The Winter’s Tale

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Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 315-86).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Greene’s Pandosto, the Triumph of Time | Pandosto, mod. English (Oxford)

Act 1, Scene 1 (315-16, Camillo recounts the childhood closeness of Polixenes and Leontes as well as their subsequent friendship in adulthood, and praises Mamillius for his effect on the kingdom of Sicilia.)

We hear how Polixenes of Bohemia and Leontes of Sicilia grew up together. Understandably in terms of the romance pattern, these two kings who already share an idyllic bond grounded in childhood memories seek to extend that bond into the present time. They are happy, but they desire to be happier still. Leontes’s counselor Camillo, however, also describes the aftermath of their upbringing in a way that is clearly meant to be affirmative but that also introduces a note of necessary ambivalence. The original affection of the two men, he says, “cannot / choose but branch now” (316, 1.1.20-21), and their subsequent relationship has been through intermediaries: “their / encounters, though not personal, hath been royally attor- / neyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, / that they have seemed to be together though absent” (316, 1.1.22-25). To “branch” is to grow and flourish, but the metaphor also implies distance and differentiation, which in turn intimate the potential, and perhaps the inevitability, of a certain degree of alienation between the two men, and the fact that they live far from each other and communicate through underlings further suggests such potential.

We are told that Leontes’s son Mamillius has an almost magical effect upon the kingdom’s subjects that evokes the romance pattern’s grand cycles of birth, death, and rebirth: the boy “makes / old hearts fresh” (316, 1.1.33-34) and even overcomes the desire of the very old to die. It seems that the child is special in a way that ought to point towards the happy futurity of Leontes’s royal line. Up to this point, then, all seems well: the noble characters of this play are “living their best lives,” as we might say nowadays. But this is a romance play, a tragicomedy, so we know that some destabilizing event is bound to usher in a change that will bring suffering and loss in its train.

Act 1, Scene 2 (316-28, Polixenes decorously turns down Leontes’s entreaty to extend his nine-month stay, and describes for Hermione how close he and Leontes were as boys; Hermione charms Polixenes into staying; Leontes is immediately stricken with searing jealousy at her success in persuading his friend, and after insulting Mamillius’s patrimony, he orders Camillo to kill Polixenes; Camillo remonstrates against Leontes, then feigns compliance with his order, but warns Polixenes to leave at once.)

Leontes tries to get Polixenes to stay another week in Sicilia, but Polixenes turns him down. The way he does so turns out to be problematic: he says to Leontes, “There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’th’world / So soon as yours could win me” (317, 1.2.20-21). Leontes then enlists his queen Hermione, who places her charms at the king’s service. She tells Polixenes that when Leontes visits Bohemia in turn, “I’ll give him my commission / To let him there a month behind the gest / Prefixed for’s parting” (317, 1.2.40-42). For some reason, she feels it necessary to reaffirm her great love for Leontes immediately thereafter: “I love thee not a jar o’th’ clock behind / What lady she her lord” (317, 1.2.43-44). The continuance of the exchange seems like innocent flirtation, but it is not difficult to see how a determined interpreter could make it sound otherwise. Shakespeare seems to have been familiar with Machiavelli’s work, and as we know from that author’s analysis in The Prince, rulers who cultivate a reputation for honesty will have an easier time duping people when they really need to.[1]

While conversing with Hermione, Polixenes memorably describes himself and Leontes as boys in pastoral terms: “We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’th’sun / And bleat the one at th’other” (318, 1.2.67-68). Polixenes obliquely introduces the subject of mature sexuality in response to Hermione’s question about who was the “verier wag” (318, 1.2.66) of the two men when they were children: “We knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing nor dreamed / That any did” (318, 1.2.69-71). The following lines make it clear that the context is implicitly sexual, and Hermione picks up on this with a little innocent flirtation, accusing Polixenes of denigrating women as “devils” (319, 1.2.82). These comments may constitute the spurs to Leontes’s jealousy, which begins to appear as early as the line, “At my request he would not [stay]” (319, 1.2.87). Evidently, Leontes is not entirely delighted with Polixenes’s claim that if his old friend couldn’t convince him to stay, no one could, and now he has given in to the lighthearted, if solicited, pleadings of Hermione. It’s as if he’s not simply angry at Hermione’s potentially flirtatious conduct, he’s jealous of her effectiveness with Polixenes. Is there some competition implied here between Leontes and Hermione for the attentions of Polixenes? It’s a plausible interpretation of the scene, especially since Renaissance cultures still promoted the classically based notion of friendship between men being of a higher sort than the love between male and female.[2]

When we move from talk to a combination of talking and gesture between Polixenes and Hermione, things go from bad to worse: in the previous conversation, it isn’t entirely clear if Leontes hears everything that passes between Hermione and Polixenes. Most productions show Leontes discussing papers or some such thing while his wife entreats the King of Bohemia, and towards the end, Leontes must ask, “Is he won yet?” (318, 1.2.86), as if he has been standing off to the side and giving them some privacy. If so, that mixture of public-spirited “command performance” and private intimacy is destructive for Hermione, who can’t win either way. Leontes points out that it took him fully three bitter or “crabbèd” months to win his wife’s hand in marriage (319, 1.2.102), and now Hermione has won over Polixenes in a few moments of banter. Worse yet, she compares her successful suit to Polixenes to her courtship with Leontes: “I have spoke to th’ purpose twice,” she says. The first time was to get a husband, and the second was to win the presence of a friend, at least for a time (319, 1.2.106).

It’s logical to suppose that Hermione and Polixenes now hold hands and speak or stand apart, and this rattles Leontes more than he can bear: “Too hot, too hot” (319, 1.2.108), he complains, and describes their bodily actions as “paddling palms and pinching fingers, / … and making practiced smiles / As in a looking glass; and then to sigh …” (319, 1.2.115-17). It’s hard to tell whether all of these gestures are supposed to be taken as faithfully described or as the exaggerations of a heated, fearful mind; either way, Hermione’s state is now perilous even though she doesn’t yet know it. We can’t miss it, however, since Leontes abruptly, if obliquely, asks Mamillius whether he is his father’s son (319, 1.2.119-20).[3]

Queen Hermione’s interaction with Polixenes probably seems innocent to us, just like Desdemona’s dalliance with Michael Cassio in Othello. Still, if we put ourselves in the mindset of first-time viewers, might we not share Leontes’s uncertainty? We don’t know Hermione well at this point, even though, as we will understand upon slightly better acquaintance with her speech and bearing, she is only behaving generously towards her husband’s dear friend, following Leontes’s lead in using her charms to win a longer stay. In any event, this first scene at the edge of happily ever is shattered by Leontes’s abrupt change in passions:[4] he sees Hermione holding hands, chatting nicely, possibly whispering, and so forth, with his old friend, and is stricken with insane, uncontrollable jealousy. Jealousy stems from a disturbance in one person’s object-relation to another person. This powerful passion almost certainly inhabits, even haunts, all intimate relationships. We treat affection like a scarce good, almost in an economic way, and fall to rationing it as we do with other noble and charitable ideals. The “other” is transfixed as something permanent, stable, unchangeable, and then when that standard seems in danger of not being met, we become enraged. Even though there are some possibly ambivalent words and gestures to be processed in the current scene, there is no need for plot devices or long backstory work to show where jealousy comes from: it often presents itself as if from nowhere, in real life as well as in literature.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that there’s no implied or potential history behind what we see in the first act of The Winter’s Tale. If jealousy is like a disease, it makes sense to point out that a person may not become symptomatic until the malady is well under way, and then the “presentation” of the disease may seem sudden and dramatic. (Perhaps in that sense jealously is like some forms of cancer that only manifest symptoms when the underlying disease is grievously advanced.) There may be an implied sense of competitiveness between Leontes and Polixenes from their youth up, one that would account in part for the strange spell of depraved jealousy that comes over Leontes. Or it may be that for whatever reason, Leontes was never really sure of his wife’s deep affection, and thus he was primed to fly into the jealous rage that causes everyone involved so much anguish.

