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The Winter's Tale is a play by William Shakespeare, first published in the First Folio in 1623. Although it was listed as a comedy when it first appeared, some modern editors have relabeled the play a romance. Some critics, among them W. W. Lawrence (Lawrence, 9-13), consider it to be one of Shakespeare's "problem plays", because the first three acts are filled with intense psychological drama, while the last two acts are comedic and supply a happy ending.

Nevertheless, the play has occasionally been extremely popular, and enjoyed theatrical productions in various forms and adaptations by some of the leading theatre practitioners in Shakespeare performance history, beginning with David Garrick in his adaptation called Florizel and Perdita (first performed in 1784 and published in 1756), and again in the nineteenth century, when the third "pastoral" act was widely popular. In the second half of the twentieth century The Winter's Tale, in its entirety and drawn largely from the First Folio text, was often performed, with varying degrees of success, for the first time since it was first performed in London in 1611.

The play contains the most famous Shakespearean stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear, describing the death of Antigonus. It is not known whether Shakespeare used a real bear from the London bear-pits, or an actor in bear costume. The Royal Shakespeare Company, in one production of this play, used a large sheet of silk which moved and created shapes, to symbolise both the bear and the gale in which Antigonus is travelling.


The main plot of The Winter's Tale is taken from Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1590. Shakespeare's changes to the plot are uncharacteristically slight, especially in light of the romance's undramatic nature, and Shakespeare's fidelity to it gives The Winter's Tale its most distinctive feature: the sixteen-year gap between the third and fourth acts.

There are minor changes in names, places, and minor plot details, but the largest changes lie in the survival of Hermione and the suicide of Leontes (Pandosto) at the end of the play. The character equivalent to Hermione in Pandosto dies after being accused of adultery, while Leontes' equivalent looks back upon his deeds (including an incestuous fondness for his daughter) and slays himself. The survival of Hermione, while presumably intended to create the last scene's coup de théâtre involving the statue, creates a distinctive thematic divergence from Pandosto. Robert Greene follows the usual ethos of Hellenistic romance, in which the return of a lost prince or princess restores order and provides a sense of closure that evokes Providence's control. Shakespeare, by contrast, foregrounds the restoration of the older, indeed aged, generation in the reunion of Leontes and Hermione. Leontes not only lives, but seems to insist on the happy ending of the play.

It has been suggested that the use of a pastoral romance from the 1590s indicates that at the end of his career, Shakespeare felt a renewed interest in the dramatic contexts of his youth. Minor influences also suggest such an interest. As in Pericles, he uses a chorus to advance the action in the manner of the naive dramatic tradition; the use of a bear in the scene on the Bohemian seashore is almost certainly indebted to Mucedorus, a chivalric romance revived at court around 1610.

One modern historian, Eric Ives, believes that the play is really a parody of the fall of Queen Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded on false charges of adultery on the orders of her husband Henry VIII in 1536. There are numerous parallels between the two stories - including the fact that one of Henry's closest friends, Sir Henry Norreys, was beheaded as one of Anne's supposed lovers and he refused to confess in order to save his life – claiming that everyone knew the Queen was innocent. If this theory is followed then Perdita becomes a dramatic presentation of Anne's only daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

Date and text

According to Dr. Samuel A. Tannenbaum, "scholars had been disputing for considerably more than half a century whether The Winter's Tale was one of Shakespeare's earliest plays or one of his latest." Charles Barrell assigned a latest date of 1594 [12741], while many critics believe the play is one of Shakespeare's later works, possibly written in 1610 or 1611.

The play was not published until the First Folio of 1623. However, some researchers, including Charles Barrell and A.R. Cairncross, believe that a pirated version of the play was listed in the Stationers Register on May 22, 1594, under the title "a Wynters nightes pastime".[12742]


The earliest recorded performance of the play was recorded by Simon Forman, the Elizabethan "figure caster" or astrologer, who noted in his journal that, on 11 May 1611 he saw The Winter's Tale at the Globe playhouse. The play was then performed in front of King James at Court on 5 November 1611. The play was also acted at Whitehallmarker during the festivities preceding Princess Elizabeth's marriage to Frederick V on 14 February 1613. Later Court performances occurred on 7 April 1618, 18 January 1623, and 16 January 1634 (all dates new style).

