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Type of Work
Composition and First
Revised in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2016.©
Type of Work
The Winter's Tale is traditionally classed as a comedy because the play ends happily. First, the protagonist, King Leontes, reconciles with a friend he had earlier rejected. Then he reunites with his wife, who was thought dead. However, the play is probably better classed as a tragicomedy because, preceding the happy ending, the king's little boy dies, a bear kills a faithful lord of the court, and Leontes suffers a humiliating downfall before realizing and acknowledging mistakes he has made.
The play was first published in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
main source for The Winter's Tale is a
prose work, Pandosto: the Triumph of Time (1588),
by Robert Greene (1558-1592), a popular author
when Shakespeare arrived in London from
Stratford. Although Shakespeare followed parts
of Greene's plot closely, he changed the names
of Greene's characters and added three new
characters—Antigonus, Autolycus, and Paulina. In
writing the ending of the story, Shakespeare
drew upon Ovid's
retelling of the tale of Pygmalion in Book 10 of
Pygmalion was a sculptor of Cyprus who carved an
ivory statue of a woman. So beautiful was the
statue that Pygmalion fell in love with it. Out
of pity for him, the goddess of love brought the
statue to life and Pygmalion married his newly
animated creation. In The Winter's Tale,
the main character—Leontes—is invited to view a
statue of his wife, Hermione, whom he believes
died as a result of unjust actions he had taken
against her. However, it is no statue, but the
flesh-and-blood Hermione. Husband and wife are
joyfully reunited. In Greek mythology, Hermione
was the daughter of King Menelaus of Sparta and
his wife, Helen (who became known at the time of
the Trojan War as Helen of Troy).
tone of the play is upbeat and cheerful at the
beginning, then becomes bitter and wrathful
after the main character, Leontes, falsely
accuses his wife of infidelity. The play returns
to its original tone when Leontes acknowledges
his terrible mistake and reunites with his wife.
We were, fair queen,When Hermione asks about their childhood adventures, Polixenes says,
We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,After Leontes learns that Hermione has persuaded Polixenes to stay, Leontes immediately regrets extending Polixenes’s welcome, for the friendly conversation between his wife and Polixenes has envenomed him with jealousy. Apparently, Polixenes has an unduly suspicious eye. Perhaps Polixenes and his wife have become too close, Leontes thinks; perhaps they have been meeting in secret. He even begins to wonder whether his son, Mamillius, is the the product of a tryst in an earlier time between Hermione and Polixenes.
Later, suspicion builds upon suspicion. In a conversation with Camillo, the king openly accuses his wife of infidelity. Camillo, shocked, says the king sins gravely in speaking against her. The king replies,
Is whispering nothing?Finally, he orders Camillo to bear a poisoned cup to Polixenes. Camillo tells the king he will perform the deadly mission, but then warns the Bohemian king that his life is in danger. During the night, Polixenes steals away. Camillo, estranged by Leontes’s behavior, accompanies Polixenes. Their sudden departure convinces Leontes his suspicions against Hermione are well founded. Angry and bitter, he publicly denounces his wife, who is soon to have another child, as an adulteress. After imprisoning her, he deprives her of the company of little Mamillius. Hermione pleads her innocence, to no avail. She is guilty; Leontes is certain of it. To confirm her guilt for others, he sends two lords, Cleontes and Dion, to the Oracle at Delphi, Greece, to request a judgment.
After Hermione bears a daughter, her servant, Paulina, presents the infant to Leontes, hoping the sight of the little girl will quench his anger. However, wrathful as ever, Leontes disowns the child—believing it is not his own—and orders Paulina’s husband, Antigonus, to abandon it in a far-off place. Leontes then subjects Hermione to a public trial. With utmost dignity and grace, she proclaims her innocence, declaring she has always been faithful to Leontes.
During the trial, Cleontes and Dion return from Delphi with a sealed verdict from the great Oracle. An official of the court breaks the seal and reads the verdict: "Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found" (3.2.134).
Leontes rejects the verdict and orders the trial to continue. A servant interrupts the proceedings with tragic news: Prince Mamillius, pining for his jailed mother’s love, has died. The news staggers Leontes, and Hermione collapses. Suddenly realizing how wrong he has been, Leontes tells Hermione’s attendants to treat her gently when they escort her from the courtroom. Later, Leontes receives another shock: Hermione, too, has died. Profoundly moved, the king laments his vengeful deeds and goes off to mourn.
What of the newly born child, the infant princess? As instructed, Antigonus leaves her in a far-off place, the coast of Bohemia, along with certain effects, including a note identifying the infant as “Perdita,” a name that came to Antigonus when he imagined he saw Hermione in a vision. But before Antigonus can return to his ship, a bear attacks and kills him and an angry sea wrecks the ship and swallows it and all aboard. Consequently, no one is left to report the fate of the child. A clown, the son of a 67-year-old shepherd, witnessed the bear attack and gives a report to his father, who discloses news of his own: He has found a baby girl on the coast along with a “bearing cloth” and gold.
Sixteen Years Pass
Shakespeare updates the
audience on important developments through a
speaker called Time. He tells the audience that
Leontes now lives in seclusion and that the
setting of the drama has shifted to Bohemia, where
the son of Polixenes has fallen in love with a
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The climax of a play or a narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of The Winter's Tale occurs, according to the first definition, when Leontes receives news of the death of his wife and son, then owns up to the grave sin he has committed in doubting the fidelity of his wife. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Leontes reunites with his daughter, whom he abandoned when she was an infant, and with his wife, whom he thought was dead.
