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The Winter's Tale (1609-1611)

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English Literature

Does The Winter's Tale ring any bells? No, it's not a Christmas story. It's a five-act play by William Shakespeare. The Winter's Tale is considered to be one of Shakespeare's problem plays. Read on to find out what that means!

AuthorWilliam Shakespeare
Written in1609-1611
First stage performance1611
GenreTragicomedyProblem play
Dramatic devicesMonologueSoliloquyDramatic irony
Literary devicesMetaphorAllusionAllegorySymbolism

The Winter's Tale: Summary

The Winter's Tale is about the jealous King Leontes who abandons his daughter, convinced that he is not her father. Sixteen years later, father and daughter are reunited.

The King of Sicilia, Leontes, is visited by the King of Bohemia, Polixenes. Leontes believes that his pregnant wife, Hermione, has had an affair with Polixenes. This is not true, but Leontes is convinced that the father of Hermione's unborn child is Polixene. Leontes orders his nobleman, Camillo, to poison Polixenes. Camilo believes that Polixenes is innocent. He warns him and escapes to Bohemia with him. Leontes arrests Hermione for infidelity. In prison, she gives birth to a daughter. Hermione's friend, Paulina, takes the baby to Leontes. Leontes orders Paulina's husband, Antigonus, to take the child away. Leontes has sent two of his noblemen to talk to the Oracle of Delphos. The Oracle confirms that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, and predicts that Leontes' only heir will be his daughter. Leontes doesn't believe in the Oracle's word. Soon after, both his wife and his only son, Mamillius, die. Leontes swears that he will repent for what he's done. Meanwhile, Antigonus leaves the baby in Bohemia. Hermione appears to Antigonus in a dream and tells him that the child's name is Perdita. Antigonus is killed by a bear. A Shepherd and his son find Perdita and raise her as their own.

Sixteen years later, Perdita falls in love with the son of Polixenes, Prince Florizel, who pretends to be a shepherd. The two of them are about to get married. Polixenes finds out about this and is determined to stop them. He doesn't approve of his son marrying an ordinary shepherd girl. In disguise and accompanied by Camillo, Polixenes attends the wedding. Polixenes reveals himself and denounces Florizel. Camillo helps the prince and Perdita escape to Sicilia. Perdita's adoptive father, the Shepherd, and his son, the Clown, come with them. They carry the tokens that Antigonus left with Perdita when she was a baby. Polixenes follows them. In Sicilia, Leontes is still grieving the loss of his family. Soon, it is revealed that Perdita is his lost daughter. Everyone is reunited and all is forgiven. Paulina invites Leontes, Polixenes, Camillo, Florizel and Perdita to her house. She shows them a statue of Hermione. A miracle happens and the statue comes to life. Leontes, Hermione and Perdita are reunited.

The Winter's Tale: A Brief Analysis

Let's analyse the genre, themes and characters of The Winter's Tale

Genre

The Winter's Tale is considered to be one of Shakespeare's problem plays.

'In Shakespearean studies, certain of the ‘dark comedies’ are known as problem plays, notably Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida. These plays are difficult to classify because their sombre themes and cynical tones contrast oddly with their comedic elements, and the moral issues raised are not satisfactorily resolved. The term was originally applied to these plays by Frederick S. Boas (1862–1957, scholar of early modern drama).'¹

Oxford Reference

Shakespeare's 'problem plays' don't fit into the category of either comedy or tragedy. The Winter's Tale is a problem play because it contains both comic and tragic elements, and there is an unresolved issue. The Winter's Tale has a happy ending, which is typical for a comedy. However, the first part of the play is quite tragic and, although Hermione comes back to life in the end, her son Mamillius doesn't. The years of family separation remain unaddressed, at least as far as Leontes is concerned. How does he grieve? Does he forgive Hermione after she died? Does he feel guilt and remorse for not believing her or the Oracle? How does the Sicilian public feel towards him after Hermione's death? Does he send for his daughter or try to find out where she is? Because all of these questions are not answered, the 'happy-ending' doesn't seem quite satisfactory, and leads to its categorisation as a 'problem play'.

