(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bieman, Elizabeth. “‘By law and process of great nature … free'd’: The Winter's Tale.” In William Shakespeare: The Romances, pp. 66-89. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

[In the following essay, Bieman discusses The Winter's Tale's composition date and textual issues, provides an overview of its plot, language, themes, and characters, and argues that the play adapts the romance genre in order to emphasize its realism.]

Just as all of the Romances move beyond the toughness of the tragedies without leaving tragic potentialities behind, so each Romance reaches beyond its predecessor in certain ways. If we see in Pericles a skeletal paradigm of the unrealistic conventions of romance and Cymbeline fleshing the skeleton out with every narrative and dramatic trick at Shakespeare's command, we are prepared to see The Winter's Tale modifying the genre in the direction of realism.1

The dramatic worlds of Sicilia and Bohemia, and the seas between, may seem more remote geographically than the ancient Britain of Cymbeline's main plot and may seem, like Pericles, to participate temporally in the ancient Mediterranean cultures that appealed for aid and guidance to Olympian deities. But several factors help situate this play in the England of its early audiences: a court concerned with problems of succession, a rural sheep-shearing festival at which common English flowers are distributed (to characters bearing Greek names, of course), and the rogue Autolycus (named from Homer) flaunting the tricks of a petty offender of the Elizabethan underworld.2 It relates further to the audience's world in the universal evocations of its ritualistic plot and by the richly ambiguous language that lends some verisimilitude to the psychological outlines of its characters.

We find many elements shared among the first three Romances beyond the generic similarities they exhibit.3The Winter's Tale shares with Pericles a structural break in the passage of many years between those dramatic events in which problems are established and those in which they are resolved. Both, in short, are clearly tragicomedies, hinged quite obviously in the middle.

But they differ in some of their structural effects. The linear and episodic plot of Pericles divides in two readily at Gower's prologue to act 4; similarly, The Winter's Tale can be divided in two, whether at the stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” that presages the last death in the story; at the old shepherd's words, “Now bless thyself: thou mett'st with things dying, I with things new-born”; or at the choral speech of Time that in position (the opening of act 4) parallels precisely Gower's overarching narrative in the earlier play. But the plot of The Winter's Tale is far less linear in effect than that of Pericles. As the action of the Tale moves from Sicilia to Bohemia and back to the Sicilia, the plot folds back upon itself in ways that can be compared either to the closing up of a diptych or to a cycle reverting in mythic and Neoplatonic fashion back to its beginning.4

The Tale shares with Cymbeline (and with Othello) the motif of furious jealousy in a husband convinced that his innocent wife is unfaithful. With Pericles and Cymbeline it shares the motif of a lost (or absent) daughter restored to her father as an agent in his transformation; an emphasis on magic; the theme of the otherwise good subordinate commanded to perform an evil action; doubling of characters; ritualistic effects; and, overwhelmingly, the sense of some transcendent power shaping the potentially or actually tragic elements into an overarching comic design. In The Winter's Tale, however, the help that providential power derives from a human agent takes on a new coloration in Paulina, who anticipates something found later in Prospero.


The Winter's Tale was probably written in 1611, either concurrently with final touches on Cymbeline or soon after. Certainly the first recorded performance was at the Globe theater in May of that year, a month after a performance of Cymbeline. We have only the Folio text of 1623 for The Winter's Tale. When the plays were being performed frequently by the King's Men, there was no economic reason to print them for the public and many reasons to withhold them from rival companies. The text, a good one, seems to have been transcribed and then printed from Shakespeare's own working papers. Those places where the language is most garbled (as in act 1, scene 2, 137-46) work so well dramatically that there is no reason to blame obscurity on problems of transmission, as there so often is in the text of Pericles.5

