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4 - Mourning the Present: The Elegy of The Winter's Tale

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2017

Donovan Sherman
Affiliation:
Seton Hall University, New Jersey
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Summary

The previous chapters have explored how Shylock and Coriolanus, in different ways, take on a corporeal grammar that evokes the soul – or, more precisely, a grammar that evokes the impossibility of its physical manifestation. Each of these figures subsequently becomes punished within the relentlessly mimetic worlds into which they are cast. In this chapter, I turn to The Winter's Tale to examine a very different outcome. While Leontes, like Shylock and Coriolanus, refuses to accept the representational logic of his surroundings, he ultimately finds himself redeemed and reincorporated into his familial and political realms. This ending is on one level an essential function of the romance genre, which allows for post-tragic revelation. But in the context of this study, such a resolution suggests the possibility of the mimetic economy to absorb the expressivity of the soul's bodily condition – an uneasy truce between two hitherto antagonistic ways of being.

One character does become sacrificed in this redemptive trajectory: Mamillius, Leontes's son. My contention in this chapter is that Mamillius's death catalyses the ending's fantastical mingling of presence and absence, expression and representation – and more specifically, as I will elaborate, breath and word. As with Shylock's deferrals and Coriolanus's concealments, the prince employs a host of bodily strategies – silence, breathing, whispering, stillness – that potentially disrupt the play of meaning-making around him. But he is not a social problem like those other characters because his expressive grammar is inherent to his status as a child. Leontes, however, becomes deeply disturbed by the connection to pre-signifying play that his son embodies, as well as the suggestion that Mamillius's sanctioned displays of incoherence are essential to the formation of signification, of meaning itself. Leontes thus absorbs Mamillius's behaviour and recontextualises it within the far more dangerous context of his adult self. The king's realisation that his conception of knowledge depends on something beyond his comprehension – particularised luridly in his charges of Hermione's infidelity – plunges Leontes into a private logic so embedded as to create a social and linguistic withdrawal that mirrors Mamillius's material exit. As Leontes admits, in a panic: ‘In those foundations which I build upon, / The centre is not big enough to bear / A schoolboy's top’ (II, i, 101–3).

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Chapter
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Second Death
Theatricalities of the Soul in Shakespeare's Drama
, pp. 119 - 160
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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