This is a play of two halves. The first three acts, roughly the first half of the play, take place in Sicily, and are dominated by Leontes’s irrational suspicions of his wife, his jealousy and its repercussions. In the process of finding out that his mistrust of Hermione is a grievous mistake, he loses not only his partner but also his son Mamillius, his new-born daughter Perdita, his best friend Polixenes, his closest advisor Camillo, his friends, his court, his reputation and his peace of mind. Quite a price to pay.
In the second half of the play, set largely in Bohemia, winter is replaced by spring, jealousy by romance, the court by the countryside and the middle-aged by the young. “A sad tale’s best for winter”, says Mamillius in Act Two, but this is a play with a happy ending, constructed around the romance that blooms (the right metaphor) between representatives of the next generation, the exiled daughter of Leontes and the son of the man Leontes loved and lost. All’s well that ends well, then, not a winter’s tale of discontent.
According to one source, a winter’s tale in Jacobean slang means a fantasy, often a long one, suitable for an evening by the fire.  In the final scene of this play, realism is displaced by fantasy in a way that may have more impact on the stage than on the page. But Shakespeare’s theme remains the same one that preoccupies him in his other Late Plays: looking back on a long life, and regretting one’s mistakes, and needing to be forgiven, and reconciling with those one has injured.
It goes without saying that “The Winter’s Tale”, like the other Late Plays, is the product of Shakespeare’s maturity. It would be difficult to convince an intelligent reader (though it may be fashionable to try) that the author is excluding his personal experience and sensibility from what he is writing. Either way, the themes of the Late Plays are remarkably consistent: thinking about the past, reflecting on mistakes, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, wanting to put things right. “The play’s the thing”, as Hamlet says, but the window onto the playwright’s mind late in life is intriguing too.
 I am indebted for this interpretation to Andrew Dickson’s The Globe Guide to Shakespeare.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Lords of Bohemia and Sicily praise the longstanding friendship between their respective Kings.
Hopes are high that Sicily will remain well governed in future through “your young prince Mamilius”.
Act One Scene Two
Polixenes King of Bohemia announces that after nine months in Sicily it is time to head home.
His old friend Leontes cannot persuade him to stay, but his wife Hermione is more successful.
Leontes, noticing the affection of his wife for his friend, reassures himself that his son is his own.
He compares his affection for his son with that felt by Polixenes, now nine months away from home.
Polixenes and Hermione stroll in the garden, leaving the suspicious Leontes to reflect on cuckoldry.
Leontes accuses his faithful servant Camillo of concealing his wife’s infidelity – Camillo is shocked.
He accuses Camillo of deceit – “you lie, you lie” – denying he has invented the evidence of infidelity.
Camillo agrees to poison Polixenes so long as Hermione keeps her position as Leontes’s trusted wife.
Alone, Camillo reflects that no good will come of this plan and he will have to “Forsake the court”.
Polixenes confides in Camillo that he has noticed Leontes’s coldness to him, which Camillo explains.
Camillo advises he flee tonight, and will join him on his voyage back to Bohemia. Polixenes agrees.
Act Two Scene One
Hermione, heavily pregnant, encourages Mamillius to tell a story – a “sad tale’s best for winter”.
Leontes is told of the flight of Polixenes and Camillo, and senses “a plot against my life, my crown”.
Leontes removes Mamillius from Hermione, and claims that her pregnancy is Polixenes’s doing.
He denounces her as a “bed-swerver”, and despatches her to prison despite the Lords’ protests.
Leontes announces he has sent to Delphos for “spiritual counsel” that will either “stop or spur me”.
Act Two Scene Two
Paulina is refused access to Hermione in prison but is informed she has given birth to a daughter.
Paulina volunteers to take the girl to show to the King since “he may soften at the sight o’the child”.
Act Two Scene Three
Unable to sleep, Leontes speculates that burning Hermione alive might bring “a moiety of rest”.
He believes that his son’s illness, now abating, resulted directly from shock at Hermione’s guilt.
Paulina arrives with the new-born daughter, but Leontes refuses to acknowledge her as his own.
Paulina claims the baby’s features to be a “copy of the father” and “So like to him that got it”.
She calls Leontes’s allegations against Hermione a “weak-hinged fancy” that “savours of tyranny”.
