The Winter’s Tale

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. (Norton Romances, 2nd ed. 191-271).

Act 1, Scenes 1-2 (202-03, Camillo recounts the childhood closeness of Polixenes and Leontes as well as their subsequent growing apart in royal adulthood; Camillo praises the life-affirming powers of Mamillius)

We hear how Polixenes of Bohemia and Leontes of Sicilia grew up together.  But Camillo also describes the aftermath of that upbringing in a way that could be interpreted ambivalently.  The original affection of the two men, he says, “cannot / choose but branch now” (203, 1.2.20-21), and further, that 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” (203, 1.2.22-25).  We are also told that Leontes’ little son Mamillius as an almost magical effect upon the kingdom’s subjects; the boy “makes old / hearts fresh” (203, 1.2.33-34) and even overcomes the desire of the very old to die.

Act 1, Scene 2 (203-15, Leontes stricken with jealousy when Hermione succeeds in getting Polixenes to stay; Camillo feigns compliance with Leontes’ order to kill Polixenes, but warns him to leave at once)

Leontes tries to get Polixenes to stay another week in Sicilia, but Polixenes begs off.  The way he does so turns out to be unfortunate: he says to Leontes, “There is no tongue that moves, none, none in the world / So soon as yours, could win me” (204, 1.2.20-21).  Leontes then enlists his queen Hermione, who places her charms at the king’s service.  So 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” (204, 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” (204, 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 should know from that Italian author, to paraphrase, “They deceive most easily who have a reputation for never deceiving.”  No, you just can’t trust people you can trust—they’re the worst kind!)  Polixenes brings up the subject of mature sexuality in response to Hermione’s question about who was the “verier wag” (205, 1.2.68) of the two men when they were children: “We knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed / That any did” (205, 1.2.71-73).  The following lines make it clear enough that the context is sexual, and Hermione picks up on this with a little innocent flirtation, accusing Polixenes of denigrating women as “devils” (205, 1.2.84).  These comments may constitute the spurs to Leontes’ jealousy, which I think begins to appear as early as the line, “At my request he would not [stay]” (205, 1.2.89).  Evidently, Leontes is not entirely delighted that Polixenes told him 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 a bit of competition implied here between Leontes and Hermione for the attentions of Polixenes?  It’s at least 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. 

When we move from talk to talk and gesture combined, 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: towards the end, he has to ask, “Is he won yet?” (205, 1.2.87), as if he’s been standing off to the side and giving them a bit of privacy.  If so, that mixture of public-spirited “command performance” and private intimacy is most unfortunate for Hermione, who just 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 (206,, and now Hermione has won over Polixenes in a moment.  Worse yet, she herself compares her successful suit to Polixenes to her courtship with Leontes: “I have spoke to th’purpose twice,” she says, the first time to get a husband, and the second to win the presence of a friend, at least for a time (206, 1.2.108-10).  It’s logical to suppose that after this, Hermione and Polixenes hold hands and speak or stand apart, and this rattles Leontes more than he can bear: “Too hot, too hot,” 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 …” (206, 1.2.110, 117-19).  I don’t know if 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 a bit obliquely, asks Mamillius whether he is his father’s son (206, 1.2.121-22).

Hermione’s interaction with Polixenes probably seems entirely innocent to us, just like Desdemona’s dalliance with Michael Cassio in Othello.  Or maybe it doesn’t—after all, if we’re putting ourselves in the mindset of first-time viewers, might we not share a bit of Leontes’ uncertainty?  We don’t know Hermione from Eve.  We know based on an entire reading or viewing of the play that she is in fact simply behaving generously towards her husband’s dear friend, following her husband’s lead in using her charms to win a longer stay.  This scene at the edge of happily ever after is soon shattered by Leontes’ abrupt change in passions (the medical term for the sudden change would be affectio): he sees Hermione holding hands, chatting nicely, possibly whispering, and so forth, with his old friend, and is stricken with a bout of 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 speech and gesture to be processed in the present scene, there is generally 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, I suppose it makes sense to point out that a person may not become symptomatic until the malady is well under way.  I’ve suggested already that there may be an implied sense of competitiveness between Leontes and Polixenes from their youth up, one that may account in part for the strange spell of depraved jealousy into which Leontes falls.

