Study Guide

The Winter's Tale

by William Shakespeare

The Winter's Tale Themes

Themes

Pastoral Elements
A pastoral is a poem or play dealing with shepherds and rural life. Within the conventional treatment of pastoral themes, this rural way of life is idealized. In The Winter's Tale, the pastoral scenes, or "pastoral interlude" as it is often referred to, begins in Act III, scene iii, when the action of the play shifts from Sicilia to Bohemia. In Act IV, which begins with Time announcing that sixteen years have passed, the interlude continues through the last scene of this act. With the passage of time and the movement from the Sicilian court to the Bohemian countryside, comes a movement from the tragedy of the first three acts to comedy. The lightness of comedy reaches into the play's final act, in which the pastoral characters journey to the Sicilian court. The pastoral scenes, with their rustic figures, festival, singing and dancing, serve as a sharp contrast to the more somber and cold world of the Sicilian court. Despite this contrast, the pastoral world is not free from the darkness that looms over the courtly world in Sicilia. Commentary on the pastoral scenes focuses heavily on the fact that, unlike the conventional pastoral, Shakespeare's pastoral is not completely idyllic. In the pastoral world, a terrible storm threatens as Antigonus arrives in Bohemia with the baby Perdita. Before Antigonus can escape to his ship, he is chased and later devoured by a bear. Polixenes's angry outburst in Act IV, scene iv, is also cited as another indication that all is not ideal in this pastoral setting, especially since his rage is reminiscent of Leontes's wrath against his wife. Leontes's anger, it will be remembered, sets into motion the events causing the abandonment of the baby Perdita, the death of Mamillius, and the presumed death of Hermione. Other elements in the pastoral scene which tarnish the idealism of the pastoral vision include the suggestion that perhaps the old shepherd who raised Perdita is motivated by greed, the hint that Perdita and Florizel are on the verge of losing their innocence, and the presence at the sheep shearing festival of the thieving Autolycus, as well as that of Camillo and Polixenes, royal individuals foreign to the pastoral setting.

Despite such aspects darkening the lightness of the pastoral interlude, many commentators have noted how the pastoral setting and characters nevertheless engender a feeling of hopefulness. Perdita, some have observed, is portrayed as an idealized pastoral figure, and in her attitude toward life, she helps the audience to embrace the view of time that Shakespeare presents. (Some critics see Shakespeare's view of time as eroding and destructive, in that it moves persistently forward. Others note that it is only after the passage of time—sixteen years—that healing and reconciliation occur in this play.) Additionally, Perdita and the pastoral scenes themselves celebrate the possibility of familial and societal restoration. Perdita is a pastoral figure though of noble birth, and through her return families and friends are reunited and reconciled.

Art and Nature
The debate between art and nature was a common one in Shakespeare's time and in fact had been argued since antiquity. Within this debate, art is understood to be the applying of human intervention, imagination, or knowledge to what nature has created. The central issue is whether or not art can or should perfect nature. Can art make what is natural appear to be more natural? A common point brought up in early debates and relevant today is the notion of using cosmetics to achieve a "natural," fresh look by hiding one's natural imperfections. In two scenes in particular in The Winter's Tale, this debate is taken up once again. The first scene is Act IV, scene iv, in which Perdita and a disguised Polixenes analyze the practice of crossbreeding of flowers. The statue scene, Act V, scene iii, in which a statue of Hermione is revealed to be Hermione herself, is the other scene in which this debate is revisited. Critical commentary on these scenes...

(The entire section is 1656 words.)