edited by John Pitcher
Composed between 1609 and 1611, towards the end of Shakespeare’s career, The Winter’s Tale was recorded by Elizabethan playgoer and astrologer, Simon Forman, as having been performed at the Globe in 1611. The play is not seen in print, however, until the 1623 First Folio.
Leontes, King of Sicilia, and his wife, Hermione, are expecting their second child. Leontes’ childhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, has come to pay a visit, during which, Leontes grows increasingly suspicious of his old friend and his wife. Polixenes flees, and Hermione is imprisoned, where she gives birth to a daughter; during her trial, Hermione hears of the death of her son, Mamillus, faints and is pronounced dead. The baby princess, Perdita, is taken from Sicilia and left with a shepherd and his son. Sixteen years pass, and Perdita is being wooed by the disguised Prince of Bohemia, Florizel, son of Polixenes. Eloping to Sicily, away from the wrath of Polixenes, Perdita’s true paternity is revealed. A lifelike statue of Hermione is unveiled by her perpetual friend Paulina, and, as if by magic, the queen comes to life to be with her husband and daughter once again.
The Winter’s Tale is variously described as a late play, a problem play, a romance, a pastoral, and a tragicomedy. ‘Tragicomedy’ as a genre was relatively new to the English theatre, following the arrival of Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido in England (c.1600), whereas pastoral romance was established, even outdated, by Shakespeare’s time of writing. The play’s first three Acts teeter on the tragic, with the second two encompassing an ending – happy marriages – most commonly seen in Shakespearean comedies. The incorporation of the pastoral romance genre allows the play’s tragic endings to be sublimated into a Golden World setting, and eventually subverted through fantasy and belief in the supernatural.
Shakespeare drew on Robert Greene’s prose work, Pandosto (1588), for the plot of his play, rewriting the deaths of Pandosto (Greene’s Leontes) and Hermione. Scholars have argued that, as with his usage of the resurrected wife trope in Much Ado About Nothing, the impetus for Hermione’s revivification came from Euripides’ Alcestis. In another classical source, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we find the basis for the image of the beloved wife as statue.
Twentieth-century criticism of the play has seen focus shift to the psychological drama behind Leontes’ actions, in particular Freudian discussions of wish-fulfilment and childhood sexuality. The latter became the backdrop for Trevor Nunn’s 1969 RSC production, which saw the play performed in an oversized nursery. A turn back to early modern psychology has led to discussions of Leontes’ ‘affection’ or affectio, the deranged mind. Feminist criticism has explored the trope of the ‘women who won’t die’ in Shakespeare’s late plays, and the unusual protagonism of Perdita in the pastoral setting, where it is more common for the pastoral shepherd to be the focus.