In any case, jealousy becomes a filter for all Leontes sees once the madness strikes him.  He categorizes himself as a confirmed cuckold: “Many thousand on’s / Have the disease and feel’t not” (209, 1.2.207-08), 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 a “traitor” now because he can’t see what Leontes believes he himself sees (209, 1.2.241-43; see also 210-11); Mamillius must be illegitimate; Hermione’s innocent words and actions are pure deception, and the child Paulina will set before his eyes at Act 2.3.65-67 seems to him to bear no resemblance to himself.  Leontes’ perceptual and interpretive apparatuses have become warped or “diseased” (to use Camillo’s term at 211, 1.2.297).  The king becomes his own Iago and shares Othello’s absoluteness and incapacity to deal with uncertainty: “Is whispering nothing?” he asks Camillo (210, 1.2.287).  As Iago says in Othello 3.3, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (Norton Tragedies 473, 3.3.326-28)  Hermione must be either a saint or a whore; 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, the quality of some charitable affections is forced and fragile.  Cordelia’s understanding of love in King Lear may be brittle-sounding and cold, but it’s probably accurate.  In a sense, we ration love: more for one person may mean less for others.  And here in Sicilia, it seems there isn’t enough to go around to make a sustainable economy of affection between Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes.  One doesn’t like to mention such unsettling things: Oscar Wilde was no doubt correct when he said that more than half of modern life depends on what one shouldn’t read.

The merciful thing is that Leontes’ inner corruption seems unable to corrupt others: Camillo stays true to Hermione, and therefore to Leontes.  He pretends that he will honor Leontes’ mad request to murder Polixenes (212, 1.2.335-36), but he refuses to poison this man, with whom he agrees regarding the destructive effects of jealousy.  Instead, Camillo informs Polixenes of Leontes’ 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’ mind (214, 1.2.424-31), and Polixenes is surprisingly lenient in his thoughts about his old friend, considering how he has been treated: “This jealousy is for a precious creature,” he acknowledges, and given the high 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 Polixenes void the scene at once (414, 1.2.451-60).  There will be a cure for the distrustful absolutist Leontes, however, 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 is emphasized in Renaissance perceptual theory (though the sense of hearing is also considered vital), and indeed 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, “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!” (Matthew 6:22, KJB)  Just now, everything has turned dark and demonic for one Leontes, King of Sicilia.

Act 2, Scene 1 (215-19, Leontes 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 sets the scene by telling the attending women and Hermione, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (215, 2.1.27).  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 (216, 2.1.47), and goes on to accuse and arrest Hermione as an adulteress, with no real hope of defense (217, 2.1.105-07).  Hermione maintains her composure well, saying “This action I now go on / Is for my better grace” (217-18, 2.1.123-24).  As so often, the good are scarcely capable of defending themselves: they don’t have the same resources available to them as do those who have no scruples about morality or whose sensibilities have been corrupted by unhealthy, excessive passions.  Hermione’s claims of innocence stand no chance against her husband’s energetic “guilt show.”

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” (218, 2.1.143-44).  But Leontes is set upon publicly and willfully declaring his wife unfaithful, and his final move in this scene is to report that he has send his assistants Cleomenes and Dion to Apollo’s temple to consult the oracle, and it is now time to take the matter public.

Act 2, Scene 2 (219-21, Paulina determines to bring Hermione’s newborn daughter into Leontes’ 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” (220, 2.2.42-43), 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 (221-27, Mamillius ill; Paulina confronts Leontes with his child; Leontes orders Antigonus to expose 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 (221, 2.3.4-9).  Mamillius has taken ill, and Leontes puts it down to the boy’s knowledge of “the dishonor of his mother” (221, 2.3.13).

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?” to which Antigonus answers, “When she will take the rein I let her run …” (222, 2.3.51).  The other characters at court aren’t corrupt; they’re just passive.  Hermione is unable to deal with Leontes’ 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 partial magic: there will be time and opportunity and good will enough to avert entire tragedy.  The 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 honour of himself, his queen’s, / His hopeful son’s, his babe’s, betrays to slander …” (223, 2.3.84-86).  She later calls him tyrant (224, 2.3.115-21), which further enrages him.  In comedy, the angry father or senex iratus is more or less 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 changing suddenly in the Forest of Arden.  But in romance drama, there must be legitimate potential for a tragic turn, and that is what we have been witnessing here.

