The first three acts, set in the Sicilian court, are dark and claustrophobic. This is mostly the result of Leontes’s jealousy and tyranny, which pretty much dominates the first half of the play. Of course, this is no big surprise, given that King Leontes throws his wife in prison, plots the death of his best friend, throws his infant daughter away, and basically causes the premature death of his young son.
The play’s tone shifts dramatically as the setting shifts to Bohemia (sixteen years in the future), where the summer sheep-shearing festival is underway and the love between Perdita and Florizel blossoms. The festive mood briefly darkens when Polixenes threatens the young couple’s happiness but the heavy mood begins to lift almost as soon as the Bohemian cast makes its way over to the Sicilian court (where Leontes and his kingdom have been suffering for sixteen years). After the revelation of Perdita’s true identity and the miraculous “resurrection” of Hermione, the atmosphere turns joyous, as family and friends are reunited and the promise of marriage looms in the future.
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
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.
The term “winter’s tale” isn’t used a whole lot in the 21st century, but in Shakespeare’s day, everyone knew that a “winter’s tale” was the kind of story one might tell in order to pass the time on a long winter evening. Like a fairy tale, a winter’s tale may be entertaining, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of credibility. (Sorry to break it to you but “The Princess and the Frog” isn’t grounded in reality.)
So, why would Shakespeare name his brilliant play after such a story? In some ways, he seems to be acknowledging that, like a fairy tale, most of the plot and action of his drama are completely implausible. Perdita, for example, is abandoned in the Bohemian wilderness but somehow manages to survive. She’s then raised as a lowly shepherd’s daughter and falls in love with a handsome prince before her true identity as a princess is discovered and she lives happily ever after (after being reunited with her dad and mom, who has been magically resurrected from the dead). That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in real life. This is probably why the Third Gentleman notes how most of the events that have occurred in the play are “like an old tale still, which will have matter to rehearse, though credit be asleep and not an ear open” (5.2.3). In other words, it’s a story worth telling, but it doesn’t have a lot of street cred and most people will never even hear it. (Yep, that Shakespeare sure is modest.)
Another self-conscious reference to the title occurs early on in the play, when Mamillius whispers a story into his mother’s ear. Mamillius announces that “a sad tale’s best for winter” (2.1.7) and then proceeds to say “There was a man […] Dwelt by a churchyard” (220.127.116.11.8). We don’t hear the rest of the story but some critics have pointed out that the beginning of Mamillius’s tale seems to foreshadow what will become of his father, Leontes. As we know, after Leontes’s tyranny destroys his family, he spends much of his time “dwelling” (hanging out and kneeling in prayer and repentance) by a “churchyard” (another term for graveyard), which may be a reference to the burial plot Hermione and Mamillius are supposed to share. Remember, Leontes says he’s going to bury Hermione and Mamillius together in the yard of the “chapel” and promises to “visit” their grave “once a day” (3.2.15). We can’t ever know for sure if Mamillius’s story is a version of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, but we’re certainly invited to imagine what Mamillius whispers into Hermione’s ear.
In the final scene, sixteen long years of suffering at the Sicilian court give way to the joyous and miraculous reunion of Leontes’s family, the seeming resurrection of Hermione, the renewal of Leontes’s friendship with Polixenes, the union of Florizel and Perdita (which takes care of the whole Sicily-is-without-an-heir problem), and the happy engagement of Camillo and Paulina.
Gosh. It sure sounds like everybody gets the “happily ever after” they were hoping for, right? Sort of. The thing about the ending of The Winter’s Tale is this: Shakespeare delivers the cheery finale that we’ve seen in his “comedies” (like Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night's Dream), but he also reminds us that not everything can be restored. Perdita, as we know, returns to her family’s home in Bohemia, but Hermione’s and Leontes’s other child, Mamillius, is still dead and he’s definitely not coming back. Antigonus (the guy who’s mauled by a bear) is also gone forever, which is why Leontes feels compelled to hook up Paulina with a new man in the first place. So, while there’s plenty to celebrate in the play’s final moments, the ending is far from perfect.
