The Winter's Tale (Vol. 57)
The Winter's Tale
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Winter's Tale, see SC, Volumes 7, 15, 36, and 45.
Scholars concur that The Winter's Tale was written in 1610 or early 1611 and that its earliest known performance was at the Globe Theatre on May 15th, 1611. Historians know that the play, a romance, was performed in 1613 as part of Princess Elizabeth's marriage celebrations, and that Shakespeare’s main source for the play was Robert Green’s Pandosto (1588). From its inception the play has attracted critical attention, although there is little or no consensus about its quality or theme. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scholars found the play implausible, faulting Leontes's irrational rage and jealousy, the unaccounted sixteen year gap in the plot, and factual inaccuracies such as the mixing of time periods and the reference to a coastline in landlocked Bohemia. Today, scholars agree that the characteristics of the play typify the final period of Shakespeare's writing. However, instead of maintaining that this period represents a decline in Shakespeare's skill, many critics have reexamined the opinion that Shakespeare's final plays are morose and disjointed. Some critics now argue that Shakespeare was at his most innovative during his final period, creating new forms and perfecting themes that had shadowed him throughout his career. As this period has been redefined and gained greater appreciation, literary critics have applied these more positive views to The Winter's Tale. In addition, literary scholars have applied new concepts about feminism and emerging historical theories to The Winter's Tale in order to gain a better understanding of the play.
In his 1964 essay, Edward W. Tayler reflects upon the critical history of The Winter's Tale, arguing that while early critics such as Lytton Strachey doubted Shakespeare's ability in his final period, later scholars such as G. Wilson Knight and E. M. W. Tillyard have been more favorable. Tayler indicates that many modern critics concur that the improbable plot is meant to be symbolic, but they disagree over its meaning. He believes that Shakespeare was concerned ultimately with the relationship between art and nature, a topic which he focused on in his earlier plays and poems, such as As You Like It and Venus and Adonis. Additionally, Tayler discusses the importance of the pattern of integration and disruption in The Winter's Tale, a topic dealt with by Russ McDonald (1985) as well. McDonald states that the language and syntax of the play is difficult, complicated, and irregular. He posits that this tempo reflects the meaning within the plot, and that the plot and linguistic style are tightly intertwined. The critic argues that the marriage of plot and style is a distinctive characteristic of Shakespeare's final works and that both are built on his lifelong study of human nature.
Another topic which has drawn the attention of recent scholars is the sources, influences, and ideologies that shape The Winter's Tale. Literary critics agree that the play is based mainly upon Robert Greene's prose romance Pandosto (1588). Shakespeare made several key alterations that changed the focus of the play, but the early influence of Greene is still apparent. In addition, scholars note the influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1-8 a.d.), particularly on the statue scene in act five of The Winter's Tale. Scott F. Crider (1999) investigates the influence of Ovid's Pygmalian tale on this scene, and argues that by making Hermione become flesh again Shakespeare deviates from earlier versions of the story, reflecting a growing Renaissance conviction in the power of love, art, and faith over death. In his 1993 article, Robert Henke traces the influence of the Italian dramatist Battista Guarini on Shakespeare's later plays, arguing that in The Winter's Tale Shakespeare created an innovative new dramatic form—the pastoral tragi-comedy. Henke maintains that Shakespeare revolutionized the theater by skillfully bridging tragedy and comedy through the pastoral aspects of the play. Mary Ellen Lamb (1998) considers the influence of traditional women's tales in three of Shakespeare's plays. In her discussion, she examines the gender conflicts that arise from male anxiety over the influence that these women's tales had over children. In conclusion, the critic states that the very title of The Winter's Tale refers to the practice of telling folk tales, and maintains that Shakespeare's play suggests the “acceptance rather than rejection of old wives' tales.”