In any case, once the madness strikes Leontes, jealousy becomes a filter for everything he sees. He categorizes himself as a confirmed cuckold: “Many thousand on ’s / Have the disease and feel’t not” (322, 1.2.205-06), and thanks to his misplaced passion, he misreads and reinterprets all Hermione’s actions as evidence of wickedness and everything everyone else does as corroboration of that wickedness. Camillo must be dishonest now because he can’t see what Leontes believes he himself sees (323, 1.2.242-49ff); Mamillius must be illegitimate; Hermione’s innocent words and actions are doubtless pure deception, and the child whom Paulina will set before his eyes at 2.3.65-66 (pg. 336) seems to him to bear no resemblance to himself. Leontes’s perceptual and interpretive apparatuses have become warped or “diseased” (to use Camillo’s term at 324, 1.2.297). The king becomes “his own Iago”[5] and shares Othello’s absoluteness and incapacity to deal with uncertainty: “Is whispering nothing?” he asks Camillo (324, 1.2.284). As Iago says in Othello, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ.”[6] Hermione must be either a saint or a whore; for Leontes, there is nothing in between, and any uncertainty about the matter is unwelcome.

No matter what Portia tells us about mercy in The Merchant of Venice,[7] the quality of some charitable affections is forced and fragile, or hemmed in by conditions. Cordelia’s understanding of love in Act 1 of King Lear may sound brittle and cold, but it’s probably accurate from the perspective of a young woman who will soon  embark upon her career as a member of the ruling order in Lear’s ancient Britain.[8] As Cordelia sees things, we ration love: more for one person may mean less for others because in practical terms, love must be portioned out in units of time devoted to the beloved. When Cordelia marries, as she says, her aristocratic husband will take a certain amount of her love, which means that her father the king will get less of it. Here in Sicilia, there isn’t enough love available to sustain an economy of affection between Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes.

Still, all isn’t lost: Leontes’s inner corruption seems unable to corrupt others: Camillo stays true to Hermione, and therefore to Leontes. He pretends that he will honor Leontes’s mad request to murder Polixenes (212, 1.2.335-36), but he refuses to poison this good man, with whom he agrees regarding the destructive effects of jealousy. Instead, Camillo informs Polixenes of Leontes’s intention to have him killed (213, 1.2.413) and helps him get away from Sicilia without delay. Camillo offers no hope of changing Leontes’s mind (214, 1.2.424-31), and Polixenes is surprisingly generous in his thoughts about his old friend: “This jealousy is for a precious creature,” Polixenes acknowledges, and given the great power of the man who is acting on that jealousy as well as his belief that his dearest male friend has betrayed him, it’s imperative that the king of Bohemia vacate the scene at once (328, 1.2.449-60).

There will be a cure for the distrustful absolutist Leontes, as we shall see later on: he must learn to see people once again as they really are, and stop allegorizing them as emblems of sin. The importance of the eye, and of vision, is emphasized in Renaissance perceptual theory (though the sense of hearing is also considered vital),[9] and common sense suggests to us how fundamental the sense of sight is for our understanding of the world. To borrow from the Gospels’ metaphoric resources, “But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!”[10] Just now, everything has turned dark and demonic for Leontes, King of Sicilia.

Act 2, Scene 1 (328-33, Leontes stridently accuses Hermione of adultery and she is led off to prison; Antigonus tries to set him straight and fails; Leontes has commanded a trip to Apollo’s oracle, expecting confirmation.)

Mamillius, asked for a story, sets the scene by telling the attending women and Hermione, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (329, 2.1.26). But the sad tale of Leontes and Hermione prevents him from telling it: obsessed, Leontes says he has “drunk and seen the spider” at the bottom of the cup (329, 2.1.46), and he goes on to accuse and order the arrest of Hermione as a treasonous adulteress, with no real hope of defense (331, 2.1.104-06). Hermione maintains her composure, saying “This action I now go on / Is for my better grace” (331, 2.1.122-23). As so often, the good are scarcely capable of defending themselves when evil or misprision furiously besets them: they don’t have the same resources available to them as those who have no scruples about morality or whose sensibilities have been corrupted by unhealthy, excessive passions. Hermione’s claims of innocence, it’s easy to see from this preliminary interaction, will stand no chance when the time comes to endure the proto-Stalinist show trial that Leontes has planned for her.

Next follows a discussion in which another counselor (like Camillo earlier) tries to set Leontes straight, to no effect: Antigonus tells the king, “You are abused, and by some putter-on / That will be damned for’t” (331-32, 2.1.141-43). But Leontes is set upon publicly declaring his wife unfaithful, and his final move in this scene is to report that he has sent his assistants Cleomenes and Dion to Apollo’s temple to consult the god’s oracle.[11] It is now time to take the matter public.

Act 2, Scene 2 (333-35, Paulina determines to bring Hermione’s newborn daughter into Leontes’s presence.)

Paulina confers with Emilia: Hermione’s newborn daughter should be brought before Leontes. “We do not know / How he may soften at the sight o’th’ child” (334, 2.2.40-41), she tells Emilia, and it isn’t hard for Paulina to convince the jailor that there’s no danger in it for him to let her leave with the child.

Act 2, Scene 3 (335-40, Mamillius falls ill; Paulina confronts Leontes with his child; Leontes orders Antigonus to expose the infant outside Sicilia; Apollo’s answer is on the way: Hermione will have her show trial.)

Leontes continues to stew in his jealous anger. He can’t get to Polixenes or Camillo, but he can burn Hermione at the stake as a traitor (335, 2.3.7-9). Mamillius has taken ill, and Leontes puts it down to the boy’s knowledge of “the dishonor of his mother” (335, 2.3.13). The proposed punishment of Hermione may seem unthinkable to us, but the Elizabethan-Jacobean public would have found it all too true-to-life. In that period, the traditional punishment for treason was beheading for the nobility or, for the less exalted, hanging, drawing, and quartering. The heads of traitors lined London Bridge so that visitors might see them and take the terrifying lesson to heart: offend the sovereign, and you will die horribly.[12]

Paulina enters with the newborn child and is active and confrontational in dealing with Leontes, who tries to place the blame for the embarrassing encounter on Paulina’s husband Antigonus: “What, canst not rule her?” (336, 2.3.46) to which Antigonus answers, “When she will take the rein, I let her run …” (336, 2.3.51-52). The other characters at court aren’t corrupt; they’re just passive. Hermione is unable to deal with Leontes’s madness because she is the alleged cause and object of it, so a third party like Paulina is vital. She will keep the clock ticking so that romance time can work its magic: there will be time and opportunity and good will enough to avert entire tragedy. And more than that, as we’ll see, Paulina’s careful, clever disposition of affairs is itself a big part of the play’s “magic.”

The present scene has some comedy in it, with two powerful men unable to hold off the onslaught of Paulina, who even accuses Leontes of treason to his face: “he / The sacred honor of himself, his queen’s, / His hopeful son’s, his babe’s, betrays to slander…” (337, 2.3.83-85). She later calls him a tyrant (338, 2.3.115-20), which further enrages him. In comedy, the angry father or senex iratus is a straw man: consider Duke Frederick in As You Like It, who threatens death and injury all around but ends up looking ridiculous and then transforming suddenly in the Forest of Arden.[13] There’s also Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: this bullheaded father threatens his daughter Hermia with dire penalties for refusing to marry Demetrius, the suitor he has chosen for her. In the end, Egeus’s irrational obstacle-making comes to nothing.[14] But in romance drama, there must be legitimate potential for a tragic turn, and that is what we have been witnessing here in The Winter’s Tale.