Psst. If you want to know more about Hermione’s “resurrection,” check out “Symbols.”
The first half of The Winter’s Tale is set in King Leontes’s Sicilian court during the cold winter. We know it’s winter, by the way, because Mamillius tells his mother “A sad tale's best for winter” (2.1.7) after she asks him for a story. The frigid season seems completely appropriate in a court where Leontes’s cold-hearted behavior destroys his family and brings about the worst kind of suffering.
In the second half of the play (which occurs sixteen years later), the Sicilian winter gives way to the Bohemian countryside in the middle of summer. Bohemia is a festive world that’s full of youthful spirit and possibility. This is where Florizel’s and Perdita’s young love blossoms and just about anything seems possible, especially during the colorful sheep-shearing festival.
When most of the Bohemian cast travels to Sicily in Act 5, the cold Sicilian landscape is dramatically altered. The joyful reunification of families and friends and the miraculous “resurrection” of Hermione inject the play with love, warmth, and the spirit of forgiveness.
In the play, many characters speak in a pretty formal and decorous language that suits their noble status in the royal courts of Sicily and Bohemia. These speech habits are notorious for making The Winter’s Tale one of Shakespeare’s more challenging plays to read – at first. Like all of Big Willie Shakespeare’s work, some of the language takes some getting used to, but once we get the hang of people running around saying things like “They were trained together in their childhoods, and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now” (Translation: They were raised together and became the best of friends but live far apart now), we quickly discover that The Winter’s Tale is basically a really cool fairy tale. The play does have some twists and turns that can be a tad confusing , but if you can follow the drama that goes down in your favorite soap opera (or fairy tale), then you should have no problem with the play’s plotline.
We’re not going to sugar-coat it for you. The Winter’s Tale has a reputation for its difficult language, which can be a bit off-putting until you get the hang of it. That’s because most of the action takes place at court and, as we know, the nobility tends to speak in a way that’s in keeping with their high social status.
Like Shakespeare’s other plays, The Winter’s Tale is written in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (how we talk every day). (Note: The play Richard II is the one exception to this rule – it’s the only Shakespeare play written entirely in verse.)
Reading The Winter’s Tale often feels like reading a very lengthy poem, and that’s because Shakespeare’s characters often speak in verse.
What kind of verse do they speak? Well, the nobles typically speak in unrhymed iambic pentameter (also called “blank verse”). Don’t let the fancy names intimidate you – it’s really pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Let’s start with a definition of iambic pentameter:
An “iamb” is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. “Penta” means “five,” and “meter” refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So, putting it all together, iambic pentameter is a kind of rhythmic pattern that typically consists of five iambs per line. (Note: Shakespeare varies the line lengths so not all lines are “perfect” iambic pentameter.) It’s the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.
Let’s try it out on Hermione’s line from The Winter’s Tale:
the BUG | which YOU | would FRIGHT | me WITH, | i SEEK.
to ME | can LIFE | be NO | coMMO|diTY (3.2.5)
Every second syllable is accented, so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since these lines have no rhyme scheme (“seek” and “commodity” don’t rhyme), we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is also known as blank verse.
King Leontes speaks a lot of iambic pentameter, but you should keep an eye for how his speech breaks down and becomes erratic when he’s ticked off at his wife and best friend.
In Shakespeare’s plays, characters on the lower end of the social ladder tend to speak in prose. Characters like the Clown, Mopsa, and Dorcas (the play’s country bumpkins) don’t talk in a special poetic rhythm; they just talk. For example, when Mopsa wants the Clown to buy her a present she says “Pray you now, buy it” (4.4.6). Pretty straightforward, don’t you think?
The thing about The Winter’s Tale, however, is that even some of the noble characters speak in prose. When they do, the language tends to be formal and can be difficult (at first) to read. Here’s an example from the play’s opening lines:
“They were trained together in their childhoods, and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now” (1.1.4).
