This month on What Happens in Shakespeare, let’s explore The Winter’s Tale. It’s packed with the usual plot implausibilities and feminist-shakes-fist moments of a Shakespeare romance, and it hardly ever gets performed—not surprising when you see just how much time you have to spend with a powerful abuser stomping around the stage before he finally sees the error of his ways. But scratch the surface, and there’s still a lot to love here. Shakespeare was a master of character, and Leontes’ change of heart is undeniably masterful. Plus if you ask me, The Winter’s Tale is an early example of urban fantasy. Before Peter Pan flew through the Darling kids’ bedroom window, before Don Giovanni invited a headstone to dinner, Hermione made the must-be-magic journey from life to sculpture to life again.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “It’s OK to kill yr wife & best friend, & abandon yr baby, as long as you regret it. + Living statues!”
What happens in The Winter’s Tale
King Leontes of Sicilia and his pregnant wife, Hermione, are hosting King Polixenes of Bohemia.
Leontes, cowardly bully that he is, convinces himself that Polixenes and Hermione are lovers. He orders his servant Camillo to poison Polixenes. Instead, Camillo warns Polixenes of the plot and they escape together to Bohemia.
Leontes is furious. His behavior goes from bad to unforgivable. He publicly accuses his wife of infidelity and announces that her unborn baby must be illegitimate. He throws her in prison. (Let’s take a moment to ask ourselves why this play is considered a romance.) He asks the Oracle of Delphi to confirm his suspicions.
The queen gives birth to a baby girl in prison. Her loyal friend Paulina brings the baby to the king, hoping the sight of her will soften his heart, but he only gets angrier. He orders Paulina’s husband, Lord Antigonus, to take the baby and abandon it in some desolate place. Antigonus leaves with the baby.
The answer comes from the Oracle of Delphi: Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, and Leontes will not have an heir until his lost daughter is found.
Leontes’s and Hermione’s son, Mamillius, immediately makes the prophecy come true by getting sick and dying when he hears the accusations against his mother.
Hermione collapses. Paulina delivers the news that she has died. Leontes—now competing for the triple crown of coward, bully, and hypocrite—declares himself heartbroken and repentant. (To be fair, the text supports his being genuinely heartbroken and repentant very well. I just have zero tolerance.)
Antigonus, meanwhile, abandons the baby on the Bohemian coast (oh hush, I know Bohemia didn’t have a coast). He has a change of heart and almost saves her life, but here Shakespeare intervenes, using the only stage direction that ever appeared in one of his plays: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” We never see Antigonus again, so we can safely assume the worst.
A shepherd rescues the baby and names her Perdita.
Sixteen years go by.
Florizel, the son of Polixenes, falls in love with Perdita.
Polixenes and Camillo visit the countryside. Polixenes denounces his son for intending to marry a poor shepherd woman. Florizel and Perdita escape to Sicilia, with the help of Camillo.
In Sicilia, Leontes is still in mourning after all this time. Okay, maybe we feel a slight pang for the wretched coward now. He greets Florizel, the son of his old friend. Perdita’s true identity is revealed. There is a great deal of rejoicing.
Paulina presents a statue of the dead queen. The sight makes Leontes distraught, but then the statue comes alive—stay with me here, people—it’s Hermione, back from the dead. In one of the least supportable moments of the whole play, she seems genuinely happy to see him. This lady is way more forgiving than I would be. There is a whacking great enormous amount of rejoicing.
For more, including a side-by-side translation from Shakespeare’s English to modern English, visit No Fear Shakespeare’s page on The Winter’s Tale.