Modern critics have applied new feminist theories to inform their analysis of The Winter's Tale as well. Specifically, they are interested in questions about the nature and function of Leontes's fury and the significance of the statue scene at the conclusion of the play in which Hermione is transformed from a statue to woman again. Critics such as David McCandless, M. Lindsay Kaplan, Katherine Eggert, and Lynn Enterline believe that the answers can be found in the interrelation between the patriarchal society and emerging fears of the power of women. McCandless (1990) describes the prevailing beliefs of the time in which women were blamed for original sin and the fall of man, as well as feared for their sexual power and ability to corrupt man. He argues that in the same way that the modern pornographer seeks to destroy the image of the women that he has created, Leontes is filled with a desire to destroy his view of Hermione as a sexually corrupt temptress. Lynn Enterline (1997) states that Hermione's and Paulina's strong rhetorical skills mark their threat against the authority of Leontes. In the end, Hermione learns to maintain her silence and thus preserve her status. In their 1994 article, M. Lindsey Kaplan and Katherine Eggert place the discussion of women's voice and power within the historical context of women's legal rights during the Elizabethan period. They maintain that The Winter's Tale was a means of reevaluating the power of Queen Elizabeth within a patriarchal society in which women were allotted neither a voice nor authority.
Criticism: Language, Structure, And Plot
SOURCE: “Nature and Art in Renaissance Literature: Shakespeare’s The Winter's Tale,” in The Winter’s Tale: Critical Essays, edited by Maurice Hunt, Garland Publishing, 1995, pp. 119-38.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1964, Tayler analyzes the underlying structure of The Winter's Tale and identifies the relationship between nature and art as a central concern.]
The Winter's Tale, like Book VI of The Faerie Queene, exhibits a specialized use of the traditional materials of pastoral in conjunction with an explicit interest in the philosophical problem of Nature versus Art. Discussion must involve, at least initially and briefly, some reference to Shakespeare's earlier work and then to Cymbeline and The Tempest, both from his last period; for these later works, in particular, share many of the same intellectual concerns as well as the romance form. The last plays suffered a period of criticism in which, like Spenser's Legend of Courtesy, they were dismissed because they resembled insufficiently the work of The Poet's Serious Period. After the sentimental pleasure nineteenth-century critics like Dowden took in visualizing Shakespeare On The Heights in his last years at Stratford, the reaction, led by Lytton Strachey, took the romances in one way or another as evidence of senile decay. Shakespeare's powers were declining; like Spenser he was...
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SOURCE: “Poetry and Plot in The Winter's Tale,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn, 1985, pp. 315-29.
[In the following essay, McDonald focuses on the distinct linguistic form employed in The Winter's Tale,stating that its more complex style is connected with the intricate plot.]
The Winter's Tale, it is generally agreed, is difficult to read. To move from Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra into the world of Sicilia is to enter strange territory where a peculiar dialect is spoken. When Leontes steps apart from Hermione and Polixenes, turns to the audience, and utters his meditation beginning “Too hot, too hot,” listeners and readers alike are apt to be mystified. We ought to be disturbed, of course, by the king's logic and conclusions; but more to the point, we are immediately confused by his language, and the trouble encountered in these early speeches is characteristic of the play as a whole and of the romances in general. Shakespeare's late verse is different from his earlier poetry—more complicated, elliptical, and irregular. J. M. Nosworthy, referring particularly to Cymbeline, describes the late style as follows: “Blank verse is handled with the utmost freedom, and run-on lines, light, weak, and double endings are marked characteristics. Ellipsis and elision contribute greatly to stylistic economy, and short speeches are so...
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SOURCE: “‘Verily Bearing Blood’: Pornography, Sexual Love, and the Reclaimed Feminine in The Winter's Tale,” in Essays in Theatre, Vol. 9, No. 1, November, 1990, pp. 61-81.
[In the following essay, McCandless posits that Leontes's persecution of Hermione represents his attempt to cast away his source of sexual shame.]
Early in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Polixenes recalls the boyhood paradise he shared with Leontes and attributes its end to the intrusion of “blood”—here a synonym for man's “sensual, animal appetite” (OED 1: 929).
We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun, And bleat the one at th’ other. What we chang’d Was innocence for innocence; we knew not The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d That any did. Had we pursu’d that life, And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven Boldly, “not guilty”; the imposition clear’d, Hereditary ours.
