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The Winter's Tale: Critical Reception

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.

6Twentieth Century

New Criticism

The emergence of structural, mythic, and new critical approaches to literature in the twentieth century provided the play with some of its more memorable and powerful reflections. New Criticism, which treated literature as logical artifacts with poetic and symbolic wholeness, opened up The Winter's Tale to a wide array of critics who found the work unified around either a cluster of symbolic features or constructed by verbal structures that were either archetypal (Frye) and primal in scope or more narrowly Christian in intent (Tillyard, Bethell, Wilson Knight, Traversi). E.M.W. Tillyard (1938) provided an early examination of Shakespeare's "last plays" as plays of contemplation in which Shakespeare constructed a plot that accentuated the tragic suffering of an evil King (Leontes), the repentance that leads to regeneration (the return of Perdita) and the forgiveness that allows for reunion and restoration (the animated statue of Hermione). Tillyard devised the idea that the The Winter's Tale provides for distinct planes of reality that represent the everyday world of courtly life, the paranoid delusional world of Leontes, the frozen world of Hermione that occurs offstage, and the heightened pastoral world that promotes regeneration and restoration. Tillyard and Traversi anticipate the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye, who systematized these "planes" of reality around seasonal myths of winter, spring, fall, and winter. Though the schematics of Tillyard's criticism would never entirely encapsulate the play's dramatic structure—Wilson Knight would supplement Tillyard by creating a Christian framework for the play's movement, his perceptive treatment of Shakespeare's heightened tragic and pastoral worlds remain far-reaching: Shakespeare created "something that can vaguely be called metaphysical, some sense of the complexity of existence, of the different planes on which human life can be lived" (60).

7S.L. Bethell's book length study (1947) is indebted to Tillyard's design, though Bethell offers the play a Christian dimension. In Bethell's view, Leontes, Hermione, Mamillius, and Perdita are vehicles for Shakespeare's elaboration of the universal themes of sin, repentance, reconciliation, and reunion. In this, Bethell borrows Tillyard's dramatic structure for theological ends. Christian elements abound in the play's construction: Leontes's and Polixnes's description of their youthful innocence, Leontes's fall into doubt, Hermione's invocations of grace and innocence, Paulina's surrogate role as Leonte's conscience, Leontes's "saintlike sorrow" and act of penance, and Hermione's resurrection from the "dead." While his study overwhelms the play's dramatic force with the message of Christian allegory, Bethell's suggestion that The Winter's Tale is a thinly disguised "miracle play" foreshadows the direction taken later by critics intrigued by the enigmatic nature of the play's genre. G. Wilson Knight and Derek Traversi offer similar symbolic readings; for Knight, the play is a synthesis of a number of influences: Christian, pagan, and naturalism. For Traversi, the symbolism has a musical flow as the play moves structurally from the tragic winter to the pastoral rebirth prompted by Bohemia and completed in Sicilia.

8Northrop Frye returns dramatic structure to critical studies of the play, though like Traversi, he sees the play as a series of movements that are cyclical and mythic in nature. Following from his Anatomy of Criticism, Frye connects The Winter's Tale's plot structure to the movements from winter to spring, with the promise of summer romance in the marriage of Perdita and Florizel: Leontes' delusional winter of isolation and deprivation giving way to the emergence of spring in Perdita's haven in Bohemia, ending with the marriage of Florizel and Perdita as a comic resolution. Leontes's reunion with Hermione restores a union that is not quite the typical comic resolution of festivity: "It is the world symbolized by nature's power of renewal; it is the world we want; it is the world we hope our gods would want for us if they were worth worshiping" (Natural Perspective 116 ). Thus, for Frye, the tragic origins of blocking forces that are typically resolved in a comic resolution of civil and societal order that promotes marriage and the promise of youthful blossoming are given another spiritual order in romances that defies conventional belief: "[it] is so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion."

