Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote The Winter's Tale in late 1610 or early 1611. The play's first known performance occurred at the Globe Theatre on May 15, 1611. Scholars have made speculative attempts at a more accurate dating of the play's composition, but such theories have not gained widespread acceptance. What most critics do agree upon is that the style and themes of The Winter's Tale clearly link the play to Shakespeare's other late romances. They conclude that The Winter's Tale is therefore a product of Shakespeare's final period of play writing and that the play was most likely composed after Cymbeline, which is believed to have been written in 1609-10.
The primary source for The Winter's Tale is a novel by Robert Green entitled Pandosto; or, The Triumph of Time, which was first published in 1588. The novel was reprinted a number of times after 1607 as Dorastus and Fawnia. In Pandosto, the title character is driven by passionate jealousy to drive away his friend and banish his infant daughter. This results in the deaths of Pandosto's wife and young son. Although this basic format closely parallels The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare did make some significant alterations to his source. Leontes's jealousy is quite sudden, compared with that of Pandosto. In Greene's novel, Pandosto is presented with an array of circumstantial evidence before his jealousy erupts. Also, the characters of Paulina, Autolycus, and the figure of Time are entirely Shakespearean creations. Other additions to the source include Shakespeare's sheep-shearing scene (Act IV, scene iv) and the statue scene (Act V, scene iii). Perhaps the most drastic alteration to Greene's novel is the restoration of both Perdita and Hermione to Leontes. In Greene's story, Pandosto's wife truly does die, and Pandosto commits suicide after learning that Fawnia, whom he has attempted to seduce, is in fact his long-lost daughter.
Little is known about the reactions of seventeenth-century audiences and critics to The Winter's Tale. Simon Forman wrote the first known account of the play in the form of a journal entry in which he summarizes the play's plot. Forman was most impressed by the character of Autolycus. Ben Johnson, Shakespeare's contemporary and rival, noted with displeasure a geographical inaccuracy in the play, which also appeared in Shakespeare's source, Greene's Pandosto. Both Greene and Shakespeare write about the seacoast of Bohemia, which in fact was a landlocked country. (Today, Bohemia is a region in Western Czechoslovakia and was formerly a part of Austria.) John Dryden considered The Winter's Tale to be one of Shakespeare's failed plays, along with Pericles, Measure for Measure, and Love's Labour's Lost. All of these plays, Dryden comments, are based on impossibilities or so poorly written that the comic parts do not result in laughter, nor do the serious parts produce concern.
The action of the play is generated by Leontes' jealousy. Perdita's banishment, Mamillius's death, and Hermione's supposed death are all effects of Leontes' jealous rage. It is not surprising, then, that many scholars and students of the play focus on the question of whether or not Leontes's jealousy is improbable. Few would argue that the king's reaction is justified, but some maintain that Leontes's jealousy is not a sudden and rash reaction, but rather has been building for some time and is present from the play's beginning. Others have analyzed Leontes's jealousy as one aspect of a personality that is obsessed with childhood.
Other issues that have generated critical commentary center on the play's combination of tragic, comic, and pastoral elements; on the debate between art and nature in the play; and on the dramatic effect and meaning of Hermione's restoration. Some critics find that the pastoral and comic elements of the play help to alleviate the tragic aspects; others argue that the pastoral elements are dark and disturbing in many ways. Two scenes in the play focus specifically on the art versus nature controversy: Act IV, scene iv, in which Polixenes and Perdita discuss the merits of cross breeding or grafting in flowers; and Act V, scene iii, where the "statue" of Hermione is revealed to be Hermione herself. These scenes are either read as evidence that Shakespeare was arguing that art is nature or, alternatively, that art is necessary to "mend" or perfect nature. In the last scene of the play, Paulina presents Hermione's statue and commands her to "descend" and reveal herself. Some commentators view this scene and the fact that Hermione has concealed herself for sixteen years as highly unlikely. They assert that Hermione's restoration was a cheap stage trick, designed to delight the audience but possessing little literary value. Others stress that Hermione's concealment is entirely justified and that her restoration at the play's end is moving and significant.