The Winter's Tale is a play by William Shakespeare originally published in the First Folio of 1623. Although it was grouped among the comedies, many modern editors have relabelled the play as one of Shakespeare's late romances. Some critics consider it to be one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" because the first three acts are filled with intense psychological drama, while the last two acts are comedic and supply a happy ending.
The play has been intermittently popular, revived in productions in various forms and adaptations by some of the leading theatre practitioners in Shakespearean performance history, beginning after a long interval with David Garrick in his adaptation Florizel and Perdita (first performed in 1753 and published in 1756). The Winter's Tale was revived again in the 19th century, when the fourth "pastoral" act was widely popular. In the second half of the 20th century, The Winter's Tale in its entirety, and drawn largely from the First Folio text, was often performed, with varying degrees of success.
Following a brief setup scene the play begins with the appearance of two childhood friends: Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Polixenes is visiting the kingdom of Sicilia, and is enjoying catching up with his old friend. However, after nine months, Polixenes yearns to return to his own kingdom to tend to affairs and see his son. Leontes desperately attempts to get Polixenes to stay longer, but is unsuccessful. Leontes then decides to send his wife, Queen Hermione, to try to convince Polixenes. Hermione agrees and with three short speeches is successful. Leontes is puzzled as to how Hermione convinced Polixenes so easily, and so he begins to suspect that his pregnant wife has been having an affair with Polixenes and that the child is Polixenes'. Leontes orders Camillo, a Sicilian Lord, to poison Polixenes. Camillo instead warns Polixenes and they both flee to Bohemia.
Furious at their escape, Leontes now publicly accuses his wife of infidelity, and declares that the child she is bearing must be illegitimate. He throws her in prison, over the protests of his nobles, and sends two of his lords, Cleomenes and Dion, to the Oracle at Delphos for what he is sure will be confirmation of his suspicions. Meanwhile, the queen gives birth to a girl, and her loyal friend Paulina takes the baby to the king, in the hopes that the sight of the child will soften his heart. He grows angrier, however, and orders Paulina's husband, Lord Antigonus, to take the child and abandon it in a desolate place. Cleomenes and Dion return from Delphos with word from the Oracle and find Hermione publicly and humiliatingly put on trial before the king. She asserts her innocence, and asks for the word of the Oracle to be read before the court. The Oracle states categorically that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, Camillo is an honest man, and that Leontes will have no heir until his lost daughter is found. Leontes shuns the news, refusing to believe it as the truth. As this news is revealed, word comes that Leontes' son, Mamillius, has died of a wasting sickness brought on by the accusations against his mother. At this, Hermione falls in a swoon, and is carried away by Paulina, who subsequently reports the queen's death to her heartbroken and repentant husband. Leontes vows to spend the rest of his days atoning for the loss of his son, his abandoned daughter, and his queen.
Antigonus, meanwhile, abandons the baby on the coast of Bohemia, reporting that Hermione appeared to him in a dream and bade him name the girl Perdita. He leaves a fardel (a bundle) by the baby containing gold and other trinkets which suggest that the baby is of noble blood. A violent storm suddenly appears, wrecking the ship on which Antigonus arrived. He wishes to take pity on the child, but is chased away in one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions: "Exit, pursued by a bear." (It is not known whether Shakespeare used a real bear from the London bear-pits, or an actor in bear costume.) Perdita is rescued by a shepherd and his son, also known as "Clown."
"Time" enters and announces the passage of sixteen years. Camillo, now in the service of Polixenes, begs the Bohemian king to allow him to return to Sicilia. Polixenes refuses and reports to Camillo that his son, Prince Florizel, has fallen in love with a lowly shepherd girl: Perdita. He suggests to Camillo that, to take his mind off thoughts of home, they disguise themselves and attend the sheep-shearing feast where Florizel and Perdita will be betrothed. At the feast, hosted by the Old Shepherd who has prospered thanks to the gold in the fardel, the pedlar Autolycus picks the pocket of the Young Shepherd and, in various guises, entertains the guests with bawdy songs and the trinkets he sells. Disguised, Polixenes and Camillo watch as Florizel (under the guise of a shepherd named Doricles) and Perdita are betrothed. Then, tearing off the disguise, Polixenes angrily intervenes, threatening the Old Shepherd and Perdita with torture and death and ordering his son never to see the shepherd's daughter again. With the aid of Camillo, however, who longs to see his native land again, Florizel and Perdita take ship for Sicilia, using the clothes of Autolycus as a disguise. They are joined in their voyage by the Old Shepherd and his son who are directed there by Autolycus.