9Psychoanalytic Criticism

While mythic criticism grounds The Winter's Tale—indeed, all of Shakespeare.'s romances—within a cycle of nature that resonates in all literature and unifies all literature into a vast mythic narrative, later critics lamented the reduction of specific works into the "same, omnivorous myth" (Ryan 10) at the expense of the play's subtleties. It is important to note the seminal work of J. I. M. Stewart, whose early treatment of Leontes's jealousy, while harkening back to Coleridge's Romantic treatment, is an important foreshadowing of later psychologically informed treatments of the play. Stewart's profoundly influential treatment considers that the play's significance "may be like that of an iceberg, most massive below the surface" (Stewart 37). Stewart's metaphor reflects the psychological trenchancy of his critical practice; for Stewart, Leontes's jealousy is not a botched theatrical display but an internalized defense of his homosexual passion for Polixenes: "Wanting to be unfaithful to Hermione but consciously unable to entertain the thought, Leontes' ego defends itself by imagining from the details of Hermione's joking hospitality that she means sexually to betray him." Leonte's protection is "I don't love him; she does" (qtd. in Hunt 16).

10Leontes garnered much of the attention for early psychoanalysis of the text, his incipient jealousy a seemingly aberrant irruption of subliminal forces. Stewart focused his attention on the apparent homosexual attraction Leontes feels towards his friend Polixenes and which he tranfers unto Hermione as her illicit romantic attraction towards Polixenes. Early Freudian criticism by scholars such as Stephen Reid and Murry Schwartz discuss the oedipal fears Shakespeare dramatizes. For Reid, Leontes can safely respond to his paranoid jealousy only by projecting his affection for Polixenes through the marriage of Perdita – his offspring – with Florizel – Polixenes's surrogate. Schwartz treats Leontes's jealousy as a psychic drama in which Hermione assumes the role of the dominant rival for Polixenes's affections. Her success in "wooing" Polixenes to stay in Sicilia when Leontes failed to do so is recast as the father's successful courtship of the maternal. C.L. Barber's own interpretative strategy recuperates these earlier narratives by arguing that Leontes's friendship with Polixenes must be salvaged and redeemed from a "gross sexuality" through the surrogacy of their children. Only then can he be restored to Hermione and the family be reunited: "The sexual bond of Perdita and Florizel in the new generation makes possible the restoration of Leontes's friendship and the recovery of family bonds purged of sexual degradation" (331-2). Barber discerns a progressive movement from the early festive comedies to the tragedies and later romances in terms of how Shakespeare renders older and younger generations. If early festive comedies focus on the assertion of young lovers' rights over paternal prerogative to block love and later tragedies attend to the dissolution of family bonds just as they are being asserted as paramount for a stable society, the romances provide a redemptive restoring of familial balance after death and abandonment.

11Feminist Criticism

While earlier psychoanalytic critics focused on Leontes's psychic state, the unfathomable origins of his jealousy, and his homoerotic relationship with Polixenes, later scholars found the three major female characters worthy of equal regard: Hermione, Perdita, and Paulina. These are "three female roles of the first significance" (Overton 46) who function to restore societal order and the female voice. While most feminist critics characterize Leontes's—and also Polixenes's—"oppressive misogyny" and "dark incestuous desires" as responsible for the "static, barren, masculine world" that deprives women of voice (Neely 170), reproductive energy, and maternal influence, the concluding restorations and resurrections of feminine voice are characterized differently: some critics (see French and Neely) view the "patriarchal" society created at the end as either a recuperative moment in which marriage makes women "crucial" and "freed and enfranchised" members of the unified family, while others (see Adelman; Erickson; Enterline) conclude that the later restoration of these three women is one that limits their voices within a reconstituted masculine estate.

12Lyn Enterline underscores further how Shakespeare uses his Ovidian source to capture this "contraction of power" revealed by Erickson. Enterline examines how Shakespeare uses the Ovidian context of Ceres's myth within Pygmalion's desire for his statue to take breath and live. For Enterline, Leontes fails to exorcize his narcissistic control of Hermione and her speech such that, like Pygmalion who shapes and finds his image animated, Hermione is so "narrowly" constricted by Leontes's delusions that here is "nothing Hermione can say to Leontes." The final scene, thus, is devoted to the three women: Paulina who reanimates Hermione, and Perdita and Hermione who share the scene as if Leontes lacks presence. Hermione and Paulina reify Ovid's tales of rape, misogyny, and female revenge for a Leontes who himself becomes more "stone" than Hermione.