Acknowledging one's sins against others opens the door to redemption and reconciliation. Leontes admits his wrongdoing after first denying it and suffering the consequences of this denial. Having redeemed himself, he reconciles with his family and his friend, King Polixenes.
Jealousy can be deadly. As an indirect result of Leontes's fierce jealousy, his son, Mamillius dies. Paulina's husband, Antigonus, also dies while taking the king's infant daughter to safety.
Marriage should be based on love, not social standing. Although Florizel loves Perdita, his father, King Polixenes, adamantly opposes their courtship because he thinks Perdita is a mere peasant. She is not a peasant, of course, but a princess. Nevertheless, she would be right for Florizel regardless of her standing in society.
Kings have all the power, but their subjects are often wiser. Kings Leontes and Polixenes cause serious problems in their realms through unwise and unfair decisions. It is their subjects—Camillo, Paulina, the Old Peasant, Autolycus, and Antigonus—who set things right.
Rash action is dangerous. King Leontes ostracizes his loving wife, Hermione, after declaring her guilty of infidelity without sufficient evidence. This action directly or indirectly causes the death of his son, Mamillius; the abandonment of his infant daughter; the estrangement of his friends; and the death of Antigonus, the husband of Hermione's attendant.
Shakespeare reflects the spirit of a biblical quotation—A little child shall lead them (Isaiah, Chapter 11, Verse 6-9, Bible)—when, time and again, he uses imagery underscoring the innocence of youth as a guidepost for sinful adults. Little Mamillius, through his death, helps Leontes see the light. The infant Perdita brings out the best in Paulina, the queen's attendant, and Paulina's husband, Antigonus. Polixenes, king of Bohemia, tells Hermione early in the play of his glorious, guiltless childhood with Leontes:
We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun,Polixenes later tells Leontes of the effect his baby (Florizel, before the passage of sixteen years, after which he is presented in the play as a teenager) has on him in the following passage:
He makes a July's day short as December,Mamillius foreshadows the wickedness of adults in the play—as if he can see what is to come—when he begins to tell his mother a story about sprites and goblins (the evil creatures of his childhood world that may symbolize evildoing adults of the real world) but is cut off when his father enters ranting about the disappearance of Camillo and Polixenes from the court. Mamillius says, "A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins” (2.1.35-36). After Perdita is born, Emilia, a servant, tells Paulina of the birth of the child (who, like her accused mother, is guiltless), saying that the child is
A daughter, and a goodly babe,Paulina then observes: "The silence often of pure innocence / Persuades when speaking fails" (2.2.54-55)...
In Act 2, Paulina boldly defends the innocent Hermione against Leontes’s rash and unjust accusations against Hermione in lines that could be taken as a condemnation of witch hunts (prevalent in Shakespeare’s time) and the execution of innocent women accused of witchcraft: “It is a heretic that makes the fire, / Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you tyrant” (2.3.144-145).
Playwrights in France and many other countries had long adhered strictly to the three classical unities of time, place, and action. These unities, formulated in part by Aristotle in his commentary on Greek drama and in part by the Italian Renaissance humanist Lodovico Castelvetro, suggested that a play should have one setting with a single plot thread that unfolds in one short time period, about a day. However, some Elizabethan playwrights regularly ignored these ancient rules. In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare not only shifts the setting, but he also leaps ahead sixteen years.
Following are examples of figures of speech in The Winter's Tale. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
paddling palms and pinching fingers (1.1.141)Anaphora
He’s all my exercise, my mirth, my matter (1.2.200)Hyperbole
Sorrow wept to take leave of them, for their joy waded in tears. (5.2.15)Metaphor
Good my lord, be cur’dPersonification
I doubt not then but innocence shall makeSimile
How like, methought, I then was to this kernel,Epigrams
In the dialogue of The Winter's Tale and other Shakespeare plays, characters sometimes speak wise or witty sayings couched in memorable figurative language. Although these sayings are brief, they often express a profound universal truth or make a thought-provoking observation. Such sayings are called epigrams or aphorisms. Because many of Shakespeare’s epigrams are so memorable, writers and speakers use them again and again. Many of Shakespeare's epigrams have become part of our everyday language; often we use them without realizing that it was Shakespeare who coined them. Examples of phrases Shakespeare originated in his plays include “all’s well that ends well,” “[every] dog will have its day,” “give the devil his due,” “green-eyed monster,” “my own flesh and blood,” “neither rhyme nor reason,” “one fell swoop,” “primrose path,” “spotless reputation,” and “too much of a good thing.”Among some of the more memorable sayings in The Winter's Tale are the following:
He makes a July’s day short as December. (1.2.203-205)
Hermione’s lowly servant, Paulina, bitterly upbraids the king for his unfounded jealousy and ruthless retaliation against imagined offenses. In so doing, she helps to bring him to his senses and sets him on the road to penance and redemption. The passage in which she asserts herself—and changes the whole course of the plot—occurs in the second scene of Act 3:
What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? or what boiling?
In leads or oils? what old or newer torture
Must I receive, whose every word deserves
To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny
Together working with thy jealousies,
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine, O, think what they have done
And then run mad indeed, stark mad! for all
Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it.
That thou betray'dst Polixenes,'twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful: nor was't much,
Thou wouldst have poison'd good Camillo's honour,
To have him kill a king: poor trespasses,
More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter
To be or none or little; though a devil
Would have shed water out of fire ere done't:
Nor is't directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts,
Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
Blemish'd his gracious dam: this is not, no,
Laid to thy answer: but the last,—O lords,
When I have said, cry 'woe!' the queen, the queen,
The sweet'st, dear'st creature's dead, and vengeance for't
Not dropp'd down yet. (185-212)
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