Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Talebegins with a familiar plot device, best friends divided because one person mistakingly believes that the other has betrayed him by sleeping with his partner. A number of highjinks follow until friend one realizes his mistake and everyone goes to a wedding together. Except in this instance, the highjinks include an oracle from Apollo, a baby left to die in Bohemia, an old man eaten by a bear, and a woman resurrected. But other than that, just like a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie. And like every good rom com, The Winter’s Tale is about epistemology and ontology, sciences of knowing and being – things that usually make for good topics on a first date.
Leontes, the king of Sicily, is BFF’s with Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. Polixenes has been visiting Sicily for 9 months after not having seen his friend for a long period. Leontes wants him to stay longer; Polixenes won’t. That is, he won’t until Leontes’s wife, Hermione, rather sassily persuades him. And that’s when our problems appear to begin.
Leontes assumed that he and his friend were united in their interests, understanding and wills. He assumes the same of his wife. But Polixenes will not do as he wants. Instead, Polixenes aligns his will with that of Hermione. And Leontes then realizes that they are other than he.
In other words, it seems that Leontes had never before realized that his friend and his wife had autonomous wills that might differ from his own. And as soon as he realizes their separation from him, he immediately concludes that they have betrayed him. He is convinced that they have had an affair. To be other than Leontes is to be faithless and even false. Leontes goes so far as to later declare that if what he thinks is false, “then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;/The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;/My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,/If this be nothing”(I, 2). All that is, agrees with his accounting of it. If Leontes were a god, then all of being would spring directly from his little pea-sized brain.
Leontes, however, is not the god of this play. And Apollo decides to give Leontes what he has willed. Leontes has said, “if it is not what I think, then it is nothing. My wife is nothing. My world is nothing.” As it turns out, it is not what he had thought, and, as a result, Leontes’s world collapses to nothing with both his son and wife declared dead, and his baby daughter abandoned in a foreign land.
While Leontes appears a tad tyrannical in his handling of this problem, the temptation to imagine that our lovers and friends see the same truths as we do seems inherent in the nature of love. We generally love those who share the same broad account of the world such that we enjoy the same activities, find the same things funny, and agree on the most important of things. In The Philosophy of Right Hegel describes the phenomenon of love, by depicting it as a unity of wills, wherein I find myself fulfilled by willing what someone else wants and they, in turn, find themselves satisfied by willing what I desire. When in love, he says, “I find myself in another person, that I count for something in the other, while the other in turn comes to count for something in me”(158).
The very nature of love, Hegel, the sentimentalist of logic, says is for two wills to be united as one. And our own experience probably confirms his point. Who but my BLC would also think that my rendition of Tangled Up in Blue is even better than Dylan’s? That my lasagna is every bit as good as what you would order in Italy? That my tendency to paint our houses like boxes of crayons is just as tasteful as beige? Because, of course he does. And of course last winter, I was delighted to come home one day to discover that not only had he traded our car for an SUV, but had actually gotten two of them. Hurray!!! (Actually, hurray-it made me seem much taller than the sedan).
This then seems to be both the amazing and difficult nature of love. When in love, separate and distinct wills are reconciled as one. The many become one, as it were. And yet, there are still two (or more) distinct individuals whose interests and identities have to be accounted for. Leontes raises a question for all of us. How, if the world outside of me is different than I am, can I know if what I think is true, actually true? How can I trust the world, my wife, not to be betray me. And how do I navigate our shared wills and yet distinct wills so that I don’t betray my beloved.
Anyone? Anyone? Meg? Tom? Bueller?