King of Staffs - Leontes
Dramatis Personae: Leontes, King of Sicilia.
Text & Context: The name Leontes derives from the Greek for lions. It is the classical name for the river which runs past the ancient temple site of Ba'albek, latinised as Heliopolis, north of Tyre.
Some have struggled with the suddenness of Leontes' suspicions, and questioned the unwarranted nature of his jealousy. I can only surmise these people have never known a truly jealous person. It is subtle but clear that Leontes has himself dabbled in infidelity - a gate has been left open that the fugitives Polixenes and Camillo escape by, a gate left open numerous times in the past for Leontes, to Leontes' discredit; and Leontes by his own confession has often confessed to Camillo, "all the things nearest his heart", and departed "a penitent reform'd".
Behind this textbook projection is the dialogue between Polixenes and Hermione, which precipitates Leontes' pique. In it, Hermione teases Polixenes about his idyllic bond with Leontes when both were boys. Was it the snake, acting through the temptress Woman, who introduced evil into this prelapsarian world? Is Leontes not so jealous of Hermione's flirtations with Polixenes as he is with playing second fiddle to Polixene's affections for Hermione? As the play elsewhere makes clear, the true can be false and the false true, innocence can bud in what would otherwise be deemed indecent - does Leontes' shame stem from the awareness of same-sex attraction which blossomed for Polixenes in their boyhood? Tellingly, Leontes' looks to his son Mamillius for signs of himself. The scrolls from Apollo's oracle arrive too late - Leontes has killed the boy he saw in his son, as surely as he's killed his son Mamillius, and locked himself away in the labarynthine casket of his own heart.
The Leontes we see on the King card is from the second half of the bifurcated play, 16 years after the events of the opening acts. He had said then, in a theatrical aside to Mamillius,
Go, play, boy, play: thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamour
Will be my knell. Go, play, boy, play.
The double entendres gnarl and copulate like germs. Leontes himself appears to be playing at jealousy, like the dreamer who recognizes he's in a nightmare but can't wake up. Shakespeare often, and often unaccountably, draws the play-goer's attention to its own make-believe, its very Playdom. Long before Post-Modernism, when other playwrights religiously avoided any reference to the inherent falsehood of their enterprise, Shakespeare repeatedly casts Tom Snout as the 4th wall. He has Julia, disguised as a boy, concoct a recollection of acting the part of Julia. He not only has Lear's Fool self-consciously prophesy Merlin's prophecy hundreds of years before the fact, but by doing so lambastes Merlin's Prophesy, a poem falsely attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer in George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie, hundreds of years again after Merlin. Undeniably, Shakespeare celebrates the attributes and fact of playing itself, the very nature of the art. In Winter's Tale, only Perdita dressing up as shepherd's daughter and Hermione playing dead can de-ossify Leontes, see the lion lie down with the lamb, save him from his own real life tragedy. For Shakespeare, to play act is to reify, to manifest as through sacramental rite, to set out-of-joint-time aright.
Subtext: It turns out the reason for this is, like Hermione, a trompe l'oeil of a trompe l'oeil - reality which tricks the eye, with forced perspective and wrinkles, into believing it's art. Edward de Vere, convinced his wife Anne Cecil was guilty of infidelity, publicly denounced her and disowned the girl child she had given birth to. After his protracted banishment, a meeting was contrived between the Earl of Oxford and his daughter. From this, Anne and he reconciled and she bore him two more girls before dying 16 years into their marriage. De Vere in part used the gifts of poetry and drama to exculpate himself of his behaviour, behaviour he had come to regret. A regret redoubled by de Vere being forbidden from publicly taking credit for these gifts.