The plays and playing

The significance of play

The Winter's Tale is, of course, a play. But Shakespeare, as a man of the theatre, often uses references to plays, acting and the theatre as a motif within his plays. This is especially noticeable in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, in both of which there is a ‘play within the play'. In The Winter's Tale the actual word ‘play' occurs several times, both with the meaning of ‘acting' but also to mean ‘amusement'.

Playing a part

Acting as deceit

  • In Act I, sc ii, Leontes watches his wife talking with Polixenes; deciding suddenly that they are having an adulterous affair, Leontes tells himself that he has been cast in the role (acting imagery) of the deceived husband – a cuckold: ‘I play … so disgrac'd a part.'
  • This image of acting also suggests that Leontes feels he must continue to ‘play the friend' to Polixenes – a course advised later in the same scene by Camillo when he pretends to agree to Leontes' order to kill Polixenes:
‘Go then; and with a countenance as clear
As friendship wears at feasts, keep with Bohemia
And with your queen.'

There are other references to acting and the theatre in The Winter's Tale, but only Leontes, with his corrupt suspicions, associates the idea with deceit and vice.

Theatre imagery

  • Hermione, in her trial (Act III, sc ii) makes reference to the theatre audience, seeing her situation as more unhappy ‘than history can pattern, though devis'd and play'd to take spectators.'
  • In IV. iv. Perdita, who is dressed ‘most goddess-like', feels she is unlike herself, and is playing an unusual role:
‘methinks I play as I have seen them do
In Whitsun pastorals: sure this robe of mine
Does change my disposition.'
  • Later, as they arrive at Leontes' court (Act V, sc i), Perdita again plays a part (as she thinks, ironically) by pretending to be a princess.


  • Reality and pretence meet in her person
  • By ‘playing' in this way she and Florizel bring renewal, regeneration and healing to the court of Sicilia.

Pleasure, innocent or otherwise

Innocent amusement

Perdita and FlorizelWhen Perdita at the sheep-shearing says she is ‘playing' as people do at Whitsun pastorals, part of her meaning is that she is acting a part. But it is clear that she also means she is amusing herself: her comment comes a few lines after her response to Florizel, when she says with innocent desire that she would like to strew him with flowers ‘like a bank for love to lie and play on.' It is clear from other comments she and Florizel make in the same scene that they are chaste, but she is happy to admit her feelings of passion, and the desire to indulge in love-play is seen as innocent and natural between declared lovers.

Illicit amusement

In stark contrast is Leontes' use of ‘play' in Act I, sc ii, where he observes Hermione ‘playing', as he thinks illicitly, with Polixenes. He tells his son Mamillius, ‘Thy mother plays'. The ‘play' that he observes – her taking their mutual friend by the hand – he characterises as ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers'; the plosive alliterative sounds suggest his disgust. The fact that ‘play' is often associated with children's amusement shows the audience how diseased Leontes' mind is when he associates it with corruption.

Children's play


Children in The Winter's Tale are frequently associated with ideas of innocence (See: Children), and their games as bringing harmless pleasure:

  • In Act I, sc ii, speaking of their days of youthful innocence, Polixenes calls Leontes his ‘young play-fellow'
  • He goes on to describe his playful amusement with his own son, who is ‘all my exercise, my mirth, my matter.'
  • Even as he descends into jealousy, Leontes speaks with affection to Mamillius, and when he dismisses him tells him to ‘Go play, boy, play'


  • However, Leontes also uses that same term, ‘play' in association with sexual sin (See: Pleasure, innocent or otherwise)
  • Ironically, he later chooses a child's toy – a hobby-horse – to describe Hermione, condemning her by using its other Shakespearean sense of ‘a whore'.

Juxtaposition of types of play

Immediately before the audience starts to see the terrible effects of Leontes' jealousy, as he arrives to arrest his queen in Act II, sc i, Shakespeare stresses in contrast the innocence of Hermione and her entourage as we see them talking to Mamillius: ‘Shall I be your play-fellow?' asks a lady-in-waiting. Mamillius' response that he does not like her because ‘You'll kiss me hard' is a child's view of kissing compared with Leontes' bitter and perverted view (in Act I, sc ii):

‘See how she holds up the neb, the bill, to him!'

Healing through play

Once Leontes has realised his terrible guilt, and acknowledged that he has been responsible for the deaths of Hermione and Mamillius, he embarks on a life of penitence. He declares (Act III, sc ii) that:

‘Once a day I'll visit
The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there
Shall be my recreation.'
  • The word ‘recreation' means ‘amusement' – Leontes will give up all other forms of pleasure
  • But it also means re-creation: Leontes will start to re-create and mend his soul.

Although today the word ‘recreation' tends to mean ‘amusement', its root meaning suggests that, through innocent play people can indeed be healed and regenerated.

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