Introduction: The Winter’s Tale

December 5, 2009 in Introduction

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s last plays and distinguished as one of the most sharply divided ‘problem plays’, or tragicomedies, split between scenes of psychological tension and pastoral clowning, and concluding with an apparently happy ending. This division separates it from traditional ideas of dramatic unity and the 16-year gap between the third and fourth acts can make it seem stranger still. The play centres around two courts run by childhood friends, Leontes’ Sicilia and Polixenes’ Bohemia; the abandoning of Leontes’ daughter Perdita on the coast of Bohemia has been used as evidence of Shakespeare’s lack of education, as ‘Bohemia’ is roughly equivalent to the land-locked modern-day Czech Republic.

The Winter’s Tale deals with themes of sexual jealousy, patrilinearity and growth, joining pastoral fertility comedy with tragic culpability and deaths. It culminates with the most puzzling ending in Shakespeare, when Hermione – whether through magic or trickery, it is unclear – emerges from a statue, reborn. Study of The Winter’s Tale together with The Tempest is useful in looking at the fascination with artificiality and magic which enchants Shakespeare’s late work.

Contributed by Colette Sensier

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