The main source for The Winter's Tale is Robert Greene's prose romance Pandosto, published first around 1588—one of the many pieces of prose fiction that entertained members of Shakespeare's audiences when they were not in the theaters. Although he changed the names of most of the characters (Pandosto become Leontes; Bellaria, Hermione; Egistus, Polixenes; Fawnia, Perdita; and so on), Shakespeare followed so many of the details of Greene's text that the major changes he did choose to make are often worth noting. The most striking change was to transform a tragic narrative of jealousy, remorse, and divine retribution into a tragicomic drama with a self-proclaimedly happy ending. Greene's Queen Bellaria does actually die, along with her young son; after the lost daughter, Fawnia, returns to remind Pandosto of his injustice, the king kills himself. To know this is to take Leontes' guilt and repentance seriously, as Shakespeare surely did, but to see the restoration of happiness and order in the play (however qualified by the irreversible deaths of Mamillius and Antigonus) in a very positive light. This, the third of the Romances, would convince any contemporary, who would know his Greene the way we know the best-sellers or television series of recent decades, that Shakespeare was deliberately making new and happier patterns out of old and would set them to pondering the transformations.

The story of The Winter's Tale is not as complex as that of Cymbeline. Since complexity of language does so much to carry the plot forward, it will be interesting to compare the bare story with the closer analysis of the second scene that will open further discussions.



Camillo and Archidamus, lords, respectively, of Sicilia and Bohemia, discuss the current visit of Polixenes, king of Bohemia, to the court of Leontes of Sicilia. They note the brotherly affection between the kings, forged in shared experiences in childhood. They indicate that Sicilia's hospitality is richer than that Bohemia will be able to offer in return when Leontes and his companions return the visit. In the second scene, Polixenes announces his departure after a visit of nine months, resisting repeated requests from Leontes that he stay. Leontes commands his queen, Hermione, to further his efforts. When her entreaties succeed, Leontes grows suspicious that he is being betrayed by guest and wife. He raves in innuendo to his son, Mamillius, and in direct accusation to a courtier, Camillo, who staunchly defends the queen's virtue. Leontes orders Camillo to poison Polixenes; instead Camillo warns him and flees with him to Bohemia.


Hermione, tired in her late pregnancy, calls for her ladies to amuse Mamillius. The boy shows precocity and a sense of royal command in banter with them. His mother soon joins in the amusement. Leontes, his rage heightened by the flight of Polixenes and Camillo, enters, accuses Hermione directly of adultery, and, dismissing her gentle but firm denials, orders her to prison. His attendant lords, including Antigonus, protest. Leontes announces that to confirm his accusations he has sent messengers to the oracle at Delphi.

Paulina, Antigonus's wife, visits the prison where Hermione has just given birth to a daughter. Seeking to soften the king, Paulina takes the child into his presence. Raging—both at Paulina, the “mankind witch” who dares thus to confront him, and at the “bastard” he takes the child to be—Leontes first threatens to burn both mother and child and then orders Antigonus to expose the babe in “some remote and desert place quite out / Of our dominions.”


Leontes' messengers describe the sweet climate at Delphos and pray to Apollo to “turn all to the best.”

At court, Leontes formally charges Hermione with infidelity. Denying the charge without hope that she will be believed, and ready to die, she calls on “powers divine” to defend her woman's honor—a “derivative from me to mine,” her children. The messengers arrive with the oracle's defense of Hermione's chastity and its prediction that “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” Leontes rejects the message as untrue; immediately the news arrives that Mamillius has died. Leontes immediately sees this as Apollo's anger at his “injustice”; Hermione swoons and is carried offstage; Leontes plans reconciliation with those he has wronged; Paulina returns to report Hermione's death; Leontes vows prayers of repentance as his daily “recreation.”

On a far shore in Bohemia, Antigonus has landed with the baby. In a dream, Hermione has asked that he call the child Perdita, she who has been lost, and has told him that he will never see his wife again. Setting the baby down, Antigonus “exit[s], pursued by a bear.” An old shepherd and his son, a “clown,” enter describing the death of Antigonus and the loss by storm of all mariners aboard the ship that carried him. They find the babe along with much gold and rejoice in their good fortune. Her name, Perdita, is conveyed in an attached note.