Not only were the two future kings unacquainted with evil (“knew not the doctrine of ill-doing”), they were effectively exempt from original sin itself, the “hereditary imposition” of guilt they would have “cleared” had they remained unaroused by “blood”—the animal appetite of sexual passion. The agent of that corruption, Polixenes implies, the snake in the...
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SOURCE: “‘Good queen, my lord, good queen’: Sexual Slander and the Trials of Female Authority in The Winter's Tale,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. 25, 1994, pp. 89-118.
[In the following essay, Kaplan and Eggert examine The Winter's Tale's relation to questions of female sexuality and authority during Queen Elizabeth's reign.]
The legal history of early modern Englishwomen has not yet been written, though recent contributions suggest that scholars are beginning to rectify this oversight.1 One productive point of entry into this important field is presented by defamation, generally defined in early modern England as an injury inflicted by the false and malicious imputation of a crime. The popularity of this charge and its redresses is registered in the records for both common law and ecclesiastical courts in this period, both of which evidence dramatic increases in slander cases. The value of slander for the exploration of early modern women's legal concerns is multiple. First, defamation gives us an indication—albeit more reflective, perhaps, of public opinion than actual indictment rates—of the types of crimes women were thought to commit. After all, slanderous accusations have to have some plausibility in order to be damaging. Second, defamation is an injury that women both commit and complain about in significant numbers. Finally, the form of and redress for...
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SOURCE: “‘You speak a language that I understand not’: The Rhetoric of Animation in The Winter's Tale,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 17-44.
[In the essay that follows, Enterline examines Shakespeare's interpretation of Ovidian and Petrarchan rhetoric as a means of discussing the role of power and the female voice in The Winter's Tale.]
Between Leontes's opening imperative, “Tongue-tied our queen? Speak you” (1.2.28), and the final act, where Hermione as living statue returns to her husband yet says nothing directly to him, The Winter's Tale traces a complex, fascinated, and uneasy relation to female speech.1 A play much noted for interrogating the “myriad forms of human narration”2—old tales, reports, ballads, oracles—The Winter's Tale begins its investigation of language when Hermione tellingly jests to Polixenes, “Verily, / You shall not go; a lady's ‘verily’ is / As potent as a lord's” (ll. 49-51), for Leontes's swift turn to suspicion hinges on the power of his wife's speech. Unable to persuade Polixenes to stay, he first expresses annoyance when Hermione is able to do so. Polixenes has just assured his boyhood friend “There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ th’ world, / So soon as yours could win me” (ll. 20-21). Nonetheless, it is Hermione's tongue, not her husband's, that wins...
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Criticism: Sources, Influences, And Ideologies
SOURCE: “Metacriticism and Materiality: The Case of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale,” in ELH, Vol. 58, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 283-304.
[In the essay below, Morse examines The Winter’s Tale in order to reveal the shortcomings of New Historical criticism, and finds the ideology of the New Historicist conception to be “simplistic” and “misconceived.”]
New Historical criticism of Renaissance literature over the past decade has not only effected a revolution in the way that critics read the literature and its relation to the culture that produces it, but has helped us to reconceive the nature of culture itself. Nevertheless, if the great strength of the school's approach has been the fertility and subtlety of its analyses of the cultural density which produces and is produced by literature, the theoretical models by which it has organized its reading have at times seemed inadequate, and thus misleading. The prevalent New Historicist conception of a dominant absolutist ideology centered in the court, in particular, seems in some ways simplistic, in others misconceived, and has generally tended towards a hegemonic conception of the nature of “dominant ideologies” that misrepresents in its totalizing impetus the inevitably multiform pressures of any culture understood not as historical object but rather as evolving process. There is a critical aporia, a hidden...
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SOURCE: “The Winter's Tale and Guarinian Dramaturgy,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 197-217.
[In the essay below, Henke examines the relationship between Battista Guarini's tragicomic theory and Shakespeare's drama, particularly focusing on The Winter's Tale.]
