Written toward the end of William Shakespeare’s theatrical career, The Winter’s Tale (1609-1611) is a story of loss and redemption. In a fit of wild and unfounded jealousy, Leontes, the King of Sicily, convinces himself that his pregnant wife is carrying his best friend’s love child. Leontes’s jealousy turns to tyranny as the king proceeds to destroy his entire family and a lifelong friendship. Sixteen long years pass, and we witness one of the most astonishing endings in English literature.
The play is famous for its two-part structure, which makes The Winter’s Tale seem like two entirely different plays that are joined together at the end. The first three acts enact a mini-tragedy and occur in wintery Sicily, while the second half of the play occurs in Bohemia during the summer months and features the kind of restorative ending typical of Shakespeare’s “comedies.”
Because of its mixed genre, the play is often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (a group that also includes Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest). To complicate matters, these works are also referred to as Shakespeare’s “romances,” which you can read more about in “Genre.”
Aside from its unique structure and Shakespeare’s experiments in genre, The Winter’s Tale is also famous for its flagrant disregard for the “classical unities” (of time, place, and action), literary rules that say all plays should have the following features: 1) the action should take place within a 24 hour time span; 2) the action should take place in one geographical place/setting; 3) the play should have one main plot and no sub-plots. Most of Shakespeare’s plays ignore the “classical unities,” but The Winter’s Tale takes it a step further by having the figure Time appear on stage at the beginning of Act 4 to announce that Shakespeare is fast-forwarding sixteen years and changing the location from Sicily to Bohemia – if anyone has a problem, they should just get over it, please.
Much of The Winter’s Tale is based on Robert Greene’s Pandosto, The Triumph of Time (published 1588), a pastoral romance about a jealous king who banishes his infant daughter and drives away his friend. Shakespeare also draws from the story of Pygmalion in Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Over the years, there’s been some speculation that The Winter’s Tale is really about King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded after being (unfairly) accused and convicted of adultery in 1536.
So, you read Othello and you thought to yourself “Gee. Shakespeare’s tragedies are crazy brilliant, but they’re also downright depressing. Wouldn’t it be great if Big Willy had written a play that wasn’t afraid to explore weighty issues like jealousy and tyranny, but could also offer up his audience a little hope for the future?” Well, look no further, because Uncle Shakespeare totally came through when he wrote The Winter’s Tale.
In fact, the play, which was written toward the end of Shakespeare’s long career, seems to be a kind of “redo” of Othello. Both plays are a study of jealousy and its destructive effects, but The Winter’s Tale has the kind of happily-ever-after ending that we look for in fairy tales.
In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes’s sudden and unfounded fear that his pregnant wife is sleeping with his best friend eats away at him like a disease. Same thing happens in Othello, when the Venetian general suspects his faithful wife is “making the beast with two backs” with another guy. Both Leontes and Othello manage to screw up big time. (Othello murders his faithful wife, and Leontes throws Hermione in the slammer and then orders a guy to dump off his newborn daughter in the middle of nowhere.)
The differences between the two plays, however, are pretty significant. While Othello and Leontes both abuse and destroy their families, not all of the damage done in The Winter’s Tale is permanent. With Leontes, who suffers and repents for sixteen long years and is miraculously reunited with his wife and long lost daughter, Shakespeare puts a redemptive spin on the tragic story. In The Winter’s Tale, it seems that anything is possible and, despite the horrible mistakes we might make in our lives, second chances are never out of the question. No, we’re not saying that Shakespeare condones domestic violence. What we are saying is that Shakespeare takes a story about the destructiveness of jealousy and tyranny and turns it into a fairy tale that seems to reflect a more hopeful view of humanity.