The Winter's Tale
One of Shakespeare's last plays, The Winter's Tale is considered a tragicomedy because of its two part structure—the first three acts contain elements of tragedy, while the pastoral fourth and fifth acts contain elements of comedy. The play is characterized by several improbable events, including Leontes's sudden outburst of jealousy and the amazing restoration of Hermione sixteen years after her apparent death. Modern commentators continue to examine Leontes's behavior, attempting in a variety of ways to account for his seemingly irrational jealousy. Critics also study the play’s religious themes, finding religious implications in Hermione's resurrection. Additionally, scholars continue to analyze the play’s dramatic structure; some find the two-part structure awkward, while others see it as successful and innovative. The play’s transition from tragedy to comedy is also a concern for modern stagings of the play.
It has been argued that Leontes's jealousy—apparently resulting from Hermione's successful coaxing of her husband's childhood friend, Polixenes, to extend his visit in Sicilia—erupts suddenly and without provocation. Although this view is not uncommon among critics and audiences alike, some scholars believe that Leontes's jealousy can be traced to factors present at the beginning of the play. John P. Cutts (1968) contends that Leontes suffers from a “boy eternal” complex, evident from the very start of the play, which causes him to relate to those close to him—including his wife, his son, and his friend—in terms of the past. The critic argues that this complex explains Leontes's apparently sudden onset of jealousy, and finds that when Polixenes responds to Hermione's coaxing instead of his own, Leontes feels an unbearable sense of displacement as well as inadequacy. Similarly, Wilbur Sanders (1987) identifies factors that preface Leontes's jealousy, including the social embarrassment it is likely that both kings feel in discussing the extension of Polixenes's visit. The critic notes that although they were boyhood friends, the two men in all likelihood no longer know each other well since their only encounters for decades has been through their attorneys. Sanders concludes that “Leontes' jealousy is not ‘causeless’, any more than it is justified.”
At the conclusion of The Winter's Tale, Hermione is presented as a statue to the court, then “magically” comes to life and walks down off her pedestal. This apparent resurrection has led some critics to study the religious elements of the play. Walter S. H. Lim (2001) finds both mythic and biblical sources for such a resurrection account, and notes that the animation of Hermione's statue, accompanied by the language of religious belief throughout the scene, reveals conflicting attitudes toward the icon and icon worship in Reformation and Catholic thought. Lim contends that Shakespeare questioned the foundation on which religious claims to truth and knowledge were built by refusing to grant the dogma of either religion the final say on Hermione's resurrection. François Laroque (1982) takes another approach to the play's treatment of religious elements, identifying correlations between the play and the cycles of the year in their pagan, Christian, and folkloric contexts. Laroque finds references to pagan ritual in the first half of the play, and points to seasonal rituals of rebirth in the play's pastoral scenes, as well as various allusions to the English Church year.
The way in which The Winter's Tale combines tragedy and comedy is a source of much critical analyses. Mary Pollingue Nichols (1981) maintains that the genres of tragedy and comedy are not given equal weight in The Winter's Tale. Nichols claims that comedy reigns over tragedy in that the play stresses the individual, rather than the universal nature of the tragic condition. Nichols additionally points out that despite the inequality of the mix, the play does not lose its sense of unity. Theresa M. Krier (see Further Reading) contends the play's tragic and comic elements are deliberately presented as a paradox of two supposedly incompatible genres that in reality exist side by side. Krier also explores the way in which time functions in relation to the two genres, demonstrating that the disparate views of time seen in the two parts of the play are eventually reconciled in the resurrection scene. While Krier believes that the play consists of two genres joined together, Joan Hartwig (see Further Reading) maintains that the that play is less a linkage than a “tragicomic blend.” Hartwig demonstrates how relationships within the play mediate its tragic and comic elements. For example, the relationship between Leontes and Paulina, Hartwig explains, is in part exploited (despite the tragic circumstances) as the stock comic situation of tyrant versus shrew, which allows some sympathy for Leontes so that he may be embraced in the play's comic resolution.
The structure of The Winter's Tale offers a number of challenges to modern stagings of the play. For example, in reviewing the Public Theater's production of the play directed by Brian Kulick, Charles Isherwood (2000) observes that the production, while smoothly staged and relatively competent, did not completely succeed in handling the play's transition from tragedy to pastoral comedy. Isherwood additionally finds fault with the performances of the actors playing the parts of Leontes and Perdita. Similarly, Matt Wolf (2001) finds that the successfully staged second half of the Royal National Theater's production of The Winter's Tale, directed by Nicholas Hytner, did not compensate fully for the lackluster beginning.