Genre concepts significantly affect our understanding of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. The play not only repeatedly calls attention to itself as fiction, but its tripartite tragical-pastoral-comical arrangement focuses our attention on three important dramatic genres of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and the dialogic relationships between them. In Pericles, Shakespeare emphasizes the romance source by dramatizing John Gower and narrative itself, the radical of presentation most congenial to romance. “Romance” also aptly describes the story of The Winter's Tale: a more schematic, typological presentation of character than obtains in the tragedies, the (apparent) suspension of the laws of cause and effect, marvelous recognitions over large expanses of space and time, and an overall trajectory from woe to weal. But Shakespeare takes the romance material available to him in Robert Greene's Pandosto and separates it into the three dramatic genres that constituted an important new Renaissance form, the avant-garde Italian pastoral tragicomedy. The non-dramatic...
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SOURCE: “Engendering the Narrative Act: Old Wives' Tales in The Winter's Tale, Macbeth, and The Tempest,” in Criticism, Vol. XL, No. 4, Fall, 1998, pp. 529-53.
[In the following essay, Lamb analyzes the role of women's folk tales and their influence in The Winter's Tale, Macbeth, and The Tempest.]
As Macbeth stares in terror at Banquo's ghost during a banquet for the Scottish lords, Lady Macbeth contemptuously compares his hallucination to oral narratives circulated among women:
O proper stuff! This the very painting of your fear; This the air-drawn dagger which you said Led you to Duncan. O, these flaws and starts (Imposters to true fear) would well become A woman's story at a winter's fire, Authoriz’d by her grandam. Shame itself, Why do you make such faces?(1)
Framing her criticism with attacks against his masculinity—“Are you a man?” and “What, quite unmanned in folly?”—Lady Macbeth represents Macbeth's fearfulness as a degrading regression to the androgyny of childhood. Her anxious allusion to women's tales in this context suggests their continuing and threatening power, and the effeminizing attraction of the early bonds with women they signify. Paradoxically, Lady Macbeth's accusation becomes self-reflexive to the play which includes it. The “air-drawn dagger”...
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SOURCE: “Weeping in the Upper World: The Orphic Frame in 5.3 of The Winter's Tale and the Archive of Poetry,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1999, pp. 153-72.
[In the essay below, Crider contends that the “mythic” and “theatrical” readings of Hermione are not mutually exclusive—that Hermione can be read as being both “dead and alive”—and provides textual evidence for both readings by examining Ovid’s Metamorphoses.]
When there is poetry, it is Orpheus singing.
—Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus (1.5)
It is now a critical commonplace that Hermione is merely pretending to be a statue in the last act of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and that, as a consequence, there is no actual animation represented there. As Stephen Orgel explains in his introduction to the Oxford edition of the play, “Hermione is not, after all, a statue” (60). The evidence of the play, however, is rather less conclusive than Orgel's confidence would suggest. Using Jonathan Bate’s fine distinction in Shakespeare and Ovid, we can say that Orgel has decided against the “mythic” reading of the scene and in favor of the “theatrical”: A mythic reading would allow that, within the mimetic world of the play, Hermione is a statue and then becomes, in the...
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Bennett, Kenneth C. “Constructing The Winter's Tale.” Shakespeare Survey 46 (1993): 81-90.
Examines the relationship between unity and deconstruction in the play.
Cooley, Ronald W. “Speech Versus Spectacle: Autolycus, Class and Containment in The Winter's Tale.” Renaissance and Reformation 21, No. 3 (Summer 1997): 5-23.
Focuses on the character Autolycus as a representation of the Jacobeans and argues that through Autolycus, Shakespeare explores themes of social instability and assimilation.
Gallagher, Lowell. “‘This seal’d-up Oracle’: Ambivalent Nostalgia in The Winter's Tale.” Exemplaria 7, No. 2 (Fall 1995): 465-98.
Considers the concepts of nostalgia and belatedness as they relate to Leontes and Hermione.
Girard, René. “The Crime and Conversion of Leontes in The Winter's Tale.” Religion and Literature 22, Nos. 2-3 (Summer/Autumn 1990): 193-219.
Focuses on Leontes's transformation and argues that The Winter's Tale is Shakespeare's most moving play.
Horwitz, Eve. “‘The Truth of Your Own Seeming’: Women and Language in The Winter's Tale.” Unisa English Studies 26, No. 2 (September 1988): 7-14.
Considers language and time...
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