Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Winter's Tale is traditionally classed as a comedy because the play
ends happily. First, the protagonist, King Leontes, reconciles with a friend
he had earlier rejected. Then he reunites with his wife, who was thought
dead. However, the play is probably better classed as a tragicomedy because,
preceding the happy ending, the king's little boy dies, a bear kills a
faithful lord of the court, and Leontes suffers a humiliating downfall
before realizing and acknowledging mistakes he has made.
Written: 1610 or 1611.
Performance: Probably May 15, 1611, at the Globe Theatre.
Publication: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized
collection of Shakespeare's plays.
main source for The Winter's Tale is a prose work, Pandosto:
the Triumph of Time, by Robert Greene (1558-1592), a popular author
at the time when Shakespeare arrived in London from Stratford. Shakespeare
also drew upon Greek myths.
action takes place in Sicily (or Sicilia) and Bohemia. Sicily is a large
island west of the toe of Italy's boot. Bohemia was a kingdom within the
boundaries of the present-day Czech republic, between present-day Poland
on the north and Austria on the south. In ancient times, a Celtic people
called the Boii settled the land that became Bohemia. In The Winter's
Tale, Bohemia has a coastline along which ships arrive and debark.
In real life, Bohemia was a landlocked region; it was entirely surrounded
by terra firma. Shakespeare may have been a magnificent writer, but he
was no geographer.
The King's Jealousy and Suspicious Nature
Leontes: King of
Sicilia (Sicily). He is a headstrong man who is at first guided more by
emotions than reason. His unfounded suspicions against his wife, Hermione,
and his friend, King Polixenes, separate him from both of them and cause
him to reject his infant daughter. His unjust actions also indirectly result
in the death of his son, Mamillius. In many ways, he resembles the flawed
protagonists of Greek tragedy; however,he reforms himself before it is
and loyal Queen of Sicilia.
Polixenes: King of
Bohemia. He opposes his son's marriage to Perdita (the rejected daughter
of Leontes, now grown) believing her to be a commoner. Although he accepts
Perdita at the end of the play, he does so only after he learns her true
identity. Whether he has overcome his prejudice against commoners remains
open to question.
beautiful daughter of Leontes and Hermione.
prince of Sicilia. His death adds a tragic element to the play.
advisor of King Leontes. After Leontes order him to poison Polixenes, Camillo
returns with Polixenes to Bohemia and becomes his advisor.
Old Shepherd: Reputed
father of Perdita. He is 67 when the infant Perdita is found and 83 at
the end of the play.
The shepherd's son.
Autolycus: A comic
thief and pedlar who assists Florizel and Perdita.
Paulina: Loyal attendant
husband of Paulina. He takes the infant Perdita to Bohemia.
Lords of Sicilia.
Archidamus: A Lord
of the ship that carries Antigonus and Perdita to Bohemia.
Emilia: Lady attending
Mopsa, Dorcas: Shepherdesses.
Rogero: Lord who
tells other gentlemen that a prophecy by the Delphic Oracle has been fulfilled.
Minor Characters: Other
lords, gentlemen, ladies, officers, servants, shepherds, shepherdesses.
Michael J. Cummings...©
is time for Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to end his visit with his boyhood
friend Leontes, king of Sicily. While the two kings prepare to bid farewell
in a state room of the Sicilian palace, a Bohemian lord named Archidamus
and a Sicilian lord named Camillo are in an antechamber discussing the
extraordinary friendship between the two rulers. Camillo, advisor to Leontes,
observes that they were inseparable when growing up: “They were trained
together in their childhoods; and there rooted betwixt them then such an
affection, which cannot choose but branch now” (1.1.10).
says nothing will ever come between the two kings. (His observation is
an ironic foreshadowing of a terrible jealousy that will soon divide them.)