Leontes has already declared the infant “the issue of Polixenes” (223, 2.3.94), and his only thought is to cast his wife and child into the traitor’s fire (224, 2.3.134).  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” (225, 2.3.157), though the following line “It shall not neither” makes it clear that the resolution isn’t necessarily benign.  The offer is as follows: Antigonus is to take the child and “bear it / To some remote and desert place” (225, 2.3.175-76), leaving its survival or death quite to random chance.  Leontes sees this as symmetrical justice since it came initially “by strange fortune” (225, 2.3.179) to him and so “chance may nurse or end it” (225, 2.3.183).  At least Leontes’ 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 go to work.  We may recall that shipwrecked Viola’s best decision in Twelfth Night was to commit her cause to the play’s comic time.  This is a similar moment in The Winter’s Tale, even though, of course, little “Perdita,” as she will subsequently be known (see Antigonus’ “Poor thing, condemned to loss” at 226, 2.3.192; Perdita means “the lost one” in Latin), has no idea what’s happening: the decision is made for her by a man who doesn’t mean her well (Leontes), and carried out by one who does, Antigonus. 

Finally, Leontes announces that his messengers are coming back soon with the oracle of Apollo’s pronouncement.  As for Hermione, “as she hath / Been publicly accused, so shall she have / A just and open trial” (226, 2.3.203-05), though Leontes is hardly in doubt about the verdict. 

Act 3, Scene 1 (226-27, 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 (227-32, Hermione defends herself at trial; Leontes disrespects the oracle; Mamillius is dead, and Leontes comes to his senses, Hermione faints and Paulina pronounces her dead; Paulina confronts Leontes, who vows to visit his son and wife’s shrine daily: penance, “recreation”)

Leontes, meet our modern conspiracy buffs!  The accusation against Hermione read by the officer is preposterous: she stands accused of “high treason / in committing adultery with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and / conspiring with Camillo to take away the life of our sovereign / lord the King …” (227, 3.2.13-16).  Hermione’s self-defense is noble, but of course she hasn’t a prayer of success since this is a show-trial worthy of the paranoid Soviet dictator Stalin.  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 (228, 3.2.60-64, 72-74).  Hermione’s quality shows through when she defies the threat of death: “Sir, spare your threats. / The bug which you would fright me with, I seek” (229, 3.2.89-90) and simply calls for the reading of Apollo’s judgment (229, 3.2.113-14).

Apollo’s oracle tells Leontes that he is entirely, jaw-droppingly wrong and that he must recover what he’s thrown away: “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Ca- / millo 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” (230, 3.2.131-34).  He dismisses the oracle’s words, so his ears fail him just as his eyes did.  With this impious declaration, Leontes has reached the height of madness.

The announcement of the death of his son Mamillius snaps Leontes out of his state of error, but he must live with the consequences (230, 3.2.141-45).  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” (230, 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 (230, 3.2.146-47).  What follows is an anguished confrontation with Paulina, who insists that Hermione is indeed gone (231, 3.2.201-05) but who also seems moved by Leontes’ overwhelming sorrow at his error.  Of this, she says only, “What’s gone and what’s past help / Should be past grief” (232, 3.2.230-31).  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” (232, 3.2.236-38).

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.  We will see that Paulina, in spite of her sometimes harsh words and attitude, will assist Leontes in his long time of penance, replete with frequent visits to the shrine of the woman he has wronged.

Act 3, Scene 3 (232-35, Antigonus dreams of Hermione, exposes Perdita, is eaten by a bear; shepherd discovers the child with gold; he and son plan good deeds and secure future)

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, the lost one.  Antigonus is now convinced that Hermione is dead.  He thereupon suffers the full consequences of his own failure to resist Leontes’ 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 …” (233, 3.3.32-35).  Act 3 ends on a note of savagery and tempest: “Exit, pursued by a bear” but also with great regard for the future.  It seems that in this romance play, Antigonus’ exit is Perdita’s entrance into a brave new world.  As the Old Shepherd say to his son, “Thou metst with things dying, I / with things new-born” (235, 3.3.104-05).  The gold Antigonus has left behind will become “fairy gold” (235, 3.3.112) for the shepherd who discovers the “blossom” (233, 3.2.45–Antigonus’ farewell term) Perdita, and a new world will open up for this rustic character.  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 because he has, after all, at least made a decent attempt to preserve Perdita from Leontes’ wrath. 

