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Shakespeare Saturdays: The Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare saturdays

It’s the middle of February, deep mid-winter, so I thought I’d write up a short post on The Winter’s Tale. I remember reading this play for the first time and thinking ‘what the…’ and my opinion hasn’t changed much since then. It’s a weird play but a complex one and I’m excited to dive into it.


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The Winter’s Tale first appeared in print in the First Folio of 1623 but it was written around 1610/1611. The main plot of The Winter’s Tale is taken from Robert Greene’s pastoral romance Pandosto, which was published in 1588. Shakespeare didn’t actually change much of the plot, which was unusual for him, but Shakespeare did try to spice it up a bit by inserting a sixteen-year-gap between the third and fourth acts. He also removes some of the more important deaths, which was again unusual for Shakespeare, and gives the tale a happy ending.

The earliest recorded performance of the play was at the Globe playhouse on 11 May 1611 and we know this because Simon Forman, a notable “figure caster”, recorded watching the play in his journal. The play was also performed in front of King James at Court on 5th of November 1611. However, unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays, The Winter’s Tale wasn’t revived during the Restoration. Perhaps it was too odd for audiences, perhaps they thought it wasn’t by

John Opie - Winter's Tale, Act II. Scene III

Shakespeare, perhaps they just forgot about it. Who knows. It was eventually revived in the eighteenth century – in 1741 at Goodman’s Fields Theatre and in 1742 at Covent Garden – but it didn’t enjoy much success until the nineteenth century, which was the height of Shakespeare’s popularity in England. Bardolatry ran riot in the nineteenth century so I’m not surprised that almost all of the notable productions were staged during that century. Some of the most famous Shakespearean actors of the nineteenth century performed in The Winter’s Tale including John Philip Kemble in 1811, Samuel Phelps in 1845, and Charles Kean in 1856. There were also a couple of adaptations of the play, titled The Sheep-Shearing and Florizal and Perdita, and these were acted at Covent Garden in 1754 and at Drury Lane in 1756.

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To be honest, this play is pretty weird. It begins with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, visiting the kingdom of Sicilia but, after nine months, Polixenes wants to go back to Bohemia. Leontes, King of Sicilia and Polixenes’s BFF, sends his wife, Queen Hermione (but not wingardium leviosa Hermione), to try to convince Polixenes to stay a bit longer. She gives three short speeches which convince Polixenes to stay and Leontes thinks that this is weird so he puts two and two together and comes up with the idea what Hermione and Polixenes are having an affair. Oh, and Hermione (not Hogwarts, A History Hermione) is pregnant so obviously, the baby is Polixenes’. Leontes is probably my least favourite Shakespeare character because he’s such an idiot.

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Polixenes escapes, Hermione is thrown in prison, and Leontes orders Antigonus to abandon the newborn child somewhere desolate. Hermione swoons and her maid tells everyone that she’s died but she really she just turned into a statue instead (how? why?), and Antigonus leaves the baby on the shore of Bohemia. Antigonus is then eaten by a bear.

Yes, this is where the famous stage direction comes from: Exit, pursued by the bear. It’s a rather gruesome part of the play but it’s also really absurd. There used to be a bear pit close to the Globe playhouse in the seventeenth century, and bear-baiting was a very popular sport at this time, so I imagine that an audience always had that in the back of their minds when watching this scene. I’m not sure how it was actually staged but I really hope they didn’t use a real bear. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did though. They also had bear skins in their prop inventory so it’s possible that they just dressed someone up as a bear and had them chase Antigonus around the stage. This sounds more likely but not as fun as letting an actual bear loose on stage.

Fun fact: The Winter’s Tale is actually the play that made me realise how explicitly sexual early modern plays are. I already knew that all of Shakespeare’s plays (and other early modern plays) had sexual euphemisms in them but I never expected to read this: He hath songs for man or woman, of all sizes; no milliner can so fit his customers with gloves: he has the prettiest love-songs for maids; so without bawdry, which is strange; with such delicate burthens of dildos and fadings, ‘jump her and thump her’. A servent claims that Autolycus sells love songs that are not bawdy but, apparently, said servant fails to understand that the ‘dildos and fadings’ Autolycus is singing about relate to sex. That poor, innocent servant.

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Overall, The Winter’s Tale is a weird play but it’s an interesting one. If you want to read one of Shakespeare’s quirkier plays, just for fun, then this one will confuse and delight you.

Quick facts:

  • Ben Jonson, a playwright and Shakespeare’s frenemy, ridiculed the description of Bohemia as Shakespeare included both a coastline and a desert. Bohemia (which is somewhere close to the Czech Republic) was landlocked and didn’t have a desert. Shakespeare wasn’t the best at geography.
  • In 1613 the play was performed as part of the wedding celebrations of James’ daughter Elizabeth to Frederick V, later King of Bohemia. I wonder what he thought about Shakespeare’s version of Bohemia.
  • It is technically a Shakespearean comedy but scholars like to complicate its genre classification by calling it a late romance.

Available via: Project Gutenberg, Oxford University Press, Penguin, Arden Shakespeare, and MIT.


First image: The Bodleian First Folio: a digital facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Bodleian Arch. G c.7. URL: http://firstfolio.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
Second image: John Opie, Shakespeare: A Winter’s Tale. Act II Scene III, (1793)

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