He also praises the Sicilian king’s little boy, Mamillius, as the finest
of lads with the brightest of futures. (This, too, is an ominous observation.)
the state room, King Leontes presses King Polixenes to linger in Sicily
one more week, but Polixenes begs off, worrying about “what may chance
/ Or breed” (1.2. 15-16) in Bohemia in his absence. When Hermione, the
beautiful wife of Leontes, joins her husband in importuning Polixenes to
extend his visit, he agrees to remain a while longer. Pulling him aside,
she asks what his childhood was like with her husband. Polixenes replies,
We were, fair queen,
When Hermione asks about their
childhood adventures, Polixenes says,
Two lads that thought there
was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow
And to be boy eternal. (1.2.78-81)
We were as twinn’d
lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
After Leontes learns that Hermione
has persuaded Polixenes to stay, Leontes immediately regrets extending
Polixenes’s welcome, for the friendly conversation between his wife and
Polixenes has envenomed him with jealousy. Apparently, Polixenes has an
unduly suspicious eye. Perhaps Polixenes and his wife have become too close,
Leontes thinks; perhaps they have been meeting in secret. He even begins
to wonder whether his son, Mamillius, is the the product of a tryst in
an earlier time between Hermione and Polixenes.
And bleat the one at the
other: what we chang’d
Was innocence for innocence;
we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing,
That any did . . . . (1.2.83-87)
suspicion builds upon suspicion. In a conversation with Camillo, the king
openly accuses his wife of infidelity. Camillo, shocked, says the king
sins gravely in speaking against her. The king replies,
Is whispering nothing?
he orders Camillo to bear a poisoned cup to Polixenes. Camillo tells the
king he will perform the deadly mission, but then warns the Bohemian king
that his life is in danger. During the night, Polixenes steals away. Camillo,
estranged by Leontes’s behavior, accompanies Polixenes. Their sudden departure
convinces Leontes his suspicions against Hermione are well founded. Angry
and bitter, he publicly denounces his wife, who is soon to have another
child, as an adulteress. After imprisoning her, he deprives her of the
company of little Mamillius. Hermione pleads her innocence, to no avail.
She is guilty; Leontes is certain of it. To confirm her guilt for others,
he sends two lords, Cleontes and Dion, to the Oracle at Delphi, Greece,
to request a judgment.
Is leaning cheek to cheek?
is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip?
stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?
Hermione bears a daughter, her servant, Paulina, presents the infant to
Leontes, hoping the sight of the little girl will quench his anger. However,
wrathful as ever, Leontes disowns the child—believing
it is not his own—and orders Paulina’s husband,
Antigonus, to abandon it in a far-off place. Leontes then subjects Hermione
to a public trial. With utmost dignity and grace, she proclaims her innocence,
declaring she has always been faithful to Leontes.
the trial, Cleontes and Dion return from Delphi with a sealed verdict from
the great Oracle. An official of the court breaks the seal and reads the
verdict: "Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject;
Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the king
shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found" (3.2.134).
rejects the verdict and orders the trial to continue. A servant interrupts
the proceedings with tragic news: Prince Mamillius, pining for his jailed
mother’s love, has died. The news staggers Leontes, and Hermione collapses.
Suddenly realizing how wrong he has been, Leontes tells Hermione’s attendants
to treat her gently when they escort her from the courtroom. Later, Leontes
receives another shock: Hermione, too, has died. Profoundly moved, the
king laments his vengeful deeds and goes off to mourn.
of the newly born child, the infant princess? As instructed, Antigonus
leaves her in a far-off place, the coast of Bohemia, along with certain
effects, including a note identifying the infant as “Perdita,” a name that
came to Antigonus when he imagined he saw Hermione in a vision. But before
Antigonus can return to his ship, a bear attacks and kills him and an angry
sea wrecks the ship and swallows it and all aboard. Consequently, no one
is left to report the fate of the child. A clown, the son of a 67-year-old
shepherd, witnessed the bear attack and gives a report to his father, who
discloses news of his own: He has found a baby girl on the coast along
with a “bearing cloth” and gold.
Sixteen Years Pass
updates the audience on important developments through a speaker called
Time. He tells the audience that Leontes now lives in seclusion and that
the setting of the drama has shifted to Bohemia, where the son of Polixenes
has fallen in love with a shepherdess.
