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


Website: www.qudosacademy.org

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