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Winter's Tale: Texts and Contexts

Winter's Tale: Texts and Contexts

5.0 2
by William Shakespeare, Maxwell Armfield (Illustrator)

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Completely re-edited, the New Folger Library editions of Shakespeare's plays put readers in touch with current ways of thinking about Shakespeare. Each freshly edited text is based directly on what the editors consider the best early printed version of the play. Each volume contains full explanatory notes on pages facing the text of the play, as well as a helpful


Completely re-edited, the New Folger Library editions of Shakespeare's plays put readers in touch with current ways of thinking about Shakespeare. Each freshly edited text is based directly on what the editors consider the best early printed version of the play. Each volume contains full explanatory notes on pages facing the text of the play, as well as a helpful introduction to Shakespeare's language. The accounts of William Shakespeare's life, his theater, and the publication of his plays present the latest scholarship, and the annotated reading lists suggest sources of further information. The illustrations of objects, clothing, and mythological figures mentioned in the plays are drawn from the Library's vast holdings of rare books. At the conclusion of each play there is a full essay by an outstanding scholar who assesses the play in light of today's interests and concerns.

Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Patti Sylvester Spencer
This edition of the play, part of the Oxford School Shakespeare series, presents Shakespeare's unabridged tragicomedy with thorough supplementary notes (parallel to script), vocabulary, and brief scene synopses. Scattered pen/ink sketches illustrate a few scenes. Large pages might make this paperback more reader-friendly than some. A lengthy commentary introducing the play could be useful to students already familiar with it. Following the text of the play, the editor discusses source material, demonstrating Shakespeare's use of borrowed ideas. Several paragraphs of criticism inform students how readers/viewers from Samuel Johnson (1765) to Harold C. Goddard (1951) viewed the play. Supplementary material includes a nineteenth century actress sharing ideas about working on the play with famed actor Macready, and a musical score for songs in the play. Ten pages titled Classwork and Examinations offer a variety of traditional teaching methods for instructors (discussion, character study, essays, etc.) The volume closes with a frank biographical sketch of Shakespeare, which admits to the dearth of facts and the necessary speculation. Illus. Source Notes. Chronology. VOYA Codes: 3Q 2P S (Readable without serious defects, For the YA with a special interest in the subject, Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).

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The Winter’s Tale
Cambridge University Press
978 0 521 22158 0 - The Winter’s Tale1 Edited - by Susan Snyder and Deborah T. Curren-Aquino


[I] would love to see a rep company do The Winter’s Tale and King Lear together, same actors, same costumes, because I think Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale to answer King Lear’s tragedy with hope. The crucial difference between Leontes and Lear is that Leontes lives to regret and rethink his early selfish definition of love . . . and to accept the miracle of Hermione’s revival. The play redefines love as a miracle and a gift, which, once accepted, allows all things, not only reappearances and resurrections, but even total forgiveness.1

   Love, miracle, gift, resurrection, forgiveness. In three sentences, Jane Smiley, the author of A Thousand Acres, the 1991 novel derived from King Lear, provides a snapshot of key issues and themes that have dominated the critical and performance afterlife of The Winter’s Tale, a late play and one of Shakespeare’s most theatrically self-conscious and emotionally exhausting. To say that Leontes lives to regret and rethink his earlier selfishness is to address the question of genre and the concept of time that determines in no small measure the narrative and affective contours of each generic type.2 Theproverbial wheel of fortune is allowed in the later text to enter into a new, upward phase, compatible with hope. Leontes has time to get it right – not perfect but certainly better – and to enjoy the fruits of a long and painful journey of self-discovery, something denied Lear. The description of The Winter’s Tale as the hopeful complement to Shakespeare’s great tragedy acknowledges a practice not uncommon among artists, particularly those who leave behind sizeable bodies of work: i.e., the revisiting of themes, situations, and characters explored earlier, the rewrite often appearing more mellow and benign.

   The most significant connection between the two dramas, however, may be the one that Smiley only hints at, namely, the sheer ‘bigness’ of each, or, copiousness.3 Lear features a cosmic storm; The Winter’s Tale emphasizes that most cosmic of themes, time. In Shakespeare’s only tragedy with a fully developed subplot, there are, as critics often point out, two of almost everything,4 and all expressed in a language marked by a preponderance of hyphenated words and the ‘out’ prefix as though to say that one word alone will not do to express the old king’s folly and what he suffers as a consequence. Similarly,5 The Winter’s Tale –framed by the words ‘vast’ (1.1.25) and ‘wide gap’ (5.3.154), informed by ‘a deal of wonder’ (5.2.20), and marked by a style given to extensive hyperbole and syntactic amplification – requires a stretching of the imagination. The play’s governing aesthetic of multiplicity is evident in the tripartite spatial movement from Sicilia to Bohemia and back to Sicilia, in the temporal passage of sixteen years at the beginning of Act 4, and in the separate plot lines involving the triangle of Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes, the young love of Perdita and Florizel, and the antics of Autolycus.

