Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Hardin Aasand
Not Peer Reviewed

The Winter's Tale: Introduction


1Overview of the Play

The Winter's Tale is a play that defies simple classification. Neither comedy nor tragedy—despite its arbitrary placement in the "Comedy" section of the First Folio of 1623—the play incorporates themes and conventions from each genre. The geographic shifts of the play – the wintry oppression of Sicilia, the pastoral warmth of Bohemia, and the redemptive return to a Sicilia desperate for rebirth—allow Shakespeare to crisscross generic boundaries as dramatically as it traverses the Mediterranean setting of Sicilia and the Northern climes of Bohemia. The wide "vast" (1.1.8, TLN 32) of the play's geographical reach and generic filiation also provide Shakespeare with the opportunity to revisit themes played out in his earlier plays: the abrupt, senseless jealousy of Othello finds its parallel in Leontes's motiveless distrust of Hermione's fidelity (1.2); the remorseful contriteness of Lear following his own follied delusions surfacing in Leontes's sixteen-year period of penitential withdrawal (3.2.218-29, TLN 1424-35); Camillo's loyal service to Leontes hearkening back to Kent's longsuffering devotion to Lear (4.2.2, TLN 1617-22); the green world of burgeoning love and fertile beginnings in As You Like It's Arden forest informing the pastoral festivity of Bohemia's sheepshearing celebration (4.4, TLN 1797ff); Puck's impishness in A Midsummer's Night Dream or Feste's pranks in Twelfth Night reborn in Autolycus's cozening of peasant clowns and willing maidens (4.4.190ff, TLN 2044ff) . All of these elements and more converge in this "late play" and reflect the masterful hand of Shakespeare returning to and transforming earlier characters and situations. In characterizing it as "late," modern critics avoid the nebulous issue of the play's genre: pastoral, tragicomedy, romance, tragicomic romance, all categories proposed as labels for this most bedeviling of plays. The thorny question remains, however: what "kind" of play is The Winter's Tale?

2That the play is "late" in Shakespeare's career is self-evident from its performance history, which includes productions at the Globe Theatre in 1610 and in the court of King James in both 1611 and 1612. Whether the royal family beheld the same play in private performance in 1611 and in 1612 at Princess Elizabeth's nuptial celebrations as the public viewed at the Globe in 1610 remains a vexing, unanswerable question. Critics have proposed that the marriage of the youthful Elizabeth and Bohemian prince, Frederick of Palatine, may account for the shifting polarities in Shakespeare's manipulation of his source—Shakespeare's source Pandosto invests the king of Bohemia with a jealousy borne from his suspicion that his wife has slept with his friend, the king of Sicilia. With the impending marriage of England and Bohemia, Shakespeare perhaps chose to make Bohemia the more festive, more appropriate setting for the young lovers, Florizel and Perdita, relegating the themes of jealousy and infidelity to Sicilia.

3Simon Forman, court astrologer and amateur occultist, provides accounts of four of Shakespeare's plays in his 1611 "Booke of Plaies," The Winter's Tale one of them. His well-known account is as striking for what it omits as for what it includes in its three paragraphs: "Observe there how Leontes, the king of Sicilia, was overcome with jealousy of his wife with the king of Bohemia, his friend that came to see him; and how he contrived his death and would have had his cupbearer to have poisoned, who gave the king of Bohemia warning thereof and fled with him to Bohemia."The narrative is a cursory listing of the subsequent plot: the oracle's pronouncement of Leontes's isolation unless his banished daughter is restored and the subsequent return of the daughter sixteen years later with her betrothed (3.2.122ff, TLN 1313-16). No mention is made, however, of the bear that devours Antigonus (3.3.57, TLN 1500); Hermione is allotted scant attention, and no mention is made at all of her death and magical restoration as a moving statue before Pedita and Leontes (5.3.20ff, TLN 3208ff), a puzzling exclusion given Forman's own occult proclivities. Forman concludes his account with a paragraph devoted to Autolycus, "the Rogue that came in all tattered like coll pixci . . . ." Forman's concluding admonition is that one should "beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning fellows."

