‘The Winter’s Tale‘ was first published in the First Folio. There is no known Quarto. The first known performance is at The Globe in 1611. The main source of the play is Greene’s Pandosto, a prose romance published in 1588, which Shakespeare closely used.
The play is a play of two halves.
The first half is an intense psychological study of jealousy and paranoia, whilst the second half is a pastoral comedy, almost a fairy tale, which provides the happy ending.
In the first half, Leontes, the king of Sicily, and his pregnant wife Hermione, are being visited by Leontes’ childhood friend, Polixines, now king of Bohemia. A great time has been had by all, but Polixines feels it is time to go home. Leontes tries unsuccessfully to persuade him to stay longer.
When this fails to move Polixines, Leontes asks Hermione to persuade him to stay. Hermione speaks elegantly and persuasively and quickly persuades Polixines to stay. Her success, and the elegance of her speech persuades Leontes, that Hermione and Polixines are lovers and that Polixines has made her pregnant.
Hermione is sent to prison, and though all the court try to persuade Leontes that he is wrong and the child is his, this only increases his paranoia.
Polixines returns to Bohemia, and when Hermione’s daughter is born, one of the courtiers takes the child away to be abandoned in the desert, in order to save her from instant death. This leads to the death of Polixines’ son, and the supposed death of Hermione.
Leontes is stricken with guilt.
The second half of the play takes place sixteen year’s later.
Hermione’s daughter, Perdita, was found in the desert by a shepherd who has brought her up. Polixines’ son Florizel has fallen in love with her.
At a bucolic feast to celebrate the completion of sheep-shearing, he asks her to marry him and she agrees. However, Polixines is at the feast in disguise, he reveals himself, and tells his son not to marry Perdita, or lose his inheritance.
Florizel and Perdita sail away to Sicily, but Polixines follows them. In Sicily, Leontes is still mourning the loss of his wife and daughter and has repented of his madness. Florizel and Perdita arrive and it is soon established that Perdita is Leontes’ son, so Florizel and Perdita can marry.
They go to see a stone statue of Hermione, but it turns out that she is the living Hermione, who has been hiding from Leontes until her daughter was found.
Throughout this second half there is much delightful comic business, singing, and dancing, mostly provided by the Shepherd (who found Perdita), his son ‘The Clown’, and Autolycus, a roguish peddler, vagabond, and pick-pocket.
Considerations for C21 production
The play has a number of difficulties for modern productions:
Perhaps the most difficult problem is marrying up the two very different halves of the play. In these late plays, Shakespeare seems less interest in providing a coherent plot, than in moving the audience, so the storylines are quite difficult to pull together.
In the first half, the shift from a happy party, to a jealous and paranoid Leontes happens very quickly. What takes the whole of Othello (to raise Othello’s jealousy to the point of murder) takes about half a scene in “The Winter’s Tale”. Also, perhaps modern male obsessions with jealousy and cuckoldry are less to the fore, than in the sixteenth century, so Leontes’ sudden jealousy and paranoia is difficult to make ring true.
The second half is delightful fun with loads of opportunity for comic business, singing, and dancing, and fairytale-endings, but very difficult to tie-up to the first half of the play.