The Winter's Tale

analyse the presentation of art by Shakespeare in Winter's Tale

presentation of art by Shakespeare

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Art versus Nature

What is ‘art’?

‘Art’ has various meanings. It does not only mean ‘pictures’ (though it is associated in Perdita’s mind with painting the face: in Shakespearean drama ‘painting’ can mean ‘make-up’). Art can also mean more widely ‘artificiality’ or ‘unnatural powers’.

There is a contrast in the world of The Winter’s Tale between the court - which, especially through Leontes’ jealousy and plotting, has at times a sense of artificiality and deceit – and the naturalness of the country life of the shepherds. The audience is at various times in the play asked to consider whether:

•nature is better than art

•art is better than nature, or just different

•art is the result of ‘natural’ skill.


Natural purity versus artificial beauty (Act IV, sc iv)

In the sheep-shearing scene (Act IV, sc iv) Perdita engages with Polixenes in a debate about the importance of natural purity versus artificial beauty, asserting that she does not like:

‘streak’d gillyvors’ (carnations and pinks)

‘which some call nature’s bastards’,


‘I have heard it said

There is an art which, in their piedness’ (mixed colouring) ‘shares

With great creating nature.’

Polixenes argues that the gardener’s skill which creates hybrid plants is a natural art:

‘Yet nature is made better by no mean

But nature makes that mean: so, over that sort

Which you say adds to nature, is an art

That nature makes….

The art itself is nature.’

Although Perdita says that she understands his argument – ‘So it is’ – she still refuses to grow such ‘bastard’ flowers, which are so ‘streak’d’ that they seem artificially painted.

She herself rejects make-up as unnatural:

‘I’ll not put

The dibble in earth to set one slip of them;

No more than, were I painted, I would wish

This youth should say ‘twere well, and only therefore

Desire to breed by me.’

Nature versus artifice (Act V, sc iii)

Later in the play ( Act V, sc iii) the same debate is touched on by Paulina with Leontes, this time in the Sicilian court. Paulina has hidden Hermione for sixteen years, but now presents her as a statue. The sculptor is said (Act V, sc ii) to have such talent that he:

‘would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape’ (i.e. her mimic).

When the statue is unveiled (Act V, sc iii), the figure of Hermione has ‘her natural posture’ and seems so realistic that Leontes thinks ‘we are mock’d with art’. He asks,

‘What fine chisel

Could ever yet cut breath?’

Paulina has to reassure him that she is not assisted by ‘wicked powers’, by which she means black magic (an ‘art’ or artificial skill). Leontes worries that it is unlawful art, magic, and he wants it not to be, ie. he thinks that it is not natural but hopes it is lawful

‘If this be magic, let it be an art

Lawful as eating.’

More on nature versus art in The Tempest: This debate about art and nature is even more noticeable in another Shakespearean Romance play, The Tempest. The main character Prospero, Duke of Milan, is a magician, cast away upon an island with his daughter Miranda, and throughout the play his magic is described as his ‘Art’. Art’ in this sense may be contrasted with nature, implying learnt or ‘artificial’ skills, which Prospero uses to control the natural forces of the island, such the invisible spirits which inhabit it, and also wider natural powers such as the sea and winds.


The Winter’s Tale Theme of Art and Culture

The Winter’s Tale participates in the ages old art vs. nature controversy. At the heart of the debate is the following question: Is artfulness (the creation of paintings, sculptures, plays, songs, etc. to represent the natural world) a good thing? Or does artfulness distort nature? Shakespeare also extends the debate to consider artifice in general, which has some pretty major implications in a play that takes a very self-conscious look at its status as a work of art.

Quote #1


Sir, the year growing ancient,

Not yet on summer's death, nor on the birth

Of trembling winter, the fairest Hermione’s statue

flowers o' the season

Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,

Which some call nature's bastards: of that kind

Our rustic garden's barren; and I care not

To get slips of them.


Wherefore, gentle maiden,

Do you neglect them?


For I have heard it said

There is an art which in their piedness shares

With great creating nature.


Say there be;

Yet nature is made better by no mean

But nature makes that mean: so, over that art

Which you say adds to nature, is an art

That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry

A gentler scion to the wildest stock,

And make conceive a bark of baser kind

By bud of nobler race: this is an art

Which does mend nature, change it rather, but

The art itself is nature.


So it is. (4.4.6)

Literary scholars often argue that this conversation about the merits of “gillyvors” is actually a debate about art vs. nature. When Perdita points out that she doesn’t have any “gillyvors” (gillyflowers, or carnations) to offer her guests, Polixenes takes issue with her referring to the cross-bred flowers as “nature’s bastards.” Polixenes argues that crossbred flowers are superior to plain old carnations and that the “art” of grafting is completely “natural.” (“Grafting” is a horticultural practice where a plant’s tissue is fused with another plant in order to create a “hybrid.”) Perdita, on the other hand, prefers flowers that are pure and that haven’t been influenced by the “art” of grafting.

Quote #2


Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,

And do not call them bastards.


I'll not put

The dibble in earth to set one slip of them;

No more than were I painted I would wish

This youth should say 'twere well and only therefore

Desire to breed by me. Here's flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;

The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun

And with him rises weeping: these are flowers

Of middle summer, and I think they are given

To men of middle age. You're very welcome. (4.4.4)

In the previous passage, we saw how, for Polixenes, grafting is a “natural” process while Perdita sees cross-breeding flowers to create a hybrid as “artifice.” In this passage, the debate turns into something quite personal for Perdita. She says she’d no sooner plant a cross-bred gillyflower in her garden than she would “paint” her face with make-up in order to attract a potential husband (Florizel, whose name associates him with the flowers of spring) to “breed” with. By this point in the conversation, grafting seems to have become a metaphor for family relationships. What’s interesting about this is that, here, Polixenes says that grafting or cross-breeding flowers will ultimately produce a “nobler” breed, but when he later learns that his son wants to “graft” himself to (marry) a lowly shepherd’s daughter, he objects. We can take the implied metaphor further by also pointing out that Perdita doesn’t realize she’s been “grafted” to the Old Shepherd’s family (she was adopted).

Quote #3

Your high self,

The gracious mark o' the land, you have obscured

With a swain's wearing, and me, poor lowly maid,

Most goddess-like prank'd up: but that our feasts

In every mess have folly and the feeders

Digest it with a custom, I should blush

To see you so attired, sworn, I think,

To show myself a glass.


Even now I tremble

To think your father, by some accident,

Should pass this way as you did: O, the Fates!

How would he look, to see his work so noble

Vilely bound up? What would he say? Or how

Should I, in these my borrow'd flaunts, behold

The sternness of his presence? (4.4.1-2)

Perdita is pretty self-conscious about being dressed up in an artificial “Queen of the Feast” costume (when she thinks she’s nothing more than a lowly shepherd’s daughter) and she says as much in the play. While Perdita thinks it’s wrong for her to dress up as something that she’s not, the audience understands that her festival costume actually speaks to her true nature or identity (the princess and future Queen of Sicily).