1. The Winter's Tale is one of four late plays called romances. Together with The Tempest it rounds off the shape of Shakespeare's career, bringing back the dramatic form of The Comedy of Errors from the beginning and of Twelfth Night from the middle of his work. Romances are comedies in their structure, but have an element of loss that often makes them tragi-comedies in a sense, as we shall see vividly here. They suggest reconciliation and rebirth, wonderful discovery after painful suffering.

2. Tragicomedy is perhaps the hardest kind of play to write successfully, and The Winter's Tale is a triumphant example of Shakespeare's ability to master many dramatic forms. It's sometimes said that no other dramatist wrote a sublime comedy and a sublime tragedy, not to mention the history play. Romances were in vogue when Shakespeare wrote these plays, but he elevated the form to emotional and symbolic levels beyond his contemporaries. He also was working with a new theater, the Blackfriars, which attracted a moneyed and perhaps a better educated audience. This indoor theater allowed for artificial lighting and special effects more complicated than the open air Globe Theater. (Now there is a New Globe in London near the original site.)

3. Shakespeare's approach to tragicomedy in The Winter's Tale begins with the tragic downfall of Leontes, King of Sicily, which occupies the first three acts. Then Shakespeare bridges the two forms by using a "wide gap of Time" (5.3.154), some sixteen years before Act 4 begins. After the allegorical figure of Time speaks the Chorus at the beginning of 4.1, we are transported from the wintery tragic landscape of Sicily to a lush green world in Bohemia, where the flowering of the comic pattern may begin. A change of scenery, however, is not sufficient to move us emotionally from a horrifying tragedy to a final reconciliation. That takes careful preparation and two of the boldest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote.

Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. The first three acts are in a sense a compression of Othello. We are thrown into the fevered mind of the protagonist as abruptly as in King Lear, and his first scene likewise triggers the destruction of a family. How long jealousy has been brewing in Leontes is uncertain. He seems disturbed by the power of his Queen, Hermione, to persuade Polixenes to prolong his visit; perhaps he hears words from his boyhood friend that have a sexual charge for him: "multiply" (7), "breed" (12), or even the opening words of scene 2: "Nine changes of the wat'ery star hath been/ The shepherd's note since we have left our throne" (1.2.1-2). However irrational it might be, does this reminder of Hermione's pregnancy add to a growing insecurity? As with Othello, the emotional vulnerability of the jealous protagonist must be established, however senseless it seems to us.

5. It is easier to see Othello's isolation in Venice than to understand Leontes' unsteady frame of mind. Perhaps a clue lies in the dialogue between Polixenes and Hermione:

Polixenes. We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i' th' sun,
And bleat the one at th' other; what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did; had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher reared
With stronger blood, we should have answer'd heaven
Boldly, "not guilty"; the imposition cleared,
Hereditary ours.

Hermione. By this we gather
You have tripped since.

Polixenes. O my most sacred lady,
Temptations have since then been born to 's, for
In those unfledged days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had then not cross'd the eyes
Of my young playfellow.

Hermione. Grace to boot!
Of this make no conclusion, lest you say
Your queen and I are devils. Yet go on,
Th' offences we have made you do we'll answer,
If you first sinn'd with us, and that with us
You did continue fault, and that you slipped not
With any but with us. (67-85)

Does this jesting about courtship and marriage suggest a key to Leontes' torment? Two factors seem at work: a notion that sexuality itself corrupts innocence, and Leontes' sense of powerlessness:

Why, that was when
Three crabbèd months had soured themselves to death,
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand
And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter
"I am yours for ever." (101-105)


The last line is a chilling echo of the last line of 3.3 in Othello, spoken by the demonic Iago: "I am your own for ever." But Leontes' demon resides in his own mind.

6. As we watch the disintegration of Leontes, we hear the disordered language of a frantic man doubting his paternity as he speaks distractedly to Mamillius. He imagines the horns of the cuckold in a series of images: deer, brows, neat, steer, heifer, calf. In this clip from the Royal Shakespeare Company production, Antony Sher brilliantly evokes Leontes' desperation:


As he spirals out of control, his language becomes more extravagant until it echoes the rage of Lear and the image of all reduced to "nothing" in that play:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh (a note infallible
Of breaking honesty)? Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? Noon, midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web, but theirs; theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that's in 't is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing. Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing. (284-296)

7. After Camillo and Polixenes flee Sicily, Leontes separates his son from Hermione and begins the destruction of his family in earnest. When Mamillius tells his mother the "sad for winter"(25), he prefigures Leontes' penitent state after the violence soon to come: "there was a man...Dwelt by a churchyard"(29-30). But first there is accusation and trial:


Paulina now assumes her symbolic role as the voice of Nature and as Leontes' spiritual goad and confessor, which she will enact for the next sixteen years:


She calls on Nature as she responds to the King's madness:

This brat is none of mine;
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam,
Commit them to the fire.