13New Historicism

New Historicism, which found its voice in the 1980s, has as its underlying premise the belief that literature is a social product. Literature provides a nexus or intersection for individuals and power structures within which to negotiate or subvert identity and discursive practices. The court, the royal court, the church, the marketplace, and the home are all implicated in this "negotiation." As Joan Hall notes, "[New Historicists] uncover strategies by which texts may subvert the dominant ideology of the age but eventually reinscribe it once any socially transgressive elements are contained" (147). Within this construct, the marginalized voices of the powerless or subjected give voice to the means by which power is practiced and enforced.

14Critics like Leonard Tennenhouse, Stuart Kurland, and William Morse read the romances—and The Winter's Tale—as strictly political plays that reinforce Jacobean absolutism by contrasting a domestic "paternalism" that defied monarchal authority with a political "patriarchialism" that reinforced the Jacobean supremacy of kingship. James I's magisterial decrees prescribe his fatherly authority over his subjects: ". . . In the Scripture Kings are called GODS, and so their power after a certaine relation compared to the Diuine power. Kings are also compared to Fathers of families: for a King is trewly Parens Patriae . . . ." (James I 305). For all, the play "interrogates" and questions the underlying foundation of Jaocbean absolutism, calling into question Jacobean use of patriarchalism to construct a kingship absolute and above criticism. The psychological dimensions of this play—an anxious son doomed to deprivation of family and then death, a jealous husband who discards his family, and an abused wife estranged from her son and impending baby—extend beyond the family to the state itself: the loss of familial order portends an "assault on the body politic" (176). This is a conservative criticism: Leontes's failure as father is redeemed by a resurrection of Hermione and the restoration of a family and a royal genealogy that reauthorizes a royal patriarchy. For David Bergeron (Royal Family), the royal family was truly a "text" that infuses Shakespeare's romances; Bergeron believes not in an allegorical one-to-one correspondence but rather an appropriation by Shakespeare of the mystique that surrounded the Jacobean family. Bergeron draws on the anthropological theories of Clifford Geertz that a "mythologized" world is concomitantly a "political" world. Unlike Bergeron, Richard Wilson intuits a more subversive message in Shakespeare's romance: men remained powerless before and ignorant of the "opacity of the female body." Drawing on early medical treatises that treated the female body as spectacle to be observed, Wilson believes that the vulnerability of the male gaze to the reproductive organs provided women with a mystique and power that mystified and astonished men. Within that context, the role of Paulina as midwife to Hermione, both in childbirth

15Michael Bristol (1991)'s New Historicism reading has a Marxist foundation based on the market economy. For him, The Winter's Tale betrays "spatiotemporal" gaps in time itself between a gift economy of Sicilia and the emergent market economy of Bohemia. Shakespeare manipulates time as it is experienced in both halves of the play: Leontes's jealousy—a "derangement" predicated on a culture of giftgiving and in her own resurrection, is given special prominence. Accused of being a "mankind witch" and "a most intelligencing bawd," and finally as midwife to Hermione's rebirth, Paulina "potlatch"--occurs during the Winter Festival or Christmastide and reflects a "gift economy" in which Leontes's extravagance transforms Hermione into an object for her husband's gaze, "immobile, aestheticized, above all, ready for inspection." (181).

16Stuart Kurland focuses his new historicist eye on Leontes's failure to take advice from his responsible confidant, Camillo, a failure that leads to the tragic and nearly tragic consequences that subtends that failure. Leontes's disregard for all counsel finds its historical corollary in James I's resistance to Parliament consultation, especially following the failure of the 1610 "Great Contract" negotiations to provide annual funding for James's operations. This collapse strained James's relationship with his advisor, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. William Morse's view is strikingly more historicist and "metacritical." Morse examines Shakespeare's undermining of royalist ideology by an "emergent discourse of modernism" that demystifies majesty and reveals the "constructedness" of all authority. Leontes's absolutist rhetoric is seen as a passé discourse that the romance interrogates through a rigorous dismantling of royalist discourse and spectacle; in a sense, Shakespeare stages the demise of an earlier medieval discourse predicated on royal authority and the emergence of a modern discourse predicated on the contingency of language. The miracle of Hermione's restoration owes its efficacy more to the political intercession of Paulina than it does to any divine consecration.

