A Winter’s Tale (1584-94)

Like eighteen other Shakespeare plays, the Winter’s Tale was first published in the 1623 Folio and the text, although in latter editions revised or altered somewhat is the only one available to us today. The folio was transcribed by the conscientious Ralph Crane, who was employed by the King’s Men, and would probably have worked directly from the playwright’s own manuscript or “foul papers” since no prompt book survives. It was probably composed at least three years after Pericles, Prince of Tyre which bears similarities and contains at least six songs all sung by the shepherd Autolycus. Shakespeare’s geographical accuracy in his plays has been questioned as long ago as 1618 whereby he locates a seaport at Milan and Bohemia has a coastline in A Winter’s Tale and Two Gentlemen of Verona, with some choral parts for Mopsa and Dorcas. Three of them belong to the mid eighteenth century for example “When daffodils begin to peer”, “Will you buy any tape” by William Boyce (1759 & 1769) and “But shall I go mourn for that” by J. F. Lampe (1745). The other songs are derived from “Playford’s Musical Companion” (1667) and Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. The tune “Lawn as white as driven snow” was first printed in John Wilson’s “Cheerful Airs or Ballads” as late as 1659. As in the case of seven other plays in the 1623 Folio the play is dutifully divided into 5 acts and numbered scenes although some exits and entrances are misleading. It contains few or scant stage directions although characters are fully listed in the leading dramatis personae. Clearly, it has been concluded among the cognicienti that the source for this play is Robert Greene’s Pandosto, or The Triumph of Time (1588) although some alterations and dissimilarities have been noted particularly in the narrative plot and characters. While Greene employs the storyline to display his literary and rhetorical talents, Shakespeare brings the characters to life fully on the page and on the stage. It is far more complex, artfully interwoven and profound in its meaning and dramatic expression. A similar story with a slightly different ending can be found in Francis Sabie’s The Fisherman’s Tale (1595) which might have been an alternative inspiration. Sabie’s story omits the incestual elements and the resurrection scene. Also while Shakespeare’s play reflects the miraculous adventures and unexpected reunions of Greene’s Pandosto he sets the scenes of the play in the kingdoms of Bohemia and Sicilia so as not to betray his usual Greek and Roman sources for romance. For much of his career as a playwright he was occasionally criticised by other writers for his usual regurgitation of Greek and Roman writers. Even his contemporary Ben Jonson complained in Bartholomew Fair (1614) of plays that “make nature afraid” and “beget tales, tempests, and such like drolleries” that contain improbable storylines and miraculous endings.

The populist title is presumed to adhere to a popular narrative tradition, that is a fantasy of fabulist proportions or possibly a “ghost story” as told by some rural storyteller to children and adults alike around the fire in winter. The title, although somewhat altered, re-emerges in Shakespeare’s Macbeth when Lady Macbeth declares in act III, sc 4:

O these flaws and starts,
Imposters to true fear, would well become
A woman’s story at a winter’s fire
Authorised by her Grandam. Shame itself!

However, the story of the statue coming to life is obviously from Greek mythology (namely Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Pygmalion & Galatea).  Indeed, a Shakespeare play ending with the death of the leading actress (Hermione) would have made it a tragedy, not a comedy or romance. Shakespeare’s preferred practice was to keep the audience fully informed thereby heightening the irony of the character’s fate but here he keeps the audience in the dark as to whether Hermione is dead or not. Finally, the audience convinced of her death wonder and marvel at the unexpected resurrection as does the tortured Leontes. In this sense the play imitates elements of the traditional Miracle Play.

