The Play’s the Thing: Leontes, King of Sicilia, is playing host to Polixenes, King of Bohemia, who were dear friends in childhood. However, Leontes is now convinced that Polixenes is having an affair with Leontes’ pregnant wife Hermione. Revealing his thoughts to one of his servants, Camillo, he orders Camillo to poison Polixenes. Although Camillo attempts to convince Leontes that his suspicions are baseless, he has no luck and promises he’ll do as Leontes asks. However, when Camillo runs into Polixenes alone, he eventually confesses the orders he’s had from Leontes and arranges for the two of them to escape Sicilia and go to Bohemia, where they’ll both be safe.
Hermione is hanging out with her ladies in waiting and her young son, Mamillius. Asking Mamillius to tell her a story, the boy says, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (take note). Shortly afterwards, Leontes arrives and is incensed that Camillo and Polixenes have escaped. Leontes then has Mamillius taken away from his mother and accuses Hermione of being unfaithful with Polixenes and declares that the child she’s pregnant with belongs to the King of Bohemia. Hermione protests her innocence but is dragged off to jail anyways. Leontes’ lords, including Antigonus, attempt to talk down Leontes but have no luck. Leontes is convinced he’s right and is just awaiting the arrival of two of his lords who have gone to consult Apollo’s oracle at Delphos. Meanwhile, Paulina, Antigonus’ wife, has gone to the prison to visit Hermione but is told she isn’t allowed in. Due to the stress of being imprisoned, Hermione has given birth to a daughter, which Paulina takes to present to Leontes in the hopes he’ll come to his senses. Back at the palace, Leontes is mildly concerned as Mamillius has taken ill, likely due to the fact of the accusations being made about his mother. Paulina arrives with the baby and Leontes continues to be a jerk-face and denies that the baby is his. He then threatens to bash its brains in (such a charmer). Paulina leaves the baby on the floor of the throne room and then leaves, under threat of being dragged out. Leontes tells Antigonus to take the baby and travel to a deserted place and then abandon it. Antigonus doesn’t like it, but does as his king demands. Leontes then receives word that the men who traveled to the oracle are back in town.
Leontes calls the court the order, has Hermione brought in, and has the accusations read against her. Hermione makes an elegant plea of not guilty and she and Leontes heatedly discuss the accusation of her infidelity. The lords that have been to the oracle then arrive. They present the sealed document from the oracle which declares, “Hermione is chaste; Polixenes is 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.” Leontes doesn’t believe it (even though he said he would) until a servant arrives to announce the death of Mamillius. Then Leontes starts to repent. Hermione faints and is taken away by Paulina and a few of her other ladies. Leontes is starting to condemn himself for his insane jealousy when Paulina returns to announce that Hermione is dead too. Leontes recognizes his idiocy and swears he’ll visit the grave of his wife and son every day. Meanwhile, in Bohemia, Antigonus arrives near the beach after taking a boat. He goes off into the hills to abandon the baby, with some bundle that includes identifying paraphernalia, as instructed. He then is attacked and eaten by a bear. The ship that he traveled on is also sunk. The baby is discovered by an old shepherd and his son, who take the child in.
We then have a brief interlude where a chorus, serving as Time, come in to tell us that sixteen years have passed and the baby that was abandoned is named Perdita.
Polixenes and Camillo are discussing Camillo’s request to return to Sicilia. Camillo misses home and Leontes has been repentant for what he did to Camillo in the past. However, Polixenes recruits him to help spy on Polixenes’ son, Florizel, who is rumoured to be in love with a super attractive daughter of a shepherd. Florizel and Perdita are in love but Perdita worries about his father finding out. The shepherd is holding a small shearing party and Camillo and Polixenes arrive in disguise along with other parties. There’s some singing and dancing. Polixenes in disguise, gets Florizel to confess he loves Perdita and urges the young man to tell his father. Florizel refuses several times, at which point Polixenes reveals himself and is outraged at his son’s duplicity and the fact that he loves the daughter of a shepherd. Polixenes then leaves in a huff. Camillo convinces the young lovers to go to Sicilia where Leontes will take them in and they can then convince Polixenes to forgive them for getting married. The pair agree. The shepherd and his son decide to reveal to Polixenes that Perdita isn’t actually the daughter of a shepherd, but get redirected by Autolycus (a troublemaker who provides comic relief and does this one big thing) to follow the young lovers to Sicilia.
