The Winter’s Tale is often an underestimated play in Shakespeare’s canon. However, I believe this intriguing work is definitely worth exploring. The Winter’s Tale often referred to as one of the Bard’s problem plays, as it doesn’t distinctly fit into any one category (comedy, tragedy, history, etc.) And for good reason: there is no other Shakespeare play with such a stark contrast between acts. At the opening of the play, we find ourselves in a dark political drama filled with deception, heartbreak and betrayal. However, at the opening of the second half of the play, we travel to a far away land full of exuberance and fun. All of a sudden, we are in a lively romantic comedy. You can see why this might be a bit confusing. So to help us better understand this play, we’ve broken down the moving parts of this Tale of epic proportions.
Winter’s Tale comes in at number 20 on our list of Best Shakespeare Plays.
The Tragic Half (Acts 1 – 3)
The play begins with a catch up between two old mates: Leontes, King of Sicily and Polixenes, King of Bohemia. They’ve been having a grand old time, but after nine long months, Polixenes is keen to hit the road. Leontes desperately wants his pal to stay longer. And so he decides to send his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione, to try to convince the Bohemian King to delay his return. In no time at all, she convinces him to do exactly this. Hooray! Right? Wrong. Leontes is perplexed as to how she was able to convince Polixenes to stay so easily when he had failed. He suddenly grows suspicious that the child in her belly actually belongs his best friend! He orders Camillo, one of his Lords, to poison Polixenes, and Camillo’s like “Toootally! I’ll definitely do that!” Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. He tells Polixenes and they both flee to Bohemia.
Leontes is furious. He publicly shames Hermione, accusing her of being unfaithful, and claims the child she is carrying is illegitimate. He throws her in prison against almost everyone’s wishes and sends two Lords—Cleomenes and Dion—to the Oracle of Delphi to get some answers and some divine truth. In prison, Hermione gives birth to a girl. She gives the child to her best friend Paulina, and asks her to present it to the king in order to soften his heart. But this just makes him angrier. He orders Antigonus, Paulina’s husband, to abandon the child in a desolate place.
Cleomenes and Dion return from the oracle to find that Leontes has put Hermione on trial for her “crimes”. She unwaveringly asserts her innocence to the court and asks for the word of the oracle to prove it. The oracle is read and says that Hermione, Polixenes and Camillo are categorically innocent and that Leontes will have no heir until his lost daughter is found. Leontes cries “Fake news!” at this proclamation. However, in a cruel act of shouldn’t-have-said-that, word comes to Leontes that his son Mamillius has died from a wasting sickness brought on by the accusations against his mother. Hermione faints at this news and is carried out by Paulina, who quickly reports back to Leontes that she has died of a broken heart. Only now does Leontes see the error of his ways, and vows to spend the rest of his days in atonement for his son, daughter and Queen.
Meanwhile, Antigonus decides to “abandon” the baby on the coast of Bohemia. He leaves her in a bundle, away from the water, with gold and trinkets to suggest that she is of noble blood. He names the baby Perdita, claiming Hermione had given him the name for her child in a dream. In fact, he almost adopts the child as his own, but in a violent storm that destroys his ship, he is chased away by a bear and killed. Not long after, Perdita is found by a shepherd and his son, otherwise known as Clown.
The Comic Half (Acts 4 – 5)
As announced by a character named “Time”, sixteen years have passed. Polixenes is in his kingdom of Bohemia along with Camillo, who never left after the drama of the earlier acts. To take his mind off homesickness, Polixenes suggests to his exiled friend that they attend a sheep-shearing festival (in disguise, naturally) where Polixenes’ son Florizel is about to be secretly married to some lowly peasant. The festival is hosted by the shepherd who adopted Perdita; she is, in fact, betrothed to Florizel (who goes by the name Doricles). Polixenes breaks up the union by tearing off his disguise and threatening the shepherd and Perdita with death and torture for what they’ve done; he orders his son and Perdita to never see each other again. Camillo, ever the rational presence, helps the couple to escape in disguise to Sicily, followed in disguise by the old shepherd and his son.