The Winter Solstice

The Christian celebration of Candlemass

The play opens with a sentence of death pronounced on the old merchant Aegeon by the Duke of Ephesus, Solinus as a result of some deep enmity between a rival Syracusan family. It seems that when in search of his lost twins and during a violent storm the merchant of Syracuse was forced to put ashore in Ephesus. Where, as a result Aegeon is required to meet a ransom within 24 hours when he confesses to Solinus the prelude to his own tragedy in a personal tale of the loss of his wife and one of his identical twins, again the result of a storm at sea. To complicate matters he has also previously adopted two other identical twins from a poor family which became servants to the family. Eighteen years have elapsed and we witness Aegeon’s surviving twin Antipholus, together with the servant twin Dromio seeking to find their lost twins. In the second scene we witness the arrival of Aegeon’s lost son and the servant twin who lodge in an inn nearby. Antipholus of Syracuse sends Dromio away on an errand of payment for lodgings at the Centaur Inn and he apparently reappears albeit in the guise of the other Dromio, servant to Antipholus of Ephesus who is the lost twin of Aegeon. When asked about the payment for his quarters Dromio confesses his ignorance and is duly beaten. Alluding to this strange mix up Antipholus remembers being told that Ephesus is a place of witchcraft and sorcery. The second act introduces Adrianna, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus and her young unmarried sister Luciana. They are joined by their puzzled servant Dromio of Ephesus who relates his strange encounter with his master and his unjustified beating. In this Antipholus declares he has no lodgings, no wife and no mistress and Adrianna suspects some infidelity on her husband’s part. When Antipholus of Syracuse is joined by his true servant another natural misunderstanding develops when he is informed that his mistress Adrianna awaits his presence at dinner. After much further confusion, between Antipholus and his servant which is resolved when Adrianna enters and forgives her servant’s indiscretion. Antipholus, although still puzzled agrees to dine with Adrianna and her sister in the hope that he might penetrate into the mystery of this affair. In act three we discover that Adrianna’s real husband is arranging the manufacture of a gold necklace for his beloved wife and is delayed for that dinner. When he arrives at the tavern he is denied entrance firstly by the servant Dromio, and subsequently by Adrianna. He then decides to go to a courtesan’s house and instructs the jeweller, Angelo to forward the necklace there instead where it will become a present to a more welcoming mistress. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Syracuse becomes somewhat enamoured of the beautiful Luciana and when he makes his feelings known she is naturally embarrassed. There follows another case of mistaken identity when Dromio of Syracuse is mistakenly identified by a kitchen wench for Dromio of Ephesus. Feeling that matters are getting out of hand Antipholus of Syracuse then decides to leave, only to be confronted by the jeweller Angelo with the necklace who tells him he will call later for payment. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Ephesus rebukes the jeweller for demanding a payment for a necklace never delivered, and instructs his servant to buy a “rope’s end” with which to beat his inhospitable wife Adrianna. The upshot is that Antipholus of Ephesus is arrested for non-payment of the jeweller’s work, and when Adrianna discovers that he has made advances upon her sister totally denounces him as a villain. Dromio of Syracuse then obtains the money, 500 ducats which, although intended as a bail for Antipholus of Ephesus, he unwittingly believes is the money delivered as a ransom for Aegeon. The other servant Dromio then delivers the ropes end to the imprisoned Antipholus, who rightly beats him for his neglect to bring the bail money. Believing her husband is possessed of evil spirits Adrianna employs an physician/exorcist to attend to her husband who together with his servant is bound and carried off. The final scene of the 4th act witnesses Antipholus of Syracuse, together with the servant Dromio with drawn swords prepared to fight their way out of the bewitched capital and find a ship home. Adrianna naturally assumes that her husband has managed to escape. In the final act comprising one long scene the resulting confusions of this web of coincidences and misunderstandings are finally unravelled. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant seek asylum in a nearby abbey, where although Adrianna requests their release from the Abbess is summarily denied. While Aegeon is being carted off for his execution by the Duke Solinus, Adrianna calls upon him for justice. Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant have escaped the exorcism and appear in the milieu also demanding justice from the Duke. All that remains is a full account of the circumstances to fall on the Duke’s ears and the matter is finally cleared up when the equally bewildered Aegeon attempts to talk to Antipholus of Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse regenerates his wooing of the beautiful Luciana while the servant and his long-lost twin brother are finally reunited.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

Visit >


Visit >

The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,