2004 Norton Scholar’s Prize Winning Essay

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    The Opacity of Evil: The Turn from Theodicy in The Winter’s Tale

    Matthew Valdiviez

    The opening of The Winter’s Tale is peculiar among the later plays, and particularly among the late romances: Cymbeline, The Tempest, Pericles, King Lear, and Othello all open with scenes that plunge us into the midst of the crises that are to lead into the dramatic climaxes of these plays. The Winter’s Tale, however, gives us a dialogue between two courtiers that paints a picture of absolute peace and contentment in brotherly love between the kings and kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia. By opening the play so peacefully, the bard allows for the circular structure that the ricorso of Act V completes, returning us (or seeming to return us) to a paradise regained through the mediating work of Time, the arduous penitence of Leontes, and the miraculous orchestrations of Paulina. But this creates a tremendous difficulty when we attempt to apprehend just how the crisis develops in the first place. Where does this jealousy of Leontes come from? (It’s both the most obvious and the most essential question in the interpretation of the play.) How can it have erupted out of the pristinely ordered Eden with which this play opens? Here the nature of evil is dramatized in a unique manner, for unlike Othello, Leontes, who at the outset shows no signs of the deep disturbance of mind he comes to exhibit, has no instigating Iago to tempt him to his crimes; the spontaneous emergence of evil forestalls the possibility of any regress of psychological causes and forces the reader into an astonishment at its unmediated presence.

    Polixenes’ description of the shared boyhood of himself and Leontes gives the most central indication of the spiritual atmosphere of the play’s opening moments:

    We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’th’ sun,
    And bleat the one at th’other. What we changed
    Was innocence for innocence. We knew not
    The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
    That any did. Had we pursued that life,
    And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared
    With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven
    Boldly, "Not guilty," the imposition cleared
    Hereditary ours.


    Polixenes will go on to suggest that this Edenic relation to the world was interrupted when the young men discovered the young women who would become their wives. But the suggestion is made in jest, and the purity of this lost boyhood seems really to have been carried over into the first two scenes. It is shattered when Leontes’ jealousy makes its first appearance. Polixenes goes so far as to suggest that the boys’ childhood was "clear even of original sin" (Frye 165), and there is little if anything to indicate that their innocence has not remained intact. At any rate, there is nothing in these scenes to which we might attribute Leontes’ mad suspicions, which seem to leap so violently out at us from nowhere at I.2.110, as surprising to the audience as they are to any of the characters.

    The "nowhere" out of which, as here, evil seems so often figuratively to emerge spontaneously has been frequently reified into a metaphysical root of sin. Theologians from Augustine to Karl Barth have been tempted with the idea that evil, in its metaphysical essence, is rather a privation of being than a real presence in the world, a distortion or perversion of creatures rather than a created thing. By such conceptual means, theologians attempt to justify God against the charge that he created evil. It’s a charming notion and one that most religious thinkers flirt with in one form or another from time to time, but it holds little water against the tangibly opaque effects of sin, which are difficult to think of as mere privations, lacks, nothings, lacunae of being. Evil really hurts, and if nothing will come of nothing, then evil must be something. (It feels too childishly obvious to bother writing down.) When Samuel Johnson was told of Bishop Berkeley’s denial of the reality of material substance, he walked to the side of the road, kicked a stone, and said, "I refute him thus." Leontes does as much with his fantastically exasperated speech to Camillo:

    Is whispering nothing?
    Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
    Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
    Of laughter with a sigh?—a note infallible
    Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot?
    Skulking in the 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.


    As it happens, every one of these incidents is an invention of Leontes’ corrupt imagination or, as Northrop Frye describes it, "a demonic reversal of the divine creation" (167). But Leontes’ point remains: If he had actually observed any of this, the wickedness could not amount to nothing. And the same applies in turn to Leontes’ own wickedness; it is an undeniable presence, however mysterious might be the ground out of which it erupted. We are simply not privy to this "demonic" source, which is essentially incapable of conceptual elaboration. Metaphysical theodicy cannot deal with what Paul Ricoeur has referred to as the "realism of sin" (282): "We inaugurate evil. It is through us that evil comes into the world. But we inaugurate evil only on the basis of an evil already there, of which our birth is an impenetrable symbol" (286). Evil has not the clear conceptual limitations of a pure object. We come upon it, we discover it, we are it. Its origins are not fixed as something definitely within or outside of us, so it shows up as if out of nowhere. To a being whose very nature has been always already tainted with sin, evil cannot be subsumed under the rigorous sway of any single idea; or as Ricoeur explains: "The consciousness of sin is not its measure. Sin is my true situation before God. The ’before God’ and not my consciousness of it is the measure of sin. That is why there must be an other, a prophet to denounce sin" (282). The role of the prophet to Leontes will be played, at least in part, by Paulina.

    The innocent state described by Polixenes is always an illusion, always already lost to us, a dream of pure self-mastery undisturbed by the self-absence that unhinges Leontes’ mind from what is so obvious to those around him. Camillo describes him as "in rebellion with himself" (I.2.356), a very Augustinian phrase. The "with" gives the double sense of being in a sort of solipsistic conspiracy against the mindset of those around him ("with himself, against the world") and of being split into two warring egos ("against himself, against his better nature," the Old English wiþ). But this basic fracture, understood as signifying at once the break between the individual will and the common sense of others and the break between two striving selves within Leontes, forestalls the possibility of getting an objective look at its source. Evil corrupts the perceptions of the evildoer so that he can never understand his evil nature as evil; thus we are at liberty to be shocked at the spontaneous emergence of evil in Leontes precisely to the extent that we cannot recognize it in ourselves.

