When are we?
William Shakespeare wrote this play around 1609-1610. But since The Winter's Tale is a totally fantastical story (having no real reference to historical events or people), it's hard to pinpoint exactly when the story is meant to be set. Maybe it's meant to be set in the same time as it was first produced? Possibly, but it doesn't feel like a Renaissance setting—or at least not entirely. In other plays, Shakespeare sometimes used historical settings, like Ancient Rome or the Middle Ages, but he hasn’t left us any real clues in The Winter's Tale that would point toward a specific era. The work has a sense of being almost timeless. Perhaps the reason the time is hard to pin point is because we aren't suppose to. The themes of jealousy, redemption, love, forgiveness, and the relentless passage of time are universal, meaning as much to audiences now as they did 400 years ago. Shakespeare’s romances are sometimes compared to fairy tales, and like them, they seem to exist outside of a set moment in time. The same way we can't tell you what year it was when Cinderella put on her glass slipper, this Shakespearean fairy tale is meant to have taken place "a long time ago in a land far, far away."
Where are we?
The play has two distinct settings. We begin in Leontes' court in Sicily and later travel to Bohemia, where Polixenes is king. If you think about it for too long, you might start to wonder about the geography of the play. Bohemia is a landlocked part of central Europe, yet the characters traveling to and from Bohemia and Sicily use ships. Whoops--that doesn't seem quite right, Will. This is part of the reason that scholars believe Shakespeare might not have been the most well-traveled man. His knowledge of exotic locales seems more gleaned from travel books and novels rather than from an intimate knowledge of the places or their cultures.
But it's also possible that this wasn't exactly a mistake. Much like Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bohemia is meant to simply represent an "other" world, fanciful and unknown to the audience, where all sorts of magic can occur. This is not a history play that centers the action around actual happenings, and it makes some good sense that Shakespeare would have irreverently/intentionally blurred the lines of geographical reality.
Image: Map of Bohemia, 1756
"Merry or sad shall it be?"
The Winter's Tale was written around 1609-1610. (As with most all Will's plays, we aren't 100% sure about the date.) It might have been his fourth-to-last play, and thus it is sometimes defined as one of the "Last Plays." More commonly, though, it is defined as one of Shakespeare's romances. Basically, a Shakespearean romance is the genre where we toss a play that isn't comedy or tragedy. Yet there is often a somewhat joyful resolution and a bit of magic mixed in. (The other romances: Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest.) Let's explore some of the ways in which The Winter's Tale fits these many genres.
The first three acts of Winter's Tale follow the structure of a straight-up Shakespearean tragedy. We see touches of Othello in Leontes' tragic and misconstrued jealousy. Perhaps Leontes is even more harrowing, as Leontes doesn't need an Iago to feed his green-eyed monster. All of the king's tragedy is fueled by his own (totally unjustified, btw) surmises.
The major difference between this story and a full tragedy? The time. In only three acts, the full extent of the tragedy is played out. Within an hour, Leontes has had his jealousy sparked, festered in it, sought his revenge, discovered the truth, and deeply repented. Most tragic figures have much more time to become so warped, and thus they are more deeply consumed and translated by their tragic flaw. And because these tragedians have gone so far past the point of no-return, the only way "out" for them at the end of the story is death. But Leontes does not die. Instead, his tragedy is such a whirlwind that when it ends, he is left alive with his entire life in front of him. He says that "tears shed will be my recreation." We can take that in two ways--tears shed on Hermione's grave will be his primary pastime. But they will also be his "re-creation," his path to redemption. For also unlike his tragic compatriots, Leontes is one of the few who lives to see redemption.
And then, abruptly, the scene shifts. With a single "exit, pursued by a bear" Will leaves the tragic world and throws us into a comedy. We are in Bohemia, on the heels of a random and (sort of ridiculously) gruesome death. Then, the Clown runs in to deliver perhaps the first laughs of the play. For the next hour, we play and frolic in Bohemia with Perdita, the Clown, and the shepherdesses. Even the roguish pick-pocket Autolycus, who serves as the baddest guy around, is pretty likable.
