In a room of state in the palace were Leontes, King of Sicily; Hermione, his wife; Mamillius, their son; Polixenes, King of Bohemia; Camillo, a courtier from Sicily; and some attendants.
Using the royal plural, King Polixenes said, “Shepherds have seen the Moon, the watery star that controls the tides, go through nine cycles since we left our throne without an occupant. I have been away from Bohemia for nine months. We could thank you, Leontes, my brother King, nine months for your hospitality, but yet we should, for perpetuity, still owe you thanks. Therefore, let my ‘We thank you’ be like a zero that when added to other numbers multiply by many thousands the numbers that go before it. Let my one ‘We thank you’ stand for all the many thousand thank-yous we owe to you.”
King Leontes replied, “Do not say thanks now; say thanks when you depart from Sicily.”
“Sir, that will be tomorrow,” King Polixenes said. “My fears make me ask what may happen or what trouble may breed because of my long absence from Bohemia. I fear that sneaping, aka cutting, winds may blow at home — winds that will make us say, ‘Yes, we had just cause to be afraid of what might happen during our long absence.’ Besides, I have stayed too long here and I am tiring your majesty.”
“We are tougher, brother King,” Leontes said, “than any ‘trouble’ you can give us.”
“I can no longer stay here. I must return home.”
“Stay one week longer,” King Leontes requested.
“Truly I must leave tomorrow.”
“We will compromise and split the time between us,” King Leontes said. “Stay half a week longer and know that I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“Do not press me to stay,” King Polixenes said. “Please do not press me. No tongue that moves, none — none in the world — could persuade me as quickly as yours. You could persuade me now if you had a good reason for needing me here, even if I had a good reason to deny your request. My affairs drag me homeward: I am needed there. If you were to hinder me and prevent me from leaving, it would be like a whip to me even if you wanted me to stay longer because of our friendship. My stay here costs you expense and trouble. To save you from both, I will leave. Farewell, our brother.”
King Leontes said to his wife, Hermione, “Tongue-tied, our Queen? Speak to him.”
“I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until you had drawn from him oaths not to stay and then I would come and save the day,” Hermione said. “You, sir, try to persuade him too coldly. Tell him that you are sure that everything in Bohemia is well. This is supported by the news that we received yesterday from Bohemia. Tell him this. By doing so, you will beat his best argument for returning to his home.”
“Well said, Hermione,” King Leontes said.
“Another good and strong argument for him to return to his home,” Hermione said, “is for him to say that he longs to see his son. If that is his reason for going, let him say so then, and let him go. If he swears that that is his reason for leaving, he shall not stay here. We women will thwack him away from here. We will hit him with the distaffs that we use when we spin wool.”
Hermione said to King Polixenes, “Yet of your royal presence I’ll venture to borrow a week. When in Bohemia you entertain my lord, I’ll pay back the loan of a week by giving him permission in advance to stay in Bohemia a month longer than the time fixed for his departure back to Sicily.”
She added, “But indeed, Leontes, my husband, I love you not a jot less than any woman who loves her lord and husband.”
King Leontes walked over to his son.
Hermione asked King Polixenes, “You’ll stay?”
“Won’t you stay?”
“I cannot, truly and verily.”
“Verily!” Hermione exclaimed. “You put me off with limp and weak vows; but I, even if you were to try to shake stars out of the sky with your oaths, would still say, ‘Sir, you shall not go.’ Verily, you shall not go. A lady’s ‘verily’ is as potent as a lord’s. Women can make oaths as strong as the oaths of men. Do you still insist on going? You will force me to keep you as a prisoner, not as a guest. In that case you shall pay your fees when you depart the way that a prisoner pays a fee to the jailer when he departs, and you will save your thanks. What do you say now? Will you be my prisoner or my guest? I swear by your dread ‘verily’ that you will be one of them.”
“In that case, I will be your guest, madam,” King Polixenes replied. “To be your prisoner implies that I would have offended you by committing an offense. I would find it less easy to commit an offense than you would to punish it.”
