“Winter is the winter of our discontent”
Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, in Winter, Claude Monet, 1875
From The Smart Set:
It is a time of dreariness and decay. I’m speaking of winter, of course. I always think, when thinking of winter, of the opening lines of Richard III. Richard, the king-to-be, is musing upon the ascension to the throne of his brother, Edward IV. He says, in lines that are burned into the deep pathways of our neural networks, “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”
These opening lines of the play are actually quite hopeful. The first word, “now,” looks forward to the “made” in the next line. Shakespeare, in that clever way of his, makes the language fresh by making you pay attention. The “now” is a placeholder for the thought to come. It sets the scenario, grabs us with its immediacy, and lingers there for a moment while we wait for the thought to develop. The thought develops into the idea that “now” is being “made glorious summer” by this son of York. The winter of our discontent is in the past. “Now” is, in fact, a time of glorious summer, a renewal brought about by the reign of Edward IV, son of York.
But the phrase “now is the winter of our discontent” is so powerful that it often gets picked out of context and made to stand alone. When you do that, it seems as if “now” is the winter of our discontent. The winter of our discontent isn’t going anywhere. It is simply the way it is right now.
Sometimes when I hear that line I even hear it as a statement not about “now” but about winter. If you think of it as a winter statement, you can almost replace the word “now” with the word “winter,” i.e., “winter is the winter of our discontent.” I don’t take this as a simple tautology, “winter is winter,” but the equation of winter the season with winter the mood. Winter, the season, is a time of general discontent. Winter, in its dreariness and decay, is the season of wanting things to be otherwise.