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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Watercolors of Shakespearean Characters 
~ Bastards, Frauds & Tellers of the Truth  ~

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by Hannah Tompkins

Polixenes Watercolor by Hannah Tompkins


In olden times marriages were wrought on caste lines: royalty married royalty and peasants married peasants. This was the very issue that rankled Cymbeline and Bertram and is also the kick-off for the sneaky behavior of Polixenes.

He is a king; and as good a guy as kings can be. He is also shown as a kind and concerned father to his teen-age son until... 
Seems the kid's undisclosed disappearances from the court have irritated the father, whose suspicions are confirmed by his minister's remarks that the prince has been haunting some shepherd's house. The shepherd naturally, has a beautiful daughter. This 'trusting', 'loving' father has sent out the "eyes under my service" to spy on his son.

The decent thing for a good father to do would be to confront his son and talk with him, man to man. But the luster of Polixenes solicitous paternity is mostly for show. In reply to his minister's information he says:
"That's likewise part of my intelligence; but I fear the angle that plucks our son thither. Thou shalt accompany us to the place; where we will, not appearing what we are, have some question with the shepherd.."      Act IV sc. ii
Thus disguised, they go off to the country where a sheep-shearing festival is being hosted by the shepherd. The king and minister partake of the hospitalities and courtesies extended to them as strangers, but as the king watches his son court the shepherd's daughter ( really a princess, unknown to all including herself,) his slow burn comes to a boil at the signing of the marriage contract. At this point he 'discovers' himself, pulls his rank and launches into a denouncing, name-calling tirade, punctuated by violent threats.

The lovers flee to Sicilia, actually the heroine's birthplace, where her real father is the king. When Polixenes finds out, he follows in hot pursuit. Once there, the mysteries are unraveled and a general reconciliation takes place. When Polixenes learns that his songs choice is of royal blood, he gives his blessings, (however much the qualities of the bride have not been altered.)

This exposure is a criticism of judgments made on the basis of title and status rather than on character value. It doesn't say much for Polixenes as a king or as a man. This counterfeiting hypocrisy stamps him for a fraud. In a king it's even worse.

Shakespeare puts a keen commentary in the mouth of Imogen (Cymbeline Act III sc.vi.) when, alone and lost, she questions the directions given to her by some peasants:
"...will poor folks lie;
That have afflictions on them, knowing 'tis
A punishment or trial? Yes, no wonder,
When rich ones scarce tell trues to lapse in fulness
Is sorer than to lie for need; and falsehood
Is worse in kings than beggars."
Which brings back the questions is a lie a lie no matter what; or do the ends justify the means? Is there a moral difference between an honest lie and one perpetrated by fraud?

You can choose the answer that is most comfortable for you.

Other frauds in Shakespeare come to mind, like Proteus, Angelo, Iago, etc. but their deceptions are part of the dramatic plot and known to the audience.

The ones presented in this survey are more subtle for they fool not only the other characters in the play but the audience as well.

Copyright © 1982 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.


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