Translation: Leontes and Polixenes were raised together and became the best of friends, but live far apart now.
Polixenes’s description of his childhood friendship with Leontes is probably the most famous example of imagery in The Winter’s Tale. According to Polixenes, when they played together as innocent young boys, they were like “twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,” which is a very sweet way to describe the innocence and joy of a carefree childhood friendship between two boys. It also implies that Polixenes and Leontes were so close that they were practically identical (“twinn’d”). By the way, this is also a simile, which compares one thing directly to another. As in, the boys were like lambs.
So, you’re probably thinking, “Aww, what a sweet way for Polixenes to talk about his best childhood bud.” Well, we might want to rethink this because Polixenes’s lovely description of the nearly identical boys gives way to something darker:
We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd
That any did.
Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher rear'd
With stronger blood, we should have answer'd heaven
Boldly 'not guilty;' the imposition clear'd
Hereditary ours. (1.2.10)
What’s interesting is that Polixenes claims that he and Leontes would not even have been “guilty” of original sin if they had remained young and innocent. Note: The doctrine of “ill doing” (a.k.a. “original sin”) is the idea that all human beings are born tainted because Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, according to the Bible’s book of Genesis. In other words, Polixenes suggests that he and Leontes would have remained totally innocent if they hadn’t grown up to become interested in sex (“stronger blood” means “sexual passion”) and girls (like Hermione and Polixenes’s wife). This implies that sexual relationships with women mark the end of childhood and are probably the reason why Polixenes and Leontes aren’t as close as they once were.
If you’re like us, you were probably completely blown away when that bear ran out and chased Antigonus across the stage before devouring the poor guy (3.3). Yep, that’s pretty random alright, and to tell you the truth, we’re not quite sure what to make of it (except to say that Shakespeare obviously has a sense of humor). So, let’s think about this for a minute by reviewing some popular interpretations of the incident:
Option 1: Lots of people think that Antigonus gets mauled by a bear because he’s just done a really horrible thing – dumped off baby Perdita in the middle of nowhere. It certainly seems reasonable to assume that Antigonus suffers from bad karma. On the one hand, however, we could also point out that Leontes has got some pretty bad karma too but he’s never mauled by a wild animal.
Option 2: Leontes’s bad behavior brings us to our second option. According to some critics, the bear is a symbol of Leontes’s wrath, which means that Antigonus isn’t so much a villain as a victim. He’s bullied into ditching Perdita by Leontes and the bear mauling is just another version of Antigonus being attacked by a ferocious figure.
Option 3: Alternatively, some literary critics have pointed out that the whole bear mauling incident seems to echo fertility rites myths. As literary critic Jean E. Howard tells us in her introduction to the Norton edition of the play (2008), these kinds of fertility rites usually involve some poor old guy being sacrificed in order to usher in the spring season (think “out with the old and in with the new”) and bring about some sort of sexual fulfillment.
Option 4: The bear mauling isn’t symbolic of anything. It’s just Shakespeare’s way of having fun and making reference to a popular sixteenth- and seventeenth-century blood sport (bear baiting – when bears are chained up and set upon by a pack of dogs). Bear baiting took place in the same neighborhood as Shakespeare’s plays and there are references to it all over his work, so this definitely seems like a good option.
Option 5: What? You don’t like any of these theories? That’s fine by us. Let us know what you come up with!
We discuss this in “Setting,” but it’s worth mentioning here as well. The first half of The Winter’s Tale is set in King Leontes’s Sicilian court during the cold winter months. We know that it’s winter, by the way, because Mamillius tells his mother “A sad tale's best for winter” (2.1.7) after she asks him for a story. The frigid season seems completely appropriate in a court where Leontes’s cold-hearted behavior destroys his family and brings about the worst kind of suffering imaginable.