The Winter's Tale was not soon revived during the Restoration, unlike many other Shakespearean plays. It was performed in 1741 at Goodman's Fields and in 1742 at Covent Gardenmarker. Adaptations, titled The Sheep-Shearing and Florizal and Perdita, were acted at Covent Garden in 1754 and at Drury Lanemarker in 1756.

The most famous recent production was staged by Peter Brook in Londonmarker in 1951 and starred John Gielgud as Leontes. Other notable stagings featured John Philip Kemble in 1811, Samuel Phelps in 1845, and Charles Kean in an 1856 production that was famous for its elaborate sets and costumes. Johnston Forbes-Robertson played Leontes memorably in 1887, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree took on the role in 1906. The longest-running Broadwaymarker production starred Henry Daniell and Jessie Royce Landis, and ran for 39 performances in 1946. In 1980, David Jones , former Associate Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company chose to launch his new theatre company at the Brooklyn Academy of Musicmarker (BAM) with The Winter's Tale starring Brian Murray supported by Jones' new company at BAM In 1983, the Riverside Shakespeare Company mounted a production based on the First Folio text at The Shakespeare Center in Manhattan. In 1993 Adrian Noble won a Globe Award for Best Director for his Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation, which then was successfully brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Musicmarker in 1994.

In 2009, three separate productions were staged. Sam Mendes inaugurated his transatlantic "Bridge Project" directing The Winter's Tale with a cast featuring Simon Russell Beale (Leontes), Rebecca Hall (Hermione), Ethan Hawke (Autolycus) and Sinéad Cusack (Paulina). The Royal Shakespeare Company and Theatre Delicatessen also staged productions of The Winter's Tale in 2009.


  • Leontes - The King of Sicilia, and the childhood friend of the Bohemian King Polixenes. He is gripped by jealous fantasies, which convince him that Polixenes has been having an affair with his wife, Hermione; his jealousy leads to the destruction of his family.
  • Hermione - The virtuous and beautiful Queen of Sicilia. Falsely accused of infidelity by her husband, Leontes, she apparently dies of grief just after being vindicated by the Oracle of Delphi, but is restored to life at the play's close.
  • Perdita - The daughter of Leontes and Hermione. Because her father believes her to be illegitimate, she is abandoned as a baby on the coast of Bohemia, and brought up by a Shepherd. Unaware of her royal lineage, she falls in love with the Bohemian Prince Florizel.
  • Polixenes - The King of Bohemia, and Leontes's boyhood friend. He is falsely accused of having an affair with Leontes's wife, and barely escapes Sicilia with his life. Much later in life, he sees his only son fall in love with a lowly Shepherd's daughter—who is, in fact, a Sicilian princess.
  • Florizel - Polixenes's only son and heir; he falls in love with Perdita, unaware of her royal ancestry, and defies his father by eloping with her.
  • Camillo - An honest Sicilian nobleman, he refuses to follow Leontes's order to poison Polixenes, deciding instead to flee Sicily and enter the Bohemian King's service.
  • Paulina - A noblewoman of Sicilia, she is fierce in her defense of Hermione's virtue, and unrelenting in her condemnation of Leontes after Hermione's death. She is also the agent of the (apparently) dead Queen's resurrection.
  • Autolycus - A roguish peddler, vagabond, and pickpocket; he steals the Clown's purse and does a great deal of pilfering at the Shepherd's sheepshearing, but ends by assisting in Perdita and Florizel's escape.
  • Shepherd - An old and honorable sheep-tender, he finds Perdita as a baby and raises her as his own daughter.
  • Antigonus - Paulina's husband, and also a loyal defender of Hermione. He is given the unfortunate task of abandoning the baby Perdita on the Bohemian coast. He inevitably meets his doom (as ascribed to him through a dream) upon abandoning the newborn baby on the island.
  • Clown - The Shepherd's buffoonish son, and Perdita's adopted brother.
  • Mamillius - The young prince of Sicilia, Leontes and Hermione's son. He dies, perhaps of grief, after his father wrongly imprisons his mother.
  • Cleomenes - A lord of Sicilia, sent to Delphi to ask the Oracle about Hermione's guilt.
  • Dion - A Sicilian lord, he accompanies Cleomenes to Delphi.
  • Emilia - One of Hermione's ladies-in-waiting.
  • Archidamus - A lord of Bohemia.


