The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

 The Winter's Tale cover

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare has come in for a lot of criticism over the centuries since it was first published in 1623. The problem seemed to be that it didn’t fall into a distinct category. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, part tragedy, part comedy and part romance. Plus you definitely have to suspend your disbelief at times in the story, otherwise the plot just seems to be far too unlikely.

Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, were great friends in childhood and after many years apart Polixenes visits Leontes in Sicilia. After nine months in Sicilia Polixenes is keen to go home to see his son Prince Florizel, Leontes is reluctant to give him up, but is unable to persuade him to stay on. Not willing to take no for an answer Leontes persuades his wife Queen Hermione to twist Polixenes’s arm – and she succeeds, presumably because Polixenes finds it more difficult to say NO to the heavily pregnant Hermione, and he doesn’t want to seem impolite.

However Leontes is immediately suspicious of this change of mind and decides that his friend and wife must have been having an affair, and that the child that Hermione is carrying isn’t his. Very quickly Leontes’s love for his friend turns to hatred and the man that he had praised to the skies becomes number one enemy and Camillo, a Sicilian lord is ordered to kill Polixenes. But Camillo warns Polixenes and they both sail off to Bohemia.

Furious at this escape Leontes turns his wrath on Hermione and ends up throwing her in prison, where she soon gives birth to a daughter. In an attempt to soften Leontes’s heart Hermione’s friend Pauline takes the baby to the king but it has the opposite effect and he orders Pauline’s husband Lord Antigonus to take the baby away and abandon her in the wilds.

Leontes had sent messengers to the Oracle at Delphos to find out if Hermione had been unfaithful to him, but meanwhile Hermione is put on public trial, during the trial the report from Delphos is read out and it says that Hermione and Polixenes are completely innocent and that Leontes won’t have an heir until his abandoned daughter is found. Leontes refuses to believe any of that, but when news reaches the court that his son and heir Mamillius has died due to the stress at the treatment handed out by his father to his mother Hermione faints. Pauline tells Leontes that Hermione is dead and he’s wracked with grief over the loss of his wife, son and baby daughter.

I would definitely say that this part of the story comes under the category of tragedy. Now for the romance.

While all this has been going on Antigonus has taken the baby to the coast of Bohemia and has given her the name of Perdita which apparently Hermione had asked him to name her in a dream he had. Perdita meaning lost. Perdita is found by a shepherd and his son and as there is a cloth bundle containing gold and jewels with her they realise that the baby comes of noble blood.

Sixteen years pass and King Polixenes’s son Prince Florizel has fallen in love with Perdita of course! They plan to get married without asking for Polixenes’s permission but the King knows what is going on and he and Camillo disguise themselves and go to the feast at which the betrothal will take place. Furious at his son’s subterfuge Polixenes threatens the old shepherd and Perdita with death and orders Florizel never to see Perdita again. The young couple run off and set sail for Sicilia, accompanied by the old shepherd and his son and helped by Camillo who then tells Polixenes where they have gone, hoping that the king will follow them to Sicilia and take Camillo with him.

Meanwhile, in Sicilia Leontes is still in mourning for Hermione. His courtiers have tried to persuade him to re-marry in order to get an heir to the kingdom, but Pauline tells him that no other wife will match up to Hermione. When Prince Florizel and Perdita arrive in Sicilia Leontes is very happy to see them, especially as Florizel claims to be on a diplomatic mission from his father. But very quickly Polixenes and Camillo arrive and it isn’t long before everyone realises that Perdita is actually the long lost daughter of Leontes and Hermione. Leontes is thrilled to have his daughter back and of course the two kings will be happy to have their offspring married to each other. Everyone goes off to Pauline’s country house where there is a newly made statue of Hermione, but while Leontes is weeping at the sight of his dead wife the statue moves – YES – Hermione is alive!

And that’s that. There is romance and some comedy and the real tragedy is the waste of time – the 16 years in which Leontes mourned for a wife he thought to be dead and of course the loss of Mamillius due to his father’s suspicious and jealous mind. As human beings don’t change over the centuries the psychological aspect of this story is one which is repeated often.

There is a certain POTUS who seems to have that problem, when people are doing what he wants them to do they are just wonderful, terrific people, but as soon as the possibilty of a perceived disloyalty is suspected – all hell breaks loose!

The Winter’s Tale isn’t a favourite of mine, but I was glad that I read it in an Oxford World’s Classic edition as it has an interesting introduction and lots of notes.

4 thoughts on “The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

  1. Thank you for that excellent summary, Katrina. A Winter’s Tale is a Shakespeare I have never approached, and I might just do so now.

  2. I recently read this for the first time, in preparation for Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (which is, I think, a better read).

    Yes, too much POTUS here, and at one point he even spurns all news he hears with the Shakespearean equivalent of “Fake news!” And, as Hero forgave Claudio for spurning her in Much Ado, Hermione is all forgiving of her monster husband.

    The part that truly puzzled me, though, was that much of the dramatic reconciliation and revelation scenes (which we’ve been awaiting all through the play) aren’t depicted on stage, but are simply reported by a set of nameless gentlemen. ??

    • Susan D,
      After reading the accompanying introduction it seems to me that there have been so many different versions of this play, with bits added in or removed depending on who is the producer, that it’s guesswork as to what the original version would have been.

      I might give The Gap of Time a go – eventually.

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