Shakespeare’s romance The Winter’s Tale tells the story of two countries: Sicilia—the country of spring, rightfully possessing a sea coast—and Bohemia—a country of winter, granted one by Shakespeare for the purposes of his plot. Leontes, the jealous and tyrannous king of Sicilia, causes the deaths of his son, Mamillius, and his wife, Hermione, and orders that his baby daughter, Perdita, be abandoned in the wilderness. Leontes has brought winter into his wonderful spring kingdom. Happiness will not return to Sicilia until “that which is lost” is “found.” So proclaims the “oracle.”
Some critics argue as Kenneth Muir does that “Shakespeare’s advancing years” resulted in his showing in the late romances “events through the eyes of the parents and not, as in the earlier comedies and in Romeo and Juliet, through the eyes of the children” (“Introduction,” Shakespeare The Winter’s Tale: A Casebook [London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1983], 12). However, as always, Shakespeare is more complex than his critics. Even if in The Winter’s Tale we see the action from the perspective of adults, it is the child Mamillius who starts telling the story of a man who “dwelt by a churchyard,” a story which resembles that of his own father. And it is Perdita and Florizel who revive Sicilia, bringing back hope and forgiveness.
Another example of Shakespeare’s complexity (and entertainment value) is his use of history and contemporary events to add a gloss of reality to his fictions. Though The Winter’s Tale might seem pure fancy, it mirrors the events of its time. Moreover, “as Shakespeare composed his romance for staging in 1611, winter and Muscovy were in fashion” (Daryl Palmer, “Jacobean Muscovites: Winter, Tyranny, and Knowledge in The Winter’s Tale,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol.46, No.3 [Autumn, 1995], 323 339; p. 328).
The use of winter in the title and the fact that Leontes’ queen Hermione can lawfully claim “The Emperor of Russia was my father” (The Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed., Frank Kermode [New York: The New American Library, Inc.,1963], 3:2.117) allows us to see parallels with the history of this so-called Country of Winter and to argue that Hermione’s heritage is not merely an exotic detail, but an integral element of the play. When she says of her father, “Oh that he were alive, and here beholding / His daughter’s trial!” (3.2.118-19), she can mean no one but Ivan IV, Ivan the Terrible (Groznii). He was the first of Russia’s rulers “to visualize himself as . . . Tsar” (Harold Lamb, The March of Muscovy: Ivan the Terrible and the Growth of the Russian Empire [Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1948], 130) or emperor, and he was certainly well known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
In 1553, the English government backed an expedition by the Muscovy Company of Merchant Adventurers that went in search of a northeast passage. The survivors spent the winter in what was to become Archangel, “and in the spring pushed overland to the court of Ivan the Terrrible” (Winston Churchill, The New World [New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1959], 94). The resulting connection between England and Ivan’s court, which was to last until his death, was of vital importance. As Norman Jones says, “Need for new markets and sources of foreign exchange drove English merchants into the world in a way undreamt of by their fathers” (The Birth of the Elizabethan Age: England in the 1560s [Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993], 227). The English not only established what were sometimes exclusive trading rights with Russia, they also traveled overland in Ivan’s large and expanding country and set up trading stations, opening yet other markets. Anthony Jenkinson, searching for trade routes for the Muscovy Company and reporting also to Ivan himself, drew the “First coherent map of Russia” in 1562 (Lamb, 182). Arthur Edwards reached the court of the Shah of Persia in 1569 (Jones, 227).
In addition to the glory of the adventures and the value of the trade goods, there was also a more personal connection between Ivan the Terrible’s Russia and Shakespeare’s England. Ivan asked for Queen Elizabeth’s hand in marriage and “he required that Elizabeth sign a secret agreement to claim sanctuary in his court, as well as he in hers” (Lamb, 187). Elizabeth offered Ivan sanctuary whenever he felt the need of it, but she refused the other two requests as tactfully as possible. Though he was angered by the refusal, Ivan clung to the notion of escaping to England and to the idea of marrying Elizabeth, or failing that, one of her kinswomen, for the rest of his life. In a 1584 meeting with Jeremy Bowes, the English ambassador, Ivan declared “that he was so determined to marry one of Queen Elizabeth’s kinswomen that he had come to the conclusion that he must himself go to England and claim his bride” (Robert Payne and Nikita Romanoff, Ivan the Terrible [New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002], 415). “England . . . shone like a vision of paradise for him” (Payne, 415), but unfortunately, Ivan died a few weeks after that conversation. Ivan the Terrible’s affection for England had been such that upon his death, the Russian “chancellor appeared in the apartments of Jeremy Bowes . . . to say with malice, ‘The English Emperor is Dead’” (Lamb 197 98).
Many English merchants and diplomats of the time saw the Empire of Ivan Groznii as “an imperfect analog to England”(Palmer 326). And many of Ivan’s character traits and experiences are echoed in The Winter’s Tale. To an audience (such as the one at James’s court in 1613) with proper background information, the play unveils additional meanings and shows Shakespeare’s alternative scenario for the flow of history.
Jacobean England (and James himself) had a special interest in Russia, Ivan the Terrible, and rulers who might succeed him. Following the deaths of Ivan Groznii and his successor Boris Godunov, Russia was experiencing a great crisis, later given the name of “Time of Troubles.” After 1605, it became “a shaken nation which proved unable to unite behind a successor for fifteen years” ( James Billington, The Icon and the Axe, an Interpretive History of Russian Culture [New York: Vintage Books, 1970], 102). And for some time King James I was considering the possibility to become “the politique father” for Russia (Palmer, 327). In 1612, “John Merrick, chief agent for the Muscovy Company . . . was proposing that the king [James I] make Russia a protectorate” (Palmer 327).
