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Authors: William Shakespeare

The Winter's Tale

BOOK: The Winter's Tale
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The RSC Shakespeare

Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Chief Associate Editor: Héloïse Sénéchal
Associate Editors: Trey Jansen, Eleanor Lowe, Lucy Munro,
Dee Anna Phares, Jan Sewell

The Winter's Tale

Textual editing: Eric Rasmussen
Introduction and “Shakespeare's Career in the Theater”: Jonathan Bate
Commentary: Charlotte Scott and Héloïse Sénéchal
Scene-by-Scene Analysis: Esme Miskimmin
In Performance: Clare Smout (RSC stagings) and Jan Sewell (overview)
The Director's Cut (interviews by Jonathan Bate and Kevin Wright):
Adrian Noble, Barbara Gaines, Dominic Cooke

Editorial Advisory Board

Gregory Doran, Chief Associate Director,
Royal Shakespeare Company
Jim Davis, Professor of Theatre Studies, University of Warwick, UK
Charles Edelman, Senior Lecturer, Edith Cowan University,
Western Australia

Lukas Erne, Professor of Modern English Literature,
Université de Genève, Switzerland
Akiko Kusunoki, Tokyo Woman's Christian University, Japan
Jacqui O'Hanlon, Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company
Ron Rosenbaum, author and journalist, New York, USA
James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature,
Columbia University, USA
Tiffany Stern, Professor and Tutor in English, University of Oxford, UK


In about 1590 the dramatist George Peele wrote a play called
The Old Wives' Tale
in which an old woman is asked to tell “a merry winter's tale” in order to “drive away the time trimly.” “Once upon a time,” she begins, as all traditional storytellers do, “there was a king or a lord or a duke that had a fair daughter, the fairest that ever was, as white as snow and as red as blood: and once upon a time his daughter was stolen away.” An old wives' or a winter's tale is like a fairy story: it is not supposed to be realistic and it is bound to have a happy ending. Along the way, there will be magic, dreams, coincidences, children lost and found. This is the style of play to which Shakespeare turned some twenty years after Peele, in the final phase of his career.

Shakespeare's late plays have come to be known as “romances.” Although neither the dramatist himself nor the compilers of the First Folio used this generic classification, the term is helpful because it gestures toward the origin of such stories in ancient Greek prose romance, which was peopled by wanderers, separated lovers, oracles, shepherds, and heroes who undergo narrow escapes from disaster. The story of Apollonius of Tyre, the ultimate source for Shakespeare's co-written play
, is a classic example of the genre. Robert Greene, another dramatist who was prominent in the early 1590s, wrote several prose romances in this tradition, among them
Pandosto: The Triumph of Time
, the story that is dramatized in
The Winter's Tale
. We do not know exactly what led Shakespeare, some time after writing the tragedies of
, to turn back to the style of Peele and Greene. Always attuned to changes in the wind, perhaps he sensed that a gentler mode of tragicomedy and pastoral romance, with a distinctly royalist agenda, suited the times: the King's Men seem to have had notable successes in these years with several dramas of this kind, including a revival of the old
anonymous play of
, which even featured an encounter with a bear.

The Winter's Tale
does not, however, begin in the world of romance. The Sicilian opening of the story is full of court intrigue in the manner of
King Lear
and sexual jealousy reminiscent of
. There are accusations of conspiracy, a queen is tried for treason, and a king behaves like a tyrant. Only in the second half is there a redemptive movement from court to country: the structure is similar to that of
, another Shakespearean tragicomedy written around the same time. In contrast to Sicilia, Bohemia is a place of benign chance, where the flight of a falcon leads a prince to his future bride and a thieving trickster inadvertently helps the plot toward its happy resolution. The arts of the court give way to the harmonies of nature. Though this is to oversimplify: Polixenes relies on “intelligence” and disguise, then threatens physical violence against Perdita. She is a princess assumed to be a shepherdess, who dresses up as a queen and speaks of the need to intermingle art and nature in the grafting of flowers: complex layers of illusion are at work.


Critics have been much exercised by Leontes' explosion of anger when Hermione succeeds in persuading Polixenes to prolong his visit to Sicilia after he himself has failed to do so. Why does her courtesy lead instantly to a false accusation of adultery? Has Leontes' jealousy been festering for a long time? Is he angry because a woman has come between two close male friends? The theme was certainly a Shakespearean obsession which ran from the early
Two Gentlemen of Verona
through the sonnets to his last play,
The Two Noble Kinsmen
. Such questions are the prerogative of the reader more than the spectator in the playhouse. An audience watching a play can work out only a limited amount about the events that are imagined to have occurred before the action begins, and in the theatrical experience such events do not exist.

