The Winter’s Tale
Things to consider while reading The Winter’s Tale
The Winter’s Tale is indisputably one of the oddest of Shakespeare’s plays. I have always seen it as a kind of foil to Romeo and Juliet, which effectively starts off in a comic mode, and takes a sharp turn for the tragic about halfway through — at the death of Mercutio. This one works the other way around. It begins in a bleak, oppressive tragedy, and by the end of the third act things are grim and dark. Then, suddenly everything is reversed, almost whimsically, and the result is what is sometimes labeled as a comedy, but sometimes as a romance.
A narrative retelling of The Winter’s Tale from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is linked here at the Eldritch Press Site.
Here is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on The Winter’s Tale, containing a brief synopsis of the play and the production history with the company.
Here’s a summary of The Winter’s Tale on film.
The Winter’s Tale and what has come before
The Winter’s Tale clearly differs markedly from a work like The Comedy of Errors, in that it is rooted in the soil of genuine tragedy, and draws very little of its humor from farce or comical misunderstandings.
- How does this work differ from other Shakespeare comedies you’ve read, including (but not limited to) The Comedy of Errors?
- What kind of relationship does this play have to tragedy, which it in many ways seems to recall, in the death of Mamillius and the brutality offered Hermione by Leontes?
- Do the extremely improbable events of this play seem more or less probable than those of The Comedy of Errors? What kinds of presuppositions do we bring with us to such events as the death of the old servant Antigonus, who is killed, apparently randomly, by bears?
The Dramatic Unities
Aristotle in his Poetics laid down a concept that plays should be controlled by three unities: unity of plot, unity of time, and unity of place. The unity of plot merely means that the story should be about one thing, rather than many. Unity of time means that it happens “in real time” — without intervening gaps taking place. Unity of place refers to the idea that the play takes place in a single location.
- The Winter’s Tale clearly doesn’t preserve any kind of unity of time; the second half takes place sixteen years after the first half. What does that do to your experience of the play? Is this an arbitrary restriction of Aristotle’s, or would the play have been better served with a more coherent flow of time?
- This play also clearly does not exhibit a unity of place, since it bounces from one country to another and back again. Does this compromise your experience of the narrative?
- Having considered those questions, perhaps we can then better ask: does The Winter’s Tale preserve a satisfactory unity of plot? What does that mean under the circumstances?
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Seeming vs. reality. How is Leontes (repeatedly) taken in?
- Faithfulness is explored as well, largely under the umbrella of the seeming/reality dichotomy.
- Forgiveness is a large theme in the play. Does it strain credibility? Is it a Christian allegory? Is it something else?
Symmetries in the play
- How are the two friends (Leontes and Polixenes) at the beginning alike? What distinguishes them? What decisions in their actions alter their respective courses?
- What events and ideas in the second part of the play echo and invert events and ideas from the first part?
Problems in the play
- Many critics believe that the dramatic impulse of The Winter’s Tale is just too fragmented to make a good play. The initial tragic mixture is just too intense to be wrenched around into a comic or happy ending. At best it can hope to be melancholy. Do you agree?
- If not, can you still claim that Shakespeare has successfully reconciled the parts?
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