Complete List of  Shakespeare Plays on DVD, Including Two Versions of The Winter's Tale
The Winter's Tale
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Key Dates
Plot Summary
Imagery: Innocent, Guilt
Imagery: Witch Hunts
Time Leap
A Woman's Wrath
Questions and Essay Topics
Biography of Shakespeare
Complete Free Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010.©
Type of Work

.......The Winter's Tale is traditionally classed as a comedy because the play ends happily. First, the protagonist, King Leontes, reconciles with a friend he had earlier rejected. Then he reunites with his wife, who was thought dead. However, the play is probably better classed as a tragicomedy because, preceding the happy ending, the king's little boy dies, a bear kills a faithful lord of the court, and Leontes suffers a humiliating downfall before realizing and acknowledging mistakes he has made. 

Key Dates
Date Written: 1610 or 1611. 
First Performance: Probably May 15, 1611, at the Globe Theatre.
First Publication: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays. 


.......The main source for The Winter's Tale is a prose work, Pandosto: the Triumph of Time, by Robert Greene (1558-1592), a popular author at the time when Shakespeare arrived in London from Stratford. Shakespeare also drew upon Greek myths. 

.......The action takes place in Sicily (or Sicilia) and Bohemia. Sicily is a large island west of the toe of Italy's boot. Bohemia was a kingdom within the boundaries of the present-day Czech republic, between present-day Poland on the north and Austria on the south. In ancient times, a Celtic people called the Boii settled the land that became Bohemia. In The Winter's Tale, Bohemia has a coastline along which ships arrive and debark. In real life, Bohemia was a landlocked region; it was entirely surrounded by terra firma. Shakespeare may have been a magnificent writer, but he was no geographer.

Protagonist: King Leontes
Antagonist: The King's Jealousy and Suspicious Nature
Leontes: King of Sicilia (Sicily). He is a headstrong man who is at first guided more by emotions than reason. His unfounded suspicions against his wife, Hermione, and his friend, King Polixenes, separate him from both of them and cause him to reject his infant daughter. His unjust actions also indirectly result in the death of his son, Mamillius. In many ways, he resembles the flawed protagonists of Greek tragedy; however,he reforms himself before it is too late.
Hermione: Honorable and loyal Queen of Sicilia.
Polixenes: King of Bohemia. He opposes his son's marriage to Perdita (the rejected daughter of Leontes, now grown) believing her to be a commoner. Although he accepts Perdita at the end of the play, he does so only after he learns her true identity. Whether he has overcome his prejudice against commoners remains open to question. 
Perdita: Extraordinarily beautiful daughter of Leontes and Hermione.
Florizel: Prince of Bohemia.
Mamillius: Young prince of Sicilia. His death adds a tragic element to the play.
Camillo: Upright advisor of King Leontes. After Leontes order him to poison Polixenes, Camillo returns with Polixenes to Bohemia and becomes his advisor. 
Old Shepherd: Reputed father of Perdita. He is 67 when the infant Perdita is found and 83 at the end of the play.
Clown: The shepherd's son.
Autolycus: A comic thief and pedlar who assists Florizel and Perdita.
Gaoler (Jailer)
Paulina: Loyal attendant of Hermione.
Antigonus: Kindly husband of Paulina. He takes the infant Perdita to Bohemia. 
Cleomenes, Dion: Lords of Sicilia.
Archidamus: A Lord of Bohemia.
Mariner: Crewman of the ship that carries Antigonus and Perdita to Bohemia.
Emilia: Lady attending Hermione.
Mopsa, Dorcas: Shepherdesses.
Rogero: Lord who tells other gentlemen that a prophecy by the Delphic Oracle has been fulfilled.
Minor Characters: Other lords, gentlemen, ladies, officers, servants, shepherds, shepherdesses.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
. .
.......It is time for Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to end his visit with his boyhood friend Leontes, king of Sicily. While the two kings prepare to bid farewell in a state room of the Sicilian palace, a Bohemian lord named Archidamus and a Sicilian lord named Camillo are in an antechamber discussing the extraordinary friendship between the two rulers. Camillo, advisor to Leontes, observes that they were inseparable when growing up: “They were trained together in their childhoods; and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection, which cannot choose but branch now” (1.1.10).
.......Archidamus says nothing will ever come between the two kings. (His observation is an ironic foreshadowing of a terrible jealousy that will soon divide them.) He also praises the Sicilian king’s little boy, Mamillius, as the finest of lads with the brightest of futures. (This, too, is an ominous observation.) 
.......In the state room, King Leontes presses King Polixenes to linger in Sicily one more week, but Polixenes begs off, worrying about “what may chance / Or breed” (1.2. 15-16) in Bohemia in his absence. When Hermione, the beautiful wife of Leontes, joins her husband in importuning Polixenes to extend his visit, he agrees to remain a while longer. Pulling him aside, she asks what his childhood was like with her husband. Polixenes replies, 