Following a brief setup scene the play begins with the appearance of two childhood friends: Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Polixenes is visiting the kingdom of Sicilia, and is enjoying catching up with his old friend. However, after nine months, Polixenes yearns to return to his own kingdom to tend to affairs and see his son. Leontes desperately attempts to get Polixenes to stay longer, but is unsuccessful. Leontes then decides to send his wife, Queen Hermione, to try to convince Polixenes. Hermione agrees and with three short speeches is successful. Leontes is puzzled as to how Hermione convinced Polixenes so easily, and is suddenly consumed with an insane paranoia that his pregnant wife has been having an affair with Polixenes and that the child is a bastard. Leontes orders Camillo, a Sicilian Lord, to poison Polixenes.

When Camillo instead warns Polixenes and they both flee to Bohemia, Leontes arrests Hermione on charges of adultery and conspiracy against his life. Paulina, a woman of the court and an ardent friend to Hermione, attempts to visit Hermione but must settle with seeing her handmaid, who reports Hermione has prematurely given birth to a daughter in prison. Paulina, hoping the sight of his child will convince him where words have not, takes the child to Leontes. Leontes angrily dismisses all attempts to convince him he is wrong and he believes Antigonus, a Sicilian courtier and Paulina's husband, has conspired against him alongside Paulina. Paulina having gone, Leontes considers killing this child—which he believes to be the bastard of Polixenes and Hermione—before ordering Antigonus, instead, to abandon the infant far away.

At her trial for treason, Hermione delivers a heart-rending speech that fails to move Leontes. A report from the Oracle at Delphi pronounces her innocent, but Leontes defies the oracle. But he then immediately receives word that his young son, Mamillius, has died of grief, a fulfillment of another of the Oracle's prophecies. Hermione faints and is reported to have died. Leontes laments his poor judgment and promises to grieve for his dead wife and son every day for the rest of his life.

Antigonus, unaware of Leontes' change of heart, follows Leontes' earlier instructions to abandon Hermione's newborn daughter on the seacoast of Bohemia. Antigonus recalls a vision the night before of Hermione, who told him to name the child "Perdita" (derived from the Latin word for "lost"). He wishes to take pity on the child, but Antigonus is then suddenly pursued and eaten by a bear. Fortunately, Perdita is rescued by a shepherd and his simpleton son also known as "Clown." There is a large amount of money with the baby and the shepherd is now very rich.

Time enters and announces the passage of sixteen years. Leontes has spent the sixteen years mourning his wife and children. In Bohemia, Polixenes and Camillo become aware that Florizel (Polixenes' son) has become infatuated with a shepherdess. They attend a sheep-shearing festival (in disguise) and confirm that the young Prince Florizel plans to marry a shepherd's beautiful young daughter (Perdita, who knows nothing of her royal heritage). Polixenes objects to the marriage and threatens the young couple. Quickly, the lovers flee to Sicilia with the help of Camillo, and Polixenes pursues them. Eventually, with a bit of help from a comical rogue/pickpocket named Autolycus, Perdita's heritage is revealed and she reunites with her father Leontes. The kings are reconciled and both approve of Florizel and Perdita's marriage. They all go to visit a statue of Hermione kept by Paulina. Miraculously, the statue comes to life and speaks, appearing to be the real Hermione, who went into hiding to await the fulfilment of the oracle's prophecy and be reunited with her daughter.


The statue

While the language Paulina uses in the final scene evokes the sense of a magical ritual, one often-overlooked moment in 5.2 shows us the far likelier case - that Paulina hid Hermione at a remote location to protect her from Leontes' wrath and that the re-animation of Hermione does not derive from any magic. When the Third Gentleman announces that the members of the court have gone to Paulina's dwelling to see the statue, the Second Gentleman offers this exposition: "I thought she had some great matter there in hand, for she [Paulina] hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house" (5.2.104-106). What's more, Leontes is surprised that the statue is wrinkled, unlike the Hermione he remembers. Paulina answers his concern by claiming that the age-progression attests to the "carver's excellence", which makes her look "as [if] she lived now." Hermione later asserts that her desire to see her daughter allowed her to endure 16 years of sequestration. Hermione, after her unveiling, says to Perdita, "thou shalt hear that I, / Knowing by Paulina that the oracle / Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved / Myself to see the issue" (5.3.126-129)