4For the modern audience, Forman's skeletal account of the play jars with the magical, fantastical elements that dramatically redeem the play's tragic beginning. The promise of domestic bliss that opens the play is abrupt and fleeting. Two old friends, Leontes and Polixenes, share their nostalgic memories of a childhood free from worry and anxiety, an innocence that is shattered by Leontes's sudden onset of jealousy over his wife Hermione's ability to extend Polixenes's stay in Sicilia and his unsubstantiated doubt over the paternity of his yet unborn child Perdita. Perhaps Shakespeare hints at the tragic turn of the play in the brief opening scene in which the competitive nature of reciprocating hospitality is implied in the dialogue between Camillo and Archidamus:

ARCHIDAMUS
If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia on the like occasion whereon my services are now on-foot, you shall see (as I have said) great difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia.
CAMILLO
I think this coming summer the King of Sicilia means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.
ARCHIDAMUS
Wherein our entertainment shall shame us, we will be justified in our loves. For indeed --
CAMILLO
Beseech you --
ARCHIDAMUS
Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge. We cannot with such magnificence -- in so rare -- I know not what to say. We will give you sleepy drinks, that your senses (unintelligent of our insufficiency) may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse us.
CAMILLO
You pay a great deal too dear for what's given freely.
(1.1.1-6, TLN 4-21)

Implicit in the courteous modesty of competing hosts is the more lacerating emotion that surfaces in Leontes's psychotic outburst against his best friend and pregnant spouse:

There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now, while I speak this, holds his wife by th' arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence,
And his pond fished by his next neighbor, by
Sir Smile, his neighbor.
(1.2.192-97, TLN 273-78)

5Leontes's fear that Polixenes has bested him and stolen his wife is abrupt and unexpected, but the insecurity behind the sentiment may permeate the Siclian atmosphere of mistrust, jealousy, and irrational fear.

6In the opening scene of Act 2, the doomed Mamillius unwittingly points to the bleakness unfolding in Sicilia when he asks his mother to tell him a "sad tale": "A sad tale's best for winter." He of course will become part of the collateral damage Leontes's actions provoke. Indeed, were the play to end at the conclusion of Act 3.2, the audience would be entitled to leave the theatre hopeless and despairing of any redemptive intervention: friendships can be torn asunder by mere suspicion; children can be drained of life by unraveling family order; innocent babies can be banished to the wild because of an irrational hint of bastardy, wives can be indicted by a husband's capricious jealousy and imprisoned on a whim. Yet Shakespeare pivots the play away from tragedy by relocating the action to Bohemia, a pastoral realm of shepherds, a charming conman named Autolycus, and disguised lovers blocked from consummation by obstinate fathers, all features of romantic comedies. Bohemia promises the green world of rebirth and regeneration common in Shakespeare's greatest comedies like A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Lke it, and Love Labor's Lost. To reach Bohemia, however, Shakespeare entrusts the play's transformation to the allegorical Time and the inexplicable bear whose maw swallows up the fleeing Antigonus and the tragic remains of Sicilia. This brings us back to the question of the play's genre. What was Shakespeare's doing?

7The Question of Genre

His contemporary, Ben Jonson, found in Shakespeare's generic choice for his late plays a distasteful archaism and aesthetically objectionable mixing of styles. In his Bartholomew Fair induction (ll.115-16), Jonson rejects Shakespeare's decision to "beget Tales, Tempests, and such like drolleries." In the epilogue to his failed The New Inn (ll. 21-30), Jonson alludes again to the "mouldy tales" like Pericles that remained popular among audiences, dramatic throwbacks that he denounces for being outdated scraps that deserved only the "common tub" of consumption. If Jonson's contemptuous derision derives from his own pretension regarding the dignity conferred upon drama by classical aesthetics, his sensitivity to Shakespeare's deliberate nostalgia towards genre is trenchant. That other Johnson, Samuel, in his Preface, grants Shakespeare's practice a more ecumenical sensibility:

Shakespeare's plays are not, in the rigorous or critical sense, either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow . . . in which, at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend. (Johnson 5:109-10)

8Scholars today find agreement with Samuel Johnson's description of Shakespeare's plays as "the real state of sublunary nature," and they attribute this mood to the dramatic and prose traditions he inherited from both earlier native sources and contemporary experimentations.

