The Winter's Tale (Vol. 81)


The Winter's Tale

Although The Winter's Tale (ca. 1609) is generally classified as a romance, many critics view the play as a tragicomedy because of its two-part structure. The first part of the play, featuring the onset of Leontes's jealousy over his wife's relationship with his friend Polixenes, her subsequent public trial and humiliation, and the death of their son, includes elements common in Shakespearean tragedy. The second part of the work, however, with its pastoral setting and eventual happy ending, includes elements of comedy. The main source for The Winter's Tale is Robert Greene's novel Pandosto (1588), a tale of the destructive jealousy of the King of Bohemia ending in the deaths of his wife and infant son. Although he followed some of the details of his source very closely, Shakespeare drastically changed the ending of his version, eventually uniting Leontes with his wife and banished daughter. Although some critics have dismissed The Winter's Tale as a dramatic failure, criticizing the play for it's thematic improbabilities and uneven structure, most modern scholars view the play as one of Shakespeare's most profoundly human dramas, as well as an example of Shakespeare's continuing development as an experimental dramatist. Scholars continue to analyze the play's dramatic structure, genre, and the enigmatic character of Leontes, attempting in a variety of ways to account for his seemingly irrational jealousy.

Character-based study of The Winter's Tale has primarily focused on Leontes. The King initiates the action in the play by his seemingly sudden outburst of jealousy, and this change in character has prompted much critical debate about the plausibility of the play's action. While many critics in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries regarded Leontes's behavior as unrealistic and unexplainable, modern critics have attempted to find clues to Leontes's state of mind prior to his outburst in the beginning of the play. Roger J. Trienens (1953) contends that the character is beset with feelings of distrust from the very beginning of the play, and that his invitation to Polixenes to extend his visit is merely “the device of jealousy seeking proof.” Richard H. Abrams (1986) also examines the source of Leontes's jealousy. Abrams notes that “[u]nder the spell of jealousy, Leontes is changed. His good angel, reason, abandons him, and the tempter, imagination, does his thinking for him.” Leontes's characterization is often contrasted with that of his wife Hermione, who according to Wilbur Sanders (1987), rescues the play from a descent into utter failure. Sanders is appreciative of Hermione's serenity and calm in the face of terrifying accusations, noting that it is her presence that lends grace to the play despite Shakespeare's dramatic lapses.

Although popular in Shakespeare's day, The Winter's Tale has been less well-received in modern times. The play's structural irregularities has made The Winter's Tale a challenge for producers, directors, and actors alike. Many reviewers have noted that while the work is full of powerful characters and emotions, its two-part structure, which changes from tragedy to comedy, makes it difficult for actors to portray their characters in a believable manner. Michael Feingold, (see Further Reading) reviewing Brian Kulick's 2000 production of The Winter's Tale at the Delacorte Theatre in New York City, contends that although Kulick did an admirable job of creating a somber stage, his actors were unable to tap into the “inner life” of their characters, thus taking much of the passion out of a play that depends on the power of human emotion to overcome its dramatic challenges. Reviewing Barry Edelstein's 2002 Classic Stage Company production, Charles Isherwood (2003) acknowledges the difficulty faced by Edelstein in directing a modern-day production of this play, but notes that the performance suffered not from the efforts to reconcile the two worlds, but from the lackluster acting of the cast. In a complementary assessment of the same production, Charles McNulty (2003) claims that while Edelstein's modernistic staging of the play was elegant and unhurried, the acting failed to display authentic emotion, leaving the audience unable to connect to the far-fetched story. In contrast, Nina daVinci Nichols (see Further Reading) praises Edelstein's production, particularly John Strathairn's powerful and subdued rendering of Leontes's character. The fantastic elements of The Winter's Tale allow for innovative interpretation, such as Mathew Warchus's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production, which took place in a modern American setting. Reviewer Kenneth Tucker (see Further Reading) praises Warchus's imaginative use of twentieth-century parallelisms in the production, noting that despite occasional lapses, the production commanded the audience's attention.

Late-twentieth-century criticism of The Winter's Tale has focused heavily on its dramaturgy and structure. Critics such as Peter G. Platt (1997) regard the contrasting action of the play as a symbolic device used by Shakespeare to convey the oppositional nature of rationality and wonder. Platt contends that the first part of the play, with its focus on logic and facts, reveals the ultimate absurdity of speech and meaning when interpreted using only rationality and logic. Platt examines Leontes's misguided attempts at reason and rationality, which lead him to make misguided decisions. The second part of the play, focusing on the more romantic elements of the story, including a reconciliation based on grace and forgiveness, highlights the power of wonder and emotion. Other critics, such as Martine Van Elk (2000), have studied The Winter's Tale as an example of a play that clearly reflects the social and cultural concerns of contemporary Jacobean society, especially in regard to class and gender. Elk contends that the language of the play is a key indicator of how Jacobeans viewed issues of social mobility and identity, and proposes that the play “explores the contradictory constructions of class and gender that emerged from the Stuart court and the courtesy literature of its day.” In his critique of The Winter's Tale, Jerry H. Bryant (1963) places the play within the English pastoral tradition, and examines Shakespeare's transformation of the stereotypical elements of the pastoral style to create a tale that is “an involved and subtle commentary on appearance and reality.” In contrast, Joan Hartwig (1970) places The Winter's Tale in the realm of tragicomedy, arguing that the play ultimately demonstrates the benevolence of the power that controls the universe. Despite Leontes's seemingly unpardonable behavior, Hartwig maintains that his ultimate repentance and reunion with Hermione is characteristic of Shakespeare's tragicomic perspective, forcing the audience and readers to suspend rational judgment in favor of appreciating the wonder of humanity.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Jerry H. Bryant (essay date autumn 1963)

SOURCE: Bryant, Jerry H. “The Winter's Tale and the Pastoral Tradition.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 4 (autumn 1963): 387-98.

[In the following essay, Bryant places The Winter's Tale within the English pastoral tradition, and examines Shakespeare's transformation of the stereotypical elements of the pastoral style to create a tale that is “an involved and subtle commentary on appearance and reality.”]

It is curious that no appraiser or appreciator seems to have puzzled over the kinship of The Winter's Tale with the pastoral tradition. Most commentators tacitly assume the connection, then abandon it to court other features. Some explain...

(The entire section is 6461 words.)

Joan Hartwig (essay date March 1970)

SOURCE: Hartwig, Joan. “The Tragicomic Perspective of The Winter's Tale.ELH 37, no. 1 (March 1970): 12-36.

[In the following essay, Hartwig proposes that in The Winter's Tale Shakespeare used a miraculous resolution to create a sense of dislocation and wonder in his audience, using Leontes's penitence and eventual recovery of Hermione as a way to stress the benevolence of the power that controls universe.]

In The Winter's Tale, Leontes, confronted with the breathing statue which is Hermione, pleads to keep this moment which is penultimate to actual discovery. Paulina, aware of the intensity with which Leontes has responded to the apparent...

(The entire section is 10013 words.)