Time, as chorus, spans the sixteen years that have passed between acts 3 and 4. Leontes has suffered overwhelming guilt, while far away Perdita has “grown in grace / Equal with wond'ring” at the comfortable rural home of her foster father, the old shepherd.

At the court of Bohemia, another scene of parting and remonstrance unfolds: Camillo tells Polixenes he has been summoned to Sicilia by the repentant Leontes but agrees to stay a little longer. They discuss rumors that the beautiful daughter of an affluent shepherd has engaged the affections of the young prince, Florizel.

Out on a footpath in Bohemia, the “rogue” Autolycus sings cheery, ribald songs. He meets the clown who has been sent to purchase supplies for the festival of sheep shearing and picks his pocket, allaying suspicion by complaining of having been robbed of his own fine clothes by a notorious rascal, “Autolycus.”

Mistress of the festivities at the sheep shearing, Perdita is wooed by Florizel, disguised as the gentle rustic, Doricles. Polixenes and Camillo, also disguised, are welcomed by Perdita. They prompt Florizel to confess that he is hiding his love for Perdita from his father. Polixenes unmasks and angrily forbids the match. Camillo suggests that Florizel and Perdita seek refuge in Sicilia with Leontes, who will assuredly welcome them. Autolycus, in the guise of a peddler, enters and sings more of his happy, ribald songs. He exchanges clothing with Florizel to aid the lovers' escape. Camillo muses that he will tell Polixenes of the flight to draw him to Sicilia and advance his own reconciliation with Leontes.


In Sicilia, Cleomenes pleads with Leontes to forgive himself—his long years of penance have more than “paid down” his trespasses. Leontes, remembering Hermione with longing, cannot forget his guilt. While others ask him to marry again, Paulina continues to reproach him and exacts the promise that he will not marry without her leave. Florizel and Perdita enter, closely followed by the news that Polixenes is approaching. Florizel laments that Camillo has betrayed them. Touched by the lovers' fresh beauty and mutual love, Leontes resists Polixenes' letter asking that he arrest Florizel and promises to intercede for them.

Three gentlemen in conversation describe the scene of tearful wonder that ensued when Perdita's true identity was revealed by the old shepherd and clown who, through the action of Autolycus, had followed the lovers to Sicilia. The oracle has been fulfilled. Polixenes has forgiven Leontes and blessed the union of the prince and princess. The gentlemen tell also of Paulina's mixed emotions when the prevailing joy coincided with the confirmation of her husband's death. The shepherd and his son, now enriched by royal favor, encounter Autolycus, who thinks it prudent to promise to mend his ways.

The court assembles on Paulina's invitation to view a statue of Hermione, which, she says, she has had the noted Julio Romano execute for her.6 Perdita kneels before the lifelike “lady” to implore a blessing. Paulina prolongs the marveling suspense, forbidding Perdita and Leontes to touch the work of art but offering to make the statue move. Before Hermione (for it is she) descends from her pedestal to harmonious music to embrace Leontes, Paulina protests that her “magic” is “lawful.” Happy reunions ensue—wife with husband, mother with child. Hermione says her oracle-based hope of seeing Perdita again preserved her life. Paulina proposes now to withdraw to grieve for her own continuing loss; instead she is matched by command of the grateful Leontes with Camillo, “an honourable husband.” Paulina leads them out, in order, to tell their several stories of events in “this wide gap of time.”


