The pastoral tradition

Shepherdess, photo by Daniel R KnightPoetic works loosely based on the lives and loves of shepherds and shepherdesses had been popular long before Shakespeare began to write, flourishing in ancient Greece and Rome. Nearer to Shakespeare's time, Edmund Spenser wrote a series of poems called The Shepherd's Calendar. Sir Philip Sidney also wrote an early form of novel, called Arcadia, where princes and princesses dress as shepherds and shepherdesses. Such works do not depict realistic rural life, since the ‘shepherds' speak in courtly language, and indeed may actually be courtiers playing at the country life.

In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare shows us both the realistic and the idealistic:

  • Florizel, a prince, dresses up as a shepherd, and is ‘obscur'd / With a swain's wearing', taking the name Doricles – the sort of name given to shepherds in pastoral poetry
  • But he moves amongst real shepherds who are celebrating getting the money for the wool of their flocks.

More on Shakespeare's interest in the pastoral tradition: The insistence on the power of nature, and the setting of much of the second half of the play in the countryside, reflect Shakespeare's interest in the pastoral tradition. Several of his plays take his characters into the countryside:

  • In As You Like It the courtiers, some of them in disguise, head off into the Forest of Arden and live with shepherds
  • As You Like It is an interesting parallel with The Winter's Tale and Shakespeare's other Romance plays, all of which ask us to consider whether the court is more, or less, civilised than the country. See City and countryside.
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