Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Hardin Aasand
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The Winter's Tale: Critical Reception


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Critical History

1The Early Years

Seventeenth and eighteenth-century criticism

Simon Forman's May 1611 account may be considered the first critical reception of the play. Forman treats the play as a cautionary tale against roving peddlers like Autolycus; the transformative restoration of Leontes's family fails to merit his attention. Taking into account classical principles of play production, Ben Jonson and later eighteenth-century Neo-classicists dismissed The Winter's Tale as rife with "mouldy tales" and plot absurdities. For John Dryden (1672), The Winter's Tale reflects a poetry that lacked "vigor and maturity" and displayed a "lameness of . . . [Plot]": "Besides many of the rest as The Winter's Tale, Love's labour lost, Measure for Measure, which were either grounded on impossibilities, or at least, so meanly written, that the Comedy neither caus'd your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment." Alexander Pope chose to vanquish Shakespeare's hand from the creation of the play in order to dissociate Shakespeare's genius from a "meanly" written play. The sensibility underlying these sentiments can be found in the eighteen-century productions like Macnamara Morgan's The Sheep-Shearing; Or Florizel and Perdita produced in 1754 or David Garrick's Florizel and Perdita, a Dramatic Pastoral in 1756. While Garrick retains in abbreviated form both Leontes and Hermione –including Hermione's truncated resurrection as a statue—both plays excise the problems highlighted by Samuel Johnson, Pope, and Dryden:

2Both Morgan and Garrick solved the eighteenth-century problem of the play's purportedly inchoate form by excising the first half of The Winter's Tale, the Sicilian scnes of Leontess jealous rapture, Camillo's and Polixenes' flight, Hermione's trial, Paulina's intercession, the casting out of the babe, Antigonus's death on the seacoast of Bohemia, and Time the Chorus narration of the passage of sixteen years. (Hunt 6)

3The discordant halves of the story, Antigonus' dispatching by a mischievous bear, and the restoration of family through the Pygmalion-like animation of Hermione – all elements that captivate a modern audience—are subjugated to the pastoral romance of two lovers from apparent disparate social classes and the denouement that provides for the comic nuptials. Until John Philip Kemble's 1802 production that restores the tragic jealousy and brooding ambience that resonates in the play's first three acts, the The Winter's Tale remains a truncated pastoral shell of Shakespeare's original play.

Nineteenth-century criticism

4Nineteenth-century Romantic critics found their inspiration from nineteenth-century productions that restored the tragic dimensions of Leontes and Hermione's story. John Philip Kemble's 1802 production influenced criticism of the early Romantic period. Moved by both Kemble's portrayal of Leontes and Sarah Siddon's riveting realization of Hermione, William Hazlitt resurrects Shakespeare's play as a drama worthy of consideration: "These slips or blemishes [i.e. the choric role of Time, the leaping forward over sixteen years, and the mythical sea-coast of Bohemia] however do not prove it not to be Shakespear's; for he was as likely to fall into them as any body; but do not know any body but himself who could produce the beauties" (qtd. in Hunt 65). Hazlitt singles out the "stuff" of the tragic dimensions contained within the play: the "romantic sweetness, the comic humour" are demonstrably Shakespeare's work, and Leontes's "crabbed and tortuous style" betrays the "thorny" labyrinthine depths of an unreasonable tragedy. Leontes's psychopathology and Hermione's sainted patience persuade Hazlitt that this play is indubitably Shakespeare's work.

5Similarly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's regard for the play derives from Leontes's impassioned conviction of Hermione's infidelity, a trait that for Coleridge is given its tragic force in Othello: "an excitability by the most inadequate causes, and an eagerness to snatch at proofs; secondly, a grossness of conception, and a disposition to degrade the object of the passion by sensual fancies and images; thirdly, a sense of shame of his own feelings exhibited in a solitary moodiness of humor, and yet from the violence of the passion forced to utter itself . . . " (qtd in Hunt 72). Despite the Romantic attention to Leontes and his incipient jealousy, the play failed to generate more than the passing theatrical criticism engendered by performance.