back.
Obviously, if this is our story, then incestuous desire from father to daughter would just be awkward. Oh I suppose Shakespeare could play it as Greene did, with the hot glances and the proposition. Then he could have Leontes get flummoxed and embarrassed and fall all over himself with a long and confused speech about what a sinful man he is and how sorry he is and so forth. But that would only serve to emphasize his illicit lust and so make it that much more difficult to put Hermione on that pedestal and bring her out for the happy ending. So Shakespeare has Leontes cool his jets.
The love between Long Lost Daughter and Son of Long Estranged Friend can now serve as a bridge between the husband and his estranged wife AND his childhood friend into the bargain. They walk across the bridge and Shakespeare gets his happy ending. And so do we.
We now, after all this work, have a way of thinking about the connection between the King-Queen relationship (1 and 4 above) and the King-Daughter relationship (2 and 3 above). The King’s suspicion of his wife is excessive; he’s out of control. In Greene’s story the King remains that way so that when, years later, he sees a comely young woman, who happens to be his daughter, he again lets his emotions get the better of him. When he learns the truth, more excess. Though he didn’t actually commit incest with her, he’s so overcome with shame that he kills himself. What a waste.
In Shakespeare’s version, the King changes, perhaps through years of mourning. When his daughter appears, he admires her beauty and even notes her similarity to his deceased (he thinks) wife. But that’s as far as it goes. Thus when he learns the young woman’s identity he has no reason to be ashamed. On the contrary, he can be happy that what’s lost has been found, and that she can reunite him with his old friend, Polixenes, whom he’d wronged many years ago.
For being so much alike, these two stories are quite different.
Now, imagine you’re living a prosperous middle-class life in, say, the early 18th century. You love your spouse and kids, you understand that, yes, it’s important to have heirs, but you also feel, somehow in a way you can’t quite grasp, the your relationship with your spouse is very important. Even as important as leaving heirs, maybe…uh oh! dangerous ground here…even a bit more important. Who’s going to support you, Greene or Shakespeare? Who’s going to help you sort out these feelings?
What’s Going On?
THAT, I believe, is what’s really going on between these two texts, a major change in the emotional tenor of family life. But I certainly can’t present a strong argument in a blog post, and I’ve been working on this one for a long time. Nor, alas, anywhere else.
The argument I’d like to present would have two aspects, one of them looks to socio-historical context and the other looks to the mind and to the intrinsic integrity and elasticity of ‘texts.’ The contextual aspect would be about how people in fact live their marriages. We know that the social construction of marriage has changed over time, and that it was changing in Shakespeare’s time, but slowly. This kind of change doesn’t happen over night.
In a paper I published some years ago (At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare’s Greatest Creation?) I follow Lawrence Stone on this. In The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500 – 1800 he argues that the English family was reconstructed to accommodate affective individualism during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Affective individualism stressed autonomy, privacy, and long-term emotional commitment. This reconstruction happened in three over-lapping phases from the Open Lineage Family (1450 - 1700), to the Restricted Patriarchal Nuclear Family (1550 - 1700), and finally to the closed Domesticated Nuclear Family (1640 - 1800) - note the overlap in the dates. The evolution is gradual and affects different strata of society in different ways.
Greene and Shakespeare are writing in the middle of this evolution. Green wrote a text that speaks to the emotional structure of the Open Lineage Family while Shakespeare, somehow anticipated Milton’s sentiment, and wrote a text that’s neither here nor there in the Open Lineage context—and may, in fact, be a bit odd—but that’s on the money for the Domesticated Nuclear Family. His text made the emotional arrangements of that family available, in effect, for trial runs.
But just what IS going on in the mind? That is, how do plays accomplish this magic? What are the concepts we’re going to use to craft an account? In particular, what terms will be commensurate with the words and events in the play?
We are now back where Lévi-Strauss was when confronted with all those myths, so alike one another overall, but pair by pair, different and different in apparently systematic and coordinated ways. While I’ve talked my way through the parallels between the plays and how they are consistent to different conceptions of marriage it’s not clear that that explains much even if you are willing to take those stories at face value which, of course, I am prepared to do, at least for the duration of this essay. Where does the original jealously come from in the first place? And why make that the centerpiece of a play?
I deal with that question in the essay I mentioned above, At the Edge of the Modern, and I deal with it in psychoanalytic terms, but also the terms of contemporary evolutionary psychology. There I recount evidence that sexuality is handled by one behavioral system while attachment and affection are handled by a different and independent system. Coordinating these two systems so that they converge on one and the same object—“a virgin/ whom he has whored,” to quote William Carlos Williams, Patterson V—seems to be difficult and a great deal of cultural energy must be expended on it.
I won’t repeat that material here as THAT’s not quite the point of this particular exercise. My point is simply that there’s something biological going on, that it’s complicated, and we have to take account of it. And we’re going to need some kind of computational model both to explicate the biology—as a set of innate programs, if you will—and to organize it into stories.
What I have in mind is that, for example, when the son dies, a switch gets tripped in the reader’s mind, when Pandosto propositions Fawnia a different switch gets tripped, and when Hermione comes down from her pedestal, that’s a different switch as well. What are these switches, and just how do they get tripped? How are they interlocked so that tripping one switch disables another?
Those are the kinds of questions we’ll need to answer in order more deeply to understand how these stories work, both discursively in real time, and how many tellings over social time and space provide a means through which people reorganize their personal, emotional, and social lives. While we know enough about psychology and computation to think about such models, we certainly don’t have any at hand.
Toward a Morphology of Texts
But we do have texts at hand, and we can certainly describe and analyze them in terms similar to those I’ve used with Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale. I’ve already done some work comparing The Winter’s Tale with Othello, a tragedy, and Much Ado about Nothing, a comedy (At the Edge of the Modern). Those other two plays also feature a man who mistakenly believes that his beloved is unfaithful to him. In the comedy the mistake happens between betrothal and the marriage ceremony; in the tragedy it happens between the ceremony and the consummation; and in the romance it happens after the marriage has born an heir. In the comedy the protagonist is a junior officer; in the tragedy he’s a senior commander; and in the romance he’s the king. Is there a pattern here? If so, how does it work?
Looking in a different direction I note that Wuthering Heights, like The Winter’s Tale, is a two-generation story, one in which a rupture in the order generation is healed through a marriage in the younger generation. The novel, however, is told through a complex double-narration in which one character within the story, Nelly Dean, tells it to another, Lockwood, and that other character tells the story to us, audience? Does that framing allow Brontë to do something that Shakespeare couldn’t do? If so, what, and how?
Such things are doable. But they require us to pay close attention to the text—closer even than so-called close reading—and they require us to rest content with good descriptive and analytical work, as generations of naturalists were able to content themselves with accurate analysis and description of flora and fauna. If we undertake this kind of work we’re not going to be answering the Big Questions in every essay. More accurately, we wont’ be parroting and reconfiguring The Answer provided by some Star Critic so that it fits the text under discussion.
What I’m proposing, and what I’ve been doing for some time now, is a way of proceeding that isn’t obsessed with ferreting out hidden meanings. Nothing’s hidden, but there’s much that we don’t understand, mechanisms we can’t see directly. But we have no hope of understanding those mechanisms if we cannot even describe their traces, that is, the texts they produce. We must learn more effective descriptive methods, and nothing is so effective as comparing texts to highlight similarities and differences. We all know that, we’ve been doing it for years. Would it hurt us to return, albeit, with a bit more care and precision?