The Winter's Tale

By William Shakespeare


The Winter's Tale is justly celebrated for two moments: the wonderful and pseudo-magical rediscovery of Hermione in Act 5 Scene 3, and its parade of small insignificant humans in the thrall of time and fate, for example in Florizel's lyrical coronation of Perdita:

"What you do
Still betters what is done; when you speak sweet,
I'd have you do it ever, when you sing
I'd have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so, and, for the ord'ring of your affairs,
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you
A wave of the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing, in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens." (4.4.135 - 146)

On the other hand, the play has been disparaged: it offends dramatic unity and plausibility, it reverses the most desperate and destructive jealousy into reconciliation and rebirth, juxtaposes high tragedy with low comedy, theatre with courtly display. The Winter's Tale's critical reception demonstrates an equally extreme range, from those who see in it the sloppiness of a playwright past his prime to those who see a profound artistic and symbolic meditation.

It is crucial to note the period in which it was written. Fortunately, biographical readings of Shakespeare's works are limited by the lack of information about the man himself. We do know, however, the approximate dates of most of the plays' composition or first performance. The Winter's Tale was written in the final stage of Shakespeare's writing career, with The Tempest and the other 'Romances': Pericles and Cymbeline. It is with The Tempest that The Winter's Tale shares the most conceptually. The Tempest is carefully designed to conform to the classical dramatic unities of time and place: aside from the storm scene, the entire play takes place on a small island and within a matter of days. The Winter's Tale takes the opposite stance and takes place in numerous places and is divided up somewhat uncomfortably by years. It is as if Shakespeare, in his final plays, self- consciously attempted to work on the extremes of dramatic convention.