In The Winter’s Tale, much like in Pericles (but not SO much like Cymbeline), we have a question of protagonist, hero. Who is this play about? If we’re talking main character here, then Leontes is probably your answer.
The numbers would seem to back that up…
Leontes, not surprisingly, has more lines than any other character in the play (according to ShakespearesWords.com, 686 lines in [according to OpenSourceShakespeare.com] 125 speeches; nearly a quarter of all the lines in the play belong to him [PlayShakespeare.com]).
Now, back in Pericles we had a similar situation. And if you get rid of the choric character Gower, Marina would be your number two role in that play: 190 lines, in 63 speeches. This makes total sense…especially as she really is the protagonist of the long fourth act, and–in my mind, at least–the major character with the most agency in the play.
But in The Winter’s Tale?
We can’t use the analog of Pericles’ Marina: while–yes–Perdita is the focus of our Act Four excursion to Bohemia, to say she has any real agency would be stretching the truth (plus she has “only” 126 lines in 25 speeches). Hermione fares a little better (211 lines in 35 speeches). Camillo and Autolycus are neck-and-neck with 298 and 291 lines in 72 and 67 speeches, respectively; next in number of speeches is Clown (64), but he has just 183 lines; next in number of lines, on the other hand, is Polixenes, 272 lines in 57 speeches. You could pair those two up as speaking role equivalencies. So, one would obviously see Leontes as the big role, with those other characters falling way short.
But then there’s Paulina. Though she has fewer speeches than Camillo, Autolycus, and Clown (59), she has more lines, 332. In lines, she is the second largest role in the play.
But who is the protagonist? And what is s/he after?
Leontes? Maybe, especially as he’s the big role (here, I’m looking at an analog Othello’s Iago, who has more lines and a clearer through-line than the titular character). But what’s his mission? In the first half of the play, it certainly feels like he’s trying to prove his own cuckoldry and punish his wife for it. But then what about the fifth act? That objective doesn’t even apply.
Paulina? Maybe, if your protagonist can show up 900 lines into a play that has less than 3000 total lines. So….nah.
OK, then how about a combination of Leontes and Polixenes, those “twin lambs.” One could argue, I suppose, that their combined objective is to be a righteous father/king, making sure his family and thus his country have a legitimate and true heir and legacy. That could work. Polixenes wants to return home. Leontes wants security in knowing his heirs are actually his–and thus, a scandal-free rule. Polixenes spies on–then in Act Five, chases–his son, fearing his possible linkage to a lowly shepherd girl. Leontes (or at least those around him) desires an heir, but will only remarry (and help produce that heir) on Paulina’s approval. Each gets what they desire at the end.
That could work. But I kinda feel like a cirque du soleil performer–I may need to see a chiropractor for all the contortions I went through.
So, let’s revisit Paulina. Disregarding her non-appearance in the first third of the play, what is her objective? To prove Hermione’s innocence? Possibly. To deify her? Really possibly. Or simply to set aright what has gone so wrong in the first third of the play, when she wasn’t there to keep things righteous?
Not sure…but it’s a concept I think that bears some re-visitation…
(no pun intended on that “bears” thing…)