[Work: The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, 1611]
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Rhetoric, Meter, and Tone in Act I Scene ii of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale



William Shakespeare Sanders Portrait - The Winter's Tale - Act 1 Scene 2 - rhetoric, meter, tone, dialogue, analysis

Sanders Portrait of William Shakespeare

In accordance with the heightened complexity in the structure of Shakespeare’s later plays, the rhetoric and verse forms grow more dense. The intertwining thematic and formal constructions visible throughout his body of work become knotted and subtly layered.

One such instance of this mode of high-wrought writing meeting structural experimentation in the later works of Shakespeare is The Winter’s Tale. Its narrative twists (and, indeed, genre twists) set the stage for dialogue pregnant with verbal and dramatic irony.

Careful attention to a particular passage and to the relationship between that passage and the entire play can yield a vivid portrait of how the play’s thematic concerns are woven into every moment. The passage near the beginning of The Winter’s Tale wherein Hermione convinces Polixenes to stay in Sicily is a potent example of this. In this scene, the play’s concerns with authoritative testimony and with gendered power structures belie the facade of courtly playfulness. These areas of interest, though never explicitly confronted, are present in the passage’s musicality, rhythm, diction, and rhetoric.

There is a confluence in the dialogue formed by the rhetorical flux of femininity, power, youth, and virtue and the ironic metrical disharmony of the dialogue’s participants which situates the scene as an introduction to The Winter’s Tale‘s comedy with hints of its imminent tragedy.

Rhetoric in the Dialogue of Act I Scene ii of The Winter’s Tale:

The rhetoric employed by Hermione in the first half of the passage draws together the feminine with the empowered and masculine in a way that is then subtly counteracted by the rhetoric employed by Polixenes in the second half of the passage.

Hermione’s first speech within this passage constitutes a reframing of Polixenes’ declaration that is as clever and assertive as the reframings perpetrated by Portia in the court scene of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and with as much gendered context:

[. . .] a lady’s ‘Verily’ is

As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?

Force me to keep you as a prisoner,

Not like a guest, so you shall pay your fees

When you depart and save your thanks. (I.ii.51-55)

This speech expresses and embosses a woman’s power on multiple levels:

First, its open assertion of the equivalent worth of male and female speech works together with Hermione’s appropriation of Polixenes’ word choice to claim power outright.

Second, its successful reframing of the question from ‘stay or go’ to ‘stay by force or stay by choice’ functions as both an expression of rhetorically expressed intellect and a sort of seductive maneuver.

Third, the specific choice to use prison imagery to communicate the aforementioned maneuver furthers the dominance of Hermione’s account of the situation.

Yet Hermione does not maintain control. Even as she willfully jokes with Polixenes and brilliantly directs him off of the topic of leaving and onto the topic of his childhood, Polixenes takes that opportunity to position femininity as antithetical to virtue and chastity:

[. . .] we knew not

The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed

That any did.

[. . .]

Temptations have since then been born to’s, for

In those unfledged days was my wife a girl; (I.ii.70-72, 78-79)

Polixenes, in a move that looks forward not only to Leontes’ assumptions about Hermione, but also to his own assumptions about Perdita, depicts a fall from a state of total innocence as a result of interacting with females.

Tellingly, this positioning is not entirely denied by Hermione. Still in the mode of humor, she closes this passage by contending that, provided that fidelity is maintained, sinning with women is answerable.

In this way, Hermione inadvertently ratifies the mode of thinking which will later condemn her, while boldly reinterpreting the religious image of the poisonous woman in accordance with her own view of gender equality and permissible behavior. This unfortunate double-meaning reinforces the ironic foreshadowing of her earlier sentiment about the power of female speech equaling that of male speech, a notion directly contradicted for both Hermione and Paulina in the trial scene.

Additional layers of complexity, imparted by the passage’s musical elements, showcase an inherent discord between Hermione and Polixenes which affirms Hermione’s fidelity.

Meter in the Dialogue of Act I Scene ii of The Winter’s Tale:

As ever, Shakespeare here puts the musical attributes of his lines to work with poetic intricacy to add depth to a scene; in this case, a subtle disconnect is introduced between the playful friends. The repetition of the word ‘verily’ and its movement through Hermione’s lines seems only superficially to tie the pair together:

[Polixenes:] I may not, verily.

[Hermione:] Verily?

[. . .]


You shall not go. A lady’s ‘Verily’ is

As potent as a lord’s.

[. . .]

by your dread ‘Verily,’

One of them you shall be. (I.ii.46-47, 50-52, 56-57)

That the two characters should affirm contradictory sentiments by use of the word ‘verily’ undermines the meaning of the word itself as an expression of truth.

It is further separated from its meaning simply by the saturation of repetitions within this short set of lines. Lines 47, 51, and 56—three of the four lines on which the cretic word appears in Hermione’s speech—mark departures from the near-perfect iambic pentameter of her lines.

All of this cacophony serves to subtly separate the two speakers from each other. Just as the courtly facade hides a dark impending tragedy, so the superficial playfulness of the scene hides a more serious expression. Unlike the darkness to follow, the hidden seriousness is in support of the upstanding Hermione, stressing her incompatibility with Polixenes.

This reason for the discord becomes more clear when examining it in light of some of the lines in which both interlocutors participate:

[Hermione:] You were pretty lordings then?

[Polixenes:] We were, fair queen,

[. . .]

And to be boy eternal.

