The Winter's Tale
Sad tales are best saved for sad dark days when they can be remedied over a warm fire with good friends. Such was the sentiment behind the third of Shakespeare's Romances, The Winter's Tale. A long tradition of tragic story telling with a redemptive twist seemed fitting for this new genre that mixed comedy and tragedy and the season seemed so dead but was filled to the brim with festivals and eventual renewal in spring. The title like, Twelfth Night, has not much if anything to do with the story itself and may have more to do with setting the tragicomic tone. Following the similar structure of separation, journey and redemption in a far removed place and time, Shakespeare set his story both in Sicily and on the shores of the country of Bohemia, modern day Hungary. Another of Shakespeare's geographic blunders giving a landlocked country a coastline for the sake of an exotic sounding place didn't seem to bother him but did bother some of his contemporaries. Never one to miss a chance to jab his good friend and rival, Ben Jonson took great pleasure in pointing out his little troublesome fact. However, taking story devices and other experiments such as shipwrecks, the long passage of time, family separation, Shakespeare crafted the most tragic of the romances and perhaps the most effective when the resolution comes.
The play's title page in its first printing in the 1623 First Folio.
Set in an unspecific time period, King Leontes of Sicilia and Queen Hermione are welcoming Leontes childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia for a visit. While Polixenes is ready to leave, they insist he stay thought Hermione's unusual over attention to Polixenes is not lost on Leontes. He later accuses of them of having an affair and being the father of Hermione's unborn child. Leontes lets his jealous rage get the better of him as doesn't listen to reason. The pair never had an affair and the child is his, but Hermione is sentenced to prison. In jail, she gives birth to a daughter, but the sight of what he thinks is another man's child and Hermione's impassioned pleas do nothing to sway Leontes and he orders the baby to be burnt alive and carried out by his aide Antigonus. Leontes rage even blinds him from advice from the famous Oracle at Delphi which states that Hermione was innocent and if he goes forward with this madness, Leontes will have no royal heir. Unheeding the warning, Leontes looses his only son, Hermione dies as well soon after just as Leontes is seeing the error of his ways. Meanwhile, Antigonus, simply being loyal to his king, names the baby girl Perdita, to signify a loss and plans to simply abandon the infant. However is killed himself in the strangest stage direction in Shakespeare, "Exit pursued by a bear" and is devoured off stage.
16 years pass as the scene shifts to Bohemia, indicated a character representing time who acts as a chorus in the middle of the action. Perdita has grown up as a shepherd's daughter and is carrying on a secret affair with Florizel, Polixenes son. When his father discovers the affair he becomes enraged at his son carrying on with a supposed commoner and the young couple flee to Sicilia. Leontes, a now repentant older man takes pity on this young couple who remind of the children he has lost and he agrees to speak with Polixenes on their behalf. However, before any discussions commence, Polixenes arrives with Perdita's surrogate father and blesses the marriage because the shepherd had told him Perdita's true identity. Leontes and daughter are reunited with an impending marriage to the son of his now reconciled best friend. The group later gather at the house of Antigonus' widow Paulina who has a statue of the late Hermione. In the midst of the joyful events and seeing the likeness of his dead wife, Leontes again expresses his regrets publicly over what he did 16 years earlier. Upon that, the "statue" magically comes to life and is the real Hermione. She feigned death and waited until Leontes had truly regretted his actions to reveal that she was alive. The group share in the happy reunions brought about by getting past base emotions like jealously and moving toward forgiveness.
Shakespeare's romances held forgiveness as the overriding theme, even at times when animosity seemed to be justified. A sort of later life, "I'm old and tired of war approach" was taken by the author toward repentance and reconciliation. This may have been shaped by Shakespeare himself who was approaching the end of his career and may have been concerned with burying old demons. This has interesting implications given the source material for The Winter's Tale which was a novella called Pandosto, written by Robert Greene, Shakespeare's most vocal literary enemy in his early writing career. When Shakespeare was writing his Henry VI plays and had enjoyed some success, Green lambasted him in print citing how a lowly actor dare step out of line and take up playwriting, a profession in Green's estimation only for university trained men. Though Greene died shortly thereafter the affect was a prejudice that in some ways Shakespeare never shook off. Was this his way of acknowledging Greene as a competent writer and wanting to put old issues to rest? Whether exorcising old demons or just putting his spin on Greene's story, the play has proven very popular from the start. So much so it was commissioned for the May 15, 1611 wedding of King James I daughter Elizabeth. Though, containing an unreal plot and at times perversely comical, the play is filled with intense emotion and moving poetry, especially during the later reconciliations. Today the play is Shakespeare's most popular Romance play second only to The Tempest and is performed on a regular basis.
Click below or on the side links to view the Play Text either as a full page or scene by scene format; a Directory of Characters with extensive descriptions and backgrounds; a Scene by Scene Synopsis of the play; and extensive Commentary on the show.
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