The Winter's Tale
Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote The Winter's Tale in late 1610 or early 1611. The first recorded performance of the play occurred at the Globe Theatre on May 15, 1611. In The Winter's Tale, Leontes, King of Sicilia, becomes jealously obsessed with the intimate friendship between his pregnant wife, Hermione, and his visiting boyhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. In a jealous rage, Leontes accuses Hermione of adultery and attempts to poison Polixenes who, in turn, flees Sicilia. After Hermione gives birth to a daughter, Leontes proclaims the baby a bastard and orders it to be abandoned outside of Sicilia; the infant is left on the seacoast of Bohemia, where she is discovered by shepherds and raised with the name Perdita. Meanwhile, misfortune besets Leontes when his beloved only son, Mamillius, dies. Hermione collapses with grief and is reported dead by her waiting-woman, Paulina. Leontes is left alone to ponder the consequences of his tyrannical actions. After sixteen years of lonely penance, Leontes is reunited with his long-lost daughter, Perdita, and with Hermione, who has been hidden from him by Paulina. Modern critical analysis of The Winter's Tale has emphasized how Leontes's extreme jealousy reflects a latent Jacobean masculine anxiety about the maternal and sexual power that women hold over men. Many modern commentators have observed that while Shakespeare boldly challenged ideological concerns about adultery, paternity, and illegitimacy in The Winter's Tale, the fact that he wrote the play as a reconciliatory romance as opposed to a catastrophic tragedy suggests that he held an optimistic view that humankind would overcome its irrational prejudices.
A number of recent critics have linked the themes of adultery and paternity in The Winter's Tale to Jacobean patriarchal concerns about the voracious sexual appetites and dubious fidelity of women. Aaron Kitch (2001) documents how Shakespeare conceived of the print industry as a metaphor for paternity and illegitimacy in The Winter's Tale. As Kitch shows, this theme touches on broader Jacobean anxieties about reproduction in both the sexual sense—such as concerns about adultery and bastardy—and in the textual sense—such as the difficulty authorities had in monitoring and regulating rapidly produced printed matter. Kirstie Gulick Rosenfield (2002) maintains that The Winter's Tale exploits prevailing Jacobean cultural and ideological attitudes that associated feminine sexuality, maternity, and outspokenness with witchcraft. The critic argues that Shakespeare “reappropriates” these socially destabilizing feminine characteristics and cannily transforms them into a metaphor for the magic of artistic creation and theatrical performance. In a departure from Jacobean ideological readings of The Winter's Tale, Simon C. Estok (2003) petitions for the academic recognition of a new critical theory called ecocriticism, or the study of how the environment has been perceived and represented in literary texts. Using the precepts of this fledgling literary theory, Estok posits that The Winter's Tale reveals Shakespeare's latent “ecophobia” through his representation of nature as hostile and his depiction of crossbreeding as genetic pollution. Maurice Hunt (2004) provides a departure of his own from recent critical trends by presenting a conventional examination of Shakespeare's use of the term “bear” in The Winter's Tale, associating it with such themes as tyranny, suffering, redemption, and sexual domination.