As in life, so in this fiction, the necessity for each to tell a personal story in the hearing of others arises because the tales we tell ourselves of the events in which we participate rarely coincide with the way other participants understand the same events. One way of interpreting the fall that closed the gates of Eden to all children of Adam and Eve makes it a fall into alienation—not just from the God we cannot see again walking in the garden but also from the God we encounter in human relationship whenever we are truly united with others in love. Fallen human souls, enclosed in mortal bodies and bone-hard heads, enclosed in barriers of self, must work hard at interpreting words and events if the alienation that pushes us toward tragedy is to be overcome. But fallen human souls, and flawed minds, need help against the evil forces that prevail in the world of tragedy. The help offered by the deus ex machina in the first two Romances takes an interesting turn in this play—but that insight will be developed later.

Meanwhile, we see that the second long scene reflects “realistically” the inevitable problems raised by human language. The ease with which the lines between truth and falsity can blur is demonstrated here: as we participate imaginatively in the dramatic fiction we sense something of the dangers we all face in human communication. We sense also, through symbolic and mythic reverberations of the language, the outlines of the great changes in human life with which the play ultimately concerns itself.

When Polixenes announces his departure after “nine changes of the watery star,” his phrase signifies to us openly the span of his absence from Bohemia, but as the scene unfolds we find, in retrospect, that the words can reinforce Leontes' suspicions; the visit has been just long enough to match the span of human gestation. The language readily transfers itself to notions of the inconstancy of woman. The interplay between an innocent phrase and the guilt it can bespeak to a suspicious ear typifies the opposition between innocence and sin that runs as motif throughout the scene.

While Hermione is urging their guest to stay, Leontes is ostensibly deep in private thought. But what he can overhear, in snatches and out of context, while Hermione and Polixenes talk lightly of the past will signify to him something very different from what is intended by the speakers.

Take Polixenes' memories, for instance: “We were … two lads that thought … to be boy eternal … twinn'd lambs that chang'd innocence for innocence” and “knew not the doctrine of ill-doing” (1.2.63-70). In his memory, the innocence of youth, the high idealism of the puer aeternus, is unqualified. Hermione's lighthearted response, “By this we gather / You have tripp'd since,” does indicate awareness of the “doctrine of ill-doing” but no personal guilt on her part. This is the sort of social games playing her husband's rebuke for her silence has encouraged. Polixenes' rejoinder edges toward guilty ambiguity, especially to a listener already as prone to suspicion as Leontes:

                                                                                          O my most sacred lady,
Temptations have since then been born to's: for
In those unfledg'd days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had not then cross'd the eyes
Of my young playfellow.


The image of boy twins, exchanging innocence freely, darkens when temptation is equated to the female persons of the two wives. “Exchanging” becomes in this context explosive. The fuse is lit by Hermione's still “innocent” banter:

Of this make no conclusion, lest you say
Your queen and I are devils. Yet go on;
Th'offences we have made you do we'll answer,
If you first sinn'd with us, and …
                                                                                                                        … not
With any but with us.


The plural pronouns lay the words wide open: as they blur the demarcations between two husbands and two wives it would be hard to prove that the syntax signifies parallels, not crossovers.

Few readers suspect Hermione as Leontes comes to do,7 but few noticing these ambiguities would agree that Leontes' malignity is as totally unmotivated as that of Iago when he insinuates a similar malignity into the hitherto trusting soul of Othello. There is no doubt that the word structures lend themselves as readily to the dark interpretation Leontes comes to favor as to the truth and fidelity we as audience and readers locate in Hermione.

“A lady's Verily's / As potent as a lord's,” Hermione protests when Polixenes says “verily” he “may not” stay. Here, too, playful language develops ambiguous reverberations. She who has just been addressed as “most sacred lady,” a phrase that elevates her almost to the status of the Virgin Mary, is suggesting a relativity in truth that enables it to be claimed by opposing forces. With three repetitions of “verily” outweighing Polixenes' one, she prevails, but the victory is one of social grace, not of ultimate truth.

I turn now to the ambiguous word grace, which Hermione first uses in the sense I have just demonstrated. With “Grace to Boot!” (1.2.80) she applauds one of Polixenes' courtly compliments. She uses it playfully again to Leontes of an as yet undefined “good deed” she has done by speaking “to th' purpose,” but when she finds that the deed was her acceptance of his offer of marriage, the tone deepens: “Tis Grace indeed.”