   The critical commentary that follows is intended to guide the reader through the labyrinthine ways of The Winter’s Tale without presuming to exhaust the vastness and wonder essential to its ‘winter’s-taleness’. After an initial focus on genre, title, and iterative patterns, I turn to specific elements such as Leontes’ jealousy, the bear episode, the figure of Time, the meaning(s) of Act 5, and the play’s sense of an ending. Informing much of the selection of topics is Nevill Coghill’s now classic essay defending the play against the charge of ‘creaking dramaturgy’.6 The points Coghill raises are especially useful because they encourage a dovetailing of literary analysis and performance history, thus demonstrating the now widely accepted symbiotic relationship between Shakespeare in the study and Shakespeare on the stage. Sections on the play’s date and sources round out the introduction.

Genre and title

[The Winter’s Tale] is a fairy tale – it is fact. It is romantic – it is realistic. It is tragic – it is comic. It is Christian – it is pagan. It is harsh and crabbed – it is simple and idyllic. It is this – it is that. It is a welter of anachronisms. Its geography is in spots fantastic. It has not only gods, but a bear, a storm, and a yacht, from the machine.7

   Harold Goddard’s description of the play’s heterogeneity, cited here, implicitly raises the genre question: What exactly do we call The Winter’s Tale? Judging from the classification assigned in the First Folio, Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw it as a comedy, perhaps primarily because of an ending celebratory of spousal reunion (Leontes and Hermione) and of the pending nuptials of one young couple (Florizel and Perdita) and one not so young (Camillo and Paulina). Some critics continue to favour the rubric of comedy but with various modifiers to indicate a subgenre. The least helpful, though possibly the safest, is something along the lines of ‘late comedy’, suggesting only a chronological difference from what came before. R. G. Hunter’s choice, ‘comedy of forgiveness’, is more attractive because it recognizes comic conventions but specifies a moral, even spiritual, meaning that distinguishes The Winter’s Tale from earlier comedies like The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That difference, however, is arguably one of kind, thereby militating against facile sub-genre status.8 The story itself is filled with events not typically found in comic works (e.g., the sudden death of a child and the fatal savaging of a man by a bear); likewise, the value system of the first three acts and the fifth extends beyond the social concerns that are the usual purview of comedy to include the ethical and metaphysical assumptions informing tragedy. Such factors, among others, may be responsible for the rivalry between two terms that for over a century have vied for preeminence in the matter of the play’s classification: romance and tragicomedy.9


In the late nineteenth century Edward Dowden became the first to classify The Winter’s Tale and those final plays usually grouped with it (Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest) as romances.10 What Dowden seems to have had in mind were stories of exotic adventure and travel, shipwrecks, spiritual and/or moral quests, romantic love, reunions of lovers and families long separated, virtue tested and proved triumphant, and nobility hidden and then discovered – all unfolding in a world familiar with supernatural forces, wide-ranging marvels, magic, and enchantment. This romance tradition, primarily available to Shakespeare in narrative form,11also included the dramatic as in the medieval saint’s play of trial and conversion, a genre replete with one marvel after another.12 If Shakespeare’s final dramas are understood as spiritual journeys ending in self-discovery by the central character,13 then the saint’s play (or miracle play, as it is sometimes called), ‘popularly performed late

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   The miracle of Theophilus, from a fourteenth-century Book of Hours (permanent collection, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland). ‘Significant here is the presence of the Virgin as both sculpture and vision, underscoring the medieval belief in the power of prayer to gain access to the spiritual realm represented by the image’ (from the leaflet guide to the exhibit ‘Images of Devotion: Personal Piety in Medieval Manuscripts and Ivories’, Walters Museum, 1999).

into the sixteenth century above and beyond the biblical mystery cycles’ (Felperin, 13), may constitute the most significant influence on The Winter’s Tale and its companion pieces in the Shakespeare canon.