Leontes has already declared the infant to be “the issue of Polixenes” (337, 2.3.93), and his only thought is to cast both his wife and child into the traitor’s fire (338, 2.3.133). With Paulina pushed out the door and Antigonus accused of abetting her, the assembled lords kneel to bring Leontes to his senses, and at last he relents: “Let it live” (338, 2.3.156), he says, though the following line “It shall not neither” makes it clear that the resolution isn’t benign. The king’s final offer is as follows: Antigonus is to take the child and “bear it / To some remote and desert place” (225, 2.3.174-75), leaving its survival or death to chance. Leontes sees this as symmetrical justice since the child came to him initially “by strange fortune” (339, 2.3.178), and so “chance may nurse or end it” (339, 2.3.182). Leontes’s decision at this juncture, though by no means benign in its intent, opens up the potential for the partially redemptive operations of romance time to begin working. We may recall that shipwrecked Viola’s best decision in Twelfth Night was to commit her cause to the play’s comic perspective regarding time. This is a similar moment in The Winter’s Tale, even though little “Perdita,” as she will subsequently be known, has no idea what’s happening: the decision is made for her by Leontes, a man who doesn’t mean her well, and it is carried out by one who does, Antigonus.[15]

Finally, Leontes announces that his messengers are coming back soon with the oracle of Apollo’s pronouncement. As for Hermione, says Leontes, “as she hath / Been publicly accused, so shall she have / A just and open trial” (339-40, 2.3.202-04). His promise rings hollow since he is clearly in no doubt about the verdict.

Act 3, Scene 1 (340, Cleomenes and Dion are returning with the answer from Apollo’s oracle.)

Cleomenes and Dion have done their job and now have the sealed response of Apollo’s oracle. They are returning to Sicilia and hoping the answer will be for Hermione’s good.

Act 3, Scene 2 (341-46, Hermione defends herself at trial; Leontes disrespects the oracle; Mamillius’s death shocks Leontes back to his senses; Hermione faints and Paulina pronounces her dead; Paulina confronts Leontes, who vows to visit his son and wife’s shrine daily: this will be his penance, his “recreation.”)

Leontes, meet our modern conspiracy buffs! The accusation against Hermione read by the officer is preposterous: she stands accused of “high trea- / son, in committing adultery with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, / and conspiring with Camillo to take away the life of our sover- / eign lord the King …” (341, 3.2.13-16). Hermione’s self-defense is noble, but she hasn’t a prayer of success since this is a show-trial worthy of the paranoid Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, or Hitler’s captured justice system during his Nazi Regime’s tenure in Germany.[16] She loved Polixenes in just the way that Leontes demanded, she says, and as for Camillo, he is “an honest man” whose departure from the court is mystifying to her (342, 3.2.60-64, 72-74). Hermione’s quality shines through when she defies Leontes’s threat of death: “Sir, spare your threats. / The bug which you would fright me with I seek” (342, 3.2.89-90) and simply calls for the reading of Apollo’s judgment (343, 3.2.113-14).

Apollo’s oracle tells Leontes that he is jaw-droppingly wrong and that he must recover what he has thrown away: “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, / Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent / babe truly begotten; and the King shall live without an heir / if that which is lost be not found” (343, 3.2.130-33). Leontes dismisses the oracle’s words, saying “There is no truth at all i’the oracle,” (343, 3.2.136). Evidently, his ears fail him just as his eyes did. With this impious declaration, Leontes has reached the nadir of his madness: defying the gods never ends well for the brotoi, the dying generations of humankind.[17]

The announcement of the death of his son Mamillius snaps Leontes out of his state of error, but he must live with the consequences of what he has done (343-44, 3.2.140-42). Leontes has thrown away his identity along with Hermione and Perdita, who are both a part of him, and now Mamillius is gone. Leontes finally realizes his error: “Apollo’s angry, and the heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice” (344, 3.2.143-44). But there’s more sorrow in store for him when Hermione faints at the news of Mamillius’ death and is herself pronounced dead by Paulina (344, 3.2.145-46). What follows is an anguished confrontation with Paulina, who insists that Hermione is indeed gone (345, 3.2.200-04) but who also seems moved by Leontes’s overwhelming sorrow at his error. Of this, she says only, “What’s gone and what’s past help / Should be past grief” (346, 3.2.229-30). Leontes forms his plan for the future; the joint tomb of his wife and son will be his daily haunt: “Once a day I’ll visit / The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there / Shall be my recreation” (346, 3.2.235-37).

There will be serious consequences to reckon with from here on out: Hermione is now effectively placed in a state of suspended animation, so far as Leontes and the audience are informed. Leontes will have only an image, a shrine, for years to come. His depraved obliviousness to Apollo’s truth-saying has ensured this result. Leontes (like Lear and Cymbeline) has thrown away his identity, and he can’t snap his fingers and get it back. That he recognized his error the instant Apollo’s wrath supposedly struck down his son has made self-recovery and redemption possible, if not quick. Paulina, in spite of her sometimes harsh words and attitude, will assist Leontes in his long time of penance, which will include frequent visits to the shrine of the woman he has wronged.

Act 3, Scene 3 (346-49, Antigonus dreams of Hermione, exposes Perdita, is eaten by a bear; a shepherd discovers the child with gold; he and his son plan good deeds and a secure future.)

While traveling by ship to Bohemia, Antigonus dreams of Hermione, who informs him that his end is near and gives him instructions on where to leave the child and what to name her: Perdita, which in Latin translates to the feminine gender of “the lost one.”[18] Antigonus is now convinced that Hermione is dead. He thereupon suffers the full consequences of his own failure to resist Leontes’s culpable behavior, which is implicit in dream-Hermione’s language: “For this ungentle business / Put on thee by my lord, thou ne’er shalt see / Thy wife Paulina more…” (347, 3.3.33-35). Act 3 ends on a note of savagery and tempest: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” But it also ends with great promise for the future. In this romance play, Antigonus’s exit is Perdita’s entrance into a brave new world. As the old shepherd says to his son, “thou mett’st with things dying, / I with things newborn” (348, 3.3.103-04). The gold Antigonus has left behind will become “fairy gold” (349, 3.3.112) for the shepherd who discovers the “Blossom” (347, 3.2.45—Antigonus’s farewell term) Perdita, and a new world will open up for this rustic character and his son. As we move into Acts 4-5, we will witness the power of romance time to heal rifts, clear up delusions, and make things partially right. Antigonus will not share in the recovery, and there is genuine loss in that (most of all for him and his wife Paulina) because after all, he has made a decent attempt to preserve Perdita from Leontes’s wrath.

Act 4, Scene 1 (349-50, Time brings us forward sixteen years and sets us down to see the rest of the play: Perdita is now a young woman.)

A chorus player speaks as “Time” to tell us that he is within his rights to turn the clock forward some sixteen years, to the span when Perdita is no longer an infant but a beautiful young woman, supposed by all to be the daughter of the shepherd who found her and secretly courted by Polixenes’s son, Prince Florizel. The choral pronouncement may remind some of Shakespeare’s use of old John Gower (his medieval source for Pericles, Prince of Tyre), who says at the beginning of Act 4 in that play, “Only I carry wingèd Time, / Post on the lame feet of my rhyme….”[19] In any case, Time here is content to stay with the present, leaving subsequent revelations to play out as they may: “let Time’s news / Be known when ‘tis brought forth” (349, 4.1.26-27).

Perhaps this manner of treating time seems unrealistic. But then, if indeed Shakespeare’s romance plays feature a representational strategy that aims at a higher degree of realism than either tragedy or comedy, perhaps we can experience time’s passage in a way that cannot be captured by neoclassical demands for fidelity to the so-called “unity of time.” Especially for older people, many years may seem to have raced by in an instant. One is reminded of landmark events in world history or even in one’s personal history, and is perpetually surprised to hear the closing line, “such-and-such happened twenty years ago to the day.” Call it a trick of memory, but this astonishing experience of temporality is by no means uncommon, and it may be useful to refer to the philosopher Henri Bergson’s notion of lived or subjectively experienced time, la durée, as opposed to a more objective, standard sense of time, which has to do with deadlines, absolute dates, and so forth.[20]

Act 4, Scenes 2-3 (350-53, Camillo’s desire to return to Sicilia is frustrated by Polixenes, who is gathering intelligence on his absent son Florizel: Polixenes and Camillo will disguise themselves and visit the shepherd; Autolycus gives us his resume, robs the shepherd’s son, and plans to crash the sheep-shearing festival.)

In 4.2, Camillo longs to return to Sicilia after the long gap that Time has just indicated, but Polixenes won’t grant his wish (350, 4.2.13-16). He is more intent on finding out what his son Florizel has been up to lately, and to that end, he determines to pay a visit in disguise to the shepherd and “have some question” (351, 4.2.45) with him. For Camillo, then, the sixteen-year gap has been one of growing frustration, of nostalgia for his native land.