Paulina. It is yours:
And might we lay th' old proverb to your charge,
So like you, 'tis the worse. Behold, my lords,
Although the print be little, the whole matter
And copy of the father: eye, nose, lip,
The trick of 's frown, his forehead, nay, the valley,
The pretty dimples of his chin and cheek; his smiles,
The very mold and frame of hand, nail, finger.
And thou, good goddess Nature, which hast made it
So like to him that got it, if thou hast
The ordering of the mind too, 'mongst all colors
No yellow in 't, lest she suspect, as he does,
Her children not her husband's.

Nature will rule the rest of the play, in many forms.

8. Anthony Sher explains Leontes' disordered mind as he tells us about the symbolic stage set in his Royal Shakespeare production. After we are shown his distraction at the illness of Mamillius, we see his vacillation in determining the fate of the newborn child and his desperation to appear reasonable to his court:


Leontes relents just so far:

I am a feather for each wind that blows.
Shall I live on to see this bastard kneel
And call me father? Better burn it now
Than curse it then. But be it; let it live.
It shall not neither...
We enjoin thee,
As thou art liegeman to us, that thou carry
This female bastard hence, and that thou bear it
To some remote and desert place quite out
Of our dominions; and that there thou leave it,
Without more mercy, to its own protection
And favor of the climate. As by strange fortune
It came to us, I do in justice charge thee,
On thy soul's peril and thy body's torture,
That thou commend it strangely to some place,
Where chance may nurse or end it. (152-156, 171-181)

9. With the apparent death of the newborn, the play unfolds the trial and apparent death of Hermione, and the irreversible loss of Mamillius:


Shakespeare has given Hermione some of his greatest speeches, brilliantly focused by the direction of Jane Howell. In fact, the combined presence of Hermione and Paulina establish the female identity of "good goddess Nature" as the creative and restorative force of the remainder of the play. The dignity and assurance of the two women are in stark contrast to Leontes' arrogance and defiance, which break him in that classic Greek moment when realization comes just too late. The Royal Shakespeare version is more brutal than the BBC production:


As we contemplate the death of Hermione, the language of the scene takes us back to the tragedies and looks forward to the redemptive movement of the romance. "The higher pow'rs forbid!"(200), the assembled lords exclaim at the news of Hermione's death, a sentiment so often heard in King Lear. Paulina avouches she's dead, but her language contains images of a statue come to life, the miracle of Act 5:

if you can bring
Tincture or luster in her lip, her eye,
Heat outwardly or breath within, I'll serve you
As I would do the gods.

Even Nature has limits, but Art does not.

10. For the transition to the comic pattern in this tragicomedy, Shakespeare relies on an old device and a bold experiment. To break the tension of the deaths (real and apparent) in 3.2, he writes the scene of Perdita's abandonment on the "deserts of Bohemia" with a risky twist. Arguably the most bizarre stage direction in drama is "Exit, pursued by a bear" from the First Folio. In the BBC dramatization, the bear is a moth-eaten prop which darkens the camera lens into a fadeout as it approaches its victim, Antigonus:


Shakespeare is trying to shatter the mood of horror and grief with an explosion of laughter at a ridiculous sight. In the theater, what works best is an actor in a bear suit, hamming it up. For the BBC television production, we have a parody of a serious moment, not unlike the "tragicall" deaths of Pyramis and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The bear is followed by a standup comedy monologue by the old Shepherd, complaining about riotous young folk, and the vaudevile humor of his son describing the miracle of a shipwreck on one hand and a man-eating bear on the other:


11. In the clip you just watched, the Royal Shakespeare production vaulted into Act 4 with a racy scene (4.2) with Autolycus, the comic rogue, and a burlesque version of his bilking the Clown, the old shepherd's son (4.3). Shakespeare introduced the formal transition with an allegorical figure of Time as a Chorus:

Your patience this allowing,
I turn my glass and give my scene such growing
As you had slept between. Leontes leaving—
The effects of his fond jealousies so grieving,
That he shuts up himself—imagine me,
Gentle spectators, that I now may be
In fair Bohemia; and remember well,
I mentioned a son o' th' king's, which Florizel
I now name to you; and with speed so pace
To speak of Perdita, now grown in grace
Equal with wond'ring. (4.1.15-25)

The key word is "wond'ring," which echoes throughout the last two acts together with "marvel," and "amazement." Sixteen years have passed, a time for Leontes to repent and Perdita (whose name means "lost girl") to grow to womanhood. In the romances the younger generation can redeem the older, but some roles have been reversed. The innocent Polixenes has become a tyrannical father, intent of keeping his son and heir (Florizel) away from a simple shepherdess:


12. The ideas of Nature and Art are explored in this green world of Bohemia through images of gardening. Perdita is Flora, Nature herself, giving flowers to friends and visitors to reflect their lives. She debates the disguised Polixenes, not knowing he is at the festival to spy on Florizel and take him away. She speaks for pure Nature, he for a sophisticated interpretation of the gardener-artist:

Polixenes. Shepherdess—
A fair one are you—well you fit our ages
With flow'rs of winter.