Paulina is banished, and Antigonus instructed to abandon the baby to the elements far from Sicily.
News comes that a judgement has arrived from Delphos ready for Hermione’s “just and open” trial.
Act Three Scene One
Emissaries return from Delphos with the oracle’s verdict, hopeful the Queen will be proved innocent.
Act Three Scene Two
In court, Leontes denies Hermione’s trial is “tyrannous”, arguing that justice is proceeding “openly”.
Hermione, invoking the gods, replies that “innocence” should make “tyranny / Tremble at patience”.
As daughter of a King and mother of a Prince, she resents having her “honour” discussed in public.
It would have been “disobedience and ingratitude” to Leontes, she says, not to have loved Polixenes.
Leontes warns her that he rejects “Thy brat”, and Hermione should expect “no less than death”.
Hermione replies that having lost everything she is not afraid to die but she still prizes her honour.
The “seal’d-up oracle” from Delphos is opened: “Hermione is chaste” it reads, “Polixenes blameless”.
Leontes, denounced as a “jealous tyrant” by Delphos, rejects the oracle: “this is mere falsehood”.
On Leontes’s rejection of the oracle, news comes that Mamillius is dead, as the oracle predicted.
Leontes, sensing he has offended Apollo, calls for care for his wife and reconciliation with Polixenes.
Paulina challenges Leontes to punish her, then criticises his actions as “mad indeed, stark mad”.
She announces the death of Hermione, and predicts that “vengeance” has not yet “dropp’d down”.
Leontes admits he deserves her criticisms, and pledges that “queen and son” be buried together.
Act Three Scene Three
Antigonus arrives in Bohemia with Hermione’s daughter, to be warned about local beasts of prey.
He recounts his dream in which Hermione names the baby Perdita, implying she is “lost forever”.
He also dreamt he would never see his wife Paulina again, before he departs, “pursued by a bear”.
An old shepherd appears, grumbling about young men, to discover Perdita: “I’ll take it up for pity”.
The Clown reports he has seen “Antigonus, a nobleman” attacked by a bear, his shoulder torn out.
He leaves to see “if there be any left” of Antigonus after meeting the bear, and if so, to “bury it”.
Act Four Scene One
The Chorus as Time reports that sixteen years have passed, with Leontes shutting himself away.
Meanwhile Polixenes’s son Florizel and the shepherd’s daughter Perdita have grown to adulthood.
Act Four Scene Two
Camillo reports that after “fifteen years” he has been sent for by the “penitent” King Leontes.
Polixenes begs him not to leave, and requests he cease mentioning the King of “that fatal country”.
Instead they will disguise themselves and go to the “homely” shepherd’s house Florizel often visits.
This shepherd, it seems, is surprisingly wealthy, and also has “a daughter of most rare note”.
Act Four Scene Three
Autolycus, a “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles” and less than honest, used to work for Florizel.
He is joined by the Clown, who has to buy provisions for the forthcoming “sheep-shearing feast”.
Autolycus begs the Clown to help him recover from being robbed while he quietly picks his pocket.
The Clown offers to give him “a little money” but Autolycus urgently refuses his generous offer.
Autolycus claims he was robbed by one Autolycus, a villain they both agree is a “cowardly rogue”.
Autolycus refuses further help, leaving the Clown to head off to “buy spices for our sheep-shearing”.
Act Four Scene Four
Florizel praises Perdita as the queen of the sheep-shearing feast, and remembers how they first met.
Perdita fears their status is too different for their relationship to develop, but Florizel reassures her.
He adds that if he had to choose between his royal status and his love for her, he’d choose the latter.
The Old Shepherd rebukes Perdita for being shy and enjoins her to greet the guests to the festival.
She chats with the disguised Polixenes and Camillo, charming them with her knowledge of flowers.
She flirts with Florizel in front of his father, then, when they go to dance, she’s fulsomely praised.
Polixenes believes her incomparably beautiful for one so “low-born” and “Too noble for this place”.
Polixenes asks the Old Shepherd who dances with his daughter – “They call him Doricles”, he says.
The Clown says he has “lost all my money”, and Autolycus agrees that “there are cozeners abroad”.
Elsewhere Florizel tells his disguised father that status and beauty do not matter “Without her love”.