Autolycus, who enters at 4.3 declaring himself presently “out of service” (351, 4.3.14), is a human woozle—he’s a trickster, an opportunist, a businessman who deals in stolen linens (351, 4.3.23).[21] He is hardly the worst character in Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s hard to deny that he is from one angle a parasite on the generous psychic economy of the play’s rustics, whose festivities he will soon invade with his bawdiness and commercialism. Even here, before the springtime celebration, he manages to rob the shepherd’s son by feigning victimhood and denouncing one “Autolycus” (himself) as the fellow who robbed him: a man of shady devices and dubious career (353, 4.3.87-92). Still, there’s something positive in Autolycus in spite of his intentions, as his remark about the coming of spring suggests: “For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale” (351, 4.3.4). Even if he has his own selfish purposes for the transformation, he hails the coming of spring and new life. In this capacity, Autolycus will have a role in the bittersweet comic resolution of the play’s final two acts.

Act 4, Scene 4 (353-73, Florizel courts Perdita; Polixenes talks “literary criticism” with Perdita as she presides over the spring festival: is nature or artifice better? Dancing comes before and after; Autolycus commandeers the festivities; Polixenes exposes Florizel and issues threats over the prospective marriage; Camillo promises to help Florizel; Florizel exchanges clothing with Autolycus; Autolycus plays the courtier to dupe the shepherd and his son, whom he will bring to Florizel’s ship, not to Polixenes as they wish.)

This scene, one of the longest in any of Shakespeare’s plays, begins with the courtship between Prince Florizel and Perdita. The young man is confident in his good intentions, while Perdita shows considerable anxiety about dressing up and acting a part beyond her station: “Even now I tremble / To think your father by some accident / Should pass this way …” (354, 4.4.18-20). To which anxiety, Florizel asserts the universality of disguising oneself in erotic pursuits: “The gods themselves, / … have taken / The shapes of beasts upon them” (354, 4.4.25-27). Her fears aside, Perdita will be “mistress o’th’ feast” (355, 4.4.68) at the old shepherd’s insistence.

Polixenes and Camillo soon show up in disguise and strike up a conversation with this queen of the festivities.[22] Perdita and Polixenes engage in a bit of combined horticultural talk and literary criticism, a discussion about the emblematic significance of certain flowers (“streaked gillyvors,” or multicolored carnations) and ultimately about the respective merits of artifice and nature. The critical frame gestures towards the idea that Perdita herself is the “graft” that mends the rustic society surrounding her: she is a beautiful work of art rooted in nature’s processes. Polixenes insists that careful gardening is natural art: “This is an art / Which does mend nature—change it, rather—but / The art itself is nature” (356, 4.4.95-97). While Perdita wants to stick with what’s available in her own rustic garden, Polixenes sees no problem with improving what nature offers freely, and like a good Renaissance critic, he calls artifice (the means whereby nature is improved) natural, too.[23]

Perdita, ever the nature-goddess-tending maiden, isn’t convinced (or rather she admits the point, but is unmoved by it), and in the end we can probably say (adapting a thought from Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human) that Perdita is her own best argument, and as natural as the goddess Flora herself.[24] Still, Polixenes’s argument comes off as wise—or at least it would if he didn’t become enraged upon finding out that his son Florizel wants him to allow the mixing of his own aristocratic stock with the common stock of his kingdom.

In Shakespeare’s plays generally, artifice may fairly be described as a natural aspect of human nature: we are at our best when we are accommodated or civilized human beings, not when we are what King Lear mistakenly supposes he sees in Edgar as Poor Tom: “Thou are the thing / itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, / bare, forked animal as thou art.”[25] But this is not King Lear’s impoverished universe; there is more scope for a healthy view of unmixed nature and natural impulse in this pastoral romance. Perdita exudes healthy animality along with her nobility. She embodies a benevolent form of nature, unlike the bear that devoured Antigonus sixteen years back when he was abandoning Perdita on the harsh seacoast of Bohemia,[26] and unlike the form of nature we see in Leontes’s crazed, desperate descent into the hellish abyss of jealousy.

Perdita’s grace is demonstrated by the effect her presence has on Florizel. Her own playful words give just a hint of Ovidian sportfulness (356, 4.4.112-29) where she invokes Proserpina,[27] but modesty at once makes her take it back: “Sure this robe of mine / Does change my disposition” (357, 4.4.134-35). Florizel, however, sees nothing wrong with what Perdita has said, and he tells her, “When you do dance, I wish you / A wave o’th’ sea” (357, 4.4.140-41). Perdita’s is a graceful, immediate presence, and everything she does is art. In her person, art and nature come together without strife.

This harmony in Perdita contrasts starkly with Leontes’s misprision of nature as something base and demonic. At the play’s outset, his ideal woman would not be Hermione living (“Too hot, too hot,” Leontes had said of her at 319, 1.2.108) or Perdita in motion. It would be a statue: something cold, chaste, and dead. Later, to see her “come alive” from an assumed state of stone is part of Leontes’s penance, but also his reward for his long-suffering fidelity after the initial mistake. In the present scene, Perdita has the grace of a statue and the natural vivacity of a living being at the same time: she is artifice in motion. That is what Leontes will need to accept about Hermione to complete his “recreation.” His failure to accord Hermione the credit she deserved as a fully human being rather than as a courtly object caused the play’s sad events. It is clear from the passage quoted above that young Florizel, unlike Leontes, has no trouble perceiving and affirming these qualities in his Perdita: “What you do / Still betters what is done” (357, 4.4.135-36).

As for Autolycus, he is a confirmed rascal, but he also brings in the spring with his songs, flowers, and bright scarves: the servant who announces his presence seems excited, telling the shepherd, “if you did but hear the peddler at the / door, you would never dance again after a tabor and pipe” (358, 4.4.182-83). This same servant is unable to register the bawdy quality of the songs that Autolycus offers his rustic audience, but we may suppose that his naiveté just serves the cause of nature. Perhaps at this point Autolycus, man of disguises and shifts, is providing us a comic contrast to Florizel, who has been courting Perdita in a disguised but honorable fashion. Paulina, too, later uses the arts of deception in a healthy cause, which links her to the trickster of the present scene. The shepherd’s son ends up buying some ballads from Autolycus, and perhaps some other things as well: his love interest in the shepherd girls at the festivities drives him to buy what Autolycus is selling. Much song and dance follows in this scene both before and after Autolycus makes his entrance: first there is “a dance of shepherds and shepherdesses” (358, 4.4.166), and later, there is a “dance of twelve satyrs” (361, 4.4.333).

Trouble soon follows, however, when Florizel demonstrates his commitment to Perdita in front of Polixenes. The old man pretends to go along with his son, but finally asks, “Soft, swain, awhile, beseech you. / Have you a father?” (363, 4.4.383-84), and he does not like the answer he gets. Polixenes has a point: “The father, all whose joy is nothing else / But fair posterity, should hold some counsel / In such a business” (363, 4.4.399-401). Polixenes proceeds to threaten not only the old shepherd but also Florizel and even Perdita with dire consequences (363-64, 4.4.408-11, 416-20, 423-32). As in some of Shakespeare’s comedies, we have run into the classical figure of the senex iratus, the angry old man.[28] Polixenes’s conduct at this point also links him to the Leontes of the first act in that his rashness threatens tragedy for himself and others. It will be his good fortune that the same consequences that beset Leontes do not afflict him. Still, we need not regard Polixenes as entirely ridiculous. In this play, as a Professor Harold Toliver of UC Irvine observes, the old need to be convinced of the worthiness of the new. In comedy, the emphasis is on the perspectives and desires of the young, but in romance drama, the elders’ perspective is usually as valuable, or even more so, than that of the young. This point holds true even though romance quests are partly about reintegration and renewal through marriage between the young. After all—and here Shakespeare departs from Greene’s Pandosto[29]—the present play centers on the reunification of Leontes and Hermione, the older generation. Polixenes feels that Florizel has cast off his royal identity, so the fourth act legitimately involves Polixenes’s dynastic concerns.