It deepens, that is, when we see Hermione as the very model of chaste wifehood. But Leontes? He can trivialize it easily as Hermione goes on, lightly, to compare the occasions on which she “for ever earned a royal husband” and “for some while a friend.” Shakespeare used that word, in a sense now obsolete, in Measure for Measure: “He hath got his friend with child” (1.4.29).8

Who is to interpret? The king, born and bred to earthly authority, never questions his own opinions—or his own lack of spousal trust—until the oracle, which he first rejects, seems confirmed by the death of a king to be, Mamillius. Royalty, proved mortal, seems also then as fallible as mortal.


Like the other Romances, and like any other fiction that focuses on a ruler as a major protagonist, The Winter's Tale explores the complex theme of authority. But unlike Antiochus, who is deliberately vicious, and unlike Cleon, Cymbeline, and at times Pericles, who are too passive (the first two hag-ridden, the third apathetic under the harsh power of lady Fortune), Leontes rules so vigorously as to be tyrannical, understanding his own actions as unquestionable and therefore right. In this one important dimension, the play represents Leontes' quest for a new understanding of himself as ruler, of others in the relationships they bear toward him, and of the place of ruler and ruled in a transformed system of values.

Since the dominant plot lines bear on relationships within the royal families of Sicilia and Bohemia, and most of those characters who are not royal are still defined by family structures (or, in the case of Autolycus, the lack thereof), the issue of authority in this play bears directly on sexual roles. The court becomes a large metaphor for the family in a patriarchal culture—hence my juxtaposition, in this section, of courtly and sexual politics.

Before moving on to the central family hierarchies in the plot, I consider a question that has arisen in the two earlier Romances: that of the quandaries that arise for courtiers whose rulers' decrees run counter to their own moral judgments. Of courtiers in this play, Camillo, Antigonus, and Paulina are most striking, but they have enough companions in quandary in Sicilia to support all the trust we are willing to invest in Hermione.

Camillo is first to be given a chance to remonstrate when Leontes turns his suspicions into open accusations against his queen. He sees the way the king is moving when asked, “How cam't, Camillo, / That he [Polixenes] did stay?” “At the good queen's entreaty” is one word longer than need be to answer the question, and “good” is one word too many for Leontes, who commands that it be dropped (1.2.219-22). As the accusations swell, so too do Camillo's defenses of his “most gracious mistress,” his “most sovereign mistress,” the “clouding” of whose name calls for his personal “vengeance.” Camillo's words here, with his later diagnosis of the king's “truth” as “diseas'd opinion,”9 demonstrate courage, fixed as Leontes is in his delusions, and powerful as he is to act upon his judgmental anger.

Camillo finally gives up open remonstrance with, “I must believe you, sir” (1.2.333): opposition to a “diseas'd” monarch must henceforth be covert. He accedes ostensibly to the king's command that he kill Polixenes, but one short soliloquy and one brief conversation hence, he and Polixenes are allied in their escape from Sicilia.

In the final two acts, Camillo demonstrates a similar resistance to the harsh commands of his new ruler, Polixenes, but not without mixed motivation. Helping Florizel and Perdita to escape to Sicilia may be less a matter of support for the rebellious lovers than a stratagem to get his homesick self, with Polixenes, to Sicilia (4.4.662-67), where he knows a warm welcome from the repentant Leontes awaits them. For that to work, he must tell Polixenes of the lovers' flight. Before the happy outcome softens the impression of Camillo's duplicity, Florizel flatly calls it betrayal (5.1.192). We remember this instance of self-serving when the otherwise exemplary Camillo is matched by Leontes to Paulina. It qualifies her “happy” ending.