In Sicilia, Leontes is being urged by his lords to remarry. However, Paulina tells him that he should only marry when and whom she chooses. The king agrees. Then Florizel and Perdita arrive and try to tell Leontes they are newly married and are sent as emissaries on behalf of Polixenes. However, when news that Polixenes is arriving hot on their tail, they reveal that they aren’t married. Leontes, agrees to petition on their behalf. We then see a couple gentleman discuss the fact that Perdita’s true heritage as Leontes has been revealed, Leontes and Polixenes are reconciled, and blessings have been given to Perdita and Florizel’s marriage. Perdita then wants to go see her mother’s grave. Leontes and the rest of the party are led there by Paulina who reveals a new “statue” of Hermione which is revealed to actually be the queen. Everyone is astounded that she isn’t dead and are happy that the oracle was fulfilled so well.
Heroes and Villains: There are no really outstanding characters, but if I had to choose my favourite, it would be Paulina who goes toe to toe with the king when none of his lords will and provides the final happy ending for the play.
- it is but weakness to bear the matter thus (II.iii)
- the blank and level of my brain (II.iii)
- something savours of tyranny (II.iii)
- all proofs sleeping else (III.ii)
- smacks of something (IV.iii)
Pick-up Lines with Style:
“for I cannot be
Mine own, or anything else to any, if
I be not thine.” (IV.iii)
Speech to Know: Hermione’s speech during the court scene over her supposed infidelity is probably one of the best in the play.
“Since what I am to say must be but that
Which contradicts my accusation, and
The testimony on my part no other
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
To say, Not guilty: mine integrity
Being counted falsehood, shall as I express it,
Be so receiv’d. But thus, – if powers divine
Behold our human actions, – as they do, –
I doubt not, then but innocence shall make
False accusation blush, and tyranny
Tremble at my patience. – You, my lord, best know, –
Who least will seem to do so, – my past life
Hath been as continent, as chaste, as true,
As I am no unhappy: which is more
Than history can pattern, though devis’d
And play’d to take spectators; for behold me, –
A fellow of the royal bed, which owe
A moiety of the throne, a great king’s daughter,
The mother to a hopeful prince, – here standing
To prate and talk for her life and honour ‘fore
Who please to come and hear. For life, I prize it
As I weigh grief, which I would spare: for honour,
‘Tis a derivative from me to mine,
And only that I stand for. I appeal
To your own conscience, sir, before Polixenes
Came to your cour, how I was in your grace,
How merited to be so; since he came,
With what encounter so uncurrent I
Have strain’d, to appear thus: if one jot beyond
The bound of honour, or in act or will
That way inclining, harden’d be the hearts
Of all that hear me, and my near’st of kin
Cry, Fie up my grave!” (III.ii)
View from the Pit: The Winter’s Tale is an interesting beast. The play, although set in Italy, takes a great deal of the content from traditions of Greek tragedy. Anyone familiar with Oedipus Rex will find some resonant points in this Shakespearean play. Of course, instead of the tragic ending, at which Shakespeare is very adept, we instead find happy endings and redemption. It is far more an exploration of the actions of characters, the importance of the fates, and the fulfillment of oracles, than about the actual characters themselves. It is particularly frustrating to never understand why Leontes has developed his jealousy about Hermione and Polixenes, but as a catalyst for the ultimate plot that results it is highly effective. Whatever its faults though, Shakespeare manages to balance both the tragic elements as well as the eventual happy ending that leaves this play in the category of comedy. Definitely one of the lesser known gems in the canon which is worth reading.