The Winter's Tale
In 1672, John Dryden considered The Winter's Tale, along with Measure for Measure and Love's Labour's Lost, to be "grounded on impossibilities, or at least, so meanly written, that the Comedy neither caus'd your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment." Such an opinion typifies the history of ambivalence toward The Winter's Tale. Since its first performance critics have been perplexed by the play's disparate elements. Among other things, The Winter's Tale offends against classical standards of dramatic unity and genre, mixing tragedy and comedy and leaving a sixteen-year lapse in the action. Additionally, it presents the audience with an incredible plot, which includes the sudden restoration of Hermione after her long absence, and the survival of Perdita and her eventual union with the son of her father's former best friend. It also engages in historical and geographical confusion, giving landlocked Bohemia a coastline and bringing together an ancient Greek oracle with the Emperor of Russia, among others.
Although The Winter's Tale has generally confounded its audience, recently a number, of critics have tried to discover meaning in the play's disorder, particularly by analyzing Shakespeare's use of dreams. Scholars such as Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Julie Burton (1988) provide the groundwork for such a discussion by examining Shakespeare's source materials, including the literature of ancient Greece and Rome (particularly Ovid) and traditional English folklore. Insight into the operations of dream work in the play has provided critics new avenues of interpretation. For example, while those working against a Christian background have found little reason for Leontes' outbursts, recent explorations, particularly by Garber, have contended that Leontes subconsciously substitutes his dreaming for reality in an effort to vent his latent propensity for sexual jealousy. Kay Stockholder (1987) claims that Leontes isolates himself through his dreaming in order to idealize his surroundings and rescue himself from his destructive passions. She cites Leontes' redemption and his incredible reunion with Hermione to be a dream-like resolution. For Ruth Nevo (1987), the play's dreaming instructs Leontes and the audience that regret is not enough to regenerate the past unless it is infused with a transcendence of this isolation. The return of Hermione is brought about paradoxically by both overcoming the self-involvement of dreaming and accepting the possibility of dream-like metamorphoses: "It is required / You do awake your faith" (The Winter's Tale, Act 5, Scene 3).
Reinforcing the centrality of dreaming to the play's narrative is Shakespeare's use of time. According to critics such as Stanton B. Garner, Jr. (1989), dramatic tensions arise from the nostalgic recollections of the past coming into conflict with an imaginary network of present events. In this interpretation, Leontes' jealousy is jarring primarily because of its coming into conflict with the idyllic picture of his childhood friendship with Polixenes. Leontes' reunion with Hermione marks the overcoming of loss by the overcoming of time. According to Garner, "the harsh line between past and present blurs, shading the memorial presence of the statue into the living presence of Hermione." For Nevo, the severance of the play by a sixteen-year gap in time provides a structure of duplications in which events of the first part are repeated in the second part, when jealousy and fear of usurpation are reenacted—with Polixenes for Leontes, Florizel for Polixenes, and Perdita for Hermione. Humanity's tragic folly is iterated in the later events of the play, marking a shift in emphasis in Shakespeare's late romances. As David Bevington (1988) notes, although the return to an idyllic countryside is reminiscent of Shakespeare's comedies, in The Winter's Tale "the restoration is at once more urgently needed and more miraculous than in the 'festive' world of early comedy." So, while the structure and characterization of The Winter's Tale have historically troubled its audience, recent critical approaches have appealed to Shakespeare's use of dreams and manipulation of time in an effort to understand the actions of Leontes, to analyze the dramatic tensions, and to relate the play's tragic and comic elements.