The Winter’s Tale
One of Shakespeare’s last plays, this work has the wisdom of age. The play’s first half is wintry, with harsh, violent actions bringing about suffering, loss, and death. The second half, sixteen years later, offers a rural springtime festival and culminates in a moving, unsuspected bestowal of grace.
Like Shakespeare’s earlier tragic hero Othello, Leontes becomes insanely jealous of a chaste wife, but Leontes’ jealousy is far more sudden and unsubstantiated, so that Shakespeare can focus on its results: Leontes’ loss of wife, children, and friends. Unlike Othello, Leontes lives on, in penitence.
The first half, nevertheless, ends in hope, for the baby daughter he had sought to abandon is taken in by an old shepherd. Sixteen years later, she is being courted by a disguised prince, son of Polixenes, whom Leontes had accused of adultery with his wife. Polixenes’ rash outrage at discovering that his son’s beloved is a commoner echoes Leontes’ earlier foolishness. Thanks to two faithful courtiers, however, all is made right by the end. Leontes, Polixenes, and their children are reunited, and even Leontes’ wife Hermione, presumed dead, is restored to him in the magical final scene.
This is one of the most beautiful endings in Shakespeare and shows a move beyond his earlier bleak, despairing tragedies, HAMLET, OTHELLO, and KING LEAR, into a true spirit of rebirth. Perhaps not coincidentally, the three principal women in this play are among Shakespeare’s most sublime creations.
Lloyd Evans, Gareth. The Upstart Crow: An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plays. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1982. A comprehensive treatment of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare, with major emphasis on critical reviews of the plays. Also discusses the sources from which Shakespeare drew and circumstances surrounding the writing of the plays.
Muir, Kenneth, ed. Shakespeare—The Comedies: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. An anthology of essays by a variety of authors, discussing Shakespeare’s comedies from various points of view. Derek Traversi’s treatment of The Winter’s Tale is mainly concerned with the later scenes of the play and includes an intensive discussion of the characters’ motivations.
Overton, Bill. The Winter’s Tale. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1989. A critical evaluation of Shakespeare’s play from a wide variety of points of view, including Marxism, feminism, and psychoanalysis. Also discusses previous critical studies of the play.
Sanders, Wilbur. The Winter’s Tale. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A thorough critical evaluation of the play. Also includes information on the work’s stage history and original reception by critics. Sanders also discusses the psychological factors of the play and the use of language.
Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Edited by J. H. P. Pafford. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. A new edition of the play, containing more than eighty pages of introductory notes and twenty pages of appendices. Discusses the sources, the text itself, and the music and songs. Also includes an extensive critical evaluation of the play.