    If we could recognize evil clearly from the outset, we might have no trouble avoiding it. If we could master it conceptually, we might be able to atone for it. But Paulina gives the deathblow to this hope:

    Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
    Than all thy woes can stir. Therefore betake thee
    To nothing but despair. A thousand knees,
    Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
    Upon a barren mountain, and still winter
    In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
    To look that way thou wert.


    There are a number of theological implications to this speech, not the least of which would seem to be a rejection of the doctrine of Purgatory (a rather un-Catholic moment for the bard). Both the images of Christ fasting in the desert and of Prometheus chained to his rock face are summoned to indicate the utmost limits of human penitence and atonement. But to one who approaches evil from the inside, there can never be any question of squaring accounts. Grace is humanity’s only hope.

    The word grace plays a special role in this play. It would take too long here to unpack all its different senses, but one instance of it ought to be noted. After Polixenes and Leontes first jokingly suggest that their wives were the ones who first caused them to sin, Hermione gives a somewhat enigmatically allusive response:

    My last good deed was to entreat his stay.
    What was my first? It has an elder sister,
    Or I mistake you, O, would her name were Grace!


    On the one hand, Hermione seems only to be uttering a wish that her actions had all along carried the virtue of graciousness. But there may also be a hint here that preceding any consciousness of wrongdoing is the divine gift of Grace, an "elder sister" who first trains up our lesser, more naÔve human deeds, allowing them to outgrow their baser nature. A consciousness of sin is, therefore, possible only on the basis of a consciousness of grace; we meet wickedness face to face for the first time only in our having been forgiven, and the history of the fall is intelligible only by way of the testament of the work of salvation. The theologian who busies himself trying to justify God from the charge of having created evil has misunderstood the problem; it is God who justifies us, and the roles can never be reversed.

    But Leontes does not experience this grace in such a perfect fashion as we might expect. The final restoration of Hermione is such an overwhelming spectacle that it may easily put out of our minds the permanent loss of Mamillius and Antigonus. This is another of The Winter’s Tale ’s peculiarities among the romances. In Cymbeline, for instance, we do not expect to see the wicked Queen or the clottish Cloten restored in the end; we are glad to get rid of them, and their reappearance could only mar the concluding reconciliation. But here the missing Antigonus and Mamillius do mar the final reunion scene, or at any rate, they haunt us with a suspicion that not all accounts have been so magically settled as we might like. Stanley Cavell notes the conspicuous absence and suggests that "the absent boy is meant to cast the shadow of doubt over the general air of reunion at the end of the play, to emblematize that no human reconciliation is uncompromised, not even one constructible by the powers of Shakespeare" (193). But it may be after all that this grace, though not the particular restoration that we or the characters might have designed, is the most beneficent one possible: Creatures who cannot wrap their minds around the wickedness that needs grace as a remedy can scarcely be expected to apprehend the fullness of that grace itself.

    But fullness seems to be just what is missing. We require that the two innocents be restored in the end so that the moral economy of The Winter’s Tale might be preserved, or at least repaired; so long as Antigonus and Mamillius are left missing, a remainder seems to disrupt the ricorso’s symmetry to the opening scene of the play, leaving the circular structure unfinished. But this understanding returns us to the notion that evil (here posited as debt) is a privation that waits to be filled or compensated. The grace that is given must be understood not in terms of such economic exchange, of debt and repayment, but as a gift. Grace has a gift-character in two senses, the more obvious being that he who receives it cannot have done anything to earn it—otherwise it is merely wages for labor—and can do nothing to repay it. But it is, furthermore, a gift in that its value as such cannot be calculated, cannot be made commensurate with a rational ethical economy. The appropriate response to every gift is gratitude, but gratitude does not repay the gift, and a gift given in return for a gift (insofar as it is given "in return") perverts the gift-character of the gift into a quantifiable economic exchange. A gift has no opposite, not even theft, for theft only places the thief back into the schema of exchange values; the thief is obliged to make restitution. The recipient of a gift is not indebted, or at least not in any quantifiable way. Grace is no payment for sins, but a divine dispensation that dismantles the economy of ethical obligation. When Paul explains, "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6.23), he means not that the gift is an adequate response to the critical indebtedness of sin, but that the gift permanently, superveniently interrupts the cycle of ethical exchange ("the Law") that makes the wages of sin possible.

    If the grace that remedies the effects of evil can never be quantified, and if sin as such can never be made known as object except in the wake of grace and forgiveness (Milton’s "prevenient grace descending"), then the essence of evil must remain concealed except as the trace of what has already been eradicated by grace. The final word on theodicy is delivered very early on in the play:

    Polixenes: How should this grow?
    Camillo: I know not, but I am sure ’tis safer to
    Avoid what’s grown than question how ’tis born.


    Evil greets us as a real tangible presence, not to be surpassed and not to be mastered. The "safety" Camillo speaks of is, of course, always a relative safety, for there is simply no avoiding sin. But the bad faith of theodicy misrepresents the nature of evil as a problem to which there is an intelligible solution. There is no "solution" to evil: Grace does not solve a problem, but sets up a new order of being-in-the-world (what Karl Rahner calls the "supernatural existential"). The seeming ricorso of Act V does not restore to us a faultless world of the play’s opening (there never really was such a world), for those sixteen years are as lost as the son of Leontes and the husband of Paulina; rather it establishes something entirely new, entirely incommensurate with the corrupted cosmos of human nature left to its own devices. The difference between the new world and the old is the difference between the consciousness of sin and the calculus of wrongdoing, between the peace of God and the "intoxicated security of the flesh" (Calvin).

    Works Cited

    • Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge, in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.
    • Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.
    • Greenblatt, Stephen, Ed. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.
    • Ricoeur, Paul. The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics. Ed. Don Ihde. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1974.