[Hermione:] Was not my lord (I.ii.63, 66)

Rather than meshing together to complete the iambic pentameter of the lines, these shared lines have each of the two offering incompatible half-lines. Hermione’s trochaic half-line in the first quoted line and Polixenes’ extra unstressed syllable in the second quoted line are totally at odds with the half-lines which answer them. Hermione even begins a line on line 67 which is left incomplete by Polixenes.

The Winter's Tale first page from first folio of 1623 - William Shakespeare - Act 1 Scene 2 - rhetoric, meter, tone, dialogue, analysisThis disharmonious interaction contrasts with the shared lines of Hermione and Leontes which follow (e.g. lines 87, 88, 90, 102), all of which are in perfect or weak pentameter. This establishes a dynamic where, even poetically, Hermione is a natural pair for Leontes and not for Polixenes.

This basic rhythm is then tweaked when Leontes actively fights this natural pairing by breaking the pattern on lines 106 (just before exploding into rage) and 109 (at the moment of the explosion). The rhythmic interactions between the characters subtly trace the emotional attitudes and actions of the scene, and presage the conflicts to come.

There is a cooperation between elements such as the meter explored here and the rhetoric explored above which looks forward to both the tragedy of The Winter’s Tale‘s first half and the levity of its second half.

The Tone and Dramatic Function of Act I Scene ii of The Winter’s Tale:

The structural and poetic particulars of this scene, as well as its placement near the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, are dramaturgically significant. The rhetorical move from women’s empowerment to women’s presumed destructive capabilities detailed above reveals the impending tragedy just beneath the surface. Taking a closer look at the interactions closing this passage underscores this notion:

[Polixenes:] Temptations have since then been born to’s;

[. . .]

[Hermione:] Th’ offenses we have made you do we’ll answer,

If you first sinned with us and that with us

You did continue fault and that you slipped not

With any but with us. (I.ii.78, 84-87)

The ambiguity of the words ‘we’ and ‘us’ ties the playfulness of the lines to Leontes’ insurmountable suspicions. When Polixenes uses the word ” ‘s,” he is most straightforwardly referring to Leontes and himself, yet the word carries the association of being used in the royal first person singular sense.

Similarly, when Hermione offers her quip about monogamous sinning, she can be understood to be referring to both herself and Polixenes’ queen with “we” and “us,” although she personally uses the royal first person singular “we” just before on line 76 and so that association is felt with her as well.

Illustration of Act II Scene iii of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale by John Opie - Act 1 Scene 2 - rhetoric, meter, tone, dialogue, analysis

Illustration of Act II Scene iii by John Opie

That the audience is able to build suspicions where only honest playfulness exists implicates the audience in the tragic scenes which follow, such that the audience feels the full weight of Leontes’ losses.

This empathy, however, also allows the audience to feel the full redemptive happiness of The Winter’s Tale‘s more comical second half and conclusion. For all of this scene’s hidden darkness, it is overridingly fun, courtly, and happy. Though there are hints behind the joking, it nevertheless remains joking.

The innocent purity of this exchange parallels the youthful innocence described by Polixenes and is furthered by the subtle metrical discord between Hermione and Polixenes. While the overwhelming positivity of the passage does set up for the suddenness of Leontes’ outburst which soon follows both in metrical interactions and in juxtaposed contrast, it also establishes the dominant strand of joy to which The Winter’s Tale will return for much of the time in Bohemia (and the statue scene).

Ultimately, the tragedy and comedy are shown to be enmeshed inextricably, just as the ‘fairy tale’ and ‘sad tale’ connotations are enmeshed inextricably in the play’s title, and just as both halves of the play contain tragic folly and playful happiness in some measure.

That these elements are deliberately folded in varying degrees into the formal attributes of the composition of the play’s introductory moments is a testament to the author’s ability to operate in complexity without muddying the play’s thematic effect.

The questioning and affirming of authority—and specifically of female authority—glimpsed herein figures much of the The Winter’s Tale‘s overall plot, as do the tensions among harmony, fidelity, and their antitheses.


The tying together of tragedy and comedy accomplished in the dialogue of this passage, in a play built upon the overlap between those genres, demonstrates Shakespeare’s incredible aptitude at constructing scenes and poetic structures emblematic of overarching concerns.

More particularly, the rhetorical move from Hermione’s ownership of the scene to Polixenes’ characterization of women as sinful temptresses works as a microcosm of The Winter’s Tale‘s first half, moving as it does from courtly interaction to tense drama along those same lines.

Meanwhile, the metrical decisions dividing Hermione from Polixenes and uniting her with Leontes establishes the beginning of a musical movement reinforcing the action of the play.

Above such minutiae, however, a tone of happiness and gratitude similar to that in the play’s first scene provides a basic note, as in a piece of classical music, from which the play creates separation and to which it will conclusively and satisfyingly return.

Yet, as distracting as presences like Autolycus and the Clown shepherd can be, there are real losses along the way, such as the lives of Antigonus and Mamillius. It is as though the play sees something wrong with a fully comedic reconciliation as much as with a conclusively just ending (like that in Greene’s Pandosto); this is related to the play’s stretching across time, utilizing more realistic temporal boundaries than are found in most of Shakespeare’s more compressed earlier plays.

Finally, for all of its confusion of fiction and reality, of nature and art, of tragedy and comedy, and of authority and fidelity, The Winter’s Tale is ironically made all the more realistic in its representation of life by its willful messiness.

[Work: The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, 1611]
But Your Kind Hostess:

Rhetoric, Meter, and Tone in Act I Scene ii of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski
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