Act 4, Scene 1 (235-36, Time brings us forwards 16 years and sets us down to see the rest: Perdita is now a young woman)

The Chorus player speaks in the character of “Time” to tell us that he is within his rights to turn the clock forwards 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’ son, Prince Florizel.  The Choral pronouncement may remind some of Shakespeare’s use of old John Gower (his source for Pericles, Prince of Tyre)who says at the beginning of Act 4 in that play, “Only I carry winged Time / Post on the lame feet of my rhyme …” (Pericles 166, Scene 15 or Act 4, lines 47-48).  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” (236, 4.1.26-27).  Perhaps this manner of treating time seems unrealistic; but then, in keeping with my belief that Shakespeare’s romance plays have settled into a representational strategy that may involve a higher degree of realism than either tragedy or comedy, I would suggest that we can actually experience time’s passage much the same way—a way that cannot be captured by neoclassical demands for nearly absolute fidelity to the so-called “unity of time.”  Especially for older people, I suspect (since I find it so in my own experience), the passage of many years often seems to have happened in an instant; at least, that’s the way one remembers it.  When I am reminded of landmark events in world history or even in my own personal history, I am perpetually surprised to hear the closing line, “and that happened twenty years ago to the day” when I thought it had occurred only a few years ago.  Call it a trick of memory, but this experience of temporality is by no means uncommon.

Act 4, Scenes 2-3 (236-40, Camillo’s desire to return to Sicilia frustrated by Polixenes, who is gathering intelligence on absent Florizel: they will visit the shepherd in disguise; Autolycus gives us his resume, robs the shepherd’s son, and plans to crash the sheep-shearing festival)

In the first scene, Camillo yearns to make his return back to Sicilia, but Polixenes won’t grant his wish (236, 4.1.16-17).  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” (237, 4.2.41-42) with him.

Autolycus, who enters at 4.3 declaring himself at present “out of service” (237, 4.3.14), is a woozle—he’s a trickster, an opportunist, a businessman who deals in stolen “sheets” or linens (238, 4.3.23).  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 commercialism and bawdiness.  Even here, before the festivities, he manages to rob the shepherd’s son by feigning victimhood and denouncing one “Autolycus” (namely, himself) as the fellow who robbed him: a man of shady devices and dubious career (239, 4.3.86-91).  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” (237, 4.3.4).  He is a creature who hails the coming of spring and new life.  In this sense, he will have a role in the bittersweet comic resolution of the play’s final two acts.

Act 4, Scene 4 (240-59, Florizel courts Perdita; Polixenes talks “lit crit” with Perdita: nature and / or artifice? Dancing before and after.  Autolycus crashes the festivities; Polixenes exposes Florizel and issues threats over “base” marriage; Camillo promises to help Florizel; Florizel exchanges clothes with Autolycus; Autolycus plays courtier to dupe shepherd and son, whom he will bring to Florizel’s ship, not to Polixenes as they wish)

This scene, perhaps 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’s 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 …” (240, 4.4.18-20).  To which anxiety, Florizel asserts the universality of disguising in erotic pursuits: “The gods themselves, / … have taken / The shapes of beasts upon them” (240, 4.4.25-27).  Anxieties, aside, Perdita will be “mistress o’th’feast” (241, 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.  Perdita and Polixenes engage in a bit of “lit-crit,” a discussion about the emblematic significance of certain flowers (“streaked gillyvors,” or colorful carnations) and ultimately about the respective merits of artifice and nature.  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” (242, 4.4.95-97).  While Perdita wants only what’s available in her own rustic garden, Polixenes sees no problem with improving what nature offers freely.  Perdita, ever the nature-goddess-tending maiden, isn’t convinced, but Polixenes’ argument comes off as wise—or at least if would if he didn’t become enraged upon finding out that his son Florizel would have him mix the aristocratic 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 man,” not what King Lear mistakenly supposes he sees in Edgar as Poor Tom: “Thou are the thing itself: unac- / commodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked / animal as thou art” (Norton Tragedies, 779, 3.4.98-100). 