In his distress, Florizel turns to Camillo (367, 4.4.483-93), who has a reason of his own for wanting to help: he wants to return to Sicilia: “Now were I happy if / His going I could frame to serve my turn…” (366, 4.4.499-500). The plan for Florizel is to go to Sicilia and claim that he has arrived with his father’s blessing. Camillo reasons that Leontes will be so happy to do him a good turn that he won’t ask questions, and with a little inside information that Camillo himself will provide, the way to Leontes’s good graces will be smooth (366-67, 4.4. 533-46).

While Camillo, Florizel and Perdita are on the way to their ship, they come across Autolycus, who ends up doing them a good turn. As usual the rascal is pretending to be a poor innocent who has fallen upon hard times, and Camillo asks Autolycus to exchange clothing with Florizel, who will now have the disguise he needs to get safely aboard his ship (368-69, 4.4.619-24). To himself and us, Camillo admits that he plans to tell Polixenes about Florizel’s flight, which will rouse the father to chase after his son. The king of Bohemia will, of course, bring Camillo along with him to Sicilia. (369, 4.4.648-53).

Autolycus is now dressed as a worthy courtier since he traded his own rags for Florizel’s finery. All the same, his slippery ethos shows in the line, “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive” (369, 4.4.659-60). In the course of interacting with Camillo and Florizel, he realizes what the young man must be up to, but determines to keep the information to himself. Soon thereafter, the old shepherd and his son cross paths with Autolycus, giving him another opportunity for gain. He plays the courtier with these two peasants, who are thoroughly taken in by his imposture. Autolycus promises to bring the old shepherd and his son to Polixenes to tell his story, which Autolycus easily draws from him: “He must know ‘tis / none of your daughter nor my sister” (372, 4.4.798-99). Autolycus decides to lead these two undiscerning men directly to Florizel rather than Polixenes, the point being to find out whether their revelation poses any hazards for Florizel (373, 4.4.810-20). What Autolycus says is true enough: “If I had a mind to be honest, I see Fortune would / not suffer me; she drops booties in my mouth” (373, 4.4.810-11). Still, while Autolycus is no doubt the play’s resident Lord of Misrule, he is unable to corrupt anyone else, even if he succeeds in cozening some and concealing his identity from others. It seems that the romance world Shakespeare has built is big enough to accommodate rogues like Autolycus. As it will turn out (for so we hear from Autolycus himself), Florizel’s brief illness aboard his ship will keep him from questioning the shepherd and his son, and the story that’s theirs to tell will indeed be told directly to both Leontes and Polixenes in Sicilia, just at the right time and place to do Perdita and Florizel a good turn.

Act 5, Scene 1 (373-78, Paulina makes Leontes promise not to remarry without her consent; Florizel and Perdita arrive, reminding Leontes of what might have been; when Polixenes’s messenger accuses Florizel of disobedience, Leontes takes up his cause.)

Even as Cleomenes is telling Leontes he should forgive himself, Paulina continues to goad Leontes’s conscience: “she you killed / Would be unparalleled” (373, 5.1.15-16). Paulina’s main purpose here is to prevent the king from remarrying without her consent, and she is successful in extracting from him a promise not to do so. Leontes is not to remarry, she insists, “Unless another / As like Hermione as is her picture / affront his eye…” (375, 5.1.73-75). This new wife will of course be older than was Hermione sixteen years ago, says Paulina cryptically.

A servant announces the arrival of Florizel and his young princess (375, 5.1.85-88). Leontes declares, “I lost a couple that twixt heaven and earth / Might thus have stood, begetting wonder…” (376, 5.1.131-32). He apparently means Mamillius along with Perdita—he has cast away the immediate heir to his throne, and sees something of the young man in Florizel, who immediately attempts to deceive Leontes into believing he has arrived with his father’s blessing: “By his command / Have I here touched Sicilia…” (376, 5.1.137-38). This gambit does not go well, however, since a lord enters and announces that “Bohemia… / Desires you to attach his son, who has, / His dignity and duty both cast off…” (377, 5.1.180-82). But this new piece of information gives Leontes a redemptive opportunity to enlist himself in Florizel’s cause, and he agrees to advocate for him: “I will to your father” (378, 5.1.228). Paulina keeps up her role as general scold to Leontes’s conscience, reminding him about the loss of Mamillius (376, 5.1.115-18) and then reproaching him for his remark about Perdita to Florizel, “I’d beg your precious mistress” (378, 5.1.222), to which Paulina retorts, “Your eye hath too much youth in’t” (378, 5.1.224).

Act 5, Scene 2 (379-82, Perdita is revealed as Leontes and Hermione’s daughter; Paulina and Perdita respectively face the loss of Antigonus and Hermione; all eyes turn towards Paulina’s statue of Hermione; Autolycus receives pardon from the newly gentled shepherd and his son.)

We learn from a series of reported revelations that Perdita has at last been discovered to be Leontes’s lost daughter. The old shepherd brought his material reminders and told his story about how he found a little girl who had been abandoned (379, 5.2.3-7). A gentleman declares that it all sounds to him “so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (379, 5.2.27). In other words, it sounds just like an old winter’s tale. Nonetheless, plenty of evidence (material and otherwise) convinces everyone that it must be so (379, 5.2.29-38). There is both joy and great sadness in the revelations given in this scene since Paulina has it confirmed that Antigonus is indeed gone forever, “torn to pieces with a bear” (380, 5.2.60), and Perdita must confront the news that the mother she never saw is dead (380, 5.2.76-85).

But we also hear from yet another gentleman that Perdita is eager to behold the statue of Hermione that Paulina is said to have ordered completed by Giulio Romano (ca. 1499-1546), an actual Italian mannerist painter and architect (but not a sculptor) who worked just before the middle of the sixteenth century.[30] We are told that the statue is so excellent a piece of realism that “they say one / would speak to her and stand in hope of answer” (380, 5.2.93-94). Perhaps Shakespeare had heard of Romano’s famous illusionistic fresco in Mantua’s Palazzo del Tè titled “The Fall of the Giants” (La Caduta dei giganti), a work so skillfully designed that it blended into and seemed to dissolve the building’s architecture.[31] He may also have read in Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects about the epitaph on Romano’s lost tomb in Mantua, which said that the god Jupiter, envious of Romano’s skill as an artist who could make “sculpted and painted bodies breathe,” ordered the man killed.[32]

The last thing that happens in this scene is a piece of comic reckoning and reconciliation between Autolycus and the newly noble shepherd and son. Autolycus reveals to us that he did indeed bring this pair to be questioned by Florizel, but that nothing came of it (381, 5.2.106-15). In spite of himself, Autolycus has done no harm, but now it’s time to beg pardon of these fine rustic gentlemen, ennobled by their happy recounting of Perdita’s discovery. Autolycus implores the old man “to pardon me all the / faults I have committed … and to give me your / good report to the Prince my master” (381, 5.2.138-40). And being gentlemen, how can they refuse? The shepherd’s son has an amusing understanding of what gentility means: “If it be ne’er so false, a true gentleman may swear it / in the behalf of his friend…” (382, 5.2.151-52).

Act 5, Scene 3 (382-86, Hermione the statue appears to come back to life; Leontes is overjoyed; Camillo and Paulina are united: change and loss are accepted, making way for a partial but wonderful reconciliation and recovery.)

What remains to be achieved is the fullest possible recovery of Hermione and her reconciliation with Leontes and Perdita. Hermione must be recognized as the virtuous woman she was and still is. The plastic arts device in The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s excellent references to the power of art to transform perception and passion and to bring about reconciliation, justice, or some other desired end, and its staging here seems entirely appropriate to the romance genre.[33] The “art work” in this case is a living woman who has been liberated and who now frees Leontes from his sorrow. The play’s conclusion amounts to a romance triumph over death no less remarkable for its staged quality. No metaphysical miracle is necessary. Instead, Paulina’s artful and charitable application of what in Autolycus’s hands would be roguish shifts redeems such deception and turns it to account.