17Michael Bristol (1991)'s Marxist reading of the play also focuses on an uncomfortable duality. For him, The Winter's Tale betrays "spatiotemporal" gaps in time itself between a gift economy of Sicilia and the market economy of Bohemia. Shakespeare manipulates time as it is experienced in both halves of the play: Leontes's jealousy—a "derangement" predicated on a culture of giftgiving--occurs during the Winter Festival or Christmastide and reflects a "gift economy" in which Leontes's hegemonic extravagance renders Hermione a form of currency to be fulfilled in the market economy of Bohemia: "Polixenes's attempt to thwart this plan is what actually prompts the otherwise incomprehensible outburst of the king. On this view the ensuing sacrifice of family members is the final, violent stage of potlatch undertaken by Leontes as a primitive affirmation of honor" (156). Just as Time, the choric figure, signals verbally the dramatic fissure of time and place, the bear is an androgynous, spatiotemporal marker that marks the boundaries between the deaths encountered in the first half of the play and the promise of life and a new organic economy of strategic calculation in the last half.

18Phebe Jensen's focus is on the religious dimension the play provides, especially the festivities in Bohemia and the fulcrum established in the closing scene in Hermione's dramatic restoration through Paulina's "art, lawful as eating." Scholars such as Jensen, Julia Lupton, and Huston Diehl have read this transformation of Hermione into a living statue as a mingling of Renaissance aesthetics and Catholic, specifically Marian, iconography. While critics like Diehl view Shakespeare's modification of Catholic ritual – Shakespeare's statue is truly a living, breathing Hermione—as a Protestant revision and repudiaton of Catholic adoration of iconic efficacy, others [Lupton, Jensen, Ruth Vanita] suggest that Shakespeare's own Romanist upbringing informs a scene with Catholic vitality: "In the context of such direct Catholic and Eucharistic overtones, the apparent transformation of marble into flesh seems to confirm both the efficacy of praying to statues and the Catholic doctrine of Real Presence" (303). Beyond the statue's reanimation, Shakespeare invests the play with an aura of Catholic sensibility: the festivities of Bohemia (the sheep shearing and the pastoral dances) reflect the transformative power of theatre and ritual in human existence. Leontes's earlier, tragic iconoclasm gives way to a grace of art and faith to restore community and family. Furthermore, as Vanita suggests, the play also reaffirms the feminine power of Marian ideology through the triad of Hermione, Paulina, and Perdita, whose "triangular kinship" subordinates and nullifies Leontes's earlier tyranny.

19Beyond New Historicism

20If New Historicism opened up The Winter's Tale to a wealth of cultural significations, the deconstructive turn taken by other critics denies the play a final, singular interpretation. Howard Felperin represents this interpretative strategy for The Winter's Tale. In this turn, Leontes's suspicion is not simply whim; the absence of "oracular proof" is justifiable in a Sicily in which Apollo's authority is belated, not presented by a deus ex machina, uttered secondarily and thus removed from an empirical correlative. Leontes's "fall from verbal innocence" ("Tongue-tied" 10) makes gestures—"paddling palms, pinching fingers" or the more sexual "virginalling" of palms—and Delphic utterances equivocal and slippery. It is not Hermione's "resurrection" that becomes emblematic of a magical truth; Autolycus's ballads.

21and "Music of the streets and fairs" at Accessed August 1, 2012.}} [see appendix and ISE link to ballads] and his duplicitous confirmation of their veracity to the Bohemian rustics is a "comic or surrealistic" parody of Leontes's jealous fantasies (Felperin "Tongue-tied" 15). Ultimately, Felperin sees the play as dramatizing the capriciousness of a language estranged from oracular proof (also see Knapp).

22Stanley Cavell follows Felperin in translating this distrust of language as Leontes's problem, but for Cavell, Leontes's problem is the sheer existence of a son that he fails to acknowledge as his own. Such an acknowledgement requires Leontes to be an adult and to admit that he has separated and replicated himself into a new form: "Taking the jealousy as derivative of the sense of revenge upon life, upon its issuing, or separating, or replicating, I am taking it as, so to speak, the solution of a problem in computation or economy, one that at a stroke solves a chain of equations, in which sons and brothers are lovers, and lovers are fathers and sons, and wives and mothers become one another" (213). Leontes, thus, must overcome a skepticism that calls into question all of life's certainties.