9Some Shakespeareans consider these late plays as "outriders," a grouping of plays that have a suppleness of plotting, a flirting with tragic outcomes, and the miraculous appearance of gods or god-like devices that hint at the spectacular. Often this experimentation has been associated with the rise of the tragicomic works of John Fletcher and Frances Beaumont. The "tragicomedies" that Beaumont and Fletcher conceived were based on Giovanni Battista Guarini's Italian model that, while taking its characters to the precipice of death, pulled them back from the consummation. In his The Faithful Shepherdess, John Fletcher provides us with the operative definition that suggests how distinct are Shakespeare's "romances" from typical tragicomic structure: "A tragic-comedie is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie". Despite certain dramatic features (dramatic revelations, unconventional plots, and exotic settings) that one can discern in Shakespeare's "romances," the presence of death and of emotional states that have tragic, highly affective potential for its characters make the "tragicomic" label unsatisfying.

10Turning elsewhere, perhaps nostalgically to Shakespeare's past, others trace the The Winter's Tale elements to Shakespeare's invocation of native romances such as Mucedorus—recently revived in the public playhouses in 1610—and to the miracle plays such as the Digby Mary Magdelene, which were popular in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. From Mucedorus, Shakespeare would have teased out the story of a prince disguised as a lowly shepherd who saves a princess from a ravenous bear. Moreover, suggestively, the allegorical appearance of Comedy and Envy as characters to wrestle with the play's theme provides Shakespeare with a blueprint for the generic tension he establishes more subtlely in The Winter's Tale. From the Digby miracle play of Mary Magdelene, Shakespeare would have excavated the themes of tested faith, the maritime separation of families and the miraculous return of those once thought dead and the ascent into heaven of the saintly Mary. The spiritual implications of Mary's faithful service and her divine elevation are perhaps echoed in Hermione's providential return to "life" in Paulina's chapel. Given the iconoclastic nature of the Protestant church—the Church of England was essentially Protestant in doctrine—the appearance of a venerated statue of a "deceased" queen adumbrates the outlawed Catholic belief in the intercession of saints. If this element of the play – missing in Shakespeare's source—hints at Shakespeare's own Catholic sentiments—a view suggested most recently by Stephen Greenblatt—Hermione's re-animation points to the role of grace in providing forgiveness and reunion. This appearance of conventions attributable to prose romances and dramatic saint's and miracle plays provides us with a glimpse into Shakespeare's dramatic method.

11Other factors can be teased out of the dramatic skein presented by The Winter's Tale. In addition to the presence of early Tudor miracle plays, older Elizabethan prose romances, and Italianate tragicomedies, Shakespeare was also writing for different venues: the private indoor theatre (the Blackfriars) and the court of the Jacobean family. Certainly the dance of the satyrs in the sheepshearing festival of Act IV reflects the power of the court masque to influence Shakespeare's dramatic choices, and the acquisition of the Blackfriars theatre gave Shakespeare and his company a theatre that appealed to an elite audience with particular sensibilities of genre and spectacle. With the play's performance for Princess Elizabeth's nuptials to Frederick, Elector Palatine for Bohemia, the play's ability to address contemporary politics expands the circumference of the play's generic girth.

12In conclusion, the issue of genre requires us to expand our definition to encompass a broad range of sources and influences. For the The Winter's Tale, genre invites an expansion of the geography, the content, and temporal influencs to such an extent that the artifice draws attention to itself, to become a "tale that is to be hooted at" in Paulina's terms. The "sad tale that's best for winter" that Mamillius requests from Hermione at the play's beginning takes on different forms and obtains different ends. The first three acts in Sicily promise a tragic end. Were the play to end with the ursine removal of Antigonus, the abandonment of Perdita to the fortunes of nature, the announced deaths of Mamillus and Hermione, Leontes would be an isolated tragic figure, devoid of any possibility for a restoration of family. He would confront a lonely death looming in the distance, the pathetic end Lear submits to without his Cordelia or the suicidal stroke that Leontes's prototype, Pandosto, inflicts on himself, a "sad tale" indeed. Shakespeare's decision, however, to revert to "mouldy tales" provides him with a means of generating hope and recovery. It is an admission that there are indeed costs to one's actions but that "providential forces" provide hope: "the benevolent coincidences that provide the occasion for final resolution . . . all seem part and parcel of a providence that has operated throughout."