Aside from the obvious connection to the story of the sculptor Pygmalion as recounted by Ovid in the tenth book of Metamorphoses,[34] Paulina’s device may profitably be discussed in relation to ancient literary theory: we may recall the famous contest (as described by Pliny in his Natural History, Ch. 36, “Artists Who Painted with the Pencil”), between Zeuxis and Parrhasius over who could paint more realistically. Zeuxis painted some grapes so well that his painting fooled birds, but Parrhasius painted a curtain, and when Zeuxis asked him to draw back the curtain to reveal his work, Parrhasius won the contest since he had fooled Zeuxis himself. The winner knew that seeing was a matter of convention: we see what we look for. The curtain may or may not have been more realistic in terms of technical precision, but it was what Zeuxis was looking for.[35]

Like Parrhasius, Paulina has made her choice of representational strategy carefully: the statue trick she carries out is a matter of canny affective (emotional) staging: the apparent coming-back-to-life of Hermione will again demonstrate to Leontes his error, yet it will also constitute his greatest reward. The king is at first struck by the difference from his idealized, perhaps aestheticized, memory of a youthful wife, and he observes, “Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing / So aged as this seems” (383, 5.3.28-29). But even if Leontes is at first shown what he was probably looking for, the trick doesn’t end there: the statue-device is a spur to his willingness to recognize the full humanity and integrity of his long-lost wife.

Paulina’s deferral of Leontes’s desire for reunion is the last stage of his penance: while he longs to continue viewing the “statue,” Paulina feigns determination to stop him: “No longer shall you gaze on’t, lest your fancy / May think anon it moves” (384, 5.3.60-61). But at long last, Leontes, whose mad jealousy made him “see the object as in itself it really was not” (to adapt a line from Oscar Wilde[36]) and who thereby stereotyped, objectified, even killed Hermione in a sense, must be reintroduced to the real woman, now sixteen years older.

Paulina now promises to work what the audience and the bereaved husband are bound to take for a miracle: “I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend, / And take you by the hand” (384, 5.3.88-89). Hermione is not made of stone. She is a living, breathing human being, one subject to time and free to whisper and touch the hand of a dear friend, for her husband’s sake or for her own. At Paulina’s prompting, Leontes presents his hand as if to play the suitor anew, and Hermione embraces him (385, 5.3.111). All that remains for the finalization of this seeming miracle—for it makes sense to suppose that Leontes deems miraculous the simple ability to see his wife as she is, after so many years of grief and penitence—is a living human voice. So Hermione speaks, explaining that she has remained alive all these years because she knew the oracle had offered hope of Perdita’s continued existence (385, 5.3.121-28). Some may take that explanation as rather pointed, given that her long-absent husband is standing right next to her, but perhaps we are to understand that everyone’s reconciliation is equally important since Hermione has already embraced Leontes. The last item in the play is to unite Camillo and Paulina, who is still half-stunned by the recent news of Antigonus’s demise by bear sixteen years ago. Leontes effects the match without delay (386-87, 5.3.135-46).

It has been said that the solution for Leontes in The Winter’s Tale lies in re-establishing the truth of what he sees.[37] At the beginning of the play, Leontes’s jealousy had blocked the innocent backstory (the personal history between him and Hermione) that should have guaranteed the king’s continued good relationship with his queen. What remained was only the object before him, the body of Hermione. Accepting the truth of what Leontes sees, and what we see, involves not blocking this history, and allowing instead the sense of wonder at another’s goodness to remain intact. This willingness may, in turn, involve knowing or unknowing affirmation of grand forces operating within and without us: the movements of cosmic time, natural process, the maturation that experience should bring. These forces seem to underlie and ratify the fully humanized, organic act of seeing to which we bear witness in this final scene of The Winter’s Tale. Ultimately, Shakespearean romance reorients us towards an attitude of wonder not only at our own follies but also at the depth of our potential for vision and respect for our own and others’ humanity.

Finally, we know that the romance genre tries to take to itself some of the permanence and profundity of the great natural cycles of death and rebirth, decay and renewal. There is something in romance time of Shelley’s “destroyer and preserver” the West Wind,[38] and in a more quiet vein, some readers may recall the unseen but healing operations of “the secret ministry of Frost” in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.”[39] Still, Shakespeare’s romance plays don’t simply sweep away the passage of time or cancel its ravages: romance time offers regeneration, but it also encompasses death and destruction as being necessary.[40] There is a general embrace of the miraculous and the improbable in such plays, but it’s no less true that what has been lost can’t always be recovered fully, and sometimes not at all. Antigonus and Mamillius do not share in the reconciliations and recoveries that constitute the ending of The Winter’s Tale. What the characters get is not “do-overs” in the simplest sense—no straightforward “mulligans,” as golfers would say—but second chances in altered circumstances, following temporal gaps or delays. Events and persons may come full circle, but there is loss and sorrow along the way, leaving even triumphant conclusions with a bittersweet taste.

None of this is to say, however, that the romance plays are anything but ultimately hopeful and uplifting: they offer what may well be the most realistic orientation towards life with its recurrent opportunities and travails—not a proffer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in the lighter of Shakespeare’s comedies; but a kind of wisdom that allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and loss that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous second chances we may receive, however imperfect the outcome. Since Apollo powerfully represents the divine in The Winter’s Tale, it seems appropriate to give him the last word. As he tells the other gods towards the end of Homer’s Iliad, “a steadfast spirit have the Fates given unto men.”[41]

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake


[1] Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. See, for example, Ch. XVIII. “Concerning the Way in Which Princes Should Keep Faith.” Machiavelli reasons as follows: a prince should make sure that “he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious…. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many….” Trans. W. K. Marriott. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/1/2024..

[2] With regard to the classical and Renaissance concept of male-male friendship, amicitia perfecta, see the RSC’s article “Friendship in Early Modern England.” Accessed 2/29/2024.

[3] Leontes betrays an intense fear and distrust of female sexuality, a problem that Stephen Orgel covers well in “A Modern Perspective: The Winter’s Tale.” Folger Shakespeare website. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[4] The medical term for the sudden change isaffectio. Wiktionary. Accessed: 3/1/2024.

[5] A point made by Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. “The Winter’s Tale.” 639-61. See 639.

[6] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. 552, 3.3.319-21.

[7] Shakespeare. The Comical History of The Merchant of Venice. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 467-521. See 508-09, 4.1.182-200, where Portia explains that “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

[8] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. See especially 766, 1.1.93-101.1

[9] See, for example, Marsilio Ficino’s Neoplatonic theory of perception, as explained by John Shannon Hendrix in “Theories of Perception in Renaissance Humanism.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[10] See Matthew 6:23. 1599 Geneva Bible. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[11] For a brief history of Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi, see Britannica’s entry “Delphic Oracle.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[12] Elizabethan-Jacobean justice and punishment were often quite severe, even savage by our standards. One brief introduction to the subject is’s “Elizabethan Crime and Punishment.” Accessed 3/1/2024. A more detailed introduction is available at “Crime and Punishment in Elizabethan England.” Elizabethan World Reference Library.

[13] Shakespeare. As You Like It. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731. See 683-86, 1.3 and 729, 5.4.145-62.

[14] Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 406-53.

[15] With regard to the name “Perdita,” see Antigonus’s phrase “Poor thing, condemned to loss” at 339, 2.3.191; the name means “the lost one” after perditus in Latin. Shakespeare’s verse requires accenting the word on its antepenult: Pér-di-ta.

[16] On Stalin’s Great Purge and Moscow Trials, see Britannica’s entry “Great Purge.”  Regarding Hitler’s perversion of the German justice system, see’s entry “Law and Justice in the Third Reich.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[17] With regard to defying the gods, there are numerous instances of such disastrous acts in pre-classical and classical Greek and Latin literature. Among the most well-known instances is the impious decision on the part of Odysseus’s men to slaughter and eat the Cattle of the Sun-God Helios. For this heedless act, says Homer, they paid with their lives, so that only Odysseus ever makes it back home to Ithaca. See The Odyssey, Book 12.329ff. Trans. A. T. Murray. Perseus Project. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[18] Or, in Italian, “loss” itself.

[19] Shakespeare. The Play of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 150-206). 183, 4.0.47-48.