The seacoast of Bohemia

Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson ridiculed the presence in the play of a seacoast and a desert in Bohemia, since the kingdom of Bohemia (which roughly corresponds to the modern-day Czech Republicmarker) had neither a coast (being landlocked) nor a desert. Shakespeare's source, the romance Pandosto by Robert Greene, had the shipwreck instead take place on the Sicilian coast. However, in the 13th century under Ottokar II of Bohemia the kingdom of Bohemia did stretch to the Adriatic, and it was, in fact, possible to sail from a kingdom of Sicily to the seacoast of Bohemia. Moreover, in Shakespeare's time, Rudolph, king of Bohemia, also was Holy Roman Emperor and ruled over the Adriatic coast neighboring the Venetian Republicmarker, a fact noted by some Oxfordian scholars [See: authorship], who find it significant that the Earl of Oxford was traveling in the Adriatic region during this brief span of time. Jonathan Bate offers the simple explanation that the court of King James was politically allied with that of Rudolph, and the characters and dramatic roles of the rulers of Sicily and Bohemia were reversed for reasons of political sensitivity. Indeed, had not Shakespeare made this departure from his sources the play's performance at the wedding celebrations of Princess Elizabeth, a future queen of Bohemia, could not have taken place.

In 1891, Edmund O. von Lippmann pointed out that "Bohemia" was also a rare name for Apuliamarker in southern Italymarker. More influential was Thomas Hanmer's 1744 argument that Bohemia is a printed error for Bithynia, an ancient nation in Asia Minormarker; this theory was adopted in Charles Kean's influential nineteenth century production of the play, which featured a resplendent Bythinian court.

The pastoral genre is not known for precise verisimilitude, and, like the assortment of mixed references to ancient religion and contemporary religious figures and customs, this possible inaccuracy may have been included to underscore the play's fantastical and chimeric quality. As Andrew Gurr puts it, Bohemia may have been given a seacoast "to flout geographical realism, and to underline the unreality of place in the play".

Another theory explaining the existence of the seacoast in Bohemia is suggested in Shakespeare's chosen title of the play. A winter's tale is something associated with parents telling children stories of legends around a fireside: by using this title it is implying to the audience not to take these details too seriously.


One comic moment in the play deals with a servant not realizing that poetry featuring references to dildos is vulgar, presumably from not knowing what the word means. This play and Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist (1610) are typically cited as the first usage of the word in publication. The Alchemist was printed first, but the debate about the date of the play's composition makes it unclear which was the first scripted use of the word, which is, of course, much older.

Who is "A man ... Dwelt by a Church-yard"?

What, exactly is the "winter's tale" referred to in the title? One possible answer was suggested in a 1983 production of the uncut First Folio script of The Winter's Tale by the Riverside Shakespeare Company at The Shakespeare Center, in which the director, W. Stuart McDowell, posited an answer to who the man is in the story told by Mamillius, and hence what, exactly, is the "winter's tale". The production, which combined modern (Grace Kelly's Monaco) and historical (pastoral 18th century England) periods, staged a magical transformation when Mamillius begins to recount the "winter's tale" to his mother, Hermione. According the program note, the concept arose from the moment in the First Folio text when Mamillius is asked to "tell's a Tale", to which the boy responds with "There was a man...dwelt by a Church-yard..." According to the Riverside program, McDowell's interpretation posited that these eight words - the entirety of "A sad Tale" that's "best for Winter" - are nothing less than a prophecy concerning Leontes, who would some day dwell by a graveyard (i.e., church-yard), mourning the passing of Hermione and Mamillius for whose deaths he had himself to blame.

Film/Television adaptions

There have been two film versions, one silent version in 1910 and a 1967 version starring Laurence Harvey as Leontes. Another film adaption, starring Dougray Scott as Leontes, is due for release in 2009, directed by Waris Hussein and written by Mark Umbers.

A BBC production was televised in 1981. It was produced by Jonathan Miller, directed by Jane Howell and starred Jeremy Kemp as Leontes. There have been several other BBC versions televised as well.


