The Winter’s Tale is a Shakespearean play that keeps you on your toes.
Basically, a king gets it in his head that his wife, the queen, cheated on him and is about to deliver another king’s baby. His claims are completely false, and he is even proven wrong by an oracle, however, he is not convinced until the death of his son, his new baby daughter, and his wife. His daughter is actually raised by a shepherd, and his wife, well, she’ll come back later. Unfortunately, his son, who had died of grief for the way his mother was treated, does not come back.
The king’s wife, Hermione, comes back to life. The daughter, Perdita, falls in love with a prince and everything ends well, but it’s a bit of a crazy ride to get to the ending.
This all sounds pretty typical for a Shakespeare play, but after giving the play a read and looking closer at the structure of the story it can only make one think…. hm… that was kind of a weird play.
Let’s start by looking at the structure of this play. We start the story with Leontes, the King of Sicilia, suddenly becoming convinced that his wife, Hermione, has cheated on him. This leads to all sorts of strife, including but not limited to –
The imprisonment of the heavily pregnant Hermione
The death of Leontes and Hermione’s son
He dies from grief because of his mother’s treatment
The loss of a close friendship with the King of Bohemia, Polixenes
The death of a Sicilian courtier, Antigonus
The supposed death of the king’s new baby daughter, Perdita
From Leontes’s perspective, four people are dead exclusively because of him. He loses his wife, his young son, and his new baby girl, and only after these tragic events does he realize his mistakes.
These are all pretty sad events in the comedy, The Winter’s Tale. Wait… did I type that wrong? The comedy… no that’s right. How is that right? How is this play possibly a comedy?
Well, the second part of the play certainly lightens the mood. But many scholars actually consider The Winter’s Tale to be one of the “problem plays.” Shakespeare has a handful of plays that are ambiguous in their genres, like The Winter’s Tale. Fun, right?
At least Shakespeare jumps right in and gets to the good stuff in the second part.
After sixteen years…. oof.
That’s correct, there is a sixteen-year break in the play. Luckily you don’t have to wait out the sixteen years like Leontes did. He got to spend sixteen years as a widower king with no children all because he was convinced of something that was a lie.
Now I’m going to back up just a little bit, to right before those lengthy sixteen years.
Leontes in his rage against Hermione, commands Antigonus to take baby Perdita and abandon her, ensuring her death. Antigonus cannot do this though. He instead takes Perdita away to a beach and sets her down with some supplies. Before he can do too much else he is then PURSUED BY A BEAR.
This must be one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions. And if it’s the only thing you take away from this reading, I will be satisfied. The bear chase is one of the last things to happen before the gap and beginning of the second half of the play. Not only is it an interesting choice, but it also catches the audience off guard, especially if it was a live BEAR on stage. Shakespeare chooses to end the tragedy half of The Winter’s Tale with this bear attack, meaning it is the last bad thing to happen in the play.
I imagine a very specific mood would be set with this stage direction. You could decide to put someone in a costume and make it a little funny. Watching a man in a big fur suit lumber across the stage would certainly set the tone for some funny antics to come. However, there is also the serious, more solemn route. Antigonus being chased by a bear, and the audience knowing he is now dead… that’s less funny if you let it sit with the audience.
Regardless of the bear though, the second part of the play is full of miracles, and love.
The second half of the play opens with Time, the chorus. Now, Shakespeare usually closes out his plays with a character coming forward and addressing the audience and thanking them for watching, wishing them well, or simply just saying, I hope you liked it but if you didn’t it’s over now.
In The Winter’s Tale, this part is in the middle of the play. Why not?
Time fittingly tells us that the sixteen years have passed, and then we get on with the play.
Perdita, a Sicilian princess raised by a shepherd’s family in Bohemia, now sixteen and hosting a sheep shearing contest, catches the eye of the prince of Bohemia. She is fair and kind and he cannot take his eyes off of her.
Her identity is proven by the box Antigonus left with her as a baby. It held jewels that proved her royal heritage.
Now that the young lovers are happy, and everything is well in Bohemia we turn back to Sicilia and King Leontes. He is still broken and shattered from his terrible decisions sixteen years ago. And when he is shown a statue of his dead wife Hermione, he cannot help but see it as a lifelike rendition. It’s then revealed that Hermione was a statue for sixteen years and has come back to life. She can now be with her husband and her newly recovered daughter.
The play ends with most everyone happy and fulfilled. But it leaves a lot of questions. Was Hermione really a statue for sixteen years? Did the bear get a happy ending? If Bohemia is landlocked then how did Antigonus leave baby Perdita on the coast? When is the next sheep shearing festival and can I go?
Image 1 – https://thumbs.imagekind.com/3117240_650/Winters-Tale-Act–Scene-_art.jpg?v=1492309132
Image 2 – https://tedmorrissey.files.wordpress.com/2021/07/antigonus_chased_by_a_bear.jpg?w=538
One of my favorites, with a great overview and discussion.