Antigonus and another “Lord,” unnamed, defend Hermione against Leontes' “justice” when he sends her off to prison. The lord would lay down his life if Leontes would “accept … that the queen is spotless / I' th' eyes of heaven”; Antigonus, stirred to his masculine depths, would “by [his] honour” geld his three daughters if the queen “be honour-flaw'd” (2.1.130-47). The harsh illogicality of the threat cuts two ways. Primary is the sense that he knows such a horror would never be required of him since he trusts the queen absolutely. But a woman hearing him must flinch at a familiar consequence of masculine anger, that one “proved” instance of female misconduct will cast assumptions of guilt on all, and prompt reactions punitive for the innocent. We have already seen this instinctive masculine reaction demonstrated in Posthumus's misogyny when Iachimo has duped him.

Two scenes later, Antigonus's humane protectiveness extends to the newborn baby. To Leontes' challenge, “What will you adventure / To save this brat's life?” he responds “Anything, my lord … I'll pawn the little blood which I have left / To save the innocent.” The language will be borne out by events, sadly, but the effect is not merely of foreshadowing. The laying down of a life for another (though the other be “innocent,” not deemed guilty of that original sin “hereditary ours” [1.2.75]) has overtones the audience cannot miss. In starkest terms, we are driven to recognize that resistance to powerful evil in this world can call for total sacrifice.

Many male courtiers dare, for a time, to challenge Leontes, and, for a time, Leontes tolerates each. Paulina provokes a very different reaction when she enters to defend Hermione and intercede for the baby. “Away with that audacious lady!” the king thunders as soon as he sees Paulina enter. “Antigonus, / I charg'd thee that she should not come about me. / I knew she would.” When Antigonus pleads himself helpless to keep his wife in line, he wryly rationalizes: “When she will take the rein I let her run.” Paulina's opening speech belies her husband's insinuation that she is an unruly animal: “Good my liege, I come … your loyal servant, your physician, / Your most obedient servant … I say, I come / From your good queen.”

Paulina's words are courageous—physician and good especially—but they are measured by courtesy. When the king mocks, “Good queen!” the courage swells: “I say good queen, and would by combat make her good, so were I / A man, the worst about you.” Before she is eventually forced out, she hears herself called a “mankind witch … A most intelligencing bawd,” a “crone,” a “callat,” a “gross hag! / And lozel.” But no epithet stems the flow of words by which Paulina defends “the sacred honour of himself, his queen's / His hopeful son's, his babe's” against the king's own “slander” (2.3.61-129).10 Paulina leaves only when subject to force: “I pray you, do not push me; I'll be gone.” In the face of the verbal and physical abuse that a woman challenging masculine bastions of power must suffer,11 Paulina exhibits a moral strength and tenacity more impressive than any other courtier's.

Her more important role in orchestrating the events that lead Leontes through remorse and repentance to reconciliation will be examined later. Meanwhile we turn to the scene of Hermione's trial (3.2).


We have seen “A lady's Verily” prevail against Polixenes' intent to leave: in courtly games playing,...

(The entire section is 11420 words.)

John P. Cutts (essay date 1968)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cutts, John P. “Boy Eternal.” In Rich and Strange: A Study of Shakespeare's Last Plays, pp. 54-83. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Cutts focuses on the issue of Leontes's jealousy, contending that the “boy eternal” complex from which Leontes suffers explains the apparently sudden onset of his jealousy, bridges the supposed division between the play's first three acts and the fourth act, and is further exploited in the theme of “re-wooing” in the fifth act.]

Criticism of The Winter's Tale concerns itself sooner or later with the inception of Leontes' jealousy, about which there has been great conflict...

(The entire section is 16045 words.)

Wilbur Sanders (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Sanders, Wilbur. “The Jealousy of Leontes: Act I.” In Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale, pp. 1-30. Brighton, Sussex, U.K.: The Harvester Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Sanders examines the issue of Leontes's jealousy, citing several conditions that may be said to cause his reaction to Hermione's successful coaxing of Polixenes to remain in Sicilia.]