[20] La durée is Bergson’s concept of an experience of time other than what we call “objective time” (the simple passage of units of time). See The Conversation Blog’s entry or, for a rigorous philosophical discussion of this concept, see the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy’s entry “Henri Bergson.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[21] Woozles are members of the Disney stable of cartoon characters. Weasel-like, slippery creatures, their reason for existing is to steal honey, which makes them the stuff of Winnie the Pooh’s nightmares.

[22] This is a sheep-shearing festival, which is similar to other summer festivals in England. See Internet Shakespeare Editions’ entry “Village Celebrations.” On the wool trade, see History of’s entry on the Wool Trade. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[23] Regarding the debate over artifice vs. nature in horticulture (especially gardening), see Luke Morgan’s article “Garden Design and Experience in Shakespeare’s England” at Accessed 3/1/2024.

[24] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. “The Winter’s Tale.” 639-61. See 653-54.

[25] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. 805, 3.4.96-98.

[26] This coast is delightfully nonexistent since the real Bohemia is landlocked in today’s Czech Republic.

[27] See’s entry “The Rape of Proserpina.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[28] The senex iratus is one of several stock characters in Greek and Roman comedy; his role is generally to impose obstacles and make a fool of himself. The miles gloriosus or braggart soldier is another such foolish character—his vanity and ego get him into trouble every time.

[29] In Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, Robert Greene has the King of Bohemia commit suicide in despair over the irreparable harm he has caused to his family. EEBO/U-Mich. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[30] On Giulio Romano, (ca. 1499-1546), see the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Romano and ArtCyclopedia’s entry on Romano. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[31] See Atlas Obscura’s article on “The Chamber of the Giants.” Accessed 3/1/2024..

[32] See Bette Talvacchia, “The Rare Italian Master and the Posture of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.LIT, Vol. 3, #3, 1992.

[33] The “play within the play” device covers some of the same ground—we easily recall its significance in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[34] Ovid. Metamorphoses. Book X. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[35] Jana Přidalová mentions the Zeuxis anecdote in “Symbolic Images of Mimesis, Tromp l’oeil and a Veil in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale,” Brno Studies in English. 2005, vol. 31, issue 1, pp. 175-83.

[36] In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” earnest Victorian critic Matthew Arnold wrote that the imperative of criticism is “to see the object as in itself it really is.” In “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde added “not” to the end of this sentence, thereby reversing Arnold’s judgment. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[37] I owe this excellent point to UC Irvine Professor Harold Toliver, several of whose courses I was privileged to take during my time at that school.

[38] The Greeks called the West Wind Zephyros; the other three wind gods or anemoi were Boreas the North Wind, Notos the South Wind, and Euros the East Wind.

[39] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Frost at Midnight.” Poetry Accessed 3/1/2024. See also Percy B. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”

[40] Norton editor Jean E. Howard’s introduction to The Winter’s Tale (303-13) is excellent on key aspects of Shakespeare’s romances. See also Northrop Frye’s The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Rev. ed. Harvard UP, 1978.)

[41] Homer. Iliad 24.49. The Greek runs, τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν, tlēton gar Moirai thumon thesan anthrōpoisin. See Perseus Project’s text of The Iliad. Accessed 3/1/2024.

The Winter’s Tale

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. (Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd edition, pp. 303-86).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Camillo describe to Archidamus the relationship between King Leontes of Sicilia and his old friend King Polixenes of Bohemia? What mood is set, and what expectations are raised, by the brief conversation between these two lords, and by the references they make to Leontes’s son and heir Mamillius?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, what help does Leontes solicit from Hermione in his attempt to get Polixenes to prolong his visit to Sicilia a while longer? In what way, and to what extent, does Hermione’s lively conversation with Polixenes, while innocent and partly focused on his boyhood friendship with Leontes, nonetheless set the stage for the mad rush of jealousy that will soon come over Leontes?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the text represent the onset of Leontes’s jealousy? First, at what point might we say he begins experiencing jealousy, even if only mildly? What additional markers (words, gestures, etc.) soon suggest that Leontes’s affliction is intensifying during and immediately after the “pleading” interaction involving Hermione, Polixenes, and himself?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, after the part of the scene in which Hermione “woos” Polixenes to stay and then exchanges pleasantries with Leontes, how does Leontes’s interpretation of nearly everything he sees and hears change? In particular, what does he begin to think about Hermione, Mamillius, Polixenes, Camillo, and his own newborn child?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Camillo handle the dangerous dilemma that Leontes’s deranged assumptions and irrational behavior now cause for him, as the king’s counselor? How does Camillo try to deal with the enraged king, and then break the dreadful news to Polixenes that his oldest friend wants to have him killed?


6. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Hermione defend herself against the wild and very public charges that Leontes levels against her when they confront each other in the palace? What seems to be the king’s state of mind immediately before and during this distressing confrontation? In particular, what might be made of Leontes’s claim to have “drunk and seen the spider” (329, 2.1.46) at the bottom of his cup?

7. In Act 2, Scene 1, Antigonus, like Camillo before him, is faced with a thoroughly irrational master in Leontes. What is Antigonus’s strategy for turning aside Leontes’s bizarre accusations against Hermione: what strong metaphors and other devices does he employ against the king’s ranting? How does Leontes counter Antigonus? What good does he believe will come from calling upon the oracle of Apollo at Delphi? 

8. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, what necessary role does Paulina play with respect to Hermione and even Leontes? How do her speech and attitude towards the king contrast with those of the lords and of Antigonus, men who wait upon him? At 334, 2.2.40-41, she tells Emilia that she hopes the sight of his newborn child will “soften” the enraged Leontes, but in this she is disappointed. What seems like the best explanation for this failure?

9. In Act 2, Scene 3, Leontes, in response to all the pleading and criticism that come his way, decides that Hermione’s newborn child must be taken “To some remote and desert place” (225, 2.3.175), its survival left to chance. What considerations play upon Leontes in making this terrible decision, and how does Antigonus, who undertakes to carry out the deranged king’s will, construe what has just happened? In spite of the awfulness of Leontes’s decision, in what sense does it seem allied with the play’s ultimately redemptive sense of time?

10. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, how does King Leontes’s brand of tyranny compare to the injustices done by one or two other misguided or authoritarian rulers in Shakespeare’s plays? How do Acts 1 and 2 of The Winter’s Tale testify to the breakdown of the legitimate authority that Leontes so recently wielded? In your view, what exactly has gone wrong, and why is it impossible to fix the problem in a timely manner?


11. In Act 3, Scene 1, Dion and Cleomenes return to Sicilia with what they hope is good news from Apollo’s oracle. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hermione goes on trial and, while she knows the outcome is predetermined, vigorously defends herself before finally declaring, “Apollo be my judge” (343, 3.2.114). What is the basis of her self-defense? To what principle, above all, does Hermione appeal in the face of Leontes’s injustice?

12. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hermione is absolved by the god Apollo’s joltingly unambiguous oracle. What exactly does the oracle say, and how does Leontes at first respond to it? What two events finally cure the king of his jealous derangement and drive him to express remorse? What resolution does he make? While this change of attitude and understanding may seem abrupt, how might it still be said to ring true?

13. In Act 3, Scene 2, what role does Paulina play with respect to the at first arrogant but then abject Leontes? How does she react to what she believes to be the death of Queen Hermione? What does this belief initially lead her to say to the miserable Leontes? How and upon what prompting does she subsequently transform her anger into more merciful speech? Is there perhaps more to this transformation than a simple change of heart? Explain your view.

14. In Act 3, Scene 3, as Antigonus stands on the spot where he will deposit the infant Perdita upon the seacoast of Bohemia (Bohemia, now the western part of the Czech Republic, has no such coast, but no matter that), he relates to us the sad, harrowing dream that came to him the night before, in which an apparition of the supposedly dead Hermione spoke to him. What has she told him, and how does Antigonus interpret her pronouncements? What assumptions does he make about Hermione and about his own present mission as the executor of Leontes’s frightful command?

15. In Act 3, Scene 3, Antigonus, immediately after setting down the infant Perdita on a patch of coast where her survival will depend on fate, himself meets a bad end, as we learn from the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” What justification is there for the fate Antigonus suffers? Does Antigonus deserve his painful demise, or is he, to borrow a phrase from King Lear, “more sinned against than sinning”? Whatever your response, explain the reasons that lead you to make your claim.

