Today we’re going to take a look at Leontes first Monologue from The Winters Tale. This is our first glimpse into the rollercoaster of paranoia and envy that plagues Leontes from the offset all the way to the end of the story, many, many years later. Let’s take a look.
The play begins with a catch up between two old mates: Leontes, King of Sicily and Polixenes, King of Bohemia. They’ve been having a grand old time, but after nine long months, Polixenes is keen to hit the road. Leontes desperately wants his pal to stay longer. And so he decides to send his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione, to try to convince the Bohemian King to delay his return. In no time at all, she convinces him to do exactly this. Hooray! Right? Wrong. Leontes is perplexed as to how she was able to convince Polixenes to stay so easily when he had failed. He suddenly grows suspicious and paranoid…
Inch-thick, knee-deep; o’er head and ears a fork’d one.
Go, play, boy, play: thy mother plays, and I
Play too; but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamour
Will be my knell. Go, play, boy, play. There have been,
(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic’d in’s absence
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour: nay, there’s comfort in’t,
Whiles other men have gates, and those gates open’d,
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. Physic for’t there’s none;
It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where ‘tis predominant; and ‘tis powerful, think it,
From east, west, north, and south; be it concluded,
No barricado for a belly. Know’t,
It will let in and out the enemy,
With bag and baggage: many thousand on’s
Have the disease, and feel’t not.
Cuckold: A man whose wife is cheating on him.
Sluic’d: Sleep with.
Strike: Have a bad influence, evil
Off they go!
I’m deep in it now. In over my head and growing horns for ears.
Go and play son, go and play. Your mother is playing and so am I.
But such an awful performance that its reviews will send me to the grave.
Go and play son, go and play.
There have been cuckolds before me, and may well be some here right now.
Holding their wives by the arm unaware that she’s been sleeping with someone else in his absence. That his pond has been fished by his neighbour. The smiling one.
There is comfort in knowing I’m not the only one. If every man who’s been cheated on killed himself then ten percent of the male population would be dead.
There is no cure for it. It’s a world filled with sex and that can come at anytime and from any direction. There is no barricade for wombs.
It will let enemies in with bag and baggage. Many of us suffer from the consequences and don’t even know it.
Notes on Performance
So, this is the beginning of the play and so we have very little to go off as far as history and backstory of these characters. However, what we do know is that Leontes is madly devoted to his wife and that he is deeply loyal to his friend. Keep this in mind as you explore and start to express the heartbreak and anger of Leontes in this moment.
Even though we know that the cheating didn’t happen and won’t happen, in this moment we are experiencing Leontes’ truth. So you must keep that conviction. He is almost certain that Polixenes and Hermione have been unfaithful to him.
Leontes at the beginning of this play is a loving husband, a noble king, a devoted father, and a loyal friend. He’s a good guy that makes a terrible, terrible mistake.
For more Monologues Unpacked