The Old Shepherd consents to Perdita’s marriage to Florizel and promises a dowry “equal” to “his”.
Polixenes asks Florizel about his father to be told that “I not acquaint my father of this business”.
Both Polixenes and the Old Shepherd encourage Florizel to involve his father – but he refuses.
Polixenes removes his disguise, threatening both the Old Shepherd (“old traitor”) and Perdita.
He denounces Perdita as a “fresh piece / Of excellent witchcraft” and threatens to scratch her face.
Finally, he warns Florizel to abandon his affection for Perdita or “we’ll bar thee from succession”.
Perdita is reduced to tears and the Old Shepherd is ready to die but Florizel is undeterred.
He tells Camillo he has a ship ready to take himself and Perdita away as they “cannot hold on shore”.
Camillo sees a chance to “serve my turn” and revisit “dear Sicilia” alongside Florizel and Perdita.
Florizel welcomes the suggestion that they should head for Sicily as ambassadors from Polixenes.
Autolycus boasts that he has successfully stolen many purses under cover of the Clown’s singing.
Camillo and the young couple agree that letters from Camillo to Leontes will reinforce their mission.
To disguise themselves for escape, Florizel exchanges coats with Autolycus and Perdita takes his hat.
Camillo plans to tell Polixenes “whither they are bound”, hoping they will follow them to Sicily.
Autolycus overhears their plans but decides it’s “the more knavery to conceal it”, and this he’ll do.
The Clown persuades the Old Shepherd to reveal to the King “those things you found about her”.
Autolycus, respectably dressed in the Prince’s coat, warns them of forthcoming savage punishments.
Autolycus will beg the King for mercy on their behalf, but they must pay him some of Perdita’s gold.
Autolycus reflects that dishonesty is the best policy, and further dividends may soon come his way.
Act Five Scene One
Sixteen years on, Leontes remains inconsolable at the death of Hermione, but is advised to remarry.
Paulina advises against remarriage, remembering her lost husband and the King’s dead daughter.
Leontes agrees to Paulina’s request: “We shall not marry till thou bid’st us”, he reassures her.
Florizel and his princess are announced – Leontes senses that this visit was “forced / By need”.
Florizel’s princess is fulsomely praised as “peerless” – she is described as the “rarest of all women”.
Paulina regrets that Mamillius died, but Leontes recoils: “He dies to me again when talk’d of”.
The appearance of Florizel and Perdita triggers further regrets in Leontes: “I lost a couple” he recalls.
Florizel’s first remarks to Leontes dishonestly describe his father as infirm but well-disposed to him.
He adds that his wife came from Libya, “from him, whose daughter / His tears proclaim’d his”.
Leontes repeats his regret that he no longer has “a son and daughter” – “Such goodly things as you”.
A messenger reports that Polixenes is pursuing his son, who has eloped with a shepherd’s daughter.
Florizel blames Camillo, and further news suggests the Old Shepherd is being threatened with death.
Florizel admits he is not married to Perdita, and Leontes promises to intercede on their behalf.
Act Five Scene Two
Reports emerge of the moment when Leontes is told of the day the shepherd “found the child”.
Various “proofs” – Hermione’s jewels, Antigonus’s letters – confirm the identity of the foundling.
Reports describe “the meeting of the two kings” with daughter, son-in-law and shepherd present.
Antigonus’s death, “torn to pieces by a bear”, is confirmed by the evidence of the shepherd’s son.
They have now gone to see Hermione’s statue, said to be so lifelike one might almost talk to her.
The Clown is proud of his sudden emergence as a sibling of Kings, Princes and Princesses.
Autolycus promises to reform his behaviour, and the Clown pledges to praise him to Polixenes.
Act Five Scene Three
Leontes and family visit Paulina’s house to see the lifelike – if strangely aged – statue of Hermione.
Leontes is full of remorse, but Perdita craves to touch the statue and has to be restrained by Paulina.
Leontes senses life in the statue, and Paulina confirms that she can “make the statue move indeed”.
Paulina directs the statue to approach Leontes and take his hand: “She hangs about his neck”.
Hermione tells Paulina that she knew of the oracle, and “preserved / Myself” to meet her daughter.
