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?

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.

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