In The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, failure, particularly in regard to any major character’s shortcomings in fulfilling their obligations, is a consistent theme throughout the narrative, and which underpins every major plot event and its rippling effects among the characters. Camillo is perhaps the best example of what consecutive failures can do to someone whom would much rather choose to disobey a direct order than follow through with the ravings of a mad king, such as Leontes, or escaping from the good graces of a needy king, such as Polixenes. Nevertheless, Camillo’s ‘failure’ as a subject of not one, but two courts, is not without its fair share of debate, having been systematically put into difficult positions whereby he must decide between the betrayal of his king and the betrayal of his own morals. With respect to Camillo’s actions, or rather inaction, the illusion of choice is what leads to his ‘failure’, but maybe shouldn’t be his cross to bear. Later on, he is led down a path of no return until the very end of the play, when all is forgiven by Leontes and Camillo must pay penance at the church for the rest of his life. A larger question is posed by Camillo’s failures, such as what encourages Camillo to disobey the commands of his kings? Is it a higher, moral compass that points him in the direction of doing what’s right; or is it out of self-interest and self-preservation that urges him to betray their trust? Maybe both are at play and working hand-in-hand as events in the story unfold. In any case, there are various dimensions to failure and different ways to look at it.
Having done his absolute best to evade the consequences of his failures as a loyal cupbearer and advisor to both kings, Camillo embodies this broader ideal: failure as a subject. Though he does survive the waves he makes in his betrayal of Leontes and Polixenes, Camillo is the fly caught up in the tangled web of royal drama. When Camillo is first introduced in the play as Leontes’ trusted advisor and cupbearer and a prominent Sicilian lord of high standing, it is soon revealed that when push comes to shove, Camillo does not work well under pressure and falls short when the time comes to do what must be done. Leontes, suspecting his wife Hermione of an affair with his childhood friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, confides in Camillo about his growing worries of infidelity. Soon after, Leontes orders Camillo to poison Polixenes, and while Camillo concedes to his demands at first, he inevitably backs out of his mission when approached by Polixenes: “Sir, I will tell you, since I am charged in honour, and by him that I think honourable… I am appointed him (Leontes) to murder you.” (1.2.402-403, 409) Here, Camillo demonstrates his failure as a subject, but to what extent does his hesitation amount to failure? Arguably, Camillo’s refusal to kill the king is a failure in terms of loyalty, but in the grand scheme of things he should be praised for preventing the murder of an innocent. After Camillo’s confession in plotting to poison Polixenes on behalf of Leontes, Polixenes offers him safe passage and freedom from Leontes’ tyranny, which Camillo gladly takes up on. Fearing for his life and the repercussions that would follow suit once Leontes gets wind of what’s happening, Camillo and Polixenes head back to Bohemia and steer clear from Leontes whose edging closer and closer to the brink of insanity.
While Camillo narrowly escapes from the clutches of Leontes, he finds himself in the throes of another court’s drama, at which point in the story does Camillo’s failure as a friend supersede that of his failure in being a subject. Polixenes’ heir, Prince Florizel, winds up falling in love with the lowly shepherd girl, Perdita, whom is the unknowing daughter of Leontes after ordering her to be abandoned in the wilderness during his episode of paranoia. Polixenes forcefully disapproves of their relationship, and then pleads with Camillo to stay on as his advisor as all this ensues. But as Camillo assures him that he will stay on for however long the king needs, in his heart of hearts he misses his family and country dearly and wishes to return home. Thereafter, another difficult choice arises, and once more does Camillo choose himself, but there is a different reason behind this decision, which should be considered a real failure as opposed to his dissent when commanded to kill the king. When asked to continue his service to Polixenes, Camillo lies and feigns his pledge of loyalty in fear of what could happen if he were to deny the king’s request. When asked to poison Polixenes early on in the play, Camillo ultimately couldn’t do so out of a moral and religious duty, however in this case Camillo betrays Polixenes in fears for his own life. Hatching his escape from Bohemia, Camillo aids and abets Florizel and Perdita in their escape as a diversion for Polixenes so that when he makes his own getaway it would be under the radar: “His going I could frame to serve my turn save him from anger, do him love and honour, purchase the sight again of dear Sicilia and that unhappy king, my master, whom I so much thirst to see.” (4.4.514-518) Though some trickery is involved in Camillo’s plan, no one is hurt in the process save for Polixenes’ feelings. Thanks to Camillo, the two love birds, Florizel and Perdita, are finally able to be together without anything coming between them and their love. Mutually beneficial, Camillo does show some compassion for the lovestruck couple and figures out a way for all of them to benefit from his scheme.