Themes

Love

'What we changed

Was innocence for innocence. We knew not

The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed

That any did.'

- Polixenes, Act 1, Scene 2

Polixenes talks to Hermione about his friendship with Leontes. He describes what Leontes and he were like when they were young and innocent.

The Winter's Tale explores different kinds of love - between friends, between lovers, and between family members. The love between Leontes and Polixenes is based on their friendship. They were friends from childhood. Leontes' jealousy comes between them and for sixteen years they don't see each other. Polixenes forgives Leontes and the two friends are reunited. Another example of friendship is the bond between Hermione and Paulina. Paulina remains so loyal to Hermione that she brings her back to life.

Romantic love is more complicated. Leontes has such strong feelings towards Hermione that they lead him to destructive jealousy. After he causes her death, he mourns her for sixteen years. The love between Perdita and Florizel threatens the prince's relationship with his father. On the other hand, the feelings of the young lovers are pure and they can't stand to be apart. When they run away to Sicilia, Perdita is reunited with her father. At the end of the play all the different forms of love are restored. The message is that they're all equally important.

Forgiveness

'I am ashamed. Does not the stone rebuke me

For being more stone than it?'

-Leontes, Act 5, Scene 3

Leontes looks at Hermione's statue and is overcome with shame and regret. He thinks that he is even colder than the stone that the statue is made of.

At the end of the play, everyone forgives Leontes for the harm he has caused. However, his redemption takes time. Sixteen years need to pass before he can get a second chance. Hermione's death and Perdita's disappearance represent the pain that Leontes needs to go through to learn his lesson and to be worthy of forgiveness.

Rebirth

'Thou met'st with things dying,

I with things newborn.'

- Shepherd, Act 3, Scene 3

The Shepherd talks to his son. His son has just seen death - the bear killing Antigonus. The Shepherd tells his son about the newborn baby he has found.

The title of the play, The Winter's Tale, is symbolic. The first part of the play is a tale of winter because it's marked by death. Hermione, Mamillius and Antigonus die, Perdita is lost, Polixenes and Leontes fall out. By the end of the play, spring comes and most of what was once lost is reborn. Hermione comes back to life, Perdita finds Leontes, Polixenes and Leontes are friends again.

Characters

Leontes

Leontes is the King of Sicilia. He is married to Hermione and they have two children - Mamillius and Perdita. He's good friends with Polixenes. At the beginning of the play, Leontes has love and fortune but he doesn't appreciate it. He throws it all away because of jealousy. He refuses to listen to anyone's advice. After sixteen years, Leontes has suffered and has repented for his crimes. When he is reunited with his loved ones, he can appreciate them. After having to live without them, he knows how valuable they are.

Hermione

Hermione is the Queen of Sicilia. She is Leontes' wife and mother to Mamillius and Perdita. Leontes wrongfully accuses Hermione of infidelity. She and her son die. At the end of the play, Hermione is brought back to life by her friend, Paulina. Hermione forgives Leontes and is happy to be reunited with him and their daughter, Perdita.

Some scholars argue that Hermione is not miraculously reborn. Their theory is that she was hiding and waiting for the right moment to come back. What do you think?

Polixenes

Polixenes is the King of Bohemia. He's the father of Florizel. Polixenes loses his good friend Leontes after Leontes blames him for having an affair with his wife. In sixteen years time, Polixenes forgives Leontes and their friendship is restored. Polixenes doesn't always have the best judgement. He threatens his son, Florizel, and won't let him marry Perdita because he thinks she's a lowly shepherdess.

Perdita

Perdita is the daughter of Leontes and Hermione. She is abandoned by Leontes and raised in Bohemia by the Shepherd. Even when she doesn't know her real heritage, Perdita's royal blood shows in the way that she behaves. Perdita is smart and has common sense. She marries the Prince of Bohemia, Florizel. She is often the voice of reason in their relationship.