   While Dowden’s choice has by and large become the norm, many critics since the early twentieth century have inclined toward ‘tragicomedy’, a classification well known in Shakespeare’s time but not used by the Folio editors. In the preface to The Faithful Shepherdess (first performed c. 1608), John Fletcher defined the genre as ‘want[ing] deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy, which must be a representation of familiar people . . . A god is as lawful in [tragicomedy] as in a tragedy, and mean [i.e. ordinary] people as in a comedy’.14 But typical of the tragicomedies by Beaumont and Fletcher written in 1608–12, which likely contributed to Shakespeare’s foray into the genre, is an absence of the miraculous wonders and transformative journeys (whether actual or figurative) that mark Shakespeare’s late plays. Even critics who manifest an affinity for the term assert essential differences between Shakespeare’s final creative burst and such works as The Faithful Shepherdess, Philaster, and A King and No King.15

   The title of the play tilts the debate in favour of ‘romance’ for, by definition, winter’s tales were strange and fanciful oral narratives intended to while away the long, cold hours of the dark nights of winter and, therefore, not meant to be taken seriously or to withstand the rigours of logical interrogation.16Mamillius himself specifies a story of ‘sprites and goblins’ suitable for idle pastime (2.1.25–6). That the play’s first reference to such a tale occurs in the domestic company of women (see illustration 2, p. 6) and is put in the mouth of the androgynous Mamillius – still ‘unbreeched’ (1.2.154) and whose name etymologically denotes ‘breasts’ – is significant, for this type of narrative in the patriarchal culture of the early modern period was traditionally gendered female.17 Unlike the more serious and disciplined classical works learned in the grammar schools, where boys began the process of sharply defining their masculine identity, effeminate oral tales were considered trivial and inferior and, therefore, properly left behind in the nursery.18

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   2.1.22–32: Mamillius tells his ‘winter’s tale’ in the domestic company of women. Olivia Birkelund (Hermione), James Bonilla (Mamillius), and Diana LaMar (Lady/Emilia), from Irene Lewis’s 2002 production for Center Stage, Baltimore, Maryland. Richard Anderson, photographer.

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   2.1.32 SD–60: Leontes invades the female domain that has nurtured Mamillius. Cliff Chamberlain (Leontes), Becky Peters (Hermione), and Kelli Holsopple (Mamillius), from Ralph Cohen’s 2002 production for Shenandoah Shakespeare’s American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, Virginia. Tommy Thompson, photographer.

   But Mamillius’ choice of a ‘sad’ tale as best for winter, like the seasonal reference itself to a barren time of year, complicates the surface meaning of such stories as idle and fanciful, suggesting instead something serious and consequential, i.e., something potentially tragic. Its placement, quickly followed by one of the play’s most disturbing moments – the abrupt, violent severing of Mamillius from the comfort of the female domain he has known – reinforces this sense.19Certainly the figure of Time confirms a deeper signification of ‘tale’ (4.1.14) when he says: ‘I, that please some, try all – both joy and terror / Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error’ (4.1.1–2); ‘error’ here implies not just ‘a mistake’ but ‘moral transgression’ (OED 5). By Act 5, where the words ‘wonder’, ‘marvel’, ‘admirable’, and ‘amazement’ – along with references to an old tale, i.e. old-fashioned and farfetched – proliferate,20 an overlay is in place that encourages an understanding of the title as a fantastic ‘old tale’ of serious, moral things. The use of the definite article in the play’s title furthers the sense that what is being dramatized is not only the quintessential concentration of romantic fancy but also ‘the essential story of winter itself’.21 The ‘tale’ of the text as we have it need not necessarily correspond to the actual story Mamillius starts to tell about a man who dwelt by a churchyard,22 but a looser relation is probable: the sad wintry tale of the first part (tragedy) completed by the (overall) joyous spring-like tale of the second (comedy).

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   An emblematic depiction of the play’s generic division between tragedy and comedy articulated at 3.3.101–2, ‘Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn.’ From Andrea Alciati, . . . Emblemata . . . , 1661 (Folger Shakespeare Library).

   The passage perhaps most relevant to the genre question seems unequivocally to identify the play as tragicomedy, although not in the conventional mould of avoiding death. After several acts of jealous rage, vile accusations, a state trial, a blasphemous rejection of Apollo’s oracle, and the demise of several characters, the genial and kindly Shepherd who enters at 3.3.57 italicizes the shift from tragedy to comedy. Having discovered an abandoned baby girl, he announces to his son, the Clown, fresh from his own grim discoveries: ‘Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn’ (3.3.101–2).23 Brian Bedford’s staging of the end of 3.3 at Stratford, Ontario in 1998 typifies the generic sea-change as conceived by directors: the clouds lifted and the sun broke through to bathe the stage in a golden light.24 But just when it seems that the play has declared how it should be called, the Shepherd heralds Fortune’s newly benevolent phase as he and his son celebrate not only the baby, but the riches found with her: ‘This is fairy gold, boy, and ’twill prove so. . . . Home, home, the next way. We are lucky, boy . . . ’Tis a lucky day, boy, and we’ll do good deeds on ’t’ (3.3.109–10, 120). In an instant, with the reference to fairies and magic, we are brought back to the genre of romance.25

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   The lyrical and metamorphic opening to the second half of Irene Lewis’ 2002 production for Center Stage, Baltimore, Maryland. Laurence O’Dwyer (Old Shepherd/Time), David Steinberg (Bohemian servant), and Warren ‘Wawa’ Snipe (Bear) carrying Karen Hansen (Dorcas). Richard Anderson, photographer.