“So I will not be your jailer then, but instead your kind hostess,” Hermione said. “Come, I’ll ask you questions about my husband’s tricks and yours when you were boys.”
She asked him, “You were pretty lordings — fine young boys — then?”
“We were, fair Queen,” King Polixenes said. “We were two lads who thought there was nothing more to come except a day tomorrow that was like the day today. We thought that we would be boys forever.”
“Was not my lord — my husband — the greater rascal of you two?”
“We were like twin lambs frisking in the Sun, and each of us bleated at the other. What we exchanged was innocence for innocence; we knew nothing about evil and we did not dream that anyone committed evil acts. Had we pursued that life, and had our youthful innocence never been replaced by mature thoughts because of our growing up, we should have answered Heaven boldly ‘not guilty of personal sin’ on the Day of Judgment. Our only sin would have been the original sin we inherited from Adam, the first man.”
“By this I gather that you have tripped and sinned since you were boys,” Hermione said.
“My most sacred lady!” King Polixenes said. “Temptations have since then come to us. In those unfledged days my wife was only a girl, and your precious self had then not crossed the eyes of my young playfellow.”
“May Heaven help us!” Hermione said. “Don’t continue speaking, lest you say that your Queen and I are devils who made you two sin. Yet go on. The offences that your Queen and I have made you do we’ll answer to, assuming that you first sinned with us and that you continued to sin with us and that you did not sin with anyone but us.”
Leontes came closer to them and asked Hermione, “Is he won over yet?”
“He’ll stay, my lord.”
“At my request, he would not,” King Leontes said. “Hermione, my dearest, you have never spoken better and for a better purpose.”
“Never?” she replied.
“Never, except once,” her husband said.
“What! Have I twice spoken well? When was the other time? Please tell me. Cram us women with praise, and make us as fat as tame things such as household pets. One good deed that is not praised slaughters a thousand good deeds that would have been done if that good deed had been praised. Praises are the wages of women. You may ride us with one soft kiss a thousand furlongs before we would gallop an acre as a result of being spurred. You will receive more from a woman if you treat her with kindness than if you treat her harshly.
“But to get to the point: My most recent good deed with words was to persuade King Polixenes to stay here longer. What was my first good deed with words? It has an elder sister — it was done previously to this good deed unless I mistake you. I hope that my other good deed has won me grace and favor. Once before today I spoke to the purpose. When? Tell me. I long to know.”
“Why, that was when three crabbed months had soured themselves to death,” King Leontes said. “It took me three months before I could make you open your white hand and accept my hand. When I succeeded, then you uttered, ‘I am yours forever.’ At that time, you agreed to marry me.”
“That good deed brought me grace indeed,” Hermione said. “Why — look at that! — I have spoken to the purpose twice. Once I forever earned a royal husband; the other time I earned for a longer time the presence of a friend.”
A man can fall in love with a glance; a man can also become jealous with a glance. Such feelings can be incredibly strong.
Hermione took King Polixenes’ hand.
Seeing this, King Leontes instantly became jealous and thought, They are too hot, too hot! To mingle friendship too far is mingling bloods. A man and a woman who take friendship too far end up in bed together and mingle their bodily fluids. I have tremor cordis — a trembling of my heart — in me. My heart dances, but not for joy — not joy. This hospitality can have an innocent face. This liberty can come from sincerity, from generosity, and from a warm heart. It can well become the agent — Hermione, who may simply be a good hostess. I grant all that, but Hermione and King Polixenes are now paddling palms and pinching fingers — they are holding hands. And they are smiling at each other as if they were smiling into a mirror, and they are sighing deep sighs like those of a dying deer. This is hospitality that my heart does not like — or my brows! I can almost feel the horns of a cuckold growing from my brows!
King Leontes went over to his son and asked him, “Mamillius, are you my boy?”
“Yes, my good lord.”