Florizel

Florizel is the son of Polixenes. He's the Prince of Bohemia. Florizel pretends to be a shepherd named Doricles to woo Perdita. He marries her. This infuriates his father who disowns him. Florizel is a passionate young man who is madly in love with Perdita and is ready to leave his royal responsibilities to be with her.

Camillo

Camillo is a nobleman. At first, he works for Leontes in the Sicillian court. Then, he follows Polixenes to Bohemia. Camillo is a wise man and an excellent advisor to both kings. At the end of the play, Camillo marries Paulina.

Paulina

Paulina is Hermione's lady-in-waiting. She's married to Antigonus. After he dies, she's a widow until she marries Camillo. Paulina is a loyal friend to Hermione.

Antigonus

Antigonus is a nobleman in the Sicillian court. He's married to Paulina. Antigonus follows Leontes' orders to leave his daughter, Perdita, in a desolate place. Antigonus feels sorry for the newborn and he leaves her in a convenient place where someone might find her. He is eaten by a bear.

Shepherd

The Shepherd is a kind old man. He raises Perdita as his own child, together with his biological son.

Clown

The Clown is the Shepherd's son and Perdita's adoptive brother. He's not particularly smart and he provides much of the comic relief in the play.

How has The Winter's Tale influenced culture today?

The Winter's Tale is a beloved Shakespearean play. Over the years, there have been hundreds of stagings of it as well as numerous adaptations, including a ballet and an opera.

The Winter's Tale contains the most famous stage direction in the history of plays: 'Exit, pursued by a bear.' (Act 3, Scene 3). This direction describes Antigonus' last appearance in the play.

The Winter's Tale (1609-1611) - Key takeaways

  • The Winter's Tale is a five-act play by William Shakespeare that was first staged in 1611.
  • The Winter's Tale is about the jealous king Leontes who abandons his daughter, convinced that he is not her father. Sixteen years later, father and daughter are reunited.
  • The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's problem plays. The play has both comic and tragic elements. Not all of the issues that it brings up are resolved.
  • The main themes in the play are: love, forgiveness, and rebirth.
  • The main characters in The Winter's Tale are: Leontes, Hermione, Polixenes, Perdita, Florizel, Camillo, and Paulina.

SOURCE:

¹ Oxford Reference, 2022, oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100347336

The Winter's Tale (1609-1611)

The message of The Winter's Tale is that redemption is possible, when there's compassion and forgiveness.

At the end of The Winter's Tale Hermione comes back to life. She's reunited with her husband, Leontes, and her daughter, Perdita. 

The Winter's Tale was written between 1609 and 1611.

The Winter's Tale is around 300 pages long.

Final The Winter's Tale (1609-1611) Quiz

Question

The Winter's Tale is a...?

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Answer

Problem play

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Question

True or False: In the play, romantic love is presented as more important than the love between friends.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or False: At the end of the play, everyone forgives Leontes and he is redeemed.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Why is the play called The Winter's Tale?

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Answer

Because winter symbolises the tragedy of the first part of the play. 

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Question

Who is Perdita?

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Answer

The daughter of Leontes and Hermione, raised by the Shepherd

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Question

Whose death is described using the stage direction, 'Exit, pursued by a bear.' (Act 3, Scene 3)?

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Answer

Antigonus'

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Question

True or False: Polixenes is the King of Sicilia.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Who predicts that Leontes' only heir will be his daughter?

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Answer

The Oracle of Delphos

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Question

True or False: Florizel pretends to be a shepherd named Doricles.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Which character is resurrected at the end of the play?

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Answer

Hermione

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Question

True or False: Leontes and Polixenes are childhood friends.

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Answer

True.

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Question

How many years pass before Leontes and Perdita see each other again?

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Answer

16 years

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Question

True or False: When Polixenes thinks that Perdita is a shepherdess, he approves of her marriage to his son.

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Answer

False.

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