Theatrical attention is concentrated more on Leontes as he is than on how he got there. In a puzzling, tortuous self-analysis concerning
the “infection” of his brains, he says that as mental states may be affected by things unreal, such as dreams, so they may also be affected by things that are real:

…Can thy dam, may't be
Affection?— Thy intention stabs the centre.
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat'st with dream — how can this be? —
With what's unreal thou coactive art,
And fellow'st nothing. Then 'tis very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something, and thou dost,
And that beyond commission, and I find it,
And that to the infection of my brains
And hard'ning of my brows.

Both syntax and semantics are crabbed. Leontes' fragmented sentences are symptoms of his mental disintegration. The referent of the key word “affection” is unstable: does it refer to the relationship between Hermione and Polixenes or to Leontes' own mental state? “Affection” could denote their sexual desire or his strong feeling in response to it, but the word could also signify delusion, sickness. The ambiguity is revelatory precisely because Leontes can no longer distinguish between what is going on in his own mind and the reality observed by everyone else on stage. Hermione speaks truer than she knows when, in the trial scene, she says, “My life stands in the level of your dreams.”

The logical conclusion of Leontes' analysis ought to be that the thing that is exercising him, namely the supposed affair between his wife and his best friend, is nothing but a bad dream. But he obstinately draws the opposite conclusion. The irrationality of this move is itself a sign of the “infection” that is afflicting him. Honest Camillo sees this, but, for the very reason that he is “infected,” Leontes himself cannot. His “distraction” makes him misinterpret every action, even as his very language becomes infected with dark, sexual double entendre: “stabs,” “nothing,” and “co-join” anticipate the subsequent grossness of “No barricado for a belly” and “she has been sluiced in's absence / And his pond fished by his next neighbor.”

Whatever the origin of Leontes' suspicion, the dramatic interest is in the effect, the tendency of human beings who have fallen into holes to dig themselves ever deeper. No argument, not even the supposedly divine “truth” of the oracle, will convince Leontes of his error. Accordingly, what does persuade him to change his mind is an effect of emotion rather than reason: the shock, the raw grief, of his son's and wife's sudden death. The boy Mamillius is the one who has said that “A sad tale's best for winter” when his mother offers to tell him a story, and he it is who becomes victim of the winter-bound first half of the play. Leontes metaphorically freezes his wife out of his affections, with the unintended result that his son catches a literal chill and dies. Only after this can the action move to the regenerative world of romance. “Thou met'st with things dying, I with things newborn,” remarks the Old Shepherd at the play's pivotal point when he scoops up the baby Perdita as Antigonus is torn to pieces by the bear.

The forms of Shakespeare's verse loosened and became more flexible as he matured as a writer. His early plays have a higher proportion of rhyme and a greater regularity in rhythm, the essential pattern being that of iambic pentameter (ten syllables, five stresses, the stress on every second syllable). In the early plays, lines are very frequently end-stopped: punctuation marks a pause at the line ending, meaning that the movement of the syntax (the grammatical construction) falls in with that of the meter (the rhythmical construction). In the later plays, there are far fewer rhyming couplets (sometimes rhyme features only as a marker to indicate that a scene is ending) and the rhythmic movement has far greater variety, freedom, and flow. Mature Shakespearean blank (unrhymed) verse is typically not end-stopped but “run on” (a feature known as “enjambment”): instead of pausing heavily at the line ending, the speaker hurries forward, the sense demanded by the grammar working in creative tension against the holding pattern of the meter. The heavier pauses migrate to the middle of the lines, where they are known as the “caesura” and where their placing varies. Much more often than in the early plays a single line of verse is shared between two speakers. And the pentameter itself becomes a more subtle instrument: the iambic beat is broken up, there is often an extra
(“redundant”) unstressed eleventh syllable at the end of the line (this is known as a “feminine ending”). There are more modulations between verse and prose. Occasionally the verse is so loose that neither the original typesetters of the plays when they were first printed nor the modern editors of scholarly texts can be entirely certain whether verse or prose is intended.