We were, fair queen, 
Two lads that thought there was no more behind 
But such a day to-morrow as to-day, 
And to be boy eternal. (1.2.78-81) 
When Hermione asks about their childhood adventures, Polixenes says, 
We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun, 
And bleat the one at the other: what we chang’d 
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not 
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d 
That any did . . . . (1.2.83-87) 
After Leontes learns that Hermione has persuaded Polixenes to stay, Leontes immediately regrets extending Polixenes’s welcome, for the friendly conversation between his wife and Polixenes has envenomed him with jealousy. Apparently, Polixenes has an unduly suspicious eye. Perhaps Polixenes and his wife have become too close, Leontes thinks; perhaps they have been meeting in secret. He even begins to wonder whether his son, Mamillius, is the the product of a tryst in an earlier time between Hermione and Polixenes. 
.......Later, suspicion builds upon suspicion. In a conversation with Camillo, the king openly accuses his wife of infidelity. Camillo, shocked, says the king sins gravely in speaking against her. The king replies, 
Is whispering nothing? 
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses? 
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career 
Of laughing with a sigh? (1.2.332-335)
.......Finally, he orders Camillo to bear a poisoned cup to Polixenes. Camillo tells the king he will perform the deadly mission, but then warns the Bohemian king that his life is in danger. During the night, Polixenes steals away. Camillo, estranged by Leontes’s behavior, accompanies Polixenes. Their sudden departure convinces Leontes his suspicions against Hermione are well founded. Angry and bitter, he publicly denounces his wife, who is soon to have another child, as an adulteress. After imprisoning her, he deprives her of the company of little Mamillius. Hermione pleads her innocence, to no avail. She is guilty; Leontes is certain of it. To confirm her guilt for others, he sends two lords, Cleontes and Dion, to the Oracle at Delphi, Greece, to request a judgment. 
.......After Hermione bears a daughter, her servant, Paulina, presents the infant to Leontes, hoping the sight of the little girl will quench his anger. However, wrathful as ever, Leontes disowns the childbelieving it is not his ownand orders Paulina’s husband, Antigonus, to abandon it in a far-off place. Leontes then subjects Hermione to a public trial. With utmost dignity and grace, she proclaims her innocence, declaring she has always been faithful to Leontes. 
.......During the trial, Cleontes and Dion return from Delphi with a sealed verdict from the great Oracle. An official of the court breaks the seal and reads the verdict: "Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found" (3.2.134). 
.......Leontes rejects the verdict and orders the trial to continue. A servant interrupts the proceedings with tragic news: Prince Mamillius, pining for his jailed mother’s love, has died. The news staggers Leontes, and Hermione collapses. Suddenly realizing how wrong he has been, Leontes tells Hermione’s attendants to treat her gently when they escort her from the courtroom. Later, Leontes receives another shock: Hermione, too, has died. Profoundly moved, the king laments his vengeful deeds and goes off to mourn. 
.......What of the newly born child, the infant princess? As instructed, Antigonus leaves her in a far-off place, the coast of Bohemia, along with certain effects, including a note identifying the infant as “Perdita,” a name that came to Antigonus when he imagined he saw Hermione in a vision. But before Antigonus can return to his ship, a bear attacks and kills him and an angry sea wrecks the ship and swallows it and all aboard. Consequently, no one is left to report the fate of the child. A clown, the son of a 67-year-old shepherd, witnessed the bear attack and gives a report to his father, who discloses news of his own: He has found a baby girl on the coast along with a “bearing cloth” and gold. 

