The Winter's Tale (or A Winter's Tale as some call it) is one of William Shakespeare's later plays, written around 1610 or 1611 and published in 1623. It's based on Robert Green's Pandosto (1588), which in turn was inspired by The Clerk's Tale from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. It's classed by some as one of Shakespeare's comedies, however it is arguably one of his 'problem plays' (like All's Well That Ends Well, 1604-5, and Measure for Measure, 1603-4, and Troilus and Cressida, 1609). It is, as many critics would class it, and as I'm sure most would agree, a 'romance' or a 'tragicomedy'.
In terms of the early part of the action, The Winter's Tale is not unlike Othello (1604). King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia are close childhood friends, and as the play begins, Polixenes is staying with Leontes and has been for some nine months. He is ready to leave, but Leontes asks him to stay. He only concedes when Leontes' pregnant wife Hermione asks him also. This sets off Leontes' jealousy - he wonders how it was that Polixenes refused to extend his stay when he asked him, but when Hermione does he consents. Such is his passion, he asks Camillo to poison Polixenes, however instead he warns him and Polixenes flees Sicilia.
Leontes rage, however, intensifies - he publicly accuses Hermione of infidelity and that the child she bears is not his. He then throws her into gaol and sends Cleomenes and Dion to consult the Oracle of Delphi to confirm his suspicions. While they are gone Hermione gives birth to a girl, Perdita, and Leontes orders that she be taken away and abandoned. Mamillius, Hermione and Leontes' son is so distressed at the accusations he dies, and then, at shock of his death and the stress of her husband's treatment, Hermione dies also. Cleomenes and Dion return with the news from the Oracle of Delphi, which proclaims Hermione and Polixenes innocent. Leontes is left consumed by guilt.
|Perdita by Frederick Sandys (1866).|
But what of Perdita? She was abandoned, as instructed, by Antigonus, the wife of Paulina, Hermione's close friend. He left her on the Bohemian coast, naming her Perdita and leaving gold and trinkets with her (bade by Hermione in a vision). Perdita is raised by a shepherd (Clown), unaware that she is the princess of Sicilia. She grows up and falls in love with Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes, who declares that they may never marry. However, with the help of Camillo (who has been in Polixenes service since he warned him Leontes intended to poison him), they escape to Sicilia. Here the play draws to a close - Florinzo is recognised along with Camillo, their cover (that Florinzo is on a diplomatic mission) is blown, and Clown explains how he came to find Perdita, and Leontes realises she is his daughter. Perdita and Florizel may marry, Leontes and Polixenes are friends once more, and there is one more unexpected and very happy twist to the tale that makes the ending all the more memorable and satisfying!
It is, ultimately, a lovely tale - a tale for winter, it is said, because it is to enjoy and entertain only; an 'idle tale'. It's also famous for its notorious state direction - [Exit, pursued by a bear]! I wouldn't say it was a favourite of mine, but it does pass the time nicely.
To finish, some illustrations by Maxwell Armfield published by J. M. Dent & sons.