The Winter’s Tale | 2016, 2008
About the Play by John Dunlap
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Among Shakespeare’s later comedies, The Winter’s Tale is grouped by scholars under a subtype called “romance.” The term may suggest to modern ears a light-hearted, often thick-headed love story; but Shakespeare’s principal source for the plot of The Winter’s Tale was a “romance” of a different order: the morally earnest Elizabethan novel Pandosto(1588), by Robert Greene, a prolific pamphleteer still remembered for his 1592 public dismissal of the new playwright William Shakespeare as “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.”
Two decades later, near the end of his career and long after Greene’s death, Shakespeare returned the compliment by freely adapting Pandosto to a play of far greater genius and depth. In the romance tradition of fanciful settings counterpointed by psychological realism, Shakespeare weaves a lush tale of groundless jealousy and its wounding consequences, which can only be healed—and only partly—by time and nature.
Leontes, king of Sicily in an apparently late-medieval setting, is seized one day by an insane jealousy. His boyhood friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, is preparing to leave Sicily after a lengthy visit. Queen Hermione, Leontes’ virtuous wife, adds her own dutiful entreaties to those of Leontes that Polixenes prolong his stay.
Hermione’s gracious hospitality sparks Leontes’ jealousy. In a mad rage, Leontes commands Camillo, a faithful lord of the Sicilian court, to poison Polixenes, but the good Camillo instead helps Polixenes escape back to his own kingdom of Bohemia, where Camillo takes up residence as an aide and confidant to Polixenes.
Hermione meanwhile, imprisoned by her deranged husband, gives birth to Leontes’ daughter, whom the king denounces as the bastard child of Polixenes. Rejecting the pleas of Hermione’s noble friend Paulina, Leontes orders Paulina’s husband, Lord Antigonus, to take the infant princess out to sea and leave her to perish on a desert shore. At a public trial of Hermione, Leontes suddenly recovers his senses after an oracle declaring Hermione’s innocence is followed by news of their son Mamillius’ death and by further news of Hermione’s death. At which point we are midway through the play, the tragedy concluded and the comic resolution underway as the abandoned princess (Perdita—the lost one), infant daughter of Leontes and Hermione, is discovered by a shepherd on the shore of King Polixenes’ Bohemia.
With all the charm and dazzle of romance–semi-historical settings, mythological confusions, impossible geography, indifferent anachronisms, court formalities, pastoral backdrops — The Winter’s Tale is finally a play about good and evil: a hopeful if unsettling rumination on how our virtues, vices, and passions seem shaped as much by time and chance as by reflection and choice.