16. In Act 3, Scene 3, the rustic clown relates Antigonus’s death in the same way that ancient tragedy made known its harshest events: as offstage occurrences. Does the clown’s narration amount to more than comic relief? Why or why not? How does the death of Antigonus, combined with his abandonment of Perdita and her discovery by an old shepherd, advance the play’s action? Moreover, how does the old shepherd (the clown’s father) understand the meaning of his own discovery of an abandoned child endowed with a letter and a considerable quantity of gold?


17. In Act 4, Scene 1, to what point in the story’s development does the character Time bring us? What power does Time claim with regard to the necessities of dramatic representation, and what does this character ask of the audience? How do you suppose a playwright such as Shakespeare would respond to neoclassical critics who insist on fidelity to the “unity of time” (i.e. who say that a play’s stage time should equal the amount of time that would pass for a similar action in real life)?

18. In Act 4, Scene 3, the itinerant trickster Autolycus enters the play with a song. What is the theme of the twenty-line song he sings, and how does it connect him to the spring festivities of Scene 4? In the prose passage below the song, what rationale does he offer us for the life he leads?

19. In Act 4, Scene 3, Autolycus cozens the shepherd’s son, the clown, stealing the money the young man carries to buy various items for the upcoming festival. Aside from the fact that he is a skillful pickpocket, what do we learn about Autolycus’s sensibilities and ethos from his interaction with the clown and from the quatrain he sings thereafter? How, for example, does he use the terms “virtue” and “vice”? And what might we make of Autolycus’s use of his own name and (perhaps) earlier circumstances during his conversation with the shepherd’s credulous son?

20. In Act 4, Scene 4, Florizel (Polixenes’s son) courts Perdita in a rustic setting. Describe the style of their courting: how do they describe each other and express their affections? What are their concerns for the present and their hopes for the future? What is the source of the difference in perspective that at once becomes apparent between them? Differences aside, how does their interaction offer us a counter-vision of courtship and sexuality, one that opposes Leontes’s dark imaginings about Hermione in Act 2?

21. In Act 4, Scene 4 (line 55ff), the old shepherd encourages Perdita to be bolder in acting the role of mistress of the spring festival (or May Queen) since he fears that she is too bashful to pull it off. How does Perdita “blossom” into the perfect hostess for the occasion? Describe her performance in conversation with the disguised visitors Polixenes and Camillo and consider as well her newly confident manner of courtship with Florizel (disguised as “Doricles” the shepherd). In what sense does she distinguish herself even as she fulfills the duties of her role as hostess to the disguised noblemen around her?

22. In Act 4, Scene 4, part of the flower-driven conversation between the disguised Polixenes and Perdita as mistress of the spring festival concerns the relative standing of artifice and nature (lines 79-103). What positions do Perdita and Polixenes, respectively, hold on the relationship between art or artifice (in the sense of human craft or design) and “nature”? Why doesn’t Perdita care to breed gillyvor flowers (streaked carnations), and what argument does Polixenes make against her view? What larger implications might this conversation have for the redemptive role Perdita plays in The Winter’s Tale?

23. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 182-333), after a dance and a servant’s excited introduction, Autolycus is ushered in and begins peddling his wares to the festival’s participants. Describe the actions and language that together make up his sales pitch: what is he selling, and how does he calibrate his pitch to his customers the shepherdesses Mopsa and Dorcas as well as the clown (the old shepherd’s son) he robbed a little while ago? What drives their interest in Autolycus’s performance?

24. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 334-440), Polixenes, upon witnessing the marriage promise between Florizel and Perdita, forbids the intended wedding. Why does this king (who had earlier spoken so positively about mixing plant stocks) object to the proposed marriage? Explain his dynastic concerns. Moreover, what claim does Polixenes make regarding his rights as a father? Finally, when you have read to the end of Scene 4, explain the simple plot function of this section in which Polixenes instantly turns into the well-worn figure of the senex iratus, or angry old man.

25. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 441-586), as Perdita despairs and Florizel waxes reckless, Camillo sees a way he can help himself even as he assists the two lovers. What is his plan? How will it help him, and how will it help Perdita and Florizel? Why does Camillo believe his plan will be so successful with the grieving King Leontes?

26. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 587-820), how does Autolycus benefit from his encounters first with Camillo, Florizel, and Perdita and then with the old shepherd and his son? How does he intend to profit from each encounter? In addition, how does Autolycus understand the principle underlying his sudden receipt of two unexpected windfalls? If The Winter’s Tale often evokes the regenerative powers of the natural world, what is the role of the rascal Autolycus within the play’s concept of nature?


27. In Act 5, Scene 1, what evolution has Paulina’s relationship with Leontes undergone by this late stage of the play? Why does she continue to trouble the repentant king’s already troubled conscience about what he has done to his wife and child? What promise does she extract from him?

28. In Act 5, Scene 1, how do the newly arrived Florizel and Perdita represent themselves to Leontes? How does he receive them—with pure joy or more bittersweet affection? Explain. What news soon arrives to undermine Florizel’s claim, and how do the interested parties plan to overcome this potentially disastrous development?

29. In Act 5, Scene 1, how, in the play’s broader context of regeneration and redemption, should we interpret the significance of Leontes’s remark in reply to Florizel that if he could have anything he wanted from Polixenes, he would “beg … [Florizel’s] precious mistress” (5.1.222)? What does Leontes’s interaction with Paulina (5.1.223-27) over this remark add to our understanding of this moment in the play?

30. In Act 5, Scene 2, how many of the play’s uncertainties are resolved during the conversation between the three gentlemen as Autolycus listens in? How, in particular, does Leontes learn the true identity of Perdita? Of what quality is his reconciliation with Polixenes after so long an absence? How do these narrative revelations prepare the way for the climactic third scene, in which Hermione is restored to Leontes and Perdita?

31. In Act 5, Scene 2, how is the conversation between the shepherd, the clown, and Autolycus connected to the play’s significant resolutions in this final act? In what sense do the shepherd and the clown now have the upper hand over Autolycus? How does the clown define the term “gentleman” now that he has been elevated to that status? And finally, how does Autolycus deal with his diminished standing towards the end of the play? What mistakes does he acknowledge, and what does he plan to do going forward?

32. In Act 5, Scene 3, Paulina, ever the skillful playwright in The Winter’s Tale, stages the marvelous (but not miraculous) transformation of a supposed statue made by the Renaissance Italian Mannerist Giulio Romano into the living Hermione. Describe the emotional journey through which Paulina takes the remorseful Leontes until she at last summons Hermione back to life, and then persuades her to speak not yet to Leontes but to Perdita. Why is Perdita accorded this privilege of being addressed first?

33. With regard to the end of Act 5, Scene 3, what significance does the statue device hold? What does this device, reminiscent of ancient fables like that of Pygmalion and his beloved statue, explain about the nature of Leontes’s error and his redemption that a less exotic strategy could not have explained so effectively? Even though the statue device is just that—something wrought by Paulina and not a miracle per se—why do the fundamental conditions of dramatic experience lead audiences to process the event as if it were miraculous? In light of the play’s romance themes and interests, in what sense might the ending be said to be miraculous or magical after all?

34. The last point of order in Act 5, Scene 3 is Leontes’s presentation of Paulina, who now knows her husband Antigonus is long dead, with an excellent new husband in Camillo. Now we have two marriages to celebrate, and effectively three since Leontes and Hermione are together again. So The Winter’s Tale ends with happy marriages, as a comedy generally does, thereby effecting the social and individual renewal that seemed so far away at the play’s beginning. Even so, we moderns classify the play as a “romance” for a reason. In what sense does The Winter’s Tale offer us a different sensibility than a rollicking farce like The Taming of the Shrew or a sunny comedy such as As You Like It? What lies beyond the reach of comic recovery in this play: what damage and loss cannot be undone or made whole, even by the wonderful reunion of Leontes and Hermione and the marriage of their beloved child with the son of a dear and equally royal friend?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake