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• The Plays
The Winter's Tale

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The Winter's Tale

A sad tale's best for winter. I have one
of sprites and goblins.

Act 2, scene 1, lines 33–34

My father named me Autolycus, who, being, as I am, littered under Mercuy, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.
Act 4, scene 3, lines 24–26

The Winter's Tale, one of Shakespeare's very late plays, is filled with improbabilities. Before the conclusion, one character comments that what we are about to see, "Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale."

It includes murderous passions, man-eating bears, princes and princesses in disguise, death by drowning and by grief, oracles, betrayal, and unexpected joy. Yet the play, which draws much of its power from Greek myth, is grounded in the everyday.

A "winter's tale" is one told or read on a long winter's night. Paradoxically, this winter's tale is ideally seen rather than read—though the imagination can transform words into vivid action. Its shift from tragedy to comedy, disguises, and startling exits and transformations seem addressed to theater audiences.

Shakespeare is thought to have written The Winter’s Tale in 1609–11; it was performed at the Globe in May 1611 and at court that November. It was published in the 1623 First Folio. The chief source is Robert Greene’s Pandosto, or the Triumph of Time.

Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 1998 Folger Shakespeare Library


Further reading
T.G. Bishop. Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Christopher J. Cobb. Staging of Romance in Late Shakespeare. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007.

Mary Judith Dunbar with Carol Chillington Ritter. Winter’s Tale. Shakespeare in Performance series. New York: Manchester University Press; Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Maurice Hunt, ed. The Winter's Tale: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995.

Morriss Henry Partee. Childhood in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.

Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, eds. Shakespeare's Late Plays: New Readings. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
Owen Jones and Henry Warren, drawing from Scenes from The Winter's Tale, mid-19th century

Costume for Fanny Kemble as Hermione. Watercolor on mica, 19th century


2012 Shakespeare's Birthday Lecture: Sarah Beckwith, What Mamillius Knew

Folger Theatre

On Stage: The Winter's Tale

On Stage: Melissa Arctic

Inside the Collection

Folios from the Collection: The Winter's Tale

Teacher Resources

Teaching The Winter's Tale

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