The Winter's Tale Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political context
- Religious / philosophical context
- The Theatre
- Ideas of nature
- The pastoral tradition
- The seasons
- Natural and unnatural development
- The nature of humanity
- The higher powers
- Spiritual re-creation
- The plays and playing
Contrasts and divisions
Two different countries
The Winter's Tale is the play which most significantly breaks the ‘rule' of the Unities, as it not only moves across sixteen years but between Sicilia and Bohemia. This allows Shakespeare to create two different moods – the dark threatening tone of Leontes' jealousy and attack on Hermione, and the light, pleasant mood of the Bohemian sheep-shearing.
However, the divisions are not really so clear cut. Hermione's playful teasing of both Polixenes and Mamillius brings a lighter side to Sicilia, whilst Polixenes' anger and threats towards Florizel, Perdita and the shepherds brings a darker tone into Bohemia. And of course both places and both moods come together in the last scenes.
Tragedy and comedy
Although the divisions are not clear-cut, in many ways The Winter's Tale seems more like a tragedy in the first half and a comedy in the second.
- In Shakespearean tragedies such as Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, we witness the disruption of the social order as loyalty between husband and wife, children and parents, kings and subjects, breaks down, symbolising an increasing disorder in the world, and the protagonists are dead by the end of the play
- In comedies such as As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, the plays end in marriages for love, and no-one dies.
But we should notice that in most Shakespearean plays there is a mixture of comedy and tragedy:
- In Much Ado About Nothing, as in The Winter's Tale, a lover wrongly suspects his lady of unfaithfulness. He does not kill her, as Othello kills Desdemona, but she is thought to be dead, just as Hermione is
- In Twelfth Night - a rollicking comedy in many ways - Malvolio is wrongly imprisoned, as is Hermione, and the disguised Viola is almost killed because of her love for Orsino
- In the tragedy King Lear, the Fool punctuates the narrative with humour
- Although Hermione does not actually die, there are still two deaths in The Winter's Tale, both caused by Leontes' jealousy: those of Mamillius and Antigonus. For this reason, the play retains the sadness of tragedy even when there is reconciliation at the end.
Winter and summer
(See also: The seasons)
The changing atmosphere between the first and second halves of The Winter's Tale is also indicated to the audience by reference to the changing seasons.
Although there is no mention of snow or wintry weather in the first half of the play, Mamillius' comment (in Act II, sc i) that ‘a sad tale's best for winter' seems to confirm that this is the season in which the first three Acts take place.
When we first move to Bohemia again after Time's intervention, we are greeted (in Act IV, sc iii) by Autolycus, singing of how spring takes over from winter:
With heigh! The doxy over the dale,
Why then comes in the sweet o' the year
For the red blood reigns in the winter's pale.'
His song sets the tone for the light-hearted pastoral scene to follow (see also: The Pastoral tradition.). Although his words mention springtime, we find that in Bohemia we have now moved past spring into full summer.
- When we meet the Clown (the young shepherd), he is on his way to buy spices and other special foods for the sheep-shearing feast. In England (and Shakespeare's shepherds are English in their conversation and habits, even though they are supposed to be Bohemian) sheep-shearing took place in early to middle summer
- When Polixenes meets the sixteen-year-old Perdita, she presents him with summer flowers:
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,
The marigold, that goes to bed wi' th' sun
And with him rises, weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer'
She makes it quite clear that spring has passed, telling the youthful Florizel, Mopsa and Dorcas:
Become your time of day….
bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one: O these I lack...'
The sense of summer and the warmth of the sun lasts throughout the scene. Even when the mood changes with Polixenes' threats, the sun still shines, as Perdita says defiantly:
Hides not his visage from our cottage, but
Looks on alike.'
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