Sixteen Years Pass

.......Shakespeare updates the audience on important developments through a speaker called Time. He tells the audience that Leontes now lives in seclusion and that the setting of the drama has shifted to Bohemia, where the son of Polixenes has fallen in love with a shepherdess.
.......In Bohemia, Polixenes stews about his son, Florizel, because the young man frequently visits the house of an elderly shepherd to woo his beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter, Perdita. Because of her lowly status, she is unworthy of Florizel’s attentions, Polixenes believes. 
.......Polixenes and Camillo, who has become the advisor of the king, decide to call at the shepherd’s house to observe Florizel and Perdita during a sheep-shearing and feast in which visitors are welcome. They wear disguises. Also present are the old shepherd and his son; a shepherdess, Mopsa (who hopes to marry the shepherd’s son) and her friend, Dorcas; and a thief, Autolycus, who has presented himself as a seller of ballads after arriving while singing a song. Earlier, Autolycus had picked the clown’s pocket on a road near the shepherd’s cottage. 
.......When Polixenes discovers that Florizel plans to marry Perdita, Polixenes reveals his identity and threatens retaliation against anyone who abets the wedding plans. Sympathizing with the lovers, Camillo persuades them to abscond to Sicily. Later, at Camillo’s request, Autolycus assists in the escape plan by gladly trading his shabby clothes with the princely garb of Florizel. Dressed as a commoner, Florizel will be able to avoid detection on his way to a ship. Before returning to the palace, Camillo tells the audience in an aside that he will provoke Polixenes into following the lovers. His purpose is not to betray the lovers; rather, it is to go with Polixenes to Sicily, for which Camillo has been homesick these many long years in Bohemia. His scheme works and Polixenes prepares to follow the lovers in his own ship. 
.......Elsewhere, the old shepherd and his son are on their way to see Polixenes at his palace. The shepherd carries a box containing keepsakes of Perdita from long ago. These objects, he believes, will prove that Perdita is not his daughter and, thus, enable him and his son to escape the king’s wrath. On their way, they meet Autylocus, still dressed in Florizel’s clothes; they think he is a royal personage. When he says the king is about to embark on a ship to chase Florizel and Perdita, they offer him gold to take him to the ship and speak for them. But because he is not who he says he is, he takes them to Prince Florizel’s ship. All of themFlorizel, Perdita, Autolycus, the old shepherd, and his sonthen set sail for Sicily ahead of the king’s ship. Many days pass while the ships are at sea. The setting then shifts to Sicily. 
.......When Florizel and Perdita arrive at the palace of Leontes and wait for an audience with him, a gentleman of the court informs the king of their presence, announcing them as the Prince and Princess of Bohemia. He says the princess is the most beautiful creature he has ever seen. 
.......After they are escorted into the court, Florizel greets Leontes on behalf of his father, Polixenes, saying an infirmity prevented Polixenes from making the trip himself. When Leontes inquires about the lovely Perdita, Florizel describes her as the daughter of a Libyan lord. He and the princess sojourned in that African country, he says, before sailing to Sicily to carry out a mission for his father. While Leontes visits with the young couple, all of the others from Bohemia assemble at the court: the old shepherd, his son, and Autolycus, as well as the travelers from the other shipKing Polixenes and Camillo. 
.......Leontes, now a reformed man who is deeply sorry for his past misdeeds, reconciles with Polixenes and Camillo. The old shepherd and his son then reveal the contents of the mysterious box of keepsakes. It contains a “bearing-cloth” (3.3.77) Hermione had given to Antigonus. Leontes recognizes it as Hermione’s, unique because of a jewel on it. He also recognizes the handwriting in the note Antigonus left before a bear attacked and killed him. Just as convincing as these items identifying Perdita is the remarkable resemblance Perdita bears to Hermione. King Leontes joyfully reunites with his daughter and accepts Florizel as his future son-in-law; Polixenes accepts Perdita as his future daughter-in-law. 
.......Leontes’s joy, though, is tinged with sadness, for he still grieves over the loss of Hermione. Paulina, the servant who sixteen years before pleaded on Hermione’s behalf, then invites Leontes to her house to show him a statue of Hermione, sculpted by an Italian master. While the royals and nobles are on their way to Paulina’s, Autolycus begs and receives the forgiveness of the old shepherd and his son for deceiving them back in Bohemia, then taking their gold and putting them on the wrong ship. 
.......Upon viewing the statue at Paulina’s house, Leontes discovers that it is no statue; it is the real Hermione. She has been living in hiding with Paulina these many years praying for the return of her daughter. Paulina was afraid to disclose Hermione’s whereabouts for fear of interfering with the will of the Delphic Oracle, as expressed in the prediction that “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found” (3.2.134). In other words, Leontesif reunited earlier with Hermionemight have fathered another child. In so doing, he would have produced an heir before his lost child had been found. The will of the Oracle would have been defeated. When Perdita appears, Hermione rejoices and invokes the gods to bless her child. The joy of the occasion spills over to include a proposal by Leontes that Camillo and Paulina marry. 
.......And what of Mamillius, the little prince? Nothing can bring him back, but Leontes does have a new son in the person of Florizel. 

