The Winter’s Tale is often called a “problem play” because it defies traditional categories of genre. Many Shakespeare critics settle on calling The Winter’s Tale a “tragic-comedy” because the first three acts of the play feel much like a mini tragedy (compare it, for example, to Hamlet or Othello) and the play’s second half resembles a “comedy.” In the first three acts, Leontes is overcome by wild jealousy (a fatal flaw) and his tyranny causes profound suffering and the destruction of his family, which ultimately threatens to destroy the health of his kingdom. These are the hallmarks of Shakespearean tragedy. Yet, The Winter’s Tale, like Shakespeare’s comedies (compare the play to The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), has a decidedly happy ending – families are reconciled, a marriage is promised, and social order is restored
Romance and Fairy Tale
Many critics also refer to The Winter’s Tale as a “romance” (because it shares features with “medieval romance,” not because it’s about a couple that rolls around on the beach in a steamy embrace). Shakespeare’s “romance” plays (The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest) were all written at the end of Big Willie’s career and involve the following features: loss and recovery (like Perdita’s reunification with her family), a wandering journey (think of Perdita’s travels to Bohemia and back to Sicily and Leontes’s journey toward forgiveness), and elements of magic and the fantastic (Hermione’s miraculous resurrection, for example). If you’re thinking that all of this sounds a lot like a fairy tale, you’re absolutely right – fairy tales, which are notorious for being implausible and fantastical, share a lot in common with “romance” stories.