Last night I was lucky enough to hear Professor Richard Strier, head of the School of English and Divinity at the University of Chicago, give a public lecture on The Winter's Tale. He started off by telling us that literary value was something real and demonstrable, which was tremendously refreshing after years of being told by critics that it wasn't. He went on, in his wry and erudite manner, to make a case for the great literary value of this unusual play at the tale end (sorry) of Shakespeare's career, based on its substantiation of the thought that life (contra Renaissance in general) is better than art.
A strange mix of tragedy, comedy and romance, the play has a view of nature as benign and of natural, biological life as something to be celebrated. Against this is the warping proclivity of the human mind which unravels when it breaks its tether to real things in nature. To wit King Leontes, maddened by jealousy, convinced of an imaginary affair between his wife Hermione and his friend, recoils from nature, particularly its components of play and sexuality, and assigns pathology to its rhythms and workings, rather than to his own deluded state of mind. His “diseased opinion” threatens to destroy everything around him, including wife, friend, son and baby daughter. They are saved by the resistance of one Camillo, a usually faithful retainer, and by the redemption in the second half of the play, mostly by his now grown daughter Perdita, of the things he has maligned: nature, sex, play, affection, fancy.
The extraordinary and ambiguous scene at the play's close, where a statue of Hermione (looking mysteriously older) comes to life, brings to its climax the rivalry between art and life that runs through all the earlier scenes. Her living person is worthy of the love and worship her statue, as art or as icon, was patently not, and her resurrection confirms the irrepressible and beautiful fact of biological life. After sixteen years of living with the loss he inflicted upon himself, Leontes has wife and daughter restored along with his mental health, which, in this play, constitutes a correlation between what's in his mind and what's outside it. We are left with the question of whether Shakespeare intended to exalt life above art, or whether, by doing so artfully, he really intended the opposite. Professor Strier thought (in contradistinction to many other critics) that Shakespeare in fact wanted to affirm life above art, and art was simply his medium for doing so. To privilege art, he concluded, was idolatrous, and in general artists are much less idolatrous than critics.