The Winter’s Tale
Shakespeare’s greatest “romance”
• Late in his career, Sh. wrote four plays that go in a new
direction: what we now call the “romances.”
• Not “romance” in the sense of “romantic,” “true romance”
sorts of plays.
• But romance in a generic sense, plays like the ancient
Greek romances that deal with separation, long tracts of
time and space, and finally the uniting of families and
• And include strange, even unlikely, plot twists.
• The Odyssey has been called the first romance. And
there were a number of later prose romances.
• Shakespeare’s Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale,
and The Tempest follow these patterns.
• Officially they are comedies in that they end happily.
• But all contain the material of tragedy.
• The greatest of these four plays – I insist – is The
• The Tempest is better known, but WT may be richer.
And maybe his strangest play
• Contains Shakespeare’s most bizarre stage direction: “Exit pursued
by a bear.”
• And his oddest scene setting: “The seacoast of Bohemia”
• (Bohemia = the modern Czech Republic; no seacoast!)
• A man’s sudden onset of jealousy for his pregnant wife.
• And like all romances, seemingly improbable coincidences – though
real life seems to insist on such things.
• And at the same time, some wonderfully realistic characterization
and great roles for actresses: Hermione, Paulina.
• Even a brief role for a young boy.
• Singing, dancing, clowning around in Act IV. Plot just seems to
• And finally, a “recognition scene” in which information that has been
kept from the audience is suddenly revealed –
• -- and is certainly the most daring scene Sh. ever wrote. (Can we
give it away?)
• Which makes demands on our belief – and we have to believe it.
• What was lost is found, what was cast away is recovered, destroyed
friendship is healed, young love is fulfilled.
• And yet . . .
• Many critics have found the play mythic in a variety of
• The recovery of a loved one from the underworld, from
death: Orpheus and Euridice, Ceres and Proserpina.
• Perhaps mirroring the seasonal recovery of natural life
from the death of winter.
• The first three acts take place in winter (a world of
• And the fourth act celebrates spring time, youth, love (a
world of comedy).
• And certainly the play is about regeneration, both natural
• There’s a strangely religious sense to the conclusion,
I’ve often felt, as if the play is demanding that the
audience accept something almost miraculous.
Dating, text, source,etc.
• Simon Forman, an astrologer who functioned something
like a psychiatrist in Jacobean London (I think we saw
him represented in “Shakespeare in Love”), says he saw
the play on May 15, 1611.
• Recounts some of the plot, then takes away this moral:
"Beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning fellows."
• So the play must have been written shortly before this
• Making it one of Shakespeare’s last plays (The Tempest
was performed at court on 1 Nov. 1611).
• The text exists only in the Folio of 1623.
• Its source is a novel by Robert Greene called Pandosto
(1588), which didn’t end happily at all.
• The king’s wife really died (along with his son), and when
he meets his daughter, he tries to seduce her.
• Then after realizing who she is, he commits suicide.
“Ordinary life” in the play’s beginning
• The little dialogue between Archidamus (from Bohemia) and Camillo (Sicily)
is full of courtly compliment.
• “We’ll not be able to entertain you half so well next summer as you’ve
• “Oh please, it was our pleasure.”
• And how splendid that these two kings, friends from boyhood, were finally
able to get together.
• And some compliment, and agreement, about what a fine boy Mamillius is.
• All very courtly, friendly, ordinary.
• Echoed by what follows in the attempt to get Polixenes to stay just a little
longer – little jokes on both sides.
• Particularly enlivened by Hermione’s wit: if he said he longed to see his son,
we’d whack him away.
• And I’ll let Leontes stay a month longer in Bohemia next summer.
• Prisoner or guest – your choice, Polixenes!
• And what their boyhood was like.
• Very innocent jokes about the “temptations” of sexual married love.
• And her teasing about when she spoke “to the purpose” before.
• “Cram [us] with praise, and make [us]/ As fat as tame things.”
• And of coures she is “fat” – nine months pregnant!
• The effect of her stage image – and her rather sweet teasing of her
So the effect of Leontes’ outbreak:
• All the more shocking in the way it breaks in on the bantering mood.
• And then comes into his conversation with Mamillius: “neat,” “calf,”
• And then, in his “angling” spills over and infects the whole theater:
• “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 in by his next neighbor, by/ Sir
Smile, his neighbor.”
• Becomes nastily physical: no barricado for a belly . . .”
• He’s clearly gone mad. But in a way that seems entirely reasonable
• Which is exactly what happens in sudden outbreaks of jealousy –
there’s no need for an Iago.
• Camillo tries to talk him out of it: “be cured/ Of this diseased
• But must finally seem to fall in with Leontes and agree to kill
• The whole episode of course is stylized to fit the condensed
character of theater.
• But isn’t this the way marital splits can seem – at least to those
looking on – sudden, crazy, unanticipated, making no sense at all?
Hermione and Mamillius: II.1
• Again a scene of utmost normality.
• Like all Shakespeare’s kids, M. is smart, pert, rather
• The irony of his wanting to tell a sad tale, “best for
• The man dwelling by a churchyard – living amongst the
• And the “pat” entrance of Leontes!
• Mamillius snatched away.
• Hermione’s shock: “sport?”
• She responds temperately: “You, my lord,/ Do but
• And imagines “some ill planet reigns” (105).
• No one in the entire court credits Leontes’ suspicions.
• Antigonus: ll. 155ff.
The child “enfranchised” by “great nature”
• The comic dilemma of what to do with a child born in
• The jailer is puzzled, for he has no warrant to allow the
child out of the prison.
• But Paulina assures him that the child was “prisoner to
the womb” . . .
• . . . and therefore “By law and process of great Nature
thence/ Freed and enfranchised” (II.2.59-61).
• Paulina is one tough cookie: “If I prove honey-mouthed,
let my tongue blister . . .”
• Her plan: ll. 37ff.
• Which follows in the next scene.
• Like Macbeth, Leontes cannot sleep.
• Has he in some way violated Nature?
• He imagines that giving Hermione “to the fire” might
bring back some part of his sleep.
• Leontes’ perverse interpretation of Mamillius’ illness: ll.
Paulina’s big scene: II.3
• Says she comes to bring him sleep: her words are “medicinal as
• Leontes “knew she would” come to him.
• She’s the only one to stand up to him.
• “Good queen, my lord, Good queen, I say good queen . . .”
• And commends the child for his blessing.
• Does Leontes look on the child?
• She curses anyone who would pick up the child “by that forced
baseness/ Which he has put upon’t.”
• So presumably no one touches the child.
• Paulina’s demeanor here counters every (male-authored) conduct
book for women of the period!
• And she becomes the spokeswoman for Nature: the child resembles
Leontes entirely: ll. 95-102.
• “Good goddess Nature”
• She won’t call Leontes “tyrant” but . . .
• And only after she is off the stage does Antigonus dare to pick up
The scene of Hermione’s “trial”
• She points out that her testimony can scarcely be credited since she is
accused of falsehood.
• It’s simply “he said”/”she said” – except that everyone knows she is entirely
• “My life stands in the level of your dreams.”
• And her faith is in “powers divine” that she insists view and judge human
affairs. (ll. 27ff).
• And in the oracle of Apollo.
• Apollo’s judgment!
• And immediately another judgment.
• And another!
• Leontes vows his change of mind and repentance – all very simple – and
confesses his plot with Camillo.
• But this is a tragedy – and Paulina pronounces the effect: “I say she’s dead;
I’ll swear it.”
• And Leontes cannot expect repentance:
• “Do not repent these things . . . Nothing but despair. A thousand knees/
Ten thousand years together, naked , fasting,/ Upon a barren mountain, and
still winter/ In storm perpetual, could not move the gods/ To look that way
• Some sins cannot be forgiven.
• But the play is only half over.