The Winter’s Tale: Decorum, Distinction, and Shakespeare’s Chaucer


Jeff Espie


This essay advances existing scholarship on Shakespeare’s intertextual relationship with Chaucer, identifying new connections between The Winter’s Tale and The Manciple’s Tale. Based on resemblance rather than extended imitation, as I argue, the connection encompasses a series of details that gain cumulative force greater than any have in isolation. These details include the suggestive title of Shakespeare’s play, which evokes the possessive form and generic register of individual narratives in The Canterbury Tales. They include Shakespeare’s representation of a linguistic, poetic, and social decorum, which absorbs aspects of Chaucer’s sixteenth-century reception history. And they include Shakespeare’s coordination of a layered thematic structure, which follows the general trajectory of the Manciple’s narrative. Both stories involve a jealous tyrant, who becomes obsessed with marital infidelity; who subjects his wife to an Apolline judgment; who (seemingly) causes his wife’s death; who immediately regrets his hasty action; and who avows his wife’s chastity instead. Both stories build around their drama an extended discussion of the limits of acceptable speech; the dangers of a garrulous tongue; and the impact of class distinctions on linguistic convention and moral standing. These connections lend new resonance to aspects of Leontes’ and Paulina’s characters, defining their social distinction against Chaucerian traditions of decorum, tyranny, and tact. These connections also help describe the scope of Shakespeare’s Chaucerianism, exemplifying a mode of intertextuality that includes—but extends beyond—precise verbal borrowings alone. Shakespeare’s engagement with Chaucer encompasses moments inconspicuous in their Chaucerianism: inconspicuous because Chaucer’s model has been so thoroughly absorbed.

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