(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Winter's Tale

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.

Edward W. Tayler (essay date 1964)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.)

David McCandless (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Verily Bearing Blood’: Pornography, Sexual Love, and the Reclaimed Feminine in The Winter's Tale,” in Essays in Theatre, Vol. 9, No. 1, November, 1990, pp. 61-81.

[In the following essay, McCandless posits that Leontes's persecution of Hermione represents his attempt to cast away his source of sexual shame.]

Early in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Polixenes recalls the boyhood paradise he shared with Leontes and attributes its end to the intrusion of “blood”—here a synonym for man's “sensual, animal appetite” (OED 1: 929).

We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ th’
And bleat the one at...

(The entire section is 10227 words.)

M. Lindsay Kaplan and Katherine Eggert (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Good queen, my lord, good queen’: Sexual Slander and the Trials of Female Authority in The Winter's Tale,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. 25, 1994, pp. 89-118.

[In the following essay, Kaplan and Eggert examine The Winter's Tale's relation to questions of female sexuality and authority during Queen Elizabeth's reign.]

The legal history of early modern Englishwomen has not yet been written, though recent contributions suggest that scholars are beginning to rectify this oversight.1 One productive point of entry into this important field is presented by defamation, generally defined in early modern England as an injury inflicted by...

(The entire section is 12263 words.)

Lynn Enterline (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘You speak a language that I understand not’: The Rhetoric of Animation in The Winter's Tale,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 17-44.

[In the essay that follows, Enterline examines Shakespeare's interpretation of Ovidian and Petrarchan rhetoric as a means of discussing the role of power and the female voice in The Winter's Tale.]

Between Leontes's opening imperative, “Tongue-tied our queen? Speak you” (1.2.28), and the final act, where Hermione as living statue returns to her husband yet says nothing directly to him, The Winter's Tale traces a complex, fascinated, and uneasy relation to female...

(The entire section is 16233 words.)

William R. Morse (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Metacriticism and Materiality: The Case of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale,” in ELH, Vol. 58, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 283-304.

[In the essay below, Morse examines The Winter’s Tale in order to reveal the shortcomings of New Historical criticism, and finds the ideology of the New Historicist conception to be “simplistic” and “misconceived.”]

New Historical criticism of Renaissance literature over the past decade has not only effected a revolution in the way that critics read the literature and its relation to the culture that produces it, but has helped us to reconceive the nature of culture itself. Nevertheless, if the great...

(The entire section is 8677 words.)

Robert Henke (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Winter's Tale and Guarinian Dramaturgy,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 197-217.

[In the essay below, Henke examines the relationship between Battista Guarini's tragicomic theory and Shakespeare's drama, particularly focusing on The Winter's Tale.]

Genre concepts significantly affect our understanding of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. The play not only repeatedly calls attention to itself as fiction, but its tripartite tragical-pastoral-comical arrangement focuses our attention on three important dramatic genres of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and the dialogic relationships between them. In...

(The entire section is 8677 words.)

Mary Ellen Lamb (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Engendering the Narrative Act: Old Wives' Tales in The Winter's Tale, Macbeth, and The Tempest,” in Criticism, Vol. XL, No. 4, Fall, 1998, pp. 529-53.

[In the following essay, Lamb analyzes the role of women's folk tales and their influence in The Winter's Tale, Macbeth, and The Tempest.]

As Macbeth stares in terror at Banquo's ghost during a banquet for the Scottish lords, Lady Macbeth contemptuously compares his hallucination to oral narratives circulated among women:

                                                            O proper stuff!
This the very painting of your fear;
This the air-drawn dagger which you...

(The entire section is 10254 words.)

Scott F. Crider (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Weeping in the Upper World: The Orphic Frame in 5.3 of The Winter's Tale and the Archive of Poetry,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1999, pp. 153-72.

[In the essay below, Crider contends that the “mythic” and “theatrical” readings of Hermione are not mutually exclusive—that Hermione can be read as being both “dead and alive”—and provides textual evidence for both readings by examining Ovid’s Metamorphoses.]

When there is poetry,
it is Orpheus singing.

—Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus (1.5)

It is...

(The entire section is 9905 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Bennett, Kenneth C. “Constructing The Winter's Tale.Shakespeare Survey 46 (1993): 81-90.

Examines the relationship between unity and deconstruction in the play.

Cooley, Ronald W. “Speech Versus Spectacle: Autolycus, Class and Containment in The Winter's Tale.Renaissance and Reformation 21, No. 3 (Summer 1997): 5-23.

Focuses on the character Autolycus as a representation of the Jacobeans and argues that through Autolycus, Shakespeare explores themes of social instability and assimilation.

Gallagher, Lowell. “‘This seal’d-up Oracle’: Ambivalent Nostalgia...

(The entire section is 414 words.)