Perdita. Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer's death, nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest flow'rs o' th' season
Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,
Which some call Nature's bastards; of that kind
Our rustic garden's barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.

Polixenes. Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?

Perdita. For I have heard it said
There is an art, which in their piedness shares
With great creating Nature.

Polixenes. Say there be;
Yet Nature is made better by no mean
But Nature makes that mean; so over that art,
Which you say adds to Nature, is an art
That Nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. This is an art
Which does mend Nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is Nature.

Perdita. So it is.

Polixenes. Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,
And do not call them bastards.

Perdita. I'll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them;
No more than were I painted, I would wish
This youth should say 'twere well, and only therefore
Desire to breed by me. (4.4.77-103)

This debate between Nature and Art in commonplace in Early Modern literature, but it has a special force here. Just as Paulina had argued to Leontes that his child was naturally his, so forces of Nature will restore the family at the end of the play, but through the medium of Art. Shakespeare the artist, as he does in The Tempest, the next romance, recreates and heals a broken world. Both Perdita and Polixenes are correct,in a sense, in this debate.

13. To escape the oppressive father, the young lovers must run away, a common theme we know in earlier comedies. Their flight takes them to Sicily, where they are welcomed by Leontes. He is happy to put aside for a moment the stress of his kingdom's need for an heir. Paulina has overseen his long penance, and presents the assembled court with a riddle:

Yet, if my lord will marry, if you will, sir—
No remedy, but you will—give me the office
To choose you a queen; she shall not be so young
As was your former, but she shall be such
As, walked your first queen's ghost, it should take joy
To see her in your arms.

Leontes. My true Paulina,
We shall not marry till thou bidd'st us.

Paulina. That
Shall be when your first queen's again in breath;
Never till then. (5.1.76-84)


The solution to the riddle stirs with the arrival of Perdita. Shakespeare wisely does not attempt to write two stunning scenes of revelation sequentially, but puts Perdita's reunion with Leontes into narration. The constant theme in 5.2 is that these happenings are miraculous, so that language itself fails to express the wonder:

I make a broken delivery of the business, but the changes I perceived in the King and Camillo were
very notes of admiration. They seemed almost, with staring on one another, to tear the cases of their
eyes. There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture; they looked as they had heard of a world ransomed, or one destroyed. A notable passion of wonder appeared in them; but the wisest beholder that knew no more but seeing could not say if th' importance were joy or sorrow—but in the extremity of the one it must needs be... (10-21)

Then have you lost a sight, which was to be seen, cannot be spoken of... (45-46)

I never heard of such another encounter, which lames report to follow it,
and undoes description to do it... (60-62)

Even tellers of takes can hardly bend their art to do justice to such amazement:

such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers
cannot be able to express it... (25-27)

this news which is called true is so like an old tale, that
the verity of it is in strong suspicion... (29-31)

Like an old tale still... (65)

14. The young Mamillius was a "powerful" storyteller, and he is gone forever. But Shakespeare's art has the power to embody things we think impossible: "graves at my command/ Have waked their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth/ By my so potent art" (The Tempest, 5.1.48-50). His agent in The Winter's Tale is Paulina, whose magic may be providential planning:

...the Princess, hearing of her mother's statue, which is in the keeping of Paulina—a piece many
years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape: he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione, that they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of answer. Thither with all greediness of affection are they gone, and there they intend to sup.

Second Gentleman. I thought she had some great matter there in hand, for she hath privately, twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house. (5.2.101-115)

The final miracle of Art is the last scene:


Who would not wish Cordelia alive at the end of King Lear? In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare artfully reorganizes the characters' reality so that the miraculous moment can happen, bringing redemption and renewal.



Here's a sketch of the structure of The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, the two most famous and successful romances. My page on Literary Romance is also useful to understand the form Shakespeare is using. As you begin to write, remember the articles by Tillyard, Knight, Neeley, and Kahn, as well as the Introduction by Frank Kermode. On our course page there are links to articles by Hunt and Waller. Remember too that this play turns away from the world of power and politics, so destructive in the tragedies, and finds fulfillment in family love, as Lear finally realized with Cordelia.

Remember to quote your sources, and give the page number or web address. Here's a section from the bottom of my home page:

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