Critics need problems as slugs need cabbages, and I would not blame anyone who tensed in anticipatory resistance when I say that I am writing about The Winter's Tale because I find the play problematic. However, I do: I think it wonderful, moving, grand; but I...

(The entire section is 8600 words.)

Charles Isherwood (review date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of The Winter's Tale. Variety 379, no. 7 (10 July 2000): 31.

[In the following review, Isherwood assesses the Public Theatre's version of The Winter's Tale directed by Brian Kulick, arguing that the production is not successful in handling the shift from the tragedy and drama of the first half of the play to the pastoral comedy of the play's second half. Isherwood additionally comments on the shortcomings of Keith David's Leontes and Erica N. Tazel's Perdita.]

All of Shakespeare's plays pose formidable challenges for actors, but perhaps none are tougher than the upheavals and reversals that pepper the Bard's late...

(The entire section is 1247 words.)

Matt Wolf (review date 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of The Winter's Tale. Variety 383, no. 4 (11 June 2001): 25-6.

[In the following review, Wolf offers a mixed appraisal of the Royal National Theater's modern dress production of The Winter's Tale directed by Nicholas Hytner. Wolf praises the successful portrayal of the play's second half, but comments that this success does not fully compensate for the slow and uninspiring first half of the play.]

A substantial sea change takes place between the two settings of The Winter's Tale—the fraught court of Sicilia and the roisterous sheep-shearing of Bohemia. But in Nicholas Hytner's modern-dress production of Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 606 words.)

Mary Pollingue Nichols (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Nichols, Mary Pollingue. “The Winter's Tale: The Triumph of Comedy over Tragedy.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 9, nos. 2-3 (September 1981): 169-90.

[In the following essay, Nichols contends that the genres of comedy and tragedy are not equally balanced in The Winter's Tale; rather, comedy is victorious, particularly in the play’s implication that the tragic condition is not universal.]

At the end of the Symposium, Socrates tries to persuade a tragic poet and a comic poet that the same man can dramatize both tragedies and comedies (223d). Socrates' assertion seems paradoxical because of the great differences...

(The entire section is 11378 words.)

François Laroque (essay date 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Laroque, François. “Pagan Ritual, Christian Liturgy, and Folk Customs in The Winter's Tale.Cahiers Élisabéthains, no. 22 (October 1982): 25-32.

[In the following essay, Laroque asserts that possible correlations exist between The Winter's Tale and the cycles of the year associated with pagan, Christian, and folk traditions.]

In traditional Christianity the religion is learned less from the Bible than from the cycle of the Christian year, which is a ritual re-living of the life of Christ. Within this cycle the events of the Old Testament are interwoven in such a way that they form, not a continuous story, but a system of...

(The entire section is 4082 words.)

Walter S. H. Lim (essay date 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lim, Walter S. H. “Knowledge and Belief in The Winter's Tale.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 41, no. 2 (spring 2001): 317-34.

[In the following essay, Lim studies the way in which elements of The Winter's Tale, particularly the animation of Hermione's statue at the play's end, represent the conflict between Reformation and Catholic thought in Shakespeare's England.]

At the narrative moment immediately preceding the animation of Hermione's statue, Paulina exhorts Leontes, “It is requir'd / You do awake your faith.”1 Faith in what? For Leontes, it is faith in the reality of miracles, the coming back to life of a queen...

(The entire section is 7426 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Battenhouse, Roy. “Theme and Structure in The Winter's Tale.Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 123-38.

Summarizes the thematic implications of The Winter's Tale and demonstrates the ways in which theme is expressed through the play's structure.

Erickson, Peter B. “Patriarchal Structures in The Winter's Tale.PMLA 97, no. 5 (October 1982): 819-29.

Argues that challenges to the male-dominated social order in The Winter's Tale serve to reveal its inadequacies and suggests that patriarchal order is ultimately restored in such a way that includes and values women.


(The entire section is 468 words.)