Bohemia, Polixenes stews about his son, Florizel, because the young man
frequently visits the house of an elderly shepherd to woo his beautiful
sixteen-year-old daughter, Perdita. Because of her lowly status, she is
unworthy of Florizel’s attentions, Polixenes believes.
and Camillo, who has become the advisor of the king, decide to call at
the shepherd’s house to observe Florizel and Perdita during a sheep-shearing
and feast in which visitors are welcome. They wear disguises. Also present
are the old shepherd and his son; a shepherdess, Mopsa (who hopes to marry
the shepherd’s son) and her friend, Dorcas; and a thief, Autolycus, who
has presented himself as a seller of ballads after arriving while singing
a song. Earlier, Autolycus had picked the clown’s pocket on a road near
the shepherd’s cottage.
Polixenes discovers that Florizel plans to marry Perdita, Polixenes reveals
his identity and threatens retaliation against anyone who abets the wedding
plans. Sympathizing with the lovers, Camillo persuades them to abscond
to Sicily. Later, at Camillo’s request, Autolycus assists in the escape
plan by gladly trading his shabby clothes with the princely garb of Florizel.
Dressed as a commoner, Florizel will be able to avoid detection on his
way to a ship. Before returning to the palace, Camillo tells the audience
in an aside that he will provoke Polixenes into following the lovers. His
purpose is not to betray the lovers; rather, it is to go with Polixenes
to Sicily, for which Camillo has been homesick these many long years in
Bohemia. His scheme works and Polixenes prepares to follow the lovers in
his own ship.
the old shepherd and his son are on their way to see Polixenes at his palace.
The shepherd carries a box containing keepsakes of Perdita from long ago.
These objects, he believes, will prove that Perdita is not his daughter
and, thus, enable him and his son to escape the king’s wrath. On their
way, they meet Autylocus, still dressed in Florizel’s clothes; they think
he is a royal personage. When he says the king is about to embark on a
ship to chase Florizel and Perdita, they offer him gold to take him to
the ship and speak for them. But because he is not who he says he is, he
takes them to Prince Florizel’s ship. All of them—Florizel,
Perdita, Autolycus, the old shepherd, and his son—then
set sail for Sicily ahead of the king’s ship. Many days pass while the
ships are at sea. The setting then shifts to Sicily.
Florizel and Perdita arrive at the palace of Leontes and wait for an audience
with him, a gentleman of the court informs the king of their presence,
announcing them as the Prince and Princess of Bohemia. He says the princess
is the most beautiful creature he has ever seen.
they are escorted into the court, Florizel greets Leontes on behalf of
his father, Polixenes, saying an infirmity prevented Polixenes from making
the trip himself. When Leontes inquires about the lovely Perdita, Florizel
describes her as the daughter of a Libyan lord. He and the princess sojourned
in that African country, he says, before sailing to Sicily to carry out
a mission for his father. While Leontes visits with the young couple, all
of the others from Bohemia assemble at the court: the old shepherd, his
son, and Autolycus, as well as the travelers from the other ship—King
Polixenes and Camillo.
now a reformed man who is deeply sorry for his past misdeeds, reconciles
with Polixenes and Camillo. The old shepherd and his son then reveal the
contents of the mysterious box of keepsakes. It contains a “bearing-cloth”
(3.3.77) Hermione had given to Antigonus. Leontes recognizes it as Hermione’s,
unique because of a jewel on it. He also recognizes the handwriting in
the note Antigonus left before a bear attacked and killed him. Just as
convincing as these items identifying Perdita is the remarkable resemblance
Perdita bears to Hermione. King Leontes joyfully reunites with his daughter
and accepts Florizel as his future son-in-law; Polixenes accepts Perdita
as his future daughter-in-law.
joy, though, is tinged with sadness, for he still grieves over the loss
of Hermione. Paulina, the servant who sixteen years before pleaded on Hermione’s
behalf, then invites Leontes to her house to show him a statue of Hermione,
sculpted by an Italian master. While the royals and nobles are on their
way to Paulina’s, Autolycus begs and receives the forgiveness of the old
shepherd and his son for deceiving them back in Bohemia, then taking their
gold and putting them on the wrong ship.
viewing the statue at Paulina’s house, Leontes discovers that it is no
statue; it is the real Hermione. She has been living in hiding with Paulina
these many years praying for the return of her daughter. Paulina was afraid
to disclose Hermione’s whereabouts for fear of interfering with the will
of the Delphic Oracle, as expressed in the prediction that “the king shall
live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found” (3.2.134). In
other words, Leontes—if reunited earlier with
Hermione—might have fathered another child.
