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I have a question about the opening lines of the second scene in The Winter's Tale.

From Act 1, scene 2:

Pol. Nine Changes of the Watry-Starre hath been
The Sheppards Note since we have left our Throne
Without a Burthen: Time as long againe
Would be fill'd up (my Brother) with our Thanks,

This follows the First Follio closely. I have rendered "haue" as "have".

What does "Nine changes to the watery star" mean? The watery star is glossed as meaning moon because it affects the tides. I'm guessing that Shakespeare's coined this, or was this a more usual way to refer to the moon? But later in the play, "the moon" is referenced without figurative language.

Astrological references appear throughout the play. The implication being — it is the stars that are causing Leontes's unusual behavior.

I had thought that the phrase meant it was nine nights that had passed (nine phases of the moon), but another interpretation reads this as being nine months is also possible.

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    I always interpreted it as nine months, the length of human pregnancy, since that would make Leontes's theory of Polixenes fathering Hermione's child at least logically plausible. – Rand al'Thor Jun 6 at 19:17
  • I'm sorry, Rand al'Thor, that doesn't hold together. Mamillius would be saying "Ay my good lord," at what age then? – Benjamin Godfrey Jun 6 at 20:42
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    Not Mamillius, but the then-unborn child who became Perdita. As far as I remember (but I may be wrong), Leontes never thought Mamillius to be Polixenes's. – Rand al'Thor Jun 6 at 21:23
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    "Nine phases of the moon" would have meant quite a bit more than "nine nights" to Shakespeare, more like nine weeks. – user14111 Jun 7 at 3:52
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I consulted three annotated editions of The Winter's Tale; they confirm the meaning "nine months".

Ernest Schanzer's edition (Penguin, 1969) provides the following endnote for the first two-and-a-half lines:

Polixenes has been the guest of Leontes for nine months, time enough to make it possible for him to be Perdita's father.

Another endnote explains that "watery star" refers to the moon (without explaining why).

Stephen Orgel (The Oxford Shakespeare / World's Classics, 1996) provides the following explanation for "changes ... star":

changes of the moon ("watery" because of its association with the tides), hence months

J. H. P. Pafford's edition (The Arden Shakespeare, second series, 1963) provides the fullest explanation:

The shepherd has recorded the passage of nine months. This period is a minimum to make it possible that Polixenes could be the father of Hermione's child. It can also be regarded as a maximum for reasonable holiday absence from a throne and family.

After explaining the connection between the moon and water, Pafford also adds,

Although associated with Diana and therefore with chastity, the moon is also associated with fertility and with growth and decay (...).

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To be precise, these lines are from Act 1, Scene 2.

The phrase “wat'ry-star” is a metaphor for moon and in this context, the line means nine months. This metaphor also carries sexual connotations referring to nine months (approximately) of gestation for a human child. It also serves to denote the motif of time—i.e. the importance of time— throughout the rest of The Winter’s Tale.

Source

Gibson, Rex, et. al. Cambridge School Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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