Within alchemical writing there is both a religious and scientific register in simultaneous coexistence. The linguistic symbols of alchemy are themselves to be understood as chemical matter embedded in the world by divine providence: a principle manifest in the doctrine of signatures. The natural world offers a complex but ultimately resolvable hermeneutic challenge to the natural scientist, whose job it becomes to be a reader of the book of nature wherein the Creator has inscribed a legible, if often allusive, meaning and purpose. This paper will proceed to explore how early modern alchemical-thinking impacted attitudes towards language and meaning in The Winter’s Tale. Why do Shakespeare’s late plays, written during the upsurge in scientific rationalism, prove most reliant upon moments of impossible faithfulness? I argue that Shakespeare sought to prove and preserve language’s enduring power in spite of this cultural shift, showing that words, used expertly, could still perform meaning, embodying an optimistic semiotics. I will be exploring how The Winter’s Tale presents a crisis of faith in language and then proceed to demonstrate how the play requires a renewal of faith in language for its miraculous phenomena to work.


With thanks to my supervisor, Eric Langley.