Paulina wishes happiness to “You precious winners all” while remembering her own lost husband.
Leontes proposes marriage between Paulina and Camillo, and suggests time together to reminisce.
The brief opening scene introduces characters representing the two locations of the play, Sicily and Bohemia. We are told that Sicily is a good deal wealthier than Bohemia, so entertainment will be less lavish there than in Sicily. A suggestion emerges too that Bohemia may be more dreamlike, since “We will give you sleepy drinks” which will somewhat dull the critical sense. The central insight of the opening scene, however, concerns the unbreakable friendship between the two Kings.
The events of the play depend on the abrupt surrender to jealousy that Leontes experiences in 1.2. It is effectively a mental illness, a delusion that suddenly overwhelms him (“my heart dances”, he notes, “But not for joy”) and leaves him suspicious of his wife, his oldest friend, his son (“they say we are / Almost as like as eggs”) and his court (“They’re here with me already, whispering”). From the moment he is convinced he’s been cuckolded, everything becomes irrefutable evidence for his conclusion. Similar themes are explored, famously, in “Othello”.
While Polixenes and Hermione stroll innocently in the garden in 1.2, Leontes’s feverish speculation takes wings. First he sports with the verb “play” in comparing the activities of his young son (“Go, play, boy, play”) with the alleged recreations of his wife (“thy mother plays … but so disgraced a part”) – a pun heavy with threat and menace. Then he speculates that many men (“even at this present”) have been the victims of marital infidelity. One can only imagine the impact of these ominous lines on spectators, both male and female, at the theatre as these lines were (and are) delivered.
It goes without saying that there has been no evidence either way for Leontes’s allegations. In theory, it is perfectly possible he’s right, that Hermione’s child was fathered by Polixenes. Yet the impact of the play at this stage depends on the audience believing otherwise. How does the playwright convince us of Hermione’s innocence? First, her measured response to her husband’s accusations; second, the unanimity of the courtiers as they respond to what he alleges; and third, Leontes’s own approach, impulsive and authoritarian, suggesting that motive, not reason, is at the root of his behaviour. Later (2.3) Paulina summarises the position: Leontes’s suspicions are no more than “your own weak-hinged fantasy”.
Shakespeare is sometimes said to be the only playwright of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean era to escape prison. Even so – personal experience or not – prisons play a prominent role in Shakespeare’s plays. A few examples, taken at random: in “Richard III”, Clarence, the King’s brother, is murdered in his cell, in the process sharing the grisly fate of his brother’s predecessor as King, Richard II. In “Measure for Measure”, a Viennese prison is central to the plot, and in “The Comedy of Errors”, a Sicilian. In “Twelfth Night”, Malvolio is locked up in an improvised prison, and in “Timon of Athens”, Ventidius is released from an official one. There are many other cases, leaving at least one reader wondering whether prisons are not the most common buildings in Shakespeare (above castles? Palaces?).
Hermione points out to Leontes in 3.2 that she is not being found guilty on the basis of any evidence. Rather, she is being “condemn’d / Upon surmises”, observing that “proofs” have been abandoned in favour of “jealousies”, and concluding that the trial (which Leontes praised as open in his introduction) is “not law”. Nothing the audience has observed so far challenges her view of proceedings, implying (once again) that the playwright is clear: Leontes, not Hermione, is the guilty party here. Indeed, Hermione, so far from being on trial in the audience’s mind, comes to speak for the audience in this scene.
Hermione’s trial in 3.2 is the second most famous court scene in Shakespeare. It’s worth comparing Hermione’s fate with that of Antonio (and Shylock) in “The Merchant of Venice”. Both trials feature abrupt changes of direction, caused by unexpected interventions from outside: the arrival of Portia (as Balthazar the young lawyer) resolves the gridlock in Venice whereas it is a supernatural intervention from Delphos that changes everything in Sicily. Audience reactions provide a further contrast: to the modern mind at least, Shylock’s humiliation in Venice leaves questions unanswered. Here, by contrast, the collapse of Leontes’s fantasies is warmly welcomed. Other dramatic court scenes in Shakespeare’s plays include the trial of Queen Katharine in 2.4 of “Henry VIII”, alongside the conviction of the murderers in the closing scene of “Arden of Feversham”.