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 (and delightfully nonexistent, since the real “Bohemia” is landlocked in today’s Czech Republic) seacoast of Bohemia.  Her grace is demonstrated by the effect her presence has on Florizel.  Her own playful words give just a hint of Ovidian sportfulness (243, 4.4.114-29), where she invokes Proserpina, but modesty at once makes her take it back: “Sure this robe of mine / Does change my disposition” (243, 4.4.133-34).  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” (243, 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’ 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 in Act 1, Scene 2) 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’ penance, but also his reward for his long-suffering fidelity after the initial mistake.  Perdita is the statue and the living being at the same time: she is artifice in motion, and is what Leontes must accept.  That may mean we are flawed, but it’s just the way we are, and we must accept it.  Leontes initially could not give Hermione so much credit as a fully human being.  It is clear from the passage quoted just above that Florizel, unlike Leontes, is able to see these qualities in his Perdita: “What you do / Still betters what is done” (243, 4.4.135).

Autolycus is a 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 pedlar at the door, / you would never dance again after a tabor and pipe” (244, 4.4.182-83).  This same servant is unable to register the bawdy quality of the songs that Autolycus offers his rustic audience. 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 as well later uses the arts of deception in a healthy cause, which links her to the trickster of Act 4, Scene 4.  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 into 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” (244, 4.4.167) and later, there is a “dance of twelve satyrs” (248, 4.4.328).

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, a while, beseech you. / Have you a father?”  (249, 4.4.377-78), 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” (249, 4.4.396-98).  Polixenes proceeds to threaten not only the old shepherd but also Florizel and even Perdita with dire consequences (250, 4.4.407-10, 415-19, 422-29).  As in some of Shakespeare’s comedies, we have run into the classical figure of the senex iratus, the angry old man.  Polixenes’ 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 of mine at UC Irvine pointed out, the old need to be convinced of the worthiness of the new.  This point holds true even though romance quests are partly about reintegration and renewal through marriage of the young.  After all (and here Shakespeare departs from Greene’s Pandosto), the present play centers on the reunification of Leontes and Hermione, the older generation.  Polixenes feels that Florizel has cast off his identity, and the fourth act legitimately involves Polixenes’ dynastic concerns.

In his distress, Florizel turns to Camillo (251-52, 4.4.475-84), who has a reason of his own for wanting to help: he wants to make his way back to Sicilia: “Now were I happy if / His going I could frame to serve my turn…” (252, 4.4.496-97).  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 many questions, and with a little inside information that Camillo himself will provide, the way to Leontes’ good graces will be smooth (253, 4.4.  530-48).

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 (255, 4.4.616-21).  To himself and us, Camillo admits that he plans to tell Polixenes about Florizel’s flight , which will of course rouse the father to go after him (255, 4.4.645-51). 

Autolycus’ ethos shows in the line, “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive” (256, 4.4.656).  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, or thoroughly taken in by his imposture.  Autolycus promises to bring the old shepherd and his son to Polixenes to tell his story, which of course Autolycus draws from him: “He must / know ‘tis none of your daughter, nor my sister” (258, 4.4.789-90).  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 (259, 4.4.801-09).  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” (259, 4.4.801-02).  Still, while his 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.

Act 5, Scene 1 (259-64, Paulina makes Leontes promise not to remarry without her consent; Florizel and Perdita arrive, reminding Leontes of what might have been; when Polixenes’ 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’ conscience: “she you killed / Would be unparalleled” (259, 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…” (261-5.1.72-74).  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 (261, 5.1.85-88).  Leontes declares, “I lost a couple that twixt heaven and earth / Might thus have stood, begetting wonder…” (262, 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…” (262, 5.1.138-39).  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…” (263, 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” (264, 5.1.228).  Paulina, we might want to mention, keeps up her role as general scold to Leontes’ conscience, reminding him about the loss of Mamillius (262, 5.1.115-18) and then reproaching him for his remark about Perdita to Florizel, “I’d beg your precious mistress” (264, 5.1.222), to which Paulina retorts, “Your eye hath too much youth in’t” (264, 5.1.224).

