Written after Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610, pb. 1623) and before The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), The Winter’s Tale is as hard to classify generically as is the fully mature dramatic genius of its author. Partaking of the elements of tragedy, the play yet ends in sheer comedy, just as it mingles elements of realism and romance. William Shakespeare took his usual freedom with his source, Robert Greene’s euphuistic romance Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (1588). Time remains the most crucial element in the play’s structure, its clearest break with the pseudo-Aristotelian unities. The effect of time on Hermione, moreover, when the statue is revealed to be wrinkled and aged, heightens the pathos and credibility of the triumphant discovery and recognition scene. To allow that final scene its full effect, Shakespeare wisely has Perdita’s discovery and recognition reported to the audience secondhand in act 5, scene 2. In keeping with the maturity of Shakespeare’s dramatic talent, the poetic style of this play is clear, unrhetorical, sparse in its imagery as well as metaphorically sharp. Verse alternates with prose as court characters alternate with country personages.
Mamillius tells his mother, who asks him for a story, that “a sad tale’s best for winter.” Ironically the little boy’s story is never told; the entrance of Leontes interrupts it, and Hermione’s son, his role as storyteller once defined, strangely disappears. In his place, the play itself takes over, invigorated by Mamillius’s uncanny innocent wisdom, which reflects a Platonic view of childhood. The story that unfolds winds a multitude of themes without losing sight of any of them. It presents two views of honor, a wholesome one represented by Hermione and a demented one represented by Leontes. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, the narrative concerns the unholy power of kings who can be mistaken but whose power, however mistaken, is final. However, the finality, here, is spared, the tragic ending avoided. The absolute goodness of Hermione, Paulina, Camillo, the shepherd, and Florizel proves to be enough to overcome the evil of Leontes. Moving from the older generation’s inability to love to the reflowering of love in the younger, the play spins out into a truly comic ending, with the reestablishment of community, royal authority, and general happiness in a triple gamos. The balance of tension between youth and age, guilt and innocence, death and rebirth is decided in favor of life, and the play escapes the clutches of remorseless tragedy in a kind of ultimate mystical vision of human life made ideal through suffering....
(The entire section is 1085 words.)
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