Aside from his History plays, only one other work by Shakespeare is set in England – “The Merry Wives of Windsor”. So we may imagine that the playwright’s grasp of locations overseas was pretty secure for his times. “The Winter’s Tale”, however, is the locus for one of Shakespeare’s wilder stab at geography, as he introduces 3.3 by describing Bohemia (a landlocked middle-European state) as a “desert country near the sea”. Needless to say, a sea voyage from Sicily to Bohemia (as Polixenes, Camillo and now Antigonus have conducted here) is as fictitious as Leontes’s suspicions of his wife.
3.3 introduces a new spirit to what has so far been a painful narrative. True, the ship which brought Antigonus to Bohemia is sunk in the storm, and then the faithful retainer (whose dream reveals that he is misled about Perdita’s father) is devoured by a bear. But the spirited reactions to these events by the shepherd and the clown inject a light-hearted note to otherwise mournful events – a prelude to the second half of the play, in which the mood will be positive and upbeat as we approach the happy ending characteristic of the late plays.
The minute Polixenes tells Camillo in 4.2 that they will go in disguise to the shepherd’s house often visited by Florizel (home, adds Camillo, to a “daughter of most rare note”), we recognise that dramatic irony is to play a role in the unfolding tale. So far, this technique, a story-teller’s staple, has been in short supply. True, there’s an element of it in Leontes’s madness, since we know his wife to be blameless when clearly he doesn’t. Equally, though, we might simply conclude that Leontes is fooling himself. Now, however, with disguise comes – not self-deception – but deception proper: the most characteristic of Shakespeare’s dramatic techniques.
With nearly a thousand lines, Act Four Scene Four is among the longest scenes in Shakespeare. But the story it tells is relatively straightforward, and can be divided into six stages. First, we eavesdrop on Florizel and Perdita in love. Next, Polixenes and Camillo, both in disguise, share a common admiration of Perdita’s charming personality. Third, Polixenes dispenses with his disguise, and falls out with his son over his marriage plans. Next, Camillo suggests they head for Sicily, and fifth, he reveals his plan to join Polixenes in pursuit. And finally, we watch as the endemically dishonest Autolycus spots a chance to make a quick profit out of the mayhem we have witnessed in this scene.
The background to 4.4 is the sheep-shearing festival which signals the return of spring – a season that plays a symbolic role in a range of ways. First, Perdita is “the queen” of the festival – though much of this act will focus on her perceived lack of blue blood. Of course, the perception is wrong. Next, the return of spring is a reminder of the circularity of the seasons and the cycles of life, reflected not only in young love and marriage but also in the reconciliation implied by this particular marriage. And third, events come full-circle (so to say) with the putative return to Sicily.
Clothes play an important role in this scene. Perdita, though a shepherd’s daughter, is dressed in “unusual weeds” (or clothes) that indicate she is the festival queen and “no shepherdess” (as Florizel insightfully observes). Polixenes too is unusually attired until he reveals his identity, and Florizel takes the opposite course, exchanging clothes with Autolycus in order to create a disguise. Autolycus similarly assumes bogus authority at the close of the scene through the jacket he acquires from Florizel – a reminder that under the Elizabethan laws of Sumptuary, clothes indicated status, and dressing above one’s station was a serious offence.
One of the play’s most moving scenes must be the moment when Leontes is reunited with Perdita, Florizel and his old friend Polixenes. Indeed we know this to be a moving occasion since the three nameless “Gentlemen” who witness it report tears of joy and sadness. Yet Shakespeare doesn’t show this reunion – rather, he reports it through characters whose part in the play ends there. Why this intense scene should have been diluted by this second-hand presentation is a matter for speculation: Kings may not be murdered on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, but they can surely be reunited with long-lost family and friends.
The moment when the statue of Hermione is revealed to be flesh and blood rather than merely stone is one of the most dramatic in Shakespeare. It’s a moment that reinforces the theme of reconciliation and rebirth that underwrites all the Late Plays, and animates “The Winter’s Tale” from the moment Leontes’s daughter connects with Polixenes’s son. From that point on, thoughts of what might have been (had Leontes kept his head in the first half of the play) are displaced by what might still be … though the reincarnation of Hermione is completely unexpected, and the more powerful as a result.