In so doing, he would have produced an heir before his lost child had been
found. The will of the Oracle would have been defeated. When Perdita appears,
Hermione rejoices and invokes the gods to bless her child. The joy of the
occasion spills over to include a proposal by Leontes that Camillo and
what of Mamillius, the little prince? Nothing can bring him back, but Leontes
does have a new son in the person of Florizel.
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climax of a play or a narrative work, such as a short story or a novel,
can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to
resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting
event in a series of events. The climax of The Winter's Tale occurs,
according to the first definition, when Leontes receives news of the death
of his wife and son, then owns up to the grave sin he has committed in
doubting the fidelity of his wife. According to the second definition,
the climax occurs in the final act when Leontes reunites with his daughter,
whom he abandoned when she was an infant, and with his wife, whom he thought
one's sins against others opens the door to redemption and reconciliation.
Leontes admits his wrongdoing after first denying it and suffering the
consequences of this denial. Having redeemed himself, he reconciles with
his family and his friend, King Polixenes.
Jealousy can be deadly.
As an indirect result of Leontes's fierce jealousy, his son, Mamillius
dies. Paula's husband, Antigonus, also dies while taking the king's infant
daughter to safety.
Marriage should be based
on love, not social standing. Although Florizel loves Perdita, his
father, King Polixenes, adamantly opposes their courtship because he thinks
Perdita is a mere peasant. She is not a peasant, of course, but a princess.
Nevertheless, she would be right for Florizel regardless of her standing
Kings have all the power,
but their subjects are often wiser. Kings Leontes and Polixenes cause
serious problems in their realms through unwise and unfair decisions. It
is their subjects—Camillo, Paulina, the Old
Peasant, Autolycus, and Antigonus—who set
Rash action is dangerous.
King Leontes ostracizes his loving wife, Hermione, after declaring her
guilty of infidelity without sufficient evidence. This action directly
or indirectly causes the death of his son, Mamillius; the abandonment of
his infant daughter; the estrangement of his friends; and the death of
Antigonus, the husband of Hermione's attendant.
Innocence vs Guilt
reflects the spirit of a biblical quotation—A
little child shall lead them (Isaiah, Chapter 11, Verse 6-9, Bible)—when,
time and again, he uses imagery underscoring the innocence of youth as
a guidepost for sinful adults. Little Mamillius, through his death, helps
Leontes see the light. The infant Perdita brings out the best in Paulina,
the queen's attendant, and Paulina's husband, Antigonus. Polixenes, king
of Bohemia, tells Hermione early in the play of his glorious, guiltless
childhood with Leontes:
We were as twinn'd
lambs that did frisk i' the sun,
later tells Leontes of the effect his baby (Florizel, before the passage
of sixteen years, after which he is presented in the play as a teenager)
has on him in the following passage:
And bleat the one at the
other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence;
we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing,
any did . . . . (1.2.83-87)
He makes a July's
day short as December,
foreshadows the wickedness of adults in the play—as
if he can see what is to come—when he begins
to tell his mother a story about sprites and goblins (the evil creatures
of his childhood world that may symbolize evildoing adults of the real
world) but is cut off when his father enters ranting about the disappearance
of Camillo and Polixenes from the court. Mamillius says, "A sad tale’s
best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins” (2.1.35-36). After
Perdita is born, Emilia, a servant, tells Paulina of the birth of the child
(who, like her accused mother, is guiltless), saying that the child is
And with his varying childness
cures in me
Thoughts that would thick
my blood. (1.2.203-205)
a daughter, and a goodly babe,
Paulina then observes: "The
silence often of pure innocence / Persuades when speaking fails (2.2.54-55).
Lusty and like to live:
the queen receives
Much comfort in 't; says
'My poor prisoner,
I am innocent as you.' (2.2.38)
Condemnation of Witch Hunts
Act 2, Paulina boldly defends the innocent Hermione against Leontes’s rash
and unjust accusations against Hermione in lines that could be taken as
a condemnation of witch hunts (prevalent in Shakespeare’s time) and the
execution of innocent women accused of witchcraft: “It is a heretic that
makes the fire, / Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you tyrant” (2.3.144-145).