Finally, the play returns to Sicily. Leontes is still mourning the loss of his loved ones. Cleomenes and Dion are begging the King to move on because the kingdom needs an heir, but Paulina convinces him to stay unmarried saying that no one will ever live up to Hermione. Florizel and Perdita arrive in Sicily and are greeted kindly by Leontes. Florizel claims to be on a diplomatic mission from his father, but his cover is blown when Polixenes arrives in Sicily as well! The meeting and reconciliation of the kings and princes is reported by gentlemen of the Sicilian court: how the old shepherd raised Perdita, how Antigonus met his end, how Leontes was overjoyed at being reunited with his daughter, and how he begged Polixenes for forgiveness.
They all go to Paulina’s house to see a statue of Hermione that was recently finished. Upon the sight of his late Queen’s form Leontes, becomes distraught. But, all of a sudden (wait for it) the statue shows signs of life (yep), and Hermione is restored! The play ends with the engagement of Perdita and Florizel, even as the air of grief at the loss of Mamillius lingers on.
The Winter’s Tale Character List
Leontes – The King of Sicily, and the childhood friend of the Bohemian King Polixenes.
Hermione – The virtuous and beautiful Queen of Sicily.
Camillo – An honest Sicilian nobleman.
Paulina – A noblewoman of Sicily.
Antigonus – Paulina’s husband, and also a loyal friend of Hermione.
Dion – A lord of Sicily.
Cleomenes – A Sicilian lord.
Mamillius – The young prince of Sicily, Leontes and Hermione’s son.
Emilia – One of Hermione’s ladies-in-waiting.
Gaoler – Charged with imprisoning Hermione.
Mariner – His ship takes Antigonus to Bohemia.
Polixenes – The King of Bohemia, and Leontes’s boyhood friend.
Florizel – Polixenes’s only son and heir.
Perdita – The daughter of Leontes and Hermione, unaware of her royal lineage.
Shepherd – An old and honourable sheep-tender.
Clown – or Young Shepherd, the Old Shepherd’s buffoonish son, and Perdita’s adopted brother.
Autolycus – A roguish peddler, vagabond, and pickpocket.
Mopsa – A shepherdess, in love with Young Shepherd.
Dorcas – A shepherdess, in love with Young Shepherd.
Archidamus – A lord of Bohemia, visiting Sicilia with his king.
Lords, servants, gentlemen, ladies in Sicilia.
Shepherds, shepherdesses, servants in Bohemia.
Hermione, Act 3, Scene 2 ‘Sir, spare your threats…’
Paulina, Act 3 Scene 2 ‘What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?’
Antigonus, Act 3, Scene 3, Line 21, ‘Come, poor babe’
Leontes, Act 1, Scene 2, Line 215, ‘To your own bents, dispose you’
The Legacy of The Winter’s Tale
As with many of Shakespeare’s plays—certainly more than you might think—The Winter’s Tale was based on an existing work: a prose story titled Pandosto by Robert Greene. Shakespeare changes a few names and details in its adaptation; interestingly, the main point of difference is the reconciliation of Leontes and Hermione—who remains dead in the original story and doesn’t turn into a living, magic statue.
Scholars have noted the way in which The Winter’s Tale diverts from tried-and-true dramatic forms by Shakespeare; this is actually indicative of a lot of the material he was producing in his later years. As for the meaning of the work, there is argument about this as well, as you might have guessed. For example: some scholars draw parallel between Hermione’s unfair accusation of adultery and that of Anne Boleyn, whose shaming and public execution would have weighed heavy on the minds of the British people at the time.
But few can find a reason for the stark difference between the play’s polarising halves. We have even separated them in our synopsis, below, to illustrate how strange the distinction is! However, it is important to note that some unifying themes persist throughout: family, legacy and the importance of truth—be it from an Oracle’s proclamation or a father-in-law’s slipping disguise. Likewise, the theme of grief. Sorrow is a damning presence in the first half of the show that literally kills and tears a family apart. Many artists and critics alike have noted that while Hermione is resurrected, her son Mamillius remains dead. It’s a fleeting plot point that speaks to the deceptive complexity of one of Shakespeare’s strangest plays.
The Winter’s Tale is not one of Shakespeare’s well-known plays; it’s certainly not as approachable as one of the famous history or tragedies that are produced, without fail, by theatre companies around the world every single damn year. But the play is worth reading, knowing, understanding. It is a work that hides beauty in its tragedy, complexity in its farce. For every extraordinary plot point and convenient magic statue, there is a greater human element at play that keeps the action compelling and the characters feeling real.
Track down a copy and give it a read! Just watch out for bears.