Iambic pentameter is the ideal medium for dramatic poetry in English because its rhythm and duration seem to fall in naturally with the speech patterns of the language. In its capacity to combine the ordinary variety of speech with the heightened precision of poetry, the supple, mature Shakespearean “loose pentameter” is perhaps the most expressive vocal instrument ever given to the actor. The verse can embody both the fragmentation of Leontes' reason and the lyrical abandon of Florizel's passion:

…When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o'th'sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that. Move still, still so,
And own no other function…

Florizel's wish sweeps him over the line ending as if it were itself a wave. Across the next line break, the eternity of “ever do” is played against “Nothing but,” a negative made positive. Then a heavy pause, momentarily suspending the flow of the words, followed by a dancelike pattern of repetition and reversal in “Move still, still so.” The caesura darts from place to place, line by line. The verse is the dance.


Robert Greene's popular romance
told the story of a King of Bohemia who mistakenly believed that his wife was pregnant by his old friend the King of Sicilia. Shakespeare's boldest alteration of this story when he dramatized it into
The Winter's Tale
was the resurrection of the wronged queen, but his most puzzling change to his source was the inversion of the kingdoms. The jealous fit falls upon Sicilia instead of Bohemia.

The winter weather in Prague is somewhat colder than that in Palermo. Would it not therefore have been better to follow the original by locating the chilly court of Leontes in snowy middle Europe and the summer shepherding in sunny Sicily, which was, besides, the reputed birthplace of Theocritus, father of the “pastoral” genre on which the play draws so heavily? Hermione is identified as the daughter of the Emperor of Russia. From both a geographical and a dynastic point of view, it would have been more plausible to marry her to the king of nearby Bohemia rather than that of a distant Mediterranean island.

Various explanations have been proffered for Shakespeare's curious reversal. Perhaps he wanted to make Perdita a daughter of Sicily in order to further her resemblance to Proserpina, her mythic prototype. Shakespeare would have read in Ovid's
of how this lovely princess was snatched away to the underworld when she was gathering flowers in a Sicilian field; her release for half the year was symbolic of the seasonal cycle from winter to spring. Perdita invokes Proserpina in her own flower speech, and she is the figure who symbolically transforms the atmosphere of the play from winter to summer. Or perhaps the alteration was because Sicilians were notoriously hot-blooded and prone to jealousy, whereas Bohemia was often the setting for romantic fables. Perhaps Shakespeare was being deliberately absurd in a conscious act of anti-realism: Sicily was an island, but the play gives no sense of this; Bohemia, by contrast, was landlocked: this makes Perdita's abandonment on its coast either a bad mistake (Ben Jonson's view of the matter) or a deliberate joke.

Although Shakespeare's late plays are “tales” or fables, they are not wholly divorced from hard questions of history and politics.
The Tempest
is very interested in statecraft and dynastic liaison, while
is one of Shakespeare's two extended meditations on what political historians call the British Question (the relationship between England and the other parts of the island).
The Winter's Tale
opens, in the exchange between Camillo and Archidamus, with the language of courtiership, diplomacy, and royal compliment. The pastoral form, far from being escapist, was often the vehicle for such heavy matter.

Shakespeare wrote all his later plays in the knowledge that the King's Men were required to give more command performances at court than any other theater company. Court performances were often given in the presence of visiting royals or their ambassadors. In such circumstances, the diplomatic consequences of dramatic locations had to be a consideration. King James' wife was Danish. That must be why in
the traitor Macdonald is in league with a Norwegian force, whereas in the play's source it is a Danish one. It was part of Shakespeare's job not to give offense to the wrong people. However removed from historical reality the action may be, to invoke the kingdoms of Bohemia and Sicily, especially in front of court audiences that might include visiting diplomats, would inevitably create a penumbra of geopolitical associations.

In the time of Shakespeare's father, the difference between the two realms in terms of political association would have been minimal. As Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V ruled the greater part of Europe, including both Sicily and Bohemia. But Shakespeare himself lived after the division of the House of Habsburg into distinct Spanish and Austrian branches. In his time, the two kingdoms fell under separate spheres of influence. Sicilia—or more exactly the kingdom of the two Sicilies, one consisting of the island and the other of southern Italy—was at the heart of the Mediterranean empire of Philip II of Spain, while Bohemia (the western two-thirds of what is now the Czech Republic) became the core of the Holy Roman Empire. When Rudolf II became emperor in 1576, he moved the seat of his government from Vienna to Prague. In Shakespeare's time, the title King of Sicilia belonged to Spain, while the King of Bohemia was the senior secular elector of the Habsburg Empery.

BOOK: The Winter's Tale
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