Commentators have put forth a number of theories to explain Leontes's irrational and intensely malevolent jealousy—the agent which precipitates the dramatic conflict in The Winter's Tale—and yet his motivations continue to defy critical analysis. Jennifer Richards (1999) maintains that a principal motivating factor in Leontes's paranoid jealousy is his anxiety about social status. The critic examines a number of Renaissance courtesy treatises in an effort to demonstrate how Shakespeare adroitly recreated the dialectical Jacobean relationship between courtly and common attitudes that fueled Leontes's insecurities. Cristina León Alfar (2003) discusses Leontes as the embodiment of the tyranny of patriarchal absolute rule and the commoditization of women. By challenging Leontes's patrilineal sovereignty, the critics avers, Hermione and Paulina represent “fantasies of female evil” who threaten the very underpinnings of the patriarchal order through their perceived adultery and rebellion. Alfar concludes that Shakespeare rejected “monarchical and conjugal tyranny” through the generic transformation of The Winter's Tale from a potentially violent and destructive tragedy to a romance that points to an optimistic future of reconciliation. Travis Curtright (2002) takes exception to such serious ideological interpretations of Leontes. Indeed, Curtright challenges the critical position that Leontes displays characteristics of a tragic hero who must suffer as a result of his overweening pride, arguing instead that Shakespeare envisioned the protagonist as merely a melodramatic stage villain intended to evoke laughter from a Jacobean audience. B. J. Sokol (1994) also favors an optimistic reading of The Winter's Tale, maintaining that the comic roguery of Autolycus lends crucial support to the “reparative structure” of Shakespeare's romance. According to Sokol, Shakespeare dramatized Autolycus in a non-moralistic fashion in order to demonstrate how “creative activity” emanates from the darker side of human nature.
The Winter's Tale has become a staple of modern theatrical production, tempting directors and actors alike with its exotic settings, its evocative sense of wonder, and its passionate characters. In 1995, internationally acclaimed director Ingmar Bergman presented a memorable staging of the play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Reviewers admire several of Bergman's bold experimental innovations, including imagining the drama as a play-within-a-play set at a nineteenth-century wedding banquet at a Swedish manor house; showcasing Hermione's trial as the pivotal point in the play; and unconventionally interpreting the discovery scene (Act V, scene iii) as a somber affair rather than as an occasion for joy and wonder. While commentators do not wholly embrace Bergman's daring conceits, they applaud him for attempting to offer a fresh interpretation of the romance. Critics also praise Gregory Doran's 1999 Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of The Winter's Tale which, they contend, featured lucid direction and a superb ensemble cast. The actors, in the view of most reviewers, so brilliantly communicated the rich psychological details of Shakespeare's characters that the play's many thematic blemishes were obscured by their virtuoso performances. Critics particularly laud Antony Sher's performance as Leontes; Paul Taylor (see Further Reading), for example, deems it a “wonderfully rich and complex characterisation,” noting that Sher's great insight was “that the spitting hatred is the defence mechanism of a man who, through some sudden intuition of inadequacy, is running scared of his own life.” Alexandra Gilbreath also receives praise for her strikingly realistic portrayal of Hermione. As a result of such memorable performances and Doran's adroit direction, David Jays (1999) concludes that he witnessed a “supremely intelligent production, lucid in every detail.”
Nicholas Hytner staged a modern-dress revival of The Winter's Tale at London's Royal National Theatre in 2001, depicting Sicilia as a monochrome corporate milieu and Bohemia as a communal, Woodstock-like environment. While most critics agree that this approach adeptly distinguished the two worlds of the play, they also maintain that the actors' uneven performances failed to imbue the play with its requisite emotional intensity. Indeed, reviewers castigate Alex Jennings and Claire Skinner for their restrained performances as Leontes and Hermione, but assert that Deborah Findlay's Paulina stole the show. According to Judith Flanders (2001), Findlay's Paulina “is sassy at the beginning, threatening as tragedy looms, and, finally, matures into the personification of an austere reproach, the conscience to a king.” A year later, Matthew Warchus and the RSC mounted an Americanized staging of The Winter's Tale at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. In keeping with his premise that the texture of American English is closer to its Elizabethan antecedent than that of British English, Warchus encouraged his actors to adopt American accents in their delivery of Shakespeare's lines. Warchus further explored the American motif by placing Sicilia in a monochrome Hollywood film noir context and Bohemia in an Appalachian hillbilly setting. While most commentators credit Warchus for his experimental attitude, they nevertheless conclude that this approach did little to bring any new insights to Shakespeare's play. Further, they censure the largely British cast for its poorly executed American accents; the only portrayal to receive positive critical notice was the Paulina of American actor Myra Lucretia Taylor.