Study Guide

The Winter's Tale

by William Shakespeare

The Winter's Tale Essay - The Winter's Tale (Vol. 57)

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

Edward W. Tayler (essay date 1964)

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...

(The entire section is 7119 words.)

Russ McDonald (essay date 1985)

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,”...

(The entire section is 8131 words.)