In Sicilia, Leontes is still in mourning. Cleomenes and Dion plead with him to end his time of repentance because the kingdom needs an heir. Paulina, however, convinces the king to remain unmarried forever since no woman can match the greatness of his lost Hermione. Florizel and Perdita arrive, and they are greeted effusively by Leontes. Florizel pretends to be on a diplomatic mission from his father, but his cover is blown when Polixenes and Camillo, too, arrive in Sicilia. 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. The Old Shepherd and Young Shepherd, now made gentlemen by the kings, meet Autolycus, who asks them for their forgiveness for his roguery. Leontes, Polixenes, Camillo, Florizel and Perdita then go to Paulina's house in the country, where a statue of Hermione has been recently finished. The sight of his wife's form makes Leontes distraught, but then, to everyone's amazement, the statue shows signs of vitality; it is Hermione, restored to life. As the play ends, Perdita and Florizel are engaged, and the whole company celebrates the miracle. Despite this happy ending typical of Shakespeare's comedies and romances, the impression of the unjust death of young prince Mamillius lingers to the end, being an element of unredeemed tragedy, in addition to the years wasted in separation.
The main plot of The Winter's Tale is taken from Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1588. Shakespeare's changes to the plot are uncharacteristically slight, especially in light of the romance's undramatic nature, and Shakespeare's fidelity to it gives The Winter's Tale its most distinctive feature: the sixteen-year gap between the third and fourth acts.
There are minor changes in names, places, and minor plot details, but the largest changes lie in the survival and reconciliation of Hermione and Leontes (Greene's Pandosto) at the end of the play. The character equivalent to Hermione in Pandosto dies after being accused of adultery, while Leontes' equivalent looks back upon his deeds (including an incestuous fondness for his daughter) and slays himself. The survival of Hermione, while presumably intended to create the last scene's coup de théâtre involving the statue, creates a distinctive thematic divergence from Pandosto. Greene follows the usual ethos of Hellenistic romance, in which the return of a lost prince or princess restores order and provides a sense of humour and closure that evokes Providence's control. Shakespeare, by contrast, sets in the foreground the restoration of the older, indeed aged, generation, in the reunion of Leontes and Hermione. Leontes not only lives, but seems to insist on the happy ending of the play.
It has been suggested that the use of a pastoral romance from the 1590s indicates that at the end of his career, Shakespeare felt a renewed interest in the dramatic contexts of his youth. Minor influences also suggest such an interest. As in Pericles, he uses a chorus to advance the action in the manner of the naive dramatic tradition; the use of a bear in the scene on the Bohemian seashore is almost certainly indebted to Mucedorus, a chivalric romance revived at court around 1610.
Eric Ives, the biographer of Anne Boleyn (1986), believes that the play is really a parallel of the fall of the queen, who was beheaded on false charges of adultery on the orders of her husband Henry VIII in 1536. There are numerous parallels between the two stories – including the fact that one of Henry's closest friends, Sir Henry Norreys, was beheaded as one of Anne's supposed lovers and he refused to confess in order to save his life, claiming that everyone knew the Queen was innocent. If this theory is followed then Perdita becomes a dramatic presentation of Anne's only daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.
The play was not published until the First Folio of 1623. In spite of tentative early datings (see below), most critics believe the play is one of Shakespeare's later works, possibly written in 1610 or 1611. A 1611 date is suggested by an apparent connection with Ben Jonson's Masque of Oberon, performed at Court 1 January 1611, in which appears a dance of ten or twelve satyrs; The Winter's Tale includes a dance of twelve men costumed as satyrs, and the servant announcing their entry says "one three of them, by their own report, sir, hath danc'd before the King." (IV.iv.337–338). Arden Shakespeare editor J.H.P. Pafford found that "the language, style, and spirit of the play all point to a late date. The tangled speech, the packed sentences, speeches which begin and end in the middle of a line, and the high percentage of light and weak endings are all marks of Shakespeare's writing at the end of his career. But of more importance than a verse test is the similarity of the last plays in spirit and themes."
In the late 18th century, Edmond Malone suggested that a "book" listed in the Stationers' Register on 22 May 1594, under the title "a Wynters nightes pastime", might have been Shakespeare's, though no copy of it is known. In 1933, Dr. Samuel A. Tannenbaum wrote that Malone subsequently "seems to have assigned it to 1604; later still, to 1613; and finally he settled on 1610–11. Hunter assigned it to about 1605."