Shakespeare Study Guide in Book Form

........Shakespeare: a Guide to the Complete Works is now available in hardback and paperback. It incorporates virtually all of the information on this web site, including plot summaries of all the plays. It also gives dates and sources of each play, describes the setting and characters, discusses imagery, identifies themes, points out the climax, and provides historical background wherever necessary. In addition, it discusses and analyzes the sonnets, as well as other poems written by Shakespeare. 
........Among the many additional features of the book are essays, glossaries, explanations of versification and iambic pentameter, and a section on the Globe Theatre.
........Your purchase of this book will help maintain this web site as a free resource for teachers and students. You can order the book directly from the publisher's web site or from Amazon.com

.......The climax of a play or a narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of The Winter's Tale occurs, according to the first definition, when Leontes receives news of the death of his wife and son, then owns up to the grave sin he has committed in doubting the fidelity of his wife. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Leontes reunites with his daughter, whom he abandoned when she was an infant, and with his wife, whom he thought was dead.

Acknowledging one's sins against others opens the door to redemption and reconciliation. Leontes admits his wrongdoing after first denying it and suffering the consequences of this denial. Having redeemed himself, he reconciles with his family and his friend, King Polixenes. 
Jealousy can be deadly. As an indirect result of Leontes's fierce jealousy, his son, Mamillius dies. Paula's husband, Antigonus, also dies while taking the king's infant daughter to safety. 
Marriage should be based on love, not social standing. Although Florizel loves Perdita, his father, King Polixenes, adamantly opposes their courtship because he thinks Perdita is a mere peasant. She is not a peasant, of course, but a princess. Nevertheless, she would be right for Florizel regardless of her standing in society. 
Kings have all the power, but their subjects are often wiser. Kings Leontes and Polixenes cause serious problems in their realms through unwise and unfair decisions. It is their subjectsCamillo, Paulina, the Old Peasant, Autolycus, and Antigonuswho set things right. 
Rash action is dangerous. King Leontes ostracizes his loving wife, Hermione, after declaring her guilty of infidelity without sufficient evidence. This action directly or indirectly causes the death of his son, Mamillius; the abandonment of his infant daughter; the estrangement of his friends; and the death of Antigonus, the husband of Hermione's attendant.
Imagery: Innocence vs Guilt
.......Shakespeare reflects the spirit of a biblical quotationA little child shall lead them (Isaiah, Chapter 11, Verse 6-9, Bible)when, time and again, he uses imagery underscoring the innocence of youth as a guidepost for sinful adults. Little Mamillius, through his death, helps Leontes see the light. The infant Perdita brings out the best in Paulina, the queen's attendant, and Paulina's husband, Antigonus. Polixenes, king of Bohemia, tells Hermione early in the play of his glorious, guiltless childhood with Leontes:
We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd
That any did . . . . (1.2.83-87) 
.......Polixenes later tells Leontes of the effect his baby (Florizel, before the passage of sixteen years, after which he is presented in the play as a teenager) has on him in the following passage:
He makes a July's day short as December,
And with his varying childness cures in me
Thoughts that would thick my blood. (1.2.203-205)
.......Mamillius foreshadows the wickedness of adults in the playas if he can see what is to comewhen he begins to tell his mother a story about sprites and goblins (the evil creatures of his childhood world that may symbolize evildoing adults of the real world) but is cut off when his father enters ranting about the disappearance of Camillo and Polixenes from the court. Mamillius says, "A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins” (2.1.35-36). After Perdita is born, Emilia, a servant, tells Paulina of the birth of the child (who, like her accused mother, is guiltless), saying that the child is
         a daughter, and a goodly babe,
Lusty and like to live: the queen receives
Much comfort in 't; says 'My poor prisoner,
I am innocent as you.' (2.2.38)
Paulina then observes: "The silence often of pure innocence / Persuades when speaking fails (2.2.54-55).
Imagery: Condemnation of Witch Hunts
.......In Act 2, Paulina boldly defends the innocent Hermione against Leontes’s rash and unjust accusations against Hermione in lines that could be taken as a condemnation of witch hunts (prevalent in Shakespeare’s time) and the execution of innocent women accused of witchcraft: “It is a heretic that makes the fire, / Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you tyrant” (2.3.144-145).
Time Leap: Ignoring the Classical Unities

