The Winter’s Tale is an often underestimated play. However, I believe this intriguing work is definitely worth exploring. It’s often referred to as a problem play as it doesn’t distinctly fit into any one category, and for good reason. There is no other Shakespeare play with such a stark contrast between acts. At the opening of the play we find ourselves in a dark political drama, filled with deception, heartbreak and betrayal. However, at the opening of the second half of the play, we travel to a far away land full of exuberance and fun. All of a sudden we are in a lively romantic comedy. You can see why this might be a bit confusing. To help us better understand this play we’ve broken down the moving parts of this Tale of epic proportions.
Winter’s Tale comes in at number 20 on our list of Best Shakespeare Plays.
We begin our play with a catch up between two old mates. Leontes, King of Sicily and Polixenes, King of Bohemia. They’ve been having a grand old time, but after nine long months Polixenes is keen to hit the road. Leontes desperately wants Polixenes to stay longer, but he isn’t have much luck. He decides to end Hermione, his and Queen, to try to convince the Bohemian King, and she agrees to do so. In no time at all she convinces him to stay a little longer. Howray! Right? Wrong. Leontes is perplexed as to how she was able to convince him to stay so easily when he had failed, and suddenly grows suspicious that they’re having an affair and that the child she is pregnant with is Polixenes’. So he orders Camillo, one of his Lords, to poison him, and Camillo’s like “totally! I’ll definitely do that!”. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t and instead tell Polixenes and the two flee to Bohemia.
Leontes gets super mad and publicly accuses Hermione of being unfaithful, claiming the child she is bearing to be illegitimate. He throws her in prison against almost everyone’s wishes and sends two Lords, Cleomenes and Dion to the Oracle to get some answers and some truth.
Meanwhile, in the prison, Hermione gives birth to a girl and her best friend Paulina takes the child and presents her to the King in the hope that she will get him to see the error of his ways. But this just makes him angrier and he orders Antigonus, Paulinas husband, to go and abandon the child in a desolate place.
(Act IV Scene I)
Cleomenes and Dion return from the oracle to find that Leontes has put Hermione on trial for her “crimes”. Hermione unwaveringly asserts her innocence to the court and asks for the word of the oracle to prove it. The oracle is read and says that Hermione, Polixenes and Camillo are categorically innocent and that Leontes will have no heir until his lost daughter is found. Leontes is like “Fake News!” and doesn’t believe the oracle, despite the fact that he’s the one that sent for it! However as this is revealed word comes to Leontes that his son Mamilius has died from a wasting sickness brought on by the accusations against his mother. Hermione faints at this news and is carried out by Paulina, who quickly reports back to Leontes that she has died of a broken heart. Only now does Leontes see the error of his ways, and vows to spend the rest of his days in atonement for his son, daughter and queen.
Meanwhile, Antigonus decides to abandon the baby on the coast of Bohemia, but not to die. He leaves her in a bundle, away from the water, with gold and trinkets to suggest that she is of noble blood. He says that Hermione appeared to him in a dream and told him to name her Perdita, and so he does. Suddenly his ship is destroyed by a violent storm, and as he goes to take pity on the child and potentially save her, he is chased away by a bear and exeunts. Not long after, the baby is found by a Shepherd and his son, otherwise known as ‘Clown’.
16 years pass and we find ourselves in Bohemia. If you think Polixenes was in Sicily for a long time, well he’s got nothing on Camillo, who is still in Bohemia. He’s growing homesick and says he wants to go home to Polixenes. Polixenes is like “No way! My son Florizel wants to get married to this Shepherd girl named Perdita!” He suggests that to take his mind off his home, the two disguise themselves and go to the sheep shearing festival where the two are set to be married. And so they go to the sheep shearing festival being held by the Shepherd we met before. He’s managed to quite well for himself off the back of all the gold he found in the bundle. Polixenes and Camillo go unnoticed as they watch Florizel (Under the guise of a Shepherd named Doricles) and Perdita be married. Tearing his disguise off Polixenes threatens the Shepherd and Perdita with death and torture for what they’ve done, and orders the two never to see each other again. Camillo, always the most rational person, helps the two to escape in disguise together to Sicily, followed in disguise by the old Shepherd and his son.
We now come back to Sicily where Leontes is still mourning the loss of his loved ones. Cleomenes and Dion are begging the King to move on because the Kingdom needs an heir, but Paulina convinces him to stay unmarried, saying that no one will ever live up to Hermione. Florizel and Perdita arrive in Sicily and are greeted kindly by Leontes. Florizel claims to be on a diplomatic mission from his father, but his cover is blown when his father Polixenes arrives in Sicily as well! The meeting and reconciliation of the kings and princes is reported by gentlemen of the Sicilian court: how the Old Shepherd raised Perdita, how Antigonus met his end, how Leontes was overjoyed at being reunited with his daughter, and how he begged Polixenes for forgiveness. They all go to Paulinas house to see a statue of Hermione that was recently finished. Upon the sight of his late Queen’s form Leontes becomes distraught. But all of a sudden the statue shows signs of life, and Hermione is restored. The play ends with the engagement of Perdita and Florizel, but the air of grief at the loss of Mamilius lingers on.
Leontes – The King of Sicily, and the childhood friend of the Bohemian King Polixenes.
Hermione – The virtuous and beautiful Queen of Sicily.
Camillo – An honest Sicilian nobleman.
Paulina – A noblewoman of Sicily.
Antigonus – Paulina’s husband, and also a loyal friend of Hermione.
Dion – A lord of Sicily.
Cleomenes – A Sicilian lord.
Mamilius – The young prince of Sicily, Leontes and Hermione’s son.
Emilia One of Hermione’s ladies-in-waiting.
Gaoler Charged with imprisoning Hermione.
Mariner – His ship takes Antigonus to Bohemia.
Polixenes – The King of Bohemia, and Leontes’s boyhood friend.
Florizel Polixenes’s only son and heir.
Perdita – The daughter of Leontes and Hermione, unaware of her royal lineage.
Shepherd – An old and honorable sheep-tender.
Clown – or Young Shepherd, the Old Shepherd’s buffoonish son, and Perdita’s adopted brother.
Autolycus – A roguish peddler, vagabond, and pickpocket.
Mopsa – A shepherdess, in love with Young Shepherd.
Dorcas – A shepherdess, in love with Young Shepherd.
Archidamus – A lord of Bohemia, visiting Sicilia with his king.
Lords, servants, gentlemen, ladies in Sicilia
Shepherds, shepherdesses, servants in Bohemia
HermioneAct 3, Scene 2 ‘Sir, spare your threats’
Paulina, Act 3 Scene 2 ‘What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?’
AntigonusAct 3, Scene 3, Line 21, ‘Come, poor babe’
LeontesAct 1, Scene 2, Line 215, ‘To your own bents, dispose you’