“So you are, in faith,” King Leontes said. “Why, that’s my bawcock, aka fine fellow. What, have you smudged your nose? They say that your nose is a copy of mine. Come, young captain, we must be neat.”
He thought a moment about the horns of a cuckold, and he remembered that one meaning of the word “neat” in their society was “horned cattle.”
He added, “Not neat, but we must be clean, captain. The steer, the heifer, and the calf are all called ‘neat.’”
King Leontes looked over at his wife, Hermione, and King Polixenes, who were still holding hands.
He said, “She is still virginalling upon his palm!”
The virginals was a keyboard instrument that women played.
He said to his son, “How are you, you playful calf! Are you my calf?”
“Yes, if you want me to be, my lord,” Mamillius said.
“You lack a rough head and the shoots that I have, so you are not exactly like me,” King Leontes said.
By “shoots,” he may have meant his beard — or the horns that he imagined to be growing from his head.
He continued: “Yet they say we are almost as alike as eggs. Women say so; women will say anything. They are as false as dyed black clothing that hides the real color. They are as false as wind and water — the words of a woman are written on wind and running water. They are as false as the dice of a gambler who recognizes no distinction between what is mine and what he wants to be his. Yet it is true to say that this boy looks like me.
“Come, sir page, look at me with your sky-blue eyes, sweet villain! You are very dear to me! You are a piece of me!”
He began to wonder if Hermione were unfaithful to him: Can your dam — is it possible?
A dam is an animal’s mother. King Leontes was unwilling to think of his wife as human.
He thought, Jealousy! Your intensity stabs the center of my being and heart! You make it possible to think things that were not thought to be possible. You communicate with dreams and illusions — but how can this be? You join and act in concert with what is unreal, and so you are able to join and act in concert with nothing. You make me think things that I thought not to be possible. Since you can do this, it becomes very believable that you may join and act in concert with something that is real. You have made me think that things that I thought to be impossible are in fact quite possible, and those things go beyond what is permitted — my wife is having an affair with my best friend! I find this to be true, and that has infected my brains and caused horns to grow on my brows.
King Leontes realized that jealousy is often not justified, but he believed that in his case it was justified.
King Polixenes looked at King Leontes and asked Hermione, “What is wrong with your husband?”
“He seems somewhat unsettled,” Hermione replied.
“How are you, my lord?” King Polixenes asked. “How do you feel? How is it with you, my best friend and brother and fellow King?”
Hermione said to her husband, “You look as if you have a lot on your mind. Are you angry about something, my lord?”
King Leontes replied, “No, truly I am not angry. Sometimes nature will betray its folly, its tenderness, and show that it is silly and sentimental. In doing so, it makes itself a laughingstock to people who lack sentimentality.
“Looking at the lineaments of my boy’s face, I thought I had gone back twenty-three years, and I saw myself as a boy not yet old enough to wear pants. I was wearing my green velvet coat of the type that both young boys and young girls wear. My dagger was sheathed, lest it should bite its master, and so prove, as ornaments often do, to be dangerous. My dagger then was for show, not for use.
“How like, I thought, I then was to this kernel, this unripe peapod, this young gentleman, my son.”
He asked his son, “My honest friend, will you take eggs for money?”
This was a proverbial expression that literally meant, Will you accept inexpensive goods rather than money? Figuratively, it meant, Will you allow yourself to be imposed upon?
Mamillius replied, “No, my lord, I’ll fight.”
This answer relieved King Leontes because this answer was the one that he would give. His son was like him both physically and mentally. His son was honest in two senses: He was honorable and legitimate.
“You will!” King Leontes happily exclaimed. “Why, good luck to you! May your lot in life be that of a happy man!”
He asked King Polixenes, “My brother King, are you as fond of your young Prince as we are of ours?”
