The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare

January is Shakespeare Month at the Classics Club, and so I read "The Winter's Tale."   I knew the basic storyline, and I may have read it in college, but I'm not sure about that.  Anyway, it made for a nice Shakespearean interlude, and after that I got ambitious enough to start "Richard III," which I'm hoping to finish before the month ends.  Wish me luck, since I'm still on I.3.

Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, have been best friends since boyhood.  Polixenes is on an extended visit with Leontes and his queen Hermione, but when he accedes to Hermione's request to stay longer, Leontes becomes uncontrollably jealous and paranoid.  Although everyone in the court reminds him of Hermione's perfect character, he convinces himself that she is unfaithful and that her children are not his.  He orders his new infant daughter taken away and exposed, and even assurance from the oracle at Delphi fails to placate him.  Leontes puts Hermione on trial for treason, and only realizes his mistake when his son, the prince, and Hermione both die of sorrow.  Meanwhile, daughter Perdita is brought up by a shepherd in Bohemia, and sixteen years later, all will change.

1866 chromolithograph by Owen Jones and Henry Warren
Here is a sample for you.  This is Paulina, Hermione's lady-in-waiting, trying to persuade Leontes to accept his daughter and abandon his paranoia, to which he responds with a threat of burning at the stake
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in't. I'll not call you tyrant;
But this most cruel usage of your queen,
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours
Of tyranny and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world.
I don't exactly know if this is a comedy or something a bit more vague.  It's not very funny and there is a lot of pyschological drama, but there is a wedding or two at the end and nobody dies.  Some have called it a "late romance," which seems reasonable.

Although "Winter's Tale" has not produced as many famous quotations as, say, "Hamlet," you would recognize a few.  Here is found the phrase "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles" and the world's best stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear." Even better, there is no mention of a bear until that line!  Oh, and this speech, which rings so true to so many: 
I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting--

"The Winter's Tale" is a Shakespearean example of a novel made into a play!  Yes, just like so many modern filmmakers, Elizabethan playwrights were happy to turn popular works of fiction into plays.  This story is based directly on the short prose romance Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (or, The Historie of Dorastus and Fawnia), a tremendously popular work published in 1588.  Shakespeare's version was first produced in 1511, and everyone would have known the connection.


  1. I've wanted to read the historical Shakesperean plays for quite a while now. I look forward to your Richard III review because that is the play I'm currently interested in reading.

  2. Thanks! I am certainly finding it harder going. I fancy I know a reasonable amount about the history, but I cannot for the life of me keep all the characters straight. They all have two names, one first name and one title (like Clarence), and their first names are all Edward or George. It's awful.

  3. Oh, too bad you're having a hard time with Richard III! I think that's one that's easier to watch than to read, just because of there being so many characters with similar/boring names. Are you enjoying how deliciously evil Gloucester is though?

    (I call him Gloucester so I don't have to be mad at Shakespeare for slandering my man Richard III.)

  4. I love watching a Shakespearean play, but struggle to find pleasure in reading one of his plays - so I admire anyone who does so.

    I saw Kevin Spacey play Richard III at the Sydney Opera House a couple of years ago - it was amazing.

    Congrats - I enjoyed your review.


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