Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Jealousy

    The first three acts of The Winter’s Tale are a study of jealousy and its destructive effects. In the play, Leontes’s sudden and unfounded fear that his pregnant wife is sleeping with his best friend eats away at him like a disease. Leontes’s wild jealousy is often compared to that of Othello. Both men unfairly suspect their wives of infidelity and their violent responses destroy their families and upset the political balance. The differences, however, are significant. Unlike Othello, Leontes convinces himself of his wife’s “affair” all by himself – there’s no Iago figure whispering in his ear and goading him along. (If anything, Leontes is his own Iago.) More importantly, Leontes’s abuse of his family is not entirely permanent, unlike Othello’s. After repenting and suffering for sixteen long years, Leontes is reunited with his wife and long-lost daughter, which puts a redemptive spin on The Winter’s Tale, whereas Othello is just plain tragic.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. What, if anything, prompts Leontes’s sudden suspicion that his wife is sleeping with his best friend?
    2. How does Leontes build a case in his mind about Hermione’s supposed guilt? In other words, what kinds of “proof” or “evidence” does Leontes cite? (Consider, for example, how Leontes interprets Camillo’s hasty departure from Bohemia.)
    3. How might Leontes’s attitudes about women and sex contribute to his feelings of jealousy?
    4. At what point does Leontes realize his suspicions were wrong? What are the consequences of Leontes’s jealousy?

    Chew on This

    Throughout the play, Shakespeare portrays Leontes’s jealousy as an infectious “disease” in order to highlight the destructive nature of jealousy.

    Leontes sudden onset of jealousy is the result of the king’s belief that most women are promiscuous liars and that a man can never really know if he’s the biological father of his children (there being no such thing as DNA testing in the play and all).

  • Friendship

    Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (Two Gentleman of Verona and The Merchant of Venice, especially) and The Sonnets, The Winter’s Tale examines the nature of male friendship. Bromance was a pretty big deal in the Renaissance and was valued above marriage and other male-female relationships. In the play, the friendship between Leontes and Polixenes is portrayed as an ideal bond that developed during the innocence of childhood and was interrupted by their adolescent interest in women and sex. As adults, Leontes’s friendship with Polixenes is characterized by rivalry and Leontes’s jealous fears that his wife has come between them. There are examples of female friendship in the play (most notably, Paulina’s fierce loyalty to Hermione), but bromance is given much more attention.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Discuss the history of Leontes’s friendship with Polixenes.
    2. What does Polixenes mean when he says that he and Leontes were like “twinn’d lambs” when they were children?
    3. Who accompanies Hermione to prison? Who attempts to visit the queen while she’s incarcerated?
    4. Why doesn’t Polixenes want Camillo to return to his home in Sicily?

    Chew on This

    The friendship between Leontes and Polixenes is competitive from the very beginning of the play – this rivalry culminates in Leontes’s jealousy, which places Hermione at the center of his competitiveness with his best friend.

    Paulina is the only character in the play loyal enough (to Hermione) and brave enough to stand up to Leontes’s tyranny.

  • Youth and Old Age

    The Winter’s Tale dramatizes a divide between the younger generation and their parents. The older generation (Leontes and Polixenes) is responsible for the loss of innocence, the disunion of families and friends, and immense suffering and heartache. When the younger generation (Perdita and Florizel) comes of age, their youthful love has the effect of restoring families and reigniting hope for the future. Yet, not all of the “sins of the fathers” can be redeemed by the younger generation. The permanent deaths of young Mamillius and old Antigonus remind us that some things are lost forever and cannot be resurrected. Because children are portrayed as “copies” or replicas of their parents, Shakespeare also leaves us with a sense that the younger generation could grow up to repeat their parents’ mistakes.

    Questions About Youth and Old Age

    1. What, according to Camillo, is young Mamillius’s effect on the kingdom of Sicily?
    2. How does Shakespeare contrast the younger generation to the older generation in the play?
    3. Why do so many characters refer to children as exact “copies” of their parents? What are the effects of this printing metaphor?
    4. Why does the statue of Hermione look so old?

    Chew on This

    Although the younger generation does redeem some of the sins of the older generation, not everything is restored – Mamillius’s very permanent death reminds us of what remains lost at the end of the play.

    Children are portrayed as exact “copies” of their parents in the play, which suggests that, although the older generation advances toward inevitable death, parents can live on eternally through the their children.

  • Gender

    Leontes’s hateful ideas about women dominate the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale. After he convinces himself that his pregnant wife is having an affair and carrying another man’s child, Leontes reveals a crude and misogynistic attitude that seems to have been lurking beneath the surface all along. In the jealous king’s mind, all women are sexually promiscuous and dishonest (an attitude that’s all too common in Renaissance literature). Leontes also gives voice to the notion that women who are not silent and obedient to their husbands are monsters who invert socially accepted gender hierarchies. Leontes eventually repents but his nasty attitude leaves a big mark on the play.