Characters / Who’s Who
Courtier, adviser and civil servant, reminiscent of Polonius in “Hamlet”, he has a similarly pompous air and formal speech, though there is rather more depth to him. His instincts are to be loyal to his masters but in the event he falls short in this respect: first, enjoined to poison Polixenes, he decides instead to “forsake the court” of Leontes and reveals all to his new master. Then sixteen years on, and nostalgic for Sicily and his former master, he despatches Florizel and Perdita to Leontes’s court so that he can follow. His reward is to be called “my brother” by Polixenes and granted the hand in marriage of the estimable Paulina. Discreet and diplomatic, but adroit at disguising his own agenda, he is nonetheless an extraordinary choice by Leontes as assassin of Polixenes, a role for which he is wholly unsuited.
In the opening three acts, Paulina emerges as one of the most prominent and powerful characters. Assertive and opinionated, she bravely volunteers to tell the King of the birth of his daughter, and fearlessly rebukes him for his failings: “you are mad” she tells him in 2.3, and in 3.2, she denounces him as “a fool”. At the same time she is highly empathetic to the Queen, risking all on her behalf. Her reappearance in the fifth act suggests that in sixteen years she hadn’t changed much, as she berates the King for the death of “she you kill’d” – only to reveal in the final scene her role as protector of the queen in the interim. For her “audacious” services (Leontes’s word), she is accorded (in the absence of her late husband Antigonus, victim of the fabled bear) the hand of Camillo, reward for her “worth and honesty”.
A divided personality, rather reflecting the structure of the play. At first he is irrational, dogmatic, ruthless – wholly beyond reason. In pursuing his improbable fixation, he sacrifices everything he has – his family, his friendships, his peace of mind and the respect of others. Yet when he is shown to be mistaken – evidently he has complete faith in the oracle – he is beyond consoling, and dedicates the rest of his life to remorse.
Victim of his best friend’s abrupt change of personality in Act One, he is blameless for deciding to flee the scene and abandon, however reluctantly, his oldest friendship. But it seems that no lessons were learned about sudden changes of heart or pointless explosions of anger towards family members since, when the moment arises when he might guide his son toward friendly reconciliation in 4.4, his reaction is shocking, as Florizel is denounced as one “Whom son I dare not call”.
How long has Polixenes been in Sicily?
Who does Leontes accuse of concealing Hermione’s infidelity?
How do we know that Florizel is older than Perdita?
To what does Leontes ascribe his son’s illness in 2.3?
Who gives Perdita her name?
How many years separate Act Three from Act Four?
Why does Autolycus in 4.3 discourage the Clown from giving him money?
By what name is Florizel known to the Old Shepherd?
Which country does Florizel claim Perdita comes from in 5.1?
Why in 5.3 does Hermione claim she “preserved / Myself”?
Polixenes misses his son, while Hermione is still pregnant
Shock at Hermione’s guilt
Hermione though in Antigonus’s dream
Because he has stolen his purse
To meet Perdita one day
There’s a sad sub-text to this play. It takes us back to Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, who died aged 11 in 1596. “The Winter’s Tale” was written around fifteen years later, yet the spirit of the lost boy is discernible here.
First, early in the play, Polixenes sums up how much Florizel means to him – a boy he hasn’t seen for at least nine months, but still remembers vividly: “He’s all my exercise, my mirth, my matter”, he trills, “And with his varying childness cures in me / Thoughts that would thick my blood”. Later, of course, he will fall out with the young man, and – an oversight by the playwright, perhaps – never resolves their differences.
Later, when Florizel is announced as visiting Leontes’s court, Paulina reminisces: if Mamillius had lived, she speculates, he “had pair’d / Well with this lord”. It’s a sore point for Leontes, and understandably he rebukes her: “Prithee, no more”, he tells her, “thou know’st / He dies to me again when talk’d of”. It’s a measure of Leontes’s strength and pain that he can say so, and Shakespeare (one imagines) knew whereof Leontes spake.
It’s a commonplace that Shakespeare’s plays are preoccupied with the relationships between fathers and daughters, and “The Winter’s Tale” is a case in point. A lower profile is accorded in these plays to fathers who lose sons, but on the evidence of a handful of references here, it would seem to be a further autobiographical note the play explores.