   Rather than restricting the naming question to an ‘either/or’ solution, Barbara Mowat persuasively argues for an inherited generic DNA that renders both romance and tragicomedy ‘truly useful names for Shakespeare’s late plays’, especially when taken in combination (Mowat, 138). Looking to such sixteenth-century dramatized romances as Sir Clyomon and Clamydes, Mucedorus, and The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune,26 she detects an earlier tradition of tragicomedy compatible with romance. While Sidney may have had foremost in mind something like Cambyses when he coined the phrase ‘mongrel tragi-comedy’ for plays given to the gross absurdity of mixing tragic and comic elements,27 works such as the three cited above might also qualify in their to and fro between comic and tragic forces and between the impulses of Eros and Fortune. The Winter’s Tale explicitly invokes the Cambyses model in the Clown’s love of ‘a ballad but even too well, if it be doleful matter merrily set down, or a very pleasant thing indeed and sung lamentably’ (4.4.188–90). In the end, however, by making quests, family reunions, and improbable events central, ‘mouldy tales’ (Ben Jonson’s phrase for old-fashioned, far-fetched stories) project a fundamental ‘romance’ ethos. The syntax of Mowat’s proffered hybrid, tragicomic romance, effects a helpful rapprochement between the rival terms and perfectly embraces a play whose very title foregrounds ‘romance’.

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   Act 1, scene 2 staged in the private, domestic setting of a nursery: Judi Dench (Hermione), Barry Ingham (Leontes), and Jeremy Richardson (Mamillius), from Trevor Nunn’s 1969 RSC production, Stratford-upon-Avon. Tom Holte Theatre Photographic Collection, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.


Adding to the play’s generic copiousness is the infusion of pastoral, a literary tradition bipartite in meaning and often tripartite in design; it is also a genre that easily coexists with both romance (e.g., the classical Daphnis and Chloe and Sidney’s Arcadia) and tragicomedy (e.g. Guarini’s Pastor Fido and Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess). At the heart of pastoral, etymologically derived from the Latin word for shepherd (pastor), is a basic contrast between the ways and means of the court (or city) and those of the country, with the latter typically idealized. Distinctions are cast in terms of sterility vs. fecundity, sophistication vs. simplicity, and artifice vs. naturalness. The trajectory of pastoral involves a journey from the court to the country (or a similarly remote world like Prospero’s island), with movement back to the court either promised (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, and The Tempest) or actualized (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The journey to the other world, Northrop Frye’s ‘green world’,28 proves therapeutic in solving problems, repairing fractured relationships, and clearing true love’s obstacle course of all its hurdles. The Winter’s Tale, after almost three acts in the court of Sicilia and an act-long sojourn in the country setting of Bohemia, follows the spatial dynamic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But in contrast to traditional pastoral, the character most in need of healing, Leontes, never makes the journey to Bohemia; instead, Bohemia comes to him, in the revitalizing presence of Perdita and Florizel (see 5.1.122 SD n. and 150–1) and in the welcome arrivals of Polixenes, Camillo, and Perdita’s foster family (as reported in 5.2).

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564, and his birth is traditionally celebrated on April 23. The facts of his life, known from surviving documents, are sparse. He was one of eight children born to John Shakespeare, a merchant of some standing in his community. William probably went to the King’s New School in Stratford, but he had no university education. In November 1582, at the age of eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, who was pregnant with their first child, Susanna. She was born on May 26, 1583. Twins, a boy, Hamnet ( who would die at age eleven), and a girl, Judith, were born in 1585. By 1592 Shakespeare had gone to London working as an actor and already known as a playwright. A rival dramatist, Robert Greene, referred to him as “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” Shakespeare became a principal shareholder and playwright of the successful acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later under James I, called the King’s Men). In 1599 the Lord Chamberlain’s Men built and occupied the Globe Theater in Southwark near the Thames River. Here many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed by the most famous actors of his time, including Richard Burbage, Will Kempe, and Robert Armin. In addition to his 37 plays, Shakespeare had a hand in others, including Sir Thomas More and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and he wrote poems, including Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. His 154 sonnets were published, probably without his authorization, in 1609. In 1611 or 1612 he gave up his lodgings in London and devoted more and more time to retirement inStratford, though he continued writing such plays as The Tempest and Henry VII until about 1613. He died on April 23 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. No collected edition of his plays was published during his life-time, but in 1623 two members of his acting company, John Heminges and Henry Condell, put together the great collection now called the First Folio.

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