Will masterfully handles these tonal shifts. Are they bizarre in their timing? Perhaps. But do they serve a distinct purpose every time? Absolutely. More modern storytellers tend to shy away from such drastic genre-jumping--probably because it's difficult to pull off well, or perhaps because they don't trust the audience to follow the emotional journey. But true to form, Will is able to find the humanity of the world and capture it precisely. What is life if not a bizarre hodgepodge of the tragic, the comic, and the magic of the world?
Pastoral stories are defined as beginning in the court--where life is stuffier, sometimes even stifling--and moving back to nature--where we are closer to our true and better selves, unburdened by the constructs of society. (Another pastoral story you'll be familiar with: Robin Hood. Another Shakespeare pastoral play: As You Like It.) The pastoral shift in Winter's Tale comes when we leave behind Sicily and all its tragedy and find ourselves in the exotic, idyllic Bohemia. Here, Perdita is raised with a doting family, has fallen in love with a prince, has joyful and true friends, and the biggest scandal is being pick-pocketed on the road by the country rogue.
This pastoral element is a nice way for Will to translate us gracefully from the tragic world of Sicily into the comic world of Bohemia. And the exotic "otherness" of Bohemia (especially to an untraveled London audience) is the perfect setting for the lost princess's paradise.
A touch of Greene.
Shakespeare often borrowed heavily (sometimes straight-up lifting directly) from other sources. His Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, and As You Like It are almost entirely unoriginal, the plots and characters having been borrowed from other plays. We'll remind you not to judge him too harshly for that--copyright laws and the idea of artistic ownership were very different in the 17th century. Plus, all the other playwrights were doing it, too.
Like his other romances, The Winter's Tale is a little more original than the comedies and tragedies, but Will certainly did pull inspiration for Winter's Tale. Most notably, Shakespeare probably borrowed heavily from the writings of Robert Greene, a contemporary of Will's. (A contemporary that is likely the author of a 1592 pamphlet attacking Shakespeare's talent. He famously wrote about the new playwright called Shakespeare: "...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you:... is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey". So if we are right and Will did use Greene's source material for his play, that's pretty bold--and pretty funny.)
Shakespeare used Greene's Pandosto, a 1588 prose romance, throughout the first three acts. We also see similarities between Autolycus and Greene's pamphlets about London criminals. The conceit of the lost baby princess was found all over folk lore at the time. We can also look to Ovid's Metamorphoses for some clear inspiration, where Proserpina returns from the underworld and brings with her the spring. Finally, Hermione's "resurrection" owes an obvious debt to the Pygmalion myth--Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell so in love with his statue that she came to life.
"Exit, pursued by a bear."
If you are at all a Shakespeare fan, when you hear Winter's Tale, you immediately think "oh yeah, the one with the bear!" If you are not a Shakespeare nerd, you might wonder why we get so excited about the bear. To fully understand, you'll need to know a little about Shakespeare's stage directions in general (or the lack thereof).
Ignore the italics.
If you've ever looked at a modern script, you'll see that it's covered in stage directions. These are moments written out by the playwright (usually printed in italics) that describe the action on stage. These chunks of information tell the reader what the dialogue cannot--the unspoken moments of action necessary to the plot. (E.g. She goes to the table and picks up her coffee and drinks.)
Shakespeare didn't write stage directions. There are no big chunks of italic text in his scripts, and any unspoken directions you might see in your Shakespeare text at home (e.g. She strikes him or They fight) were not written by Will, but added to the text by a helpful publisher. Thanks for that.
Why didn't he use stage directions, you ask? Simple--he didn't need them. Shakespeare wrote his action into the play--you find it in the dialogue. Example: when Leontes says, "O, she is warm!" the actor knows that he must touch her to justify the line. (Duh.)