From this, the larger question as to the underlying motives behind Camillo and his decisions are central to understanding how failure is his guiding hand and its influence in the sequence of events in the story. Aside from Camillo’s assumed failures at being a subject and a trusted friend, there is the matter of what motivated him over the course of the story and throughout his choices that have affected him on a personal level and forced him away from his home for a significant length of time. Because Camillo was often made to choose between his king and his own moral code, which so often clashed with those held by Leontes and Polixenes, he eventually learned to stop putting the ambitions of others over himself and to follow his own desires instead of serving to fulfill those of Leontes and/or Polixenes. On one hand, Camillo is quite possibly motivated by his own devout Christian-understanding of morality and differing between right and wrong. When confronted by Polixenes about Leontes’ odd behavior, Camillo realized he couldn’t go through with the murder, especially when there is no evidence whatsoever to support Leontes’ suspicions of an affair. In failing to perform the task he was assigned by Leontes, Camillo saves Polixenes from a terrible fate and soon after winds up in the service of Polixenes for fifteen years, at which point, he is guilted by Polixenes to stay on as his cupbearer. Accompanying Polixenes whilst disguised to see Florizel and Perdita, and after listening to the king forbidding them from continuing their relationship, Camillo sympathizes with the couple and hatches a plan for them to run off to Sicilia, far from Polixenes’ wrath.
However, both of these instances could be viewed under a completely different lens. With regard to Polixenes’ attempted poisoning, Camillo’s misgivings in poisoning Polixenes could perchance have been due to his ingrained fear of punishment if caught or instigating a war between Sicilia and Bohemia which would consequently incur mass casualties and that would all be on his shoulders. In not doing so, Camillo takes a step in ensuring his own survival at the risk of displeasing an unhinged Leontes grappling with his own misbeliefs and ready to strike down anyone opposed to him: “ [Leontes] This is all. Do’t, and thou hast the one half of my heart; Do’t not, thou splitt’st thine own… [Camillo] I’ll do’t, my lord.” (1.2.344-347) Camillo is given the option of doing what Leontes wants and living to see another day or refusing and setting a date with the executioner. Fear has proven to be an effective motivation in the story for others to fall in line and do as their told; but when all is said and done, Camillo does what’s best for him in the long run and finds himself forgiven by an ailing Leontes, finally closing that horrific chapter of his life. Learning from his successive failures, Camillo matures from the appeasing, entitled young lord willing to do whatever it takes to please his king to a more self-serving, clever noble not above some trickery to return to some semblance of normalcy which awaits him back home.
All in all, failure as a theme in the story is underscored by the cause-and-effect relationship between the choices of characters, such as Camillo, and the consequences of said choices. Failing in his loyalty as a subject to Leontes by refusing to kill Polixenes set the stage for Camillo’s portrayal as a cowardly accomplice and his self-imposed exile from Sicilia. Later, his failing in remaining alongside Polixenes as his cupbearer and trusted friend leads him to help Florizel and Perdita escape from Florizel’s overbearing father, losing a son and heir at the same time. However, Camillo takes back control of his life from the two kings and puts himself first above anyone else. Camillo’s choices and actions signify that failure could be considered a redeeming quality in that his success would’ve meant rejecting his personal code of ethics and religious convictions at the whim of either a mentally unfit king, or an emotionally disturbed one.