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  • Title: The Winter's Tale: Introduction
  • Author: Hardin Aasand
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-367-0

    Copyright Hardin Aasand. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Hardin Aasand
    Not Peer Reviewed


    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?

    That the play is "late" in Shakespeare's career is evident from its performance history, which includes productions at the Globe playhouse in 1611 and in the court of King James in both 1611 and 1613. Whether the royal family beheld the same play in private performance in 1611 and 1613 at Princess Elizabeth's nuptial celebrations as the public viewed at the Globe in 1611 remains a vexing, unanswerable question. Critics have proposed that the marriage of the youthful Elizabeth to Frederick V, Elector Palatine, who later became King of Bohemia, may account for the reversed polarities in Shakespeare's manipulation of his source—Pandosto by Robert Greene, who invests the king of Bohemia with a jealousy borne from his suspicion that his wife has slept with his friend, the king of Sicilia. Shakespeare's play makes Bohemia the more festive, more appropriate setting for the young lovers, Florizel and Perdita, relegating the themes of jealousy and infidelity to Sicilia.

    Simon Forman, court astrologer and amateur occultist, provides accounts of four of Shakespeare's plays in his 1611 "Booke of Plaies," The Winter's Tale being 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." Forman gives a cursory listing of the plot that follows: 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 Perdita 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 [a will-o'-the-wisp] . . . ." Forman's concluding admonition is that one should "beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning fellows."

    For 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 pregnant wife's persuasiveness in extending his friend's stay in Sicilia, and his unsubstantiated doubt over the paternity of his yet unborn child. 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:

    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.
    I think this coming summer the King of Sicilia means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.
    Wherein our entertainment shall shame us, we will be justified in our loves. For indeed --
    Beseech you --
    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.
    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 spouse and best friend:

    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)

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

    5In 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 of Leontes's actions. Indeed, were the play to end at the conclusion of 3.2, the audience would be entitled to leave the theater 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; and 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, 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 such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like it, and Love's Labor's Lost. To reach Bohemia, however, Shakespeare entrusts the play's transformation to an allegorical figure of 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.

    The Question of Genre

    Some 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 Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. 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 it back from the consummation. In his play The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608), John Fletcher provides us in his address to the readers with the operative definition that suggests how distinct are Shakespeare's "romances" from typical tragicomic structure: "A tragie-comedie is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is inough to make it no tragedie, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie". Despite certain dramatic features (dramatic revelations, unconventional plots, and exotic settings) discernible 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.

    Turning 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 (c. 1590)—revived in the public playhouses as recently as 1610—and the miracle plays such as the Digby Mary Magdelene, which were popular in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. From Mucedorus, Shakespeare could 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 subtly in The Winter's Tale. From the Digby miracle play of Mary Magdalene, Shakespeare could have excavated the themes of tested faith, the maritime separation of families and the miraculous return of those once thought dead. The spiritual implications of Mary's faithful service and her ascent into heaven are perhaps echoed in Hermione's providential return to "life" in Paulina's chapel. Given the iconoclastic nature of the Protestant church, the appearance of a venerated statue of a "deceased" queen evokes 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 miracle plays provides us with a glimpse into Shakespeare's dramatic method.

    Other factors can be extracted from the dramatic skein presented by The Winter's Tale. Shakespeare was writing for three different venues: the public outdoor Globe, the private indoor Blackfriars, and the court of James I and his family. Certainly the dance of the satyrs in the sheepshearing festival of Act 4 reflects the power of the court masque to influence Shakespeare's dramatic choices, and the acquisition of the Blackfriars venue gave Shakespeare and his company a theater 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, the play's ability to address contemporary politics enlarges its generic girth.

    In 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 influences 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 (5.3.11). The "sad tale" that Mamillius requests from Hermione in 2.1 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, and the announced deaths of Mamillius and Hermione, Leontes would be an isolated tragic figure, devoid of any possibility of 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"—Ben Jonson's contemptuous jeer in his Ode to Himself—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" (Bliss 156).