Act 5, Scene 2 (265-68, Perdita 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 begs and 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’ lost daughter.  The old shepherd brought his material reminders and told his story about how he found a little girl who had been abandoned (265, 5.2.2-6).  A gentleman declares that it all sounds to him “so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (265, 5.2.26).  Nonetheless, plenty of evidence (material and otherwise) convinces everyone that it must be so (265, 5.2.30-36).  There is both joy and great sadness in the revelations given in this scene since Paulina has it confirmed that her Antigonus is indeed gone forever, “torn to pieces with a bear” (266, 5.2.57), and Perdita must confront the news that the mother she never saw is dead (266, 5.2.74-83).  But we also hear from yet another gentleman that Perdita is more than eager to behold the statue of Hermione that Paulina is said to have ordered completed by one Giulio Romano (see also ArtCyclopedia’s entry on Romano, ca. 1499-1546), an actual Italian mannerist painter who worked just before the middle of the sixteenth century.  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” (266, 5.2.91-92).

The last thing that happens in this scene is a piece of comic reckoning and reconciliation between Autolycus and the newly gentle shepherd and son.  Autolycus reveals to us that he did indeed bring this pair to be questioned by Florizel, but that nothing much came of it (267, 5.2.102-10).  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 relation 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” (267, 5.2.133-35).  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…” (267-68, 5.2.246-47).

Act 5, Scene 3 (268-71, Hermione the statue appears to come back to life; Leontes overjoyed; Camillo and Paulina united: change and loss accepted, making way for a partial but wondrous 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, and its staging here seems particularly appropriate to the romance genre.  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 wonderful for its trickery and staginess.  No metaphysical miracle is necessary.  Instead, Paulina’s artful and charitable application of Autolycus’ 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, Paulina’s device may have affinities with ancient literary theory: we may recall the famous contest (as described by Pliny in Chapter 36, “Artists Who Painted with the Pencil” of his book Historia Naturalis), 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.  That curtain may or may not have been more realistic in terms of technical precision, but it was what Zeuxis was looking for.  Like Parrhasius, Paulina has made her choice in representational strategy carefully: the statue trick she carries out is a matter of careful 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: “Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing / So agèd as this seems” (269, 5.3.28-29).  But even if he is at first shown what he was probably looking for, the “trick” doesn’t end there: it is a spur to his willingness to recognize the full humanity and integrity of his long-lost wife.

Paulina’s deferral of Leontes’ desire for reunion is the last stage of his penance: when he longs to keep viewing the “statue,” Paulina feigns determination to stop him: “No longer shall you gaze on’t, lest your fancy / May think anon it moves” (269, 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 recontextualize a line from Oscar Wilde) 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” (270, 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 (271, 5.3.112).  All that remains for the finalization of this seeming miracle—for 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 (271, 5.3.127-29).  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 the reconciliation of all 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’ bear-demise sixteen years ago.  Leontes effects the match without delay (171, 5.3.136-47).

According to Professor Harold Toliver of UC Irvine in a lecture I attended years ago, the play’s solution for Leontes lies in re-establishing the truth of what he sees.  At the beginning of the play, Leontes’ jealousy had blocked the innocent backstory (their personal history together) that should have guaranteed the king’s relationship with his queen; what remained was only the object before him, the body of Hermione.  Accepting the truth of what Leontes 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 unknowing affirmation of grand forces operating within and without us: the movements of cosmic time, natural process, unconscious maturation.  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 romance in general 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 (the Greeks called it Zephyros; the other three wind gods or anemoi were Boreas the North Wind, Notos the South Wind, and Euros the East Wind), 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.”  Shakespeare’s romance plays don’t simply sweep away the passage of time or cancel out its ravages: romance time offers regeneration, but it also encompasses death and destruction as necessary.  (Norton editor Jean E. Howard’s introduction to The Winter’s Tale 191-200 is excellent on the above aspects of Shakespeare’s romances, and the great myth critic Northrop Frye’s work on the romance genre can hardly go without mention.)  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 we get is not second chances or “do-overs” in the simplest sense but rather second chances in altered circumstances; 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 mostly 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 partial the outcome.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Winter’s Tale

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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


1. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the text represent the onset of Leontes’ jealousy? When, exactly, does he first become jealous? How does he interpret what he sees and hears before and after this onset? How might the first scene be described as a setup for Leontes’ unsettling transformation?