In the second half of the play (which occurs sixteen years later), the Sicilian winter gives way to the Bohemian countryside during the spring or summer (it’s not entirely clear). The spring and summer seasons, as we know, are frequently associated with life and renewal and life (especially because they come on the heels of the cold and harsh winter months). Fittingly, Bohemia is a festive world that’s full of youthful spirit and possibility. This is where we meet the lovely young Perdita, who resembles Flora, goddess of flowers. Bohemia is also where Florizel’s and Perdita’s young love blossoms and just about anything seems possible, especially during the colorful sheep-shearing festival.
When the young Bohemian cast (Florizel and Perdita) travel to Sicily in Act 5, the “cold” Sicilian landscape is dramatically altered. Leontes says, “Welcome hither, / As is the spring to the earth […] The blessed gods / Purge all infection from the air / Whilst you / Do climate here” (5.1.13-15). Leontes, whose been suffering a winter-like existence in Sicily for sixteen long years, suggests that Florizel’s presence is like the arrival of spring after a long, cold, harsh winter. What’s more, Florizel and Perdita’s youthful presence seems to have a healing effect on the king and his ailing court, which never really recovered from the deaths of Hermione and Mamillius and the loss of baby Perdita. So, we might say that Florizel and Perdita bring with them the spirit of spring/summer and inject the play with love, warmth, and the spirit of forgiveness.
Psst. The BBC’s made-for-TV production of The Winter’s Tale (1981) uses some great sets and props to play up the whole winter/summer dichotomy. This could make for a cool essay topic…
At the beginning of Act 4, Time, a winged figure with an hourglass, appears on stage. Time is an allegory. (An allegory is a kind of extended metaphor that’s weaved throughout a poem or play in which objects, persons, and actions stand for another meaning. In this case, Time stands for, well, time.) Because Time announces that the play has fast-forwarded sixteen years into the future and tells us that the setting has changed from Sicily to Bohemia, where Perdita has grown up, Time is also acting the part of a Chorus (kind of like a narrator).
During his speech, Time apologizes to the audience for all of this: “Impute it not a crime / To me or my swift passage, that I slide / O'er sixteen years and leave the growth untried / Of that wide gap” (4.1.1). Translation: “Don’t be mad that the play has skipped ahead sixteen years.” Why is Time apologizing? Well, flash forwards and major setting changes were a big no-no on the English stage in Shakespeare’s day because they disregarded the “classical unities” (of time, place, and action), a set of literary rules that said 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. The Winter’s Tale pretty clearly breaks all of these rules (as did many other Shakespeare plays).
The statue of Hermione is one of the most controversial issues in the play. By the time Paulina invites everyone to see Hermione’s life-like statue in the play’s final act, Hermione has been presumed dead for the past sixteen years. (Remember, Paulina announces that she’s died of a broken heart back at 3.2.3). This is why everyone (especially Leontes and Perdita) is so shocked to see that an artist has created such a realistic and stunning statue. (The artists even seem to have taken into account how Hermione would have aged over the years.) Everyone is even more shocked and amazed when Paulina calls for some dramatic music and says “Tis time. Descend. Be stone no more” (5.3.11) and Hermione (who is very much alive) steps down from the pedestal and gives Leontes a hug. Clearly, this is a pretty dramatic and moving scene, for the characters and the audience.
The problem is this: it’s not entirely clear if Hermione is somehow brought back from the dead, or if she’s been alive the whole time. Some critics argue that Hermione is magically and miraculously resurrected when her long lost daughter (Perdita) returns to her. Others argue that Paulina just hid Hermione away for sixteen years so that 1) Leontes wouldn’t hurt her and 2) she could teach Leontes a lesson. There’s enough evidence in the play to argue either way. So, what do you think? Is this magic, or is it just Paulina’s parlor trick?
We thought you might look here for a discussion of Perdita’s flowers. We talk about this in “Quotes” for the theme of “Art and Culture” so be sure to check it out.
Things at the Sicilian court seem peachy until, out of nowhere, Leontes suspects his pregnant wife is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes, who is visiting from Bohemia. Leontes plots the secret murder of his BFF.