A play called "The Winter's Tale" would immediately indicate to contemporary audiences that the work would present an "idle tale", an old wives' tale not intended to be realistic and offering the promise of a happy ending. The title may have been inspired by George Peele's play The Old Wives' Tale of 1590, in which a storyteller tells "a merry winter's tale" of a missing daughter. However, early in The Winter's Tale, the royal heir, Mamillius, warns that "a sad tale's best for winter." Indeed, his mother is soon put on trial for treason and adultery – and his death is announced seconds after she is shown to have been faithful and Leontes's accusations unfounded.
While the language Paulina uses in the final scene evokes the sense of a magical ritual through which Hermione is brought back to life, there are several passages which suggest a far likelier case – that Paulina hid Hermione at a remote location to protect her from Leontes' wrath and that the re-animation of Hermione does not derive from any magic. The Steward announces that the members of the court have gone to Paulina's dwelling to see the statue; Rogero offers this exposition: "I thought she had some great matter there in hand, for she [Paulina] hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house" (5.2. 102–105). Further, Leontes is surprised that the statue is "so much wrinkled", unlike the Hermione he remembers. Paulina answers his concern by claiming that the age-progression attests to the "carver's excellence", which makes her look "as [if] she lived now." Hermione later asserts that her desire to see her daughter allowed her to endure 16 years of separation: "thou shalt hear that I, / Knowing by Paulina that the oracle / Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved / Myself to see the issue" (5.3.126–129).
However, the action of 3.2 calls into question the "rational" explanation that Hermione was spirited away and sequestered for 16 years. Hermione swoons upon the news of Mamilius' death, and is rushed from the room. Paulina returns after a short monologue from Leontes, bearing the news of Hermione's death. After some discussion, Leontes demands to be led toward the bodies of his wife and son: "Prithee, bring me / To the dead bodies of my queen and son: / One grave shall be for both: upon them shall / The causes of their death appear, unto / Our shame perpetual" (3.2) Paulina seems convinced of Hermione's death, and Leontes' order to visit both bodies and see them interred is never called into question by later events in the play.
Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson ridiculed the presence in the play of a seacoast and a desert in Bohemia, since the Kingdom of Bohemia (which roughly corresponds to the modern-day Czech Republic) had neither a coast (being landlocked) nor a desert. Shakespeare followed his source (Robert Greene's Pandosto) in giving Bohemia a coast, though he reversed the location of characters and events: "The part of Pandosto of Bohemia is taken by Leontes of Sicily, that of Egistus of Sicily by Polixenes of Bohemia". In support of Greene and Shakespeare, it has been pointed out that in the 13th century, for a period of less than about 10 years, under Ottokar II of Bohemia, the territories ruled by the king of Bohemia, although never incorporated into the kingdom of Bohemia, did stretch to the Adriatic, and, if one takes "Bohemia" to mean all of the territories ruled by Ottokar II, it is possible to argue that one could sail from a kingdom of Sicily to the "seacoast of Bohemia". Jonathan Bate offers the simple explanation that the court of King James was politically allied with that of Rudolf II, and the characters and dramatic roles of the rulers of Sicily and Bohemia were reversed for reasons of political sensitivity, and in particular to allow it to be performed at the wedding of the Princess Elizabeth.
In 1891, Edmund O. von Lippmann pointed out that "Bohemia" was also a rare name for Apulia in southern Italy. More influential was Thomas Hanmer's 1744 argument that Bohemia is a printed error for Bithynia, an ancient nation in Asia Minor; this theory was adopted in Charles Kean's influential 19th-century production of the play, which featured a resplendent Bithynian court. At the time of the medieval Kingdom of Sicily, however, Bithynia was long extinct and its territories were controlled by the Byzantine Empire. On the other hand, the play alludes to Hellenistic antiquity (e.g. the Oracle of Delphos, the names of the kings), so that the "Kingdom of Sicily" may refer to Greek Sicily not to the Kingdom of Sicily of later medieval times.
The pastoral genre is not known for precise verisimilitude, and, like the assortment of mixed references to ancient religion and contemporary religious figures and customs, this possible inaccuracy may have been included to underscore the play's fantastical and chimeric quality. As Andrew Gurr puts it, Bohemia may have been given a seacoast "to flout geographical realism, and to underline the unreality of place in the play".
A theory explaining the existence of the seacoast in Bohemia offered by C. H. Herford is suggested in Shakespeare's chosen title of the play. A winter's tale is something associated with parents telling children stories of legends around a fireside: by using this title, it implies to the audience that these details should not be taken too seriously.
In the novel Prince Otto by Robert Louis Stevenson reference is made to the land of Seaboard Bohemia in the context of an obvious parody of Shakespeare's apparent liberties with geography in the play.