2. What effects does Leontes’ insane behavior have on those around him? How does Camillo in particular handle his predicament? How does his reaction compare to one or more other servants who suffer unjustly at the hands of their masters in Shakespeare’s plays?


3. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Hermione defend herself against the charges Leontes levels against her? How does she compare in this regard to, say, Desdemona from Othello, Cordelia from King Lear, or Imogen from Cymbeline? (You might want to consider also her remarks during the trial scene in Act 3, Scene 2.)

4. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, what role does Paulina play with respect to Hermione? How do her speech and attitude towards Leontes contrast with those of the Lords and of Antigonus, men who wait upon the King?

5. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, what considerations play upon Leontes? How do these scenes chronicle the breakdown of Leontes’ authority in his own court? How does this King’s brand of “tyranny” in wielding power compare to that of either Cymbeline or King Lear?


6. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hermione goes on trial and is absolved by the god Apollo’s unambiguous oracle. How does its reading affect Leontes? What brings the king to express remorse — what cures him of the state he’s been in since jealously first took hold of him, and what resolution does he make? Leontes’ change of heart may seem unrealistic, but in what sense might it be said to ring true?

7. In Act 3, Scene 3, Antigonus deposits the infant Perdita upon the “seacoast” of Bohemia, and 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, and how does the Clown’s relation of it afterwards amount to more than comic relief? In other words, how does the death of this character, combined with the abandonment of Perdita and her discovery by an old Shepherd, move the drama forwards both plotwise and thematically?


8. In Act 4, Scene 1, what powers does “Time” claim with regard to dramatic representation? What does “Time” ask of the play-going audience of Shakespeare’s day or, indeed, of any audience in any age?

9. In Act 4, Scenes 3 and 4, Autolycus enters the play with a song and takes part in the shepherds’ festivities. What ethos informs this character’s actions? What does he do in these scenes, and what effects do his actions have on others? How, if at all, does his presence at the festivities alter your perception of them?

10. In Act 4, Scene 4, Florizel (Polixenes’ son) courts Perdita in a rustic setting. Describe the style of their courting: how do they describe each other’s person and their affection for each other? What are their concerns for the present and their hopes for the future? How does their interaction offer us a “counter-vision” of sexuality, one that opposes Leontes’ dark imaginings about Hermione in Act 2?

11. In Act 4, Scene 4, Polixenes (in disguise) engages Perdita in a conversation about the relationship between artifice and nature. What position does each hold on this relationship — why doesn’t Perdita care for gillyvor flowers, and what argument does Polixenes make against her view? What larger implications does this conversation have for the redemptive role Perdita plays in The Winter’s Tale?

12. In Act 4, Scene 4, Polixenes reveals his true identity and spoils the intended wedding of his son Florizel with Perdita. Why does the King object to this marriage? Explain his concerns in terms of dynastic matters or statecraft. What claims does Polixenes make regarding his rights as a father, aside from these obvious matters of state?


13. 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?

14. In Act 5, Scene 1, how do the newly arrived Florizel and Perdita represent themselves to King Leontes? He does he receive them?

15. In Act 5, Scene 2, how does Leontes learn the true identity of Perdita as his long-lost daughter? How is the conversation between the Shepherd, the Clown, and Autolycus connected to or illustrative of the play’s more significant resolutions in this final act? To what extent does the traditional “rustics versus court-dwellers” argument matter in The Winter’s Tale? Is it central, or are other oppositions, patterns, and themes more important? Discuss.

16. In Act 5, Scene 3, Paulina stages the marvelous (but feigned) transformation of a supposed statue made by the Italian Julio Romano into the living Hermione. Paulina has, of course, known that Hermione was alive all the while. What is gained from the particular manner in which Hermione is revealed to Leontes and the entire court?

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 © 2012 Alfred J. Drake