  1. C. F. Tucker Brooke, The Shakespeare Apocrypha, Oxford, Clarendon press, 1908; pp. 103-26.
  2. Shakespearean Scraps, chapter: "The Forman Notes" (1933). Tannenbaum reports that "Malone had at first decided that it was written in 1594; subsequently he seems to have assigned it to 1604; later still, to 1613; and finally he settled on 1610-11. Hunter assigned it to about 1605."
  3. F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 532.
  4. Halliday, p. 532-3.
  5. "Brooklyn Bets on Rep", T. E. Kalem, Time Magazine, 3 March 1980
  6. "Critics Notebook", Ben Brantley, The New York Times, 22 April 1994.
  7. RSC listing
  8. The Stage review of [Theatre Delicatessen]'s The Winter's Tale
  9. Ben Jonson, 'Conversations with Drummond of Hawthornden', in Herford and Simpson, ed. Ben Jonson, vol. 1, p. 139.
  10. Greene's 'Pandosto' or 'Dorastus and Fawnia' : being the original of Shakespeare's 'Winter's tale', P.G. Thomas , editor. Oxford University Press, 1907
  11. See J.H. Pafford, ed. The Winter's Tale, Arden Edition, 1962, p. 66
  12. Edmund O. von Lippmann, 'Shakespeare's Ignorance?', New Review 4 (1891), 250-4.
  13. Thomas Hanmer, The Works of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1743-4), vol. 2.
  14. Andrew Gurr, 'The Bear, the Statue, and Hysteria in The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983), p. 422.
  15. See C.H. Herford, ed. The Winter's Tale, The Warwick Shakespeare edition, p.xv.
  16. See, for instance, , which cites Jonson's 1610 edition of The Alchemist ("Here I find ... The seeling fill'd with poesies of the candle: And Madame, with a Dildo, writ o' the walls.": Act V, scene iii) and Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (dated 1611) ("He has the prettiest Loue-songs for Maids ... with such delicate burthens of Dildo's and Fadings.": Act IV, scene iv).
  17. The first reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is Thomas Nashe's Choise of Valentines or the Merie Ballad of Nash his Dildo (c. 1593); in the 1899 edition, the following sentence appears: "Curse Eunuke dilldo, senceless counterfet."
  18. Page 282 from the First Folio of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, reproduced on the program cover of the Riverside Shakespeare Company's production of the play, 25 February 1983.
  19. Seymour Isenberg, "Sunny Winter", in The New York Shakespeare Society Bulletin, (Dr. Bernard Beckerman, Chairman; Columbia University) March 1983, p. 25.
  20. The Winter's Tale (1910)
  21. The Winter's Tale (1968)
  22. The Winter's Tale (2009)


  • Brooke, C. F. Tucker. 1908. The Shakespeare Apocrypha, Oxford, Clarendon press, 1908; pp. 103-26.
  • Gurr, Andrew. 1983. "The Bear, the Statue, and Hysteria in The Winter's Tale", Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983), p. 422.
  • Halliday, F. E. 1964. A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 532.
  • Hanmer, Thomas. 1743. The Works of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1743-4), vol. 2.
  • Isenberg, Seymour. 1983. "Sunny Winter", The New York Shakespeare Society Bulletin, (Dr. Bernard Beckerman, Chairman; Columbia University) March, 1983, p. 25-26.
  • Jonson, Ben. "Conversations with Drummond of Hawthornden", in Herford and Simpson, ed. Ben Jonson, vol. 1, p. 139.
  • Kalem, T. E. 1980. "Brooklyn Bets on Rep", Time Magazine, March 3, 1980.
  • Von Lippmann, Edmund O. 1891. "Shakespeare's Ignorance?", New Review 4 (1891), 250-4.
  • McDowell, W. Stuart. 1983. Director's note in the program for the Riverside Shakespeare Company production of The Winter's Tale, New York City, February 25, 1983.
  • Pafford, John Henry Pyle. 1962, ed. The Winter's Tale, Arden Edition, 1962, p. 66.
  • Tannenbaum, Dr. Samuel A. 1933. " Shakespearean Scraps", chapter: "The Forman Notes" (1933).
  • Verzella, Massimo, “Iconografia femminile in The Winter's Tale”, Merope, XII, 31 (settembre 2001), pp. 49-68;
  • Verzella, Massimo,“Petrarchism and anti-Petrarchism in The Winter's Tale” in Merope, numero speciale dedicato agli Studi di Shakespeare in Italia, a cura di Michael Hattaway e Clara Mucci, XVII, 46-47 (Set. 2005- Gen. 2006), pp. 161-179.

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