Likewise, Shakespeare's apparent mistake of placing the Oracle of Delphi on a small island has been used as evidence of Shakespeare's limited education. However, Shakespeare again copied this locale directly from "Pandosto". Moreover, the erudite Robert Greene was not in error, as the Isle of Delphos does not refer to Delphi, but to the Cycladic island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo, which from the 15th to the late 17th century in England was known as "Delphos". Greene's source for an Apollonian oracle on this island likely was the Aeneid, in which Virgil wrote that Priam consulted the Oracle of Delos before the outbreak of the Trojan War and that Aeneas after escaping from Troy consulted the same Delian oracle regarding his future.
The play contains one of the most famous Shakespearean stage directions: Exit, pursued by a bear, presaging the offstage death of Antigonus. It is not known whether Shakespeare used a real bear from the London bear-pits, or an actor in bear costume. The Lord Admiral's Men, the rival playing company to the Lord Chamberlain's Men during the 1590s, are reported to have possessed "j beares skyne" among their stage properties in a surviving inventory dated March 1598. Perhaps a similar prop was later used by Shakespeare's company.
The Royal Shakespeare Company, in one production of this play, used a large sheet of silk which moved and created shapes to symbolise both the bear and the gale in which Antigonus is travelling.
One comic moment in the play deals with a servant not realising that poetry featuring references to dildos is vulgar, presumably from not knowing what the word means. This play and Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist (1610) are typically cited as the first usage of the word in publication. The Alchemist was printed first, but the debate about the date of the play's composition makes it unclear which was the first scripted use of the word, which is much older.
The earliest recorded performance of the play was recorded by Simon Forman, the Elizabethan "figure caster" or astrologer, who noted in his journal on 11 May 1611 that he saw The Winter's Tale at the Globe playhouse. The play was then performed in front of King James at Court on 5 November 1611. The play was also acted at Whitehall during the festivities preceding Princess Elizabeth's marriage to Frederick V, Elector Palatine, on 14 February 1613. Later Court performances occurred on 7 April 1618, 18 January 1623, and 16 January 1634.
The Winter's Tale was not revived during the Restoration, unlike many other Shakespearean plays. It was performed in 1741 at Goodman's Fields Theatre and in 1742 at Covent Garden. Adaptations, titled The Sheep-Shearing and Florizal and Perdita, were acted at Covent Garden in 1754 and at Drury Lane in 1756.
One of the best remembered modern productions was staged by Peter Brook in London in 1951 and starred John Gielgud as Leontes. Other notable stagings featured John Philip Kemble in 1811, Samuel Phelps in 1845, and Charles Kean in an 1856 production that was famous for its elaborate sets and costumes. Johnston Forbes-Robertson played Leontes memorably in 1887, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree took on the role in 1906. The longest-running Broadway production starred Henry Daniell and Jessie Royce Landis and ran for 39 performances in 1946. In 1980, David Jones, a former Associate Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company chose to launch his new theatre company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with The Winter's Tale starring Brian Murray supported by Jones' new company at BAM In 1983, the Riverside Shakespeare Company mounted a production based on the First Folio text at The Shakespeare Center in Manhattan. In 1993 Adrian Noble won a Globe Award for Best Director for his Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation, which then was successfully brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1994.
In 2009, four separate productions were staged:
In 2013 the RSC staged a new production directed by Lucy Bailey, starring Jo Stone-Fewings as Leontes and Tara Fitzgerald as Hermione. This production premiered on January 24 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on 24 January 2013.
In 2015, the Kenneth Branagh Production company staged the play at the Garrick Theatre, with simultaneous broadcast to cinemas. The production featured Kenneth Branagh as Leontes, Judi Dench as Paulina, and Miranda Raison as Hermione.
Also in 2015, Cheek by Jowl staged the play, directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod. The production toured to France, Spain, the US and Russia among others. In a partnership with the BBC and Riverside Studios the production was livestreamed all around the world. 
In 2016, author E. K. Johnston published the book Exit, Pursued by a Bear, a modern adaption of The Winter's Tale.
On 1 May 2016, BBC Radio 3's Drama on 3 broadcast a production directed by David Hunter, with Danny Sapani as Leontes, Eve Best as Hermione, Shaun Dooley as Polixenes, Karl Johnson as Camillo, Susan Jameson as Paulina, Paul Copley as the Shepherd and Faye Castelow as Perdita. This production will be re-broadcast on 6 May 2018.
Shakespeare follows Greene in giving Bohemia a seacoast, an error that has provoked the discussion of critics from Ben Jonson on.
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