So we can suppose that the audience of the time welcomed the references to the country of Ivan Groznii. To make these references more plentiful and meaningful, Shakespeare had to shift some of the characters’ connections in his original source—Greene’s Pandosto. “In Greene’s story, that is, the Russian connection is to the Polixenes character and matters incidentally” (Palmer 324). Following the fashion of the time, Shakespeare increased the Russian elements in his play. It is not only Hermione’s reference to her father that sends the minds of the audience to Russia to take a close look, it is the whole kingdom of Sicilia that resembles the Empire of Snow. And King Leontes himself is no one but Ivan Groznii. Thus, in The Winter’s Tale we see a clear parallel of Sicilian kingdom and Russian empire. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, George Turberville, describes the Russia of the time as “savage soyle, where lawes doe beare no sway / But all is at the King his will, / to save or els to slay” (cited in Palmer, 329). Doesn’t this description apply to the kingdom of Leontes? What laws, what regulations does he follow in carrying out the tyrannous punishment of his wife? Does the oracle possess any authority for Leontes? Nothing has the power to control or stop this “jealous tyrant.” Like Ivan Groznii, he easily accuses and discards a wife, distrusts his subjects, and causes the death of his own son.
It seems as though Shakespeare is deliberately trying to make Leontes as much like Ivan Groznii as possible. For example, “Ivan’s temper . . . always grew more violent in winter” (Payne, 204). “Ivan lost two of his daughters by Anastasia in infancy” (Payne, 205). And Anastasia herself, who was Ivan’s first and most beloved wife, was described by the English ambassador Jerome Horsey in words that make her sound very much like Hermione, “This empress became wise and of such holiness, virtue, and government, as she was honored, beloved, and feared of all her subjects” (Payne, 174). “Her death threw Ivan into paroxysms of grief” (Payne, 173). Ivan’s recreations, as reported by Giles Fletcher in Of the Russe Commonwealth in Russia at the Close of the Sixteenth Century, included watching men fight bears (cited in Palmer, 332).
Often, the man’s fate was the same as that of Antigonus. One of Ivan’s courtiers did what Camillo would not. His name was Bomelius, he had a degree in medicine from Cambridge University, and he “was a superb poisoner” who varied the time it would take the poison to act according to the Tsar’s instructions (Payne, 316).
It is interesting to look at Hermione’s position in the play. On the one hand, she is the daughter of “the Emperor of Russia” and, on the other hand, she is married to him. Right before the oracle is read, Hermione says, referring to the Russian emperor, “Oh that he were alive, and here beholding / His daughter’s trial! That he did but see / The flatness of my misery; yet with eyes / Of pity, not revenge! (3.2.117 121 ).
In this speech the Sicilian queen suggests that even Ivan the Terrible would have pitied her. But does she realize that Leontes is the incarnation of the Russian emperor? Probably not, and only the audience having the appropriate historical background information can predict the outcome of the trial. Shakespeare puts Hermione in a double position relating her twice to the same person. This allows him to show two perspectives on the then-popular Russian ruler. For some his terrible temperament and aggression brought horror and distraction; for others, the Tsar’s favorites at the moment, the name meant protection and intimidation of the enemy. And Hermione mentions her father at the moment when her life is under a mortal threat.
It is worth noting that the queen’s words are not commented on by Leontes. Right after Hermione’s lines end, there is a shift in the action, and the oracle is brought by Cleomenes and Dion, who “have been both at Delphos.” Shakespeare sets it up so Leontes doesn’t have to answer Hermione’s warnings and accusations. Of course, it would have been pretty hard for him to do so, since he is himself Ivan Groznii to an extent.
Looking at The Winter’s Tale from the perspective of historical events at that time, its Russian references become clearer and easier to recognize. Also, the play reveals many more parallels and linkages with Russia than it might at first seem.
But Shakespeare’s goal in writing The Winter’s Tale was not to present the history of another country in iambic pentameter. He set out to create a world of romance, where there is always a place for a second chance, and forgiveness is granted on request, without any hesitation. Making Leontes resemble Ivan Groznii and providing the happy ending for the play, Shakespeare suggests that another historical scenario was possible for Russia.
Even though The Winter’s Tale starts out as a play about adults and their affairs, it is children who stop the winter storm and let the spring in. Shakespeare shows the troubled kingdom of Leontes, and thus of Ivan Groznii, and that such troubles can be cured by the power of youth. Unfortunately for the real Ivan, who murdered his son, such a cure was no longer available. But Shakespeare shows his belief in the triumph of youth and forgiveness. In The Winter’s Tale he pictures a battle between the Old and the Young, between winter and spring. And this is why the bear, which “carries symbolic and cultural associations; ideas of winter and tyranny” (Palmer, 332) eats Antigonus (representative of the Old) and leaves Perdita (hope of the Young). The play suggests that spring always comes after winter. The change of seasons is inevitable; hope and happiness replace the misery of distrust and accusation. Spring comes back to Sicilia, and "a sad tale” which is “best for winter” (2:1.25) is no longer told in the kingdom of Leontes.