Leap: Ignoring the Classical Unities
in France and many other countries had long adhered strictly to the three
classical unities of time, place, and action. These unities, formulated
in part by Aristotle in his commentary on Greek drama and in part by the
Italian Renaissance humanist Lodovico Castelvetro, suggested that a play
should have one setting with a single plot thread that unfolds in one short
time period, about a day. However, some Elizabethan playwrights regularly
ignored these ancient rules. In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare not
only shifts the setting, but he also leaps ahead sixteen years.
the dialogue of The Winter's Tale and other Shakespeare plays, characters
sometimes speak wise or witty sayings couched in memorable figurative language.
Although these sayings are brief, they often express a profound universal
truth or make a thought-provoking observation. Such sayings are called
epigrams or aphorisms. Because many of Shakespeare’s epigrams are so memorable,
writers and speakers use them again and again. Many of Shakespeare's epigrams
have become part of our everyday language; often we use them without realizing
that it was Shakespeare who coined them. Examples of phrases Shakespeare
originated in his plays include “all’s well that ends well,” “[every] dog
will have its day,” “give the devil his due,” “green-eyed monster,” “my
own flesh and blood,” “neither rhyme nor reason,” “one fell swoop,” “primrose
path,” “spotless reputation,” and “too much of a good thing.”Among some
of the more memorable sayings in The Winter's Tale are the following:
He makes a July’s
day short as December. (1. 2. 203-205)
Polixenes expresses the
delight he takes in activities with his son. The words contain a paradox
and a simile (a July day that is as short as a December day).
I am a feather for each wind
that blows. (2. 3. 185)
Leontes is replying sarcastically
while giving in to pleas to spare the life of an infant whom he fathered
but whom he believes is not his. The comparison of himself to a feather
in the wind is both a metaphor and a hyperbole.
What’s gone and what’s past
Should be past grief. (3.
Paulina is giving advice
to the remorseful Leontes.
What you do
Still betters what is done.
(4. 3. 157-158)
Florizel is praising
Perdita, saying that she is a continuing delight because what she does
next pleases even more than what she has just done.
lowly servant, Paulina, bitterly upbraids the king for his unfounded jealousy
and ruthless retaliation against imagined offenses. In so doing, she helps
to bring him to his senses and sets him on the road to penance and redemption.
The passage in which she asserts herself—and
changes the whole course of the plot—occurs
in the second scene of Act 3:
What studied torments, tyrant,
hast for me?
What wheels? racks? fires?
what flaying? or what boiling?
In leads or oils? what old
or newer torture
Must I receive, whose every
To taste of thy most worst?
Together working with thy
Fancies too weak for boys,
too green and idle
For girls of nine, O, think
what they have done
And then run mad indeed,
stark mad! for all
Thy by-gone fooleries were
but spices of it.
That thou betray'dst Polixenes,'twas
That did but show thee,
of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful:
nor was't much,
Thou wouldst have poison'd
good Camillo's honour,
To have him kill a king:
More monstrous standing
by: whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows
To be or none or little;
though a devil
Would have shed water out
of fire ere done't:
Nor is't directly laid to
thee, the death
Of the young prince, whose
Thoughts high for one so
tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross
and foolish sire
Blemish'd his gracious dam:
this is not, no,
Laid to thy answer: but
the last,—O lords,
When I have said, cry 'woe!'
the queen, the queen,
The sweet'st, dear'st creature's
and vengeance for't
Not dropp'd down yet. (185-212)
Questions and Essay Topics
on DVD (or VHS)
Which character in the play
do you most admire? Which character do you least admire?
In courts of law in modern times,
government officials accused of committing crimes often defend themselves
by saying that they were just following the orders of their superiors.
In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare gives us a character who refuses
to carry out an order to commit what appears to be a heinous crime. Who
is the character? Write an essay explaining the guidelines you would use
in deciding whether to follow an order given by a superior?
What do Florizel and Perdita
have in common with Romeo and Juliet?
Who was the Delphic Oracle?
What was the most important
lesson that Leontes learned from his experience?
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