Leontes throws Hermione in the slammer, where she gives birth to a daughter that Leontes refuses to acknowledge as his own. He orders Antigonus to abandon baby Perdita in the desert. Hermione is tried for adultery and treason; meanwhile, Mamillius (the son of Hermione and Leontes) dies of a broken heart. Hermione faints and is soon pronounced dead, leaving Leontes to repent and suffer for sixteen long years.
Perdita is raised by an old shepherd in Bohemia, where she meets and falls in love with Prince Florizel (the son of Polixenes). When the couple travels to Sicily, her identity as a princess and heir to the Sicilian throne is uncovered. Perdita and Leontes reunite as father and daughter and Leontes and Polixenes reunite as BFFs. Finally, Paulina shows everyone a statue of Hermione, which turns out not to be a statue at all – it’s the real Hermione. She’s alive and well and totally forgives Leontes.
Leontes (King of Sicily) and his wife (Hermione) have been busy entertaining Leontes's childhood friend Polixenes (King of Bohemia) for nine months, which has been a total blast. Things get even better when Hermione (at her husband’s request) convinces Polixenes to stay in Sicily even longer. Let the good times roll!
Out of the blue, Leontes suspects that Hermione is hooking up with Polixenes and carrying the Bohemian King’s love child. He plots to have Polixenes poisoned.
When Leontes learns that Polixenes has left town, he throws his wife in prison, where she gives birth to Leontes’s child (baby Perdita) before standing trial for adultery and treason.
Leontes orders someone to make the little “bastard” disappear somewhere in Bohemia and tries Hermione for adultery. Meanwhile, Leontes’s young son, Mamillius, dies and we’re told that Hermione has died of a broken heart.
Perdita’s all grown up (she’s been raised as shepherd’s daughter) and in love with Prince Florizel, but his father objects to the marriage so the young couple travels to Sicily.
Polixenes chases Perdita and Florizel to Sicily. After Perdita’s true identity is discovered, Leontes and Polixenes make up and both families are happy. Paulina invites everyone to her house and promises to show them a lifelike statue of the late Hermione. Everyone is all “Wow, this statue looks totally real” and then, suddenly, miracle of all miracles, the statue steps down from its pedestal and gives Leontes a big hug. Turns out that Hermione is alive.
After Leontes reunites with his family (all except Mamillius, who remains dead), he feels bad that Paulina doesn’t have a husband (he was eaten by a bear). So, there’s only one thing left to do: announce that Paulina and Camillo should get hitched. Things are just swell.
The first three acts of The Winter’s Tale revolve around Leontes’s jealousy, which literally destroys his family, severs his lifelong friendship with Polixenes, and jeopardizes the fate of his kingdom. After a sudden onset of jealousy (Leontes suspects his wife is sleeping with his best friend), Leontes plots the murder of Polixenes, tries his wife for adultery (which causes the death of his young son, who dies of a broken heart), and orders Antigonus to abandon his newborn daughter (Perdita) in the desert.
Shakespeare fast-forwards sixteen years. Baby Perdita is all grown up – she’s been raised as a lowly shepherd’s daughter and has fallen in love with Prince Florizel (Polixenes’s son). When Polixenes threatens to break up the happy young couple, they flee to Sicily. (Meanwhile, Leontes has been totally miserable and penitent about his behavior.)
If the first movement of the play is about loss, the final movement is all about recovery. In Sicily, Perdita’s true identity as Leontes's royal daughter is uncovered, making it OK for her to marry Prince Florizel. Florizel’s dad, who has hunted down his son, is relieved to find out the prince has hooked up with a princess and not a shepherd’s daughter. Polixenes and Leontes make nice after Leontes says he’s sorry about the whole jealous rage thing and attempt on Polixenes’s life. When Paulina shows the gang a lifelike statue of Hermione, the statue turns out to be real and everyone celebrates the fact that Hermione is alive after all.