But we do have some scholarly reasons to believe that Exit, pursued by a bear was one of the only stage directions written by Will himself. And for Shakespeare nerds, that's super cool. (As with a lot about Shakespeare's life and his texts, we can't prove that, but we can certainly talk about it at length until it seems pretty legit. Welcome to the world of Shakespearean scholarship.)
Also, it's just super memorable. People have referred to it as the most recognizable stage direction of all time, simply for its sheer weirdness.
A plot device.
It's not actually THAT crazy, is it? The bear attack is an essential part of the story. Antigonus needs to die so that no one knows where Perdita ended up. They are in the woods when it happens. What else could have killed him?
Beyond that, the bear is the crux of the shift from comedy to tragedy. As soon as the bear has exited pursuing, the tragedy of Winter's Tale is over and the comedy begins. (The clown bursts on describing the bear attack that is happening "Now, now! I have not winked since I saw these sights.")
If we think about it, what is a sudden bear attack if not supremely tragic and horrific, yet also so bizarre and unexpected that it's funny? Shakespeare probably realized this, and thus placed the bear precisely where he is, as the fulcrum between comedy and tragedy.
A lot of people wonder what the bear looked like in Shakespeare's original production. As with most 17th century records regarding the theatre, there is no mention of how they pulled off that particular stunt.
A popular theory is that they might have used a live, trained bear. Fueling that theory is the fact that the bear-baiting pits were near the Globe in Southwark. But this theory doesn't exactly hold up. The bears at the pits were not tame bears but dangerous and encouraged to be aggressive. It is highly unlikely that there was a bear tame enough to wait politely offstage until his cue, then chase Antigonus away without mauling the actor.
Another theory is that they used bear cubs instead. King James I received a gift of two polar bear cubs in 1609 (around the time Winter's Tale was written). Cubs would have been far safer than adult bears. Perhaps, perhaps. And at this point, Shakespeare's company was sponsored by the King. Maybe James lent Will one in exchange for a thank-you in the program.
It probably (hopefully) comes as no surprise to you that modern theatre companies do not use real bears when producing The Winter's Tale. But they certainly do put much thought into how to achieve the moment.
Mostly, they have to decide if the moment will be played for laughs or chills. Ideally, the theatre accomplishes both (as we've already discussed that Shakespeare uses the bear to define the tragic/comic transition).
Some productions go full-on man-in-a-bear suit. Pure comedy. Some go for ferocity by using evocative and impressive puppetry.
"On the realistic side, Charles Kean’s bear in his 1856 production was praised in The Times as ‘a masterpiece of the zoological art’. An early 20th-century production by Harley Granville-Barker and a 1951 staging by Peter Brook were both praised for having convincingly ferocious bears." (Read more of this article here.)
Test your understanding of the characters and their motivations by identifying who said what.
- "If I were not in love with Mopsa thou shouldst take no money of me."
- "I'll pawn the little blood which I have left to save the innocent."
- "Press me not, beseech you, so there is no tongue that moves, none, none i' the world so soon as yours could win me."
- "I doubt not then but innocence shall make false accusation blush and tyranny tremble at patience."
- "I'll not call you tyrant- but this most cruel usage of your queen- not able to produce more accusation than your own weak hinged fancy- something savors of tyranny- and will ignoble make you- yea scandalous to the world!"
- "I would not be a stander-by to hear my sovereign mistress clouded so, without my present vengeance taken: 'shrew my heart, you never spoke what did become you less than this."
- "It is; you lie, you lie: I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee."
- "Adieu, my lord. I never wished to see you sorry. Now I trust I shall."
- "I am his cupbearer: if from me he have wholesome beverage, account me not your servant."
- "I see this is the time the unjust man doth thrive!"
- "Tears shed there shall be my recreation."
Painting: Augustus Leopold Egg. A Scene from "The Winter's Tale," 1845.
List of Characters
- Leontes--King of Sicily, boyhood friend of Polixenes, husband to Hermione, father to Mamillius & Perdita. At the beginning of our story, he is consumed with jealous thoughts. Sometimes, characters refer to him as "Sicilia."
- Hermione--Queen of Sicily, mother of Mamillius & Perdita. She is a faithful wife and devoted mother.
- Mamillius--the promising young Prince of Sicily, son of Hermione and Leontes.
- Polixenes--King of Bohemia, childhood friend of Leontes, father to Florizel. He is falsely accused of sleeping with Hermione. Sometimes, characters refer to him as "Bohemia."
- Paulina--the outspoken and fiercely loyal friend of Hermione and wife to Antigonus.
- Antigonus--a lord of Sicily, husband to Paulina. He does his best to save Perdita from a cruel fate.
- Old Shepherd--a low-born Bohemian shepherd, father to the clown. He finds the infant Perdita and raises her as his own.
- The clown--the Old Shepherd's son, in love with Mopsa, a simple fellow, adoptive brother of Perdita.
- Autolycus--a charming rogue, a pickpocket, who was once in Florizel's service.
- Cleomenes & Dion--Sicilian lords sent to the oracle at Delphi.
- Perdita--daughter of Leontes and Hermione, raised without that knowledge in Bohemia by the Old Shepherd, in love with Florizel.
- Florizel--son of Polixenes and Prince of Bohemia, in love with Perdita but cannot marry her because she is not royal (or so they think).
- Mopsa & Dorcas--singing and dancing Shepherdesses of Bohemia, both vying for the clown's attention.
- Time--a sort of chorus figure.
"This wide gap of time"
The actual figure of Time makes an appearance in this story, helping transport the audience 15 years into the future after the Old Shepherd finds Perdita. He serves as a temporary chorus, or narrator. This wide gap of time is unusual in a Shakespeare play, and thus is of significant interest to us. Of course, we need the time to pass so that Perdita and Florizel can grow into young adults and continue the story. But Shakespeare is accomplishing more than a plot device with this shift.
The 15 years of mourning for Leontes is an important part of his ultimate redemption. As you read earlier, most of Shakespeare's tragic characters become so consumed by their tragedy, their only way out is death. Leontes is an exception to this rule--he is left to linger in his sorrow. While his tragedy is a whirlwind, beginning and concluding in what seems like a comparative instant, his repentance is drawn out over 15 long years. And thus, Leontes survives his own tragedy. (We have to wonder that if Hamlet had not been poisoned, maybe 15 years of contemplation would have given the melancholy Dane some perspective.) The figure of Time, not the figure of Death, is presented to Leontes, and in this way, Shakespeare highlights the necessity of time while seeking redemption.
The play begins in winter at Leontes' court in Sicily. Mamillius ominously reminds us that "A sad tale's best for winter," and boy, is he right. This winter's tale begins with the greatest sadness imaginable for Leontes and his family, including much death and destruction. It is not a hard metaphor to grasp--the world is (or at least appears to be) frozen and dead, and thus are the relationships on stage destroyed by coldness and unrelenting unfairness. You can't argue with the winter and hope for spring--just as Leontes's warmth cannot be awoken in the winter of his jealousy.
Winter is often used as a literary device to conjure metaphors of death or sadness. Winter is predictable--we know it's coming every year--but it can be deeply burdensome, even deadly. Just so, life has its predictable summers and winters as we experience times of joy and devastation. Yet, they cycle through just as the seasons.
It is no coincidence that Hermione appears to us as a (somewhat literally) frozen thing in the final scene. Her winter has lasted these 15 years. It seems that her primary reason to thaw is the promise of a new beginning with Perdita.
And just as spring thaws out even the most cruel winters, Shakespeare's story is reborn as spring and summer return.
Summer and rebirth.
After the 15-year jump forward in time, we find ourselves in a Bohemian summer, so thoroughly unlike the Sicilian winter we've left behind that it almost feels we are in a new story. But haven't we all had that moment? In the middle of summer, we can hardly remember how bitterly cold we felt 6 months before during the long winter months. It seems as if that bitter time is from another life, and that the earth has never been anything but summer. It is another world to us, and yet we know that it wasn't. Sicily is behind us, so different as to be temporarily forgotten, yet we know we must go back eventually. Shakespeare's really, really good at finding those relatable elements of humanity--maybe that's why we respond so deeply to him.
With the warm weather comes rebirth. Perdita has a new and beautiful life. Leontes is given his ultimate redemption. Hermione is (in some ways) literally resurrected. Florizel begins a new life with the woman of his dreams, and Polixenes is reunited with his childhood friend. Even the Clown and Old Shepherd become lords and embark on a new life. And thus, the world is reborn in summer.
Painting: Autolycus (1836) by Charles Robert Leslie
A quick list of interesting facts, fun pictures, and links.
- Perdita's name means "the lost one."
- Autolycus means "lone wolf"
- In Shakespeare's time, a "winter's tale" referred to a story that was told by old wives around the fireside--usually magical in some degree and with a simple, moral message to relate.
- In the play's first production, historians think it is possible that a real bear was used on stage, possibly borrowed from a bear baiting pit quite near the theatre. (See longer discussion about this in the "bear" section above.)
- In 1754, an alternate telling of Winter's Tale was performed in Covent Garden. Written by McNamara Morgan, it was called: The Sheep-shearing, or Forizel and Perdita.
- A 2001 production at the Hytner's National Theatre set the Sheep-shearing scene at a rock and roll concert.
- In 2009, The Red Rose Chain Theatre Company staged a successful hoax warning people about bear sightings in Suffolk forest, even creating photoshopped images and videos, fake youtube accounts and comments. (Video below)
Painting: William Hamilton, "A chapel in Paulina's house, Act V Scene III from The Winters Tale from The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery"
Use these as prompts for classroom discussion, essay questions, or simply as inspiration for your critical mind.
- Leontes only has a few hundred lines to go from a little suspicious to totally enraged with jealousy. In what ways does this make him an unsympathetic character? In what ways is this a real portrayal of the dangers of jealousy?
- Paulina defends her friend Hermione by telling King Leontes that "it is an heretic that makes the fire/ Not she which burns in't" (II.3). What is Paulina saying with this line? Do you agree with her? What consequences could such a claim cause her? How might Paulina's argument be considered as "speaking truth to power?"
- Hermione does not speak to Leontes in the final scene, so she never (at least textually) offer him her forgiveness. She does, however, speak to Perdita. Look at this family reunion in the final scene and make a case for both instances; in what way does Will's text make it clear that Hermione has forgiven Leontes and thus offer him true redemption? In what way is the reunion more about Perdita than Leontes?
- Discuss the settings. Why does Shakespeare choose Sicily and Bohemia? Why does he allow for such a wide gap of time between the two settings? In what ways do the settings and the timing enhance the themes of rebirth and redemption?
- There is a marked shift in tone when the play travels from Sicily to Bohemia. In what ways does this influence our interpretation of the events that unfold? Is Shakespeare making a commentary on each locale with this shift?
- In the first half of the play, we see a woman falsely accused of crimes and persecuted despite her innocence. In the second half, we see Autolycus commit a number of crimes without any retribution. Why is there this discrepancy between the two? Does the severity of the crimes in question play into this? What comments could be made about justice or fairness?
Glossary of Terms
- saultiers--leapers, dancers
- Cypress--a light, transparent fabric
- milliner--a seller of ribbons, gloves, and other apparel
- like sooth--truthful
- methinks--it seems to me
- continent--marked by self-restraint
- intelligencing bawd--a go-between, spy
- vulgars--common people