Academia, Poetry, Shakespeare

The Meaning of Time in Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’

Working on The Winter’s Tale at the University of Leeds


An Outpost of Progress

Working on scholars’ matters in (to use Ian Duhig’s phrase) urbs Leodiensis mystica—the mystical city of Leeds—I have of late been considering Shakespeare’s Time, that figure which strangely enters (or enters after) the tragedy of The Winter’s Tale and, with the turn of an hourglass (as Ernest Schanzer writes in his very fine essay, ‘The Structural Pattern of The Winter’s Tale‘ (1964)) seems to reverse the tragic conclusion to the third act, transforming it—or, in that action, symbolising the transformation—into the festive and comic world of acts four and five. It is fairly plain to see that Time, as symbol and idea, expresses some structural principle vital to the drama. But what does Shakespeare mean, I have  lately been asking myself, by ‘Time’ in The Winter’s Tale? What do his audiences understand by it? How might the figure have been understood, imagined, and staged in its earliest performances? The stage direction itself—’Enter Time, the Chorus.’—tells us very little. But the word choice—that decision of Shakespeare’s to choose the most general possible conception of Time—is telling. Omission, indeed, is often as informative as commission. For some, this general use might seem to simplify and resolve the issue—if ever there were one—of who Shakespeare’s Time is. Yet the question, I find, still insists on being asked.

This matter has taken me through something of a survey of those temporal gods of whom Shakespeare may have thought in his writing, or perhaps those whose iconography, or mythic tradition, may more indirectly have seeped into his understanding of who ‘Time’ might be. Let us adumbrate some possibilities likely and less likely. Shakespeare’s Time seems too funny, too light-hearted, and not nearly fierce enough to be Spenser’s

wicked Time: who, with his Scithe addrest,

Does mow the flowring Herbs and goodly things,

And all their Glory to the Ground down flings,

Where they do wither, and are foully marr’d (Faerie Queene, III. vi. 39),

who is, more or less, for all the messiness of symbol, myth, and iconographical tradition, Saturn: the swallower-up, not only literally of his children—Jupiter and the Olympians—but also historically of the two earlier Greek deities who are his mythic antecedents: Chronos (Χρονος), the god of measurable Time, and Kronos (Κρονος), the father and devourer of the Olympians. This fusion gives us the tempus edax which Inga-Stina Ewbank discusses in her famous essay ‘The Triumph of Time in The Winter’s Tale‘ (1964).

In more recent writing on The Winter’s Tale, William Engel contributed an essay (to the volume Late Shakespeare, 1608–1616), which, among other things, brought into a discussion of The Winter’s Tale a consideration of Kronos and Kairos. (He, like many, silently elides Kronos and Chronos.) This was an implicit revision of Ewbank’s earlier dichotomy, ‘Time the Destroyer’ and ‘Time the Revealer’. However, the important difference is that Kairos is not really a ‘revealer’: indeed he is the figuration of something more like chance, occasion, and opportunity, as well as the sense of season, of ripeness. We all remember Ecclesiastes, 3.1, which in the Geneva Bible reads:

To all things there is an appointed time, and a time to euerie purpose vnder the heauen,

which in the Greek Septuagint reads:

Τοῖς πᾶσιν χρόνος, καὶ καιρὸς τῷ παντὶ πράγματι ὑπὸ τὸν οὐρανόν.

It is important not to misread these words, so various in their semantic mobility. In his Biblical Words for Time (1962), James Barr observes that, just as in modern languages, it is very rare for ancient words simply and exclusively to communicate a single, stable philosophical concept. That would be far too easy—perhaps the stuff of a dreamworld. Rather, the words for time are, like all words, part of a living language, and so will be used and misused just as we abuse English words dozens or hundreds of times every day.

This view does depend, I might add, on the ‘meaning follows use’ philosophy which, I believe, is a perspective from Wittgenstein’s Philosophische Untersuchungen, though I am no expert in these matters. If the reader, on the other hand, has more sympathy towards Heidegger’s conception of language as ‘master of man’ (as I recall from Hofstadter’s set of Heidegger essays in English, Poetry, Language, Thought (1975)), then he or she might prefer here a purer, philological reading of the words. Whichever—and I think a combination of these approaches serves us best—some of the internal diversity of Time’s meaning is becoming obvious: we have Chronos, ‘appointed time’, and Kairos, ‘Time’—although I am not sure the Geneva’s translation is the most helpful, and the King James translation is not vastly better (vis-à-vis our purposes), changing ‘appointed time’ to the more famous ‘season’:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

Most likely the Biblical route—or this one, at least—is not the best way to understand Shakespeare’s Time, but it is compelling enough per se to warrant the digression. The traditions of iconography, mythography, and poetry accord far more easily. In short the Classical, not the Semitic tradition, is more likely to help us here. B. J. Sokol, author of Art and Illusion in The Winter’s Tale (1994), elects Kairos as the figure of Shakespeare’s Time, with hardly a mention of Chronos-Kronos at all. He says that the Latin equivalent to Kairos is Tempestivitas, and links this to The Tempest as another great example of opportunity fulfilled. Nice connection though this may be, he neglects to mention that, in the tradition, it is for more often the goddess Occasio by whom Kairos is replaced, as in the epigram ‘In Simulacrum Occasionis et Paenitentiae’ of Ausonius, which depicts a statue of Occasio and ‘Metanoea’ (Paenitentia). Occasio herself says:

sum dea quae rara et paucis Occasio nota:

I am the goddess Occasio, who rare is, and known to few.

The epigram goes on to enumerate her iconographical features, including the bald-backed head (symbolising that, when occasion, or opportunity, has flown, there is no hair by which to grab it). Ausonius’ epigram is an adaptation of the greek of Posidippus, where the figure declares itself as ‘Καιρὸς ὁ πανδαμάτωρ‘—Kairos, the allsubduing (an epithet used by Homer to describe Sleep in both the Odyssey and Iliad). It is this Time that occupies the Renaissance emblem books, that is so ubiquitous in the imagination of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is this time about which it is said—’a tergo calva es!’ (You are bald from the back!)—and which consequently, as Rudolf Wittkower says in his very great essay on the subject (which appears in The Migration of Symbols (1977)), elides into and at times becomes Fortune, or chance.

It is my conception, in researching these matters, that we ought to proceed beyond rather simple dichotomy given by most critics so far, even if Shakespeare’s Time does seem to urge the playgoers to read him as a duality:

I that please some, try all: both ioy and terror

Of good, and bad: that makes, and vnfolds error,

Now take vpon me (in the name of Time)

To vse my wings (TLN 1580–3, 4.1.1–4).

But Shakespeare is writing here with poetic compression, an approach utterly at odds with the broad expatiations of scholarship. It is the scholar’s role to be comprehensive and explicit, where the poet is concise and mysterious. Of this mystery of the manifold ‘argument of Time’ (TLN 1608, 4.1.9), this article can only give the very beginning.

Charles Eager is a gentleman of letters residing in Yorkshire, with a few small poetic publications to his name. Those interested in the many faces of Time can find out more in his first book of verse, Synkronos (2017). Although sold out, free electronic copies of the text can be found online at ISSUUScribd, and Eager’s own page.

(This article was originally published by the Wedgie Magazine:


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