“When I am at home, sir, my son keeps me busy and he is everything to me. He makes me laugh, and I am seriously concerned about his wellbeing. At one time he is my sworn friend, and at another time he is my enemy. He is my parasite who eats at my table, he is my soldier, he is my statesman — he is everything to me. By making me happy, he makes a day in July as short as a day in December. And with his varying childish whims he cures in me thoughts that would thicken my blood and make me sluggish and depressed.”
“My own young squire, aka son, does the same things for me,” King Leontes said. “My son and I will walk, my lord, and leave you and my wife to your graver and more mature steps.
“Hermione, show how you love us in our brother King’s welcome. Let what is dear in Sicily be cheap. Next to yourself and my young rover here, King Polixenes is heir apparent — the person closest to my heart.”
“If you want us, we will be in the garden,” Hermione replied. “Shall we wait for you there?”
“Do whatever you please,” King Leontes replied. “You’ll be found as long as you are beneath the sky.”
He thought, By “found,” I mean “found out.” I am angling now, although you do not see me giving you line. I am giving you enough rope to hang yourself. Go on! Go on! Look at how my wife holds up her beak, her bill, her mouth, to him! And she takes his arm in hers with the boldness of a wife taking her approving husband’s arm!
King Polixenes, Hermione, and the attendants exited.
King Leontes thought, My wife is gone already! She is lost to me, and she has fallen into sin by committing adultery with King Polixenes. The evidence for her adultery is as solid as an inch-thick board. She is knee-deep in sin. Most people are over head and ears in love, but I am over head and ears a forked one — the horns of a cuckold fork out of my forehead!
He said to his son, “Go, play, boy, play.”
He thought, Your mother plays and commits adultery, and I play a part, too. I pretend to be an uncuckolded husband. I play so disgraced a part that I will be hissed to my grave like a bad actor being hissed off the stage. Contempt and clamor will be my funeral bell.
He said again, “Go, play, boy, play.”
He thought, There have been, or I am much deceived, cuckolds before now; and many a man exists, even at this present time, right now while I think this, who holds his wife by the arm and little thinks that he has been sluiced in his absence and his pond fished by his nearest neighbor, by Sir Smile, his neighbor.
“Sluiced” means “showered with water,” but the “water” that King Leontes was thinking about was semen. He was also using the word “pond” as a synonym for “vagina.” He would do the same thing with the word “gate.”
He thought, There’s comfort in thinking that I am not the only cuckold. Other men have gates and those gates are opened, as mine is, against their will. If all men who have adulteress wives were to despair, a tenth of mankind would hang themselves. No medicine can cure a cuckold. Adultery is like a bawdy planet that in astrological terms will strike whenever it is in the ascendant. This planet is powerful — believe it! — in the east, west, north, and south. Let us realize that no vagina can be barricaded; a vagina will let in and out the enemy with bag and baggage — with scrotum and its contents. Many thousands of us have the disease of cuckoldry and don’t know it.
He said to his son, “How are you, boy?”
“I am like you, they say.”
“Why, that’s some comfort,” King Leontes said.
He noticed a man and said, “What, is that my courtier Camillo there?”
“Yes, my good lord,” Camillo replied.
King Leontes said, “Go play, Mamillius; you are an honest man.”
Mamillius departed, and King Leontes thought, You are legitimate; you are my son.
King Leontes said, “Camillo, this great sir — King Polixenes — will stay a while longer.”
“You had much trouble to make his anchor hold,” Camillo replied. “When you cast the anchor out, it always dragged the bottom and came back.”
“Did you see that?” King Leontes asked.
“King Polixenes would not stay here longer when you asked him to,” Camillo said. “He always insisted that his reasons for returning to his Kingdom were more important.”
“Did you perceive that?” King Leontes asked.
He thought, They are already aware that I am a cuckold. They are whispering in corners, “The King of Sicily is a so-and-so.”
He did not want to put the word “cuckold” in the mouth of his subjects.
He thought, News of my cuckoldry must have been known for a long time if I am the last to learn it.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
Note: The above is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here: