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.
Leontes is a most puzzling character. His antifeminism, as expressed in his cynical speech on cuckoldry, seems more fashionable than felt. In his determined jealousy, he resembles Othello, and in his self-inflicted insanity, Lear. In fact, the words of Lear to Cordelia resound in Leontes’ great speech, beginning, “Is whispering nothing?” and concluding, “My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,/ If this be nothing.” It is almost impossible to sympathize with him further when he condemns even his helpless child in the face of Paulina’s gentle pleas; and it is not surprising that he at first even denies the oracle itself. However, his sudden recognition of culpability is no more convincing than his earlier, unmotivated jealousy. It is as if he changes too quickly for belief; perhaps this is the reason for Hermione’s decision to test his penitence with time, until it ripens into sincerity. Certainly his reaction to his wife’s swoon shows only a superficial emotion. Leontes is still self-centered, still regally assured that all can be put right with the proper words. Only after the years have passed in loneliness does he realize it takes more than orderly words to undo the damage wrought by disorderly royal commands. His admission to Paulina that his words killed Hermione paves the way for the happy ending.
Even the minor characters are drawn well and vividly. Camillo is the ideal courtier who chooses virtue over favor. Paulina, like the nurse Anna in Euripides’ Hippolytos (428 b.c.e.; Hippolytus, 1781), is the staunch helpmate of her mistress, especially in adversity, aided by magical powers that seem to spring from her own determined character. Her philosophy is also that of the classical Greeks: “What’s gone and what’s past help/ Should be past grief.” This play does not have the tragic Greek ending, because Paulina preserves her mistress rather than assisting her to destroy herself. Even the rogue Autolycus is beguiling, with his verbal witticisms, his frank pursuit of self-betterment, and his lusty and delightful songs. His sign is Mercury, the thief of the gods, and he follows his sign like the best rascals in Renaissance tradition: Boccaccio’s Friar Onion, Rabelais’s Panurge, and Shakespeare’s own Falstaff.
In Hermione and Perdita, Shakespeare achieves two of his greatest portraits of women. Hermione’s speech reflects her personality, straightforward, without embroidery, as pure as virtue itself. Her reaction to Leontes’ suspicion and condemnation is brief but telling. “Adieu, my lord,” she says, “I never wish’d to see you sorry; now/ I trust I shall.” She combines the hardness of Portia with the gentleness of Desdemona; in fact, Antigonus’s oath in her defense recalls the character of Othello’s wife. Like Geoffrey Chaucer’s patient Griselda, Hermione loses everything, but she strikes back with the most devastating weapon of all: time. However, in the final scene of the play, it is clear that her punishment of Leontes makes Hermione suffer no less. Perdita personifies, though never in a stereotyped way, gentle innocence: “Nothing she does or seems/ But smacks of something greater than herself/ Too noble for this place.” Indeed, when Polixenes’ wrath, paralleling Leontes’ previous folly, threatens Perdita’s life for a second time, the audience holds its breath because she is too good to be safe. When Shakespeare saves her, the play, sensing the audience’s joy, abruptly ends on its highest note.
In its theme and structure, The Winter’s Tale bears a striking resemblance to Euripides’ Alkstis (438 b.c.e.; Alcestis, 1781). In both plays, the “death” of the queen threatens the stability and happiness of society and, in both, her restoration, which is miraculous and ambiguous, restores order to the world of the court. Shakespeare, however, widens the comic theme by adding the love of the younger generation. The Winter’s Tale defies the forces of death and hatred romantically as well as realistically. The sad tale becomes happy, as winter becomes spring.