.......Playwrights in France and many other countries had long adhered strictly to the three classical unities of time, place, and action. These unities, formulated in part by Aristotle in his commentary on Greek drama and in part by the Italian Renaissance humanist Lodovico Castelvetro, suggested that a play should have one setting with a single plot thread that unfolds in one short time period, about a day. However, some Elizabethan playwrights regularly ignored these ancient rules. In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare not only shifts the setting, but he also leaps ahead sixteen years.


.......In the dialogue of The Winter's Tale and other Shakespeare plays, characters sometimes speak wise or witty sayings couched in memorable figurative language. Although these sayings are brief, they often express a profound universal truth or make a thought-provoking observation. Such sayings are called epigrams or aphorisms. Because many of Shakespeare’s epigrams are so memorable, writers and speakers use them again and again. Many of Shakespeare's epigrams have become part of our everyday language; often we use them without realizing that it was Shakespeare who coined them. Examples of phrases Shakespeare originated in his plays include “all’s well that ends well,” “[every] dog will have its day,” “give the devil his due,” “green-eyed monster,” “my own flesh and blood,” “neither rhyme nor reason,” “one fell swoop,” “primrose path,” “spotless reputation,” and “too much of a good thing.”Among some of the more memorable sayings in The Winter's Tale are the following:

He makes a July’s day short as December. (1. 2. 203-205)
Polixenes expresses the delight he takes in activities with his son. The words contain a paradox and a simile (a July day that is as short as a December day).

I am a feather for each wind that blows. (2. 3. 185)
Leontes is replying sarcastically while giving in to pleas to spare the life of an infant whom he fathered but whom he believes is not his. The comparison of himself to a feather in the wind is both a metaphor and a hyperbole.

What’s gone and what’s past help
Should be past grief. (3. 2. 236-237)
Paulina is giving advice to the remorseful Leontes.

What you do
Still betters what is done. (4. 3. 157-158)
Florizel is praising Perdita, saying that she is a continuing delight because what she does next pleases even more than what she has just done. 

A Woman's Wrath

.......Hermione’s lowly servant, Paulina, bitterly upbraids the king for his unfounded jealousy and ruthless retaliation against imagined offenses. In so doing, she helps to bring him to his senses and sets him on the road to penance and redemption. The passage in which she asserts herselfand changes the whole course of the plotoccurs in the second scene of Act 3: 

    What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me? 
    What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? or what boiling? 
    In leads or oils? what old or newer torture 
    Must I receive, whose every word deserves 
    To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny 
    Together working with thy jealousies, 
    Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle 
    For girls of nine, O, think what they have done 
    And then run mad indeed, stark mad! for all 
    Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it. 
    That thou betray'dst Polixenes,'twas nothing; 
    That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant 
    And damnable ingrateful: nor was't much, 
    Thou wouldst have poison'd good Camillo's honour, 
    To have him kill a king: poor trespasses, 
    More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon 
    The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter 
    To be or none or little; though a devil 
    Would have shed water out of fire ere done't: 
    Nor is't directly laid to thee, the death 
    Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts, 
    Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart 
    That could conceive a gross and foolish sire 
    Blemish'd his gracious dam: this is not, no, 
    Laid to thy answer: but the last,O lords, 
    When I have said, cry 'woe!' the queen, the queen, 
    The sweet'st, dear'st creature's dead, 
    and vengeance for't 
    Not dropp'd down yet. (185-212)
Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Which character in the play do you most admire? Which character do you least admire?
  • In courts of law in modern times, government officials accused of committing crimes often defend themselves by saying that they were just following the orders of their superiors. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare gives us a character who refuses to carry out an order to commit what appears to be a heinous crime. Who is the character? Write an essay explaining the guidelines you would use in deciding whether to follow an order given by a superior?
  • What do Florizel and Perdita have in common with Romeo and Juliet?
  • Who was the Delphic Oracle? 
  • What was the most important lesson that Leontes learned from his experience?
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