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Schwartz, M.M. (1975). The Winter's Tale: Loss and Transformation. Am. Imago, 32(2):145-199.

(1975). American Imago, 32(2):145-199

The Winter's Tale: Loss and Transformation

Murrary M. Schwartz, Ph.D.


The following interpretation of The Winter's Tale extends and elaborates my essay on Leontes' jealousy which appeared in this journal (Vol. 30, Fall 1973, pp. 250-273). Since my interpretation of the play is largely sequential, the earlier essay is not reproduced here, and this introduction summarizs the section already published and describes the general context and structure of what follows.

I argue that a close examination of the text and of relations between characters reveals a complex fabric of motives for Leontes' paranoid response to his fear of separation from idealized others. Although usually dismissed by critics of The Winter's Tale as motiveless, Leontes' madness can be explained as an attempt simultaneously to act out and to repudiate fears of sexual and social violence. In the first acts of the play, he expresses and denies the violations of sexual decorum that are dialectically opposed to the sacred over-evaluation of woman in Renaissance imaginations. Unlike his double (or ‘brother’), Polixenes, who avoids his ambivalence by idealization, and unlike the other courtly men, who reflect this over-evaluation, Leontes follows a regressive path toward the object of his ambivalent desires, Hermione, and he attempts to destroy her in order to re-unite himself with a fantasized ideal maternal figure. At the root of his paranoid jealousy is a fear of maternal engulfment, symbolized by the spider (II. i. 39-45). His actions, then, are responses to this fear. What Freud said of Schreber applies to Leontes: “The delusional formation, which we take to be the pathological product, is in reality an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction.’

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