    Questions About Gender

    1. How does Leontes behave when he suspects Hermione has been unfaithful? What does this reveal about Leontes's attitude toward women in general?
    2. What is Leontes's reaction to Paulina when she stands up for Hermione? Why does he hold Antigonus responsible for Paulina’s behavior?
    3. Why does Leontes say he’s glad Hermione didn’t nurse Mamillius when the young prince was an infant?
    4. What kind of relationship does the play forge between gender and speech?

    Chew on This

    Leontes believes that all women are inherently promiscuous and deceptive, but overall, the play proves this to be untrue.

    Leontes gives voice to a common Renaissance attitude toward women – that is, any woman who is not silent and obedient is a monstrous hag who deserves to be punished.

  • Art and Culture

    The Winter’s Tale participates in the ages old art vs. nature controversy. At the heart of the debate is the following question: Is artfulness (the creation of paintings, sculptures, plays, songs, etc. to represent the natural world) a good thing? Or does artfulness distort nature? Shakespeare also extends the debate to consider artifice in general, which has some pretty major implications in a play that takes a very self-conscious look at its status as a work of art.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Why does Perdita refer to “gillyvors” (gillyflowers) as “nature’s bastards? What does she have against these flowers?
    2. Why is Perdita self-conscious about dressing up as the “Queen of the Feast”?
    3. What happens after Paulina unveils the life-like statue of Hermione? How does the statue scene participate in the “art vs. nature” debate?
    4. At what points in the play does Shakespeare draw our attention to the fact that we are witnessing a dramatic work of art?

    Chew on This

    Although Perdita is uncomfortable with the artificiality of dressing up as the “Queen of the Feast,” the audience understands that Perdita’s festival costume actually speaks to her true nature or identity, which is that of a Sicilian princess and not a lowly shepherd’s daughter.

    Throughout The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare draws our attention to the fact that we are audience to a play that uses artfulness to portray nature.

  • Time

    The Winter’s Tale is obsessed with time. The play goes out of its way to draw our attention to 1) time’s passage, 2) the way time can often appear to stand still, and 3) how some events can trigger memories that seem to transport us back in time. The only Shakespeare play to span across sixteen years, The Winter’s Tale defies the classical unities (of time, place, and action), an old set of literary rules that said the action in all plays should take place within a 24-hour time span.

    Questions About Time

    1. What’s the overall significance of Polixenes’s nine-month stay at Leontes’s court? (Why doesn’t Shakespeare make his visit, say, seven months or three weeks?)
    2. What event or activity triggers Leontes's memory of his own childhood?
    3. What is the purpose of Time’s appearance on stage in Act 4, Scene 1?
    4. After Hermione’s supposed death, how many years pass before Leontes is reunited with his family?

    Chew on This

    Leontes's grief over his destruction of his family prevents him being able to move forward with his life – although sixteen years pass before he’s finally reunited with his family, Leontes's lives as though he’s frozen in time.

    In The Winter’s Tale, looking into the faces of children can transport parents back in time to the days of their own youth.

  • Suffering

    In the play, Leontes’s jealousy gives way to tyrannous behavior that causes immense pain suffering. Mamillius falls ill and dies when his mother is imprisoned and tried for adultery, Hermione is said to have died of a broken heart, and Leontes tortures himself for sixteen long years. In fact, the entire kingdom is made miserable by Leontes’s behavior, which has left Sicily without an heir. This kind of anguish is inherent in Shakespearean tragedy, but because the play is a blend of tragedy and comedy, the suffering in the play ultimately gives way to redemption, which we discuss in “Compassion and Forgiveness.”

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why does Mamillius die?
    2. What happens to Hermione when she’s in prison?
    3. Which characters suffer at Leontes's hands?
    4. Does Leontes ever repent for his actions? If so, when?

    Chew on This

    Leontes's family isn’t the only group that suffers in the play – because Mamillius is dead and Perdita is lost, the entire kingdom worries about what will become of them, as Sicily is without an heir to the throne.

    Paulina’s behavior in the second half of the play is passive aggressive. Although she pretends to want to help King Leontes, she goes out of her way to ensure that he suffers.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    While the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale are marked by the pain and suffering caused by Leontes’s jealousy, the latter half of the play is all about compassion, forgiveness, and redemption. Perdita’s true identity is restored, the princess is reunited with her father and mother (who is seemingly “resurrected” from the dead), and Paulina gets engaged to Camillo. The play’s joyous ending not only restores domestic and political order, but it offers an optimistic view of humanity.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. What is Leontes’s reaction when Florizel visits the Sicilian court?
    2. How is Perdita reunited with her father and mother?
    3. Describe what happens when Hermione’s “statue” steps down from the pedestal.
    4. Why does Paulina get engaged at the end of the play?

    Chew on This

    In The Winter’s Tale, suffering and tyranny give way to compassion and forgiveness – Shakespeare’s redemptive ending offers hope for the future and an optimistic view of humanity.

    Hermione’s love for her daughter is responsible for her “miraculous” resurrection in the play’s final act.