Where did Shakespeare get the idea for The Winter’s Tale? He often reworked elements from earlier literature and other authors, making a practice of creating something new and powerful from existing stories, and The Winter’s Tale was no exception.
Popping up in the play are characters and scenes from Robert Greene’s 1588 romance Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, considered Shakespeare’s primary source material for The Winter’s Tale. If Greene’s name sounds familiar, it may be because he’s the same man who mocked Shakespeare as a poor writer and an “upstart crow.”
The editors of the Folger Shakespeare The Winter’s Tale have this to say about the differences between the two:
While clearly indebted to its plot, especially in the first three acts of his play, Shakespeare changed names, reversed locales (Leontes’ counterpart presides over Bohemia, while Polixenes’ rules Sicilia), introduced new characters (e.g., Paulina, Antigonus, and Autolycus), treated Leontes’ jealousy as a surprising explosion rather than something building over time, quickly passed over the interval of sixteen years, and developed the sheepshearing festival from a brief allusion into a full-blown scene.
Publishing the play
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and we don’t know exactly when he wrote it, but we do know that it was being performed onstage by 1611 because the astrologer Simon Forman reported seeing it that year at the Globe. However, the play was not published for another 12 years, in the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623. This important book helped ensure the survival of The Winter’s Tale and other Shakespeare plays that had not been previously printed. Had the play changed at all between when it was written and when it was published? It’s a mystery we may never know the answer to.
The play title is included in the First Folio’s table of contents, appearing at the bottom of the list of comedies, although today it’s often characterized as one of Shakespeare’s romances, along with Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest.
Creating the play anew
Like many Shakespeare plays, The Winter’s Tale went on to be adapted many times. Let’s look at one example from the 18th century, a very popular adaptation called Florizel and Perdita: A Dramatic Pastoral (1758).
The man behind the adaptation, British actor and theater manager David Garrick, was a major force in elevating and expanding Shakespeare’s visibility and popularity, helping to revive interest in Shakespeare’s work at a time when interest in the plays had been declining. He’s often credited with creating the foundation for the celebrity that Shakespeare has enjoyed ever since.
Garrick’s play made significant cuts to The Winter’s Tale, but the ending remains the same. Condensing Shakespeare’s original five acts into only three, the action of Florizel and Perdita takes place solely in Bohemia (omitting the setting of Sicilia). Garrick himself played a major role: Leontes.
Garrick’s adaptation wasn’t the only one on the 18th-century stage. Another play that focused on the young lovers was The sheep-shearing, or, Florizel and Perdita: a pastoral comedy by McNamara Morgan, which originated in Dublin but was later performed at Covent Garden in 1754. Morgan’s play completely omitted the characters of Hermione and Leontes. Yet another version, The sheep-shearing: a dramatic pastoral in three acts, by George Colman, was performed at the Hay-Market around 1777.
Adaptations continuing today
Jump 250 years forward, and adaptations are still happening today. Recent retellings in book form include Jeannette Winterson’s The Gap of Time for the Hogarth Shakespeare series and E.K. Johnson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear, the story of what happens after a high school cheerleader named Hermione Winters is sexually assaulted. The play has also been turned into a ballet and an opera.
In 2004 Folger Theatre presented the world premiere of a new play based on The Winter’s Tale: Craig Wright’s Melissa Arctic, where Shakespeare’s story takes place in small-town Minnesota. You can listen to an interview with Wright and other Shakespeare adapters on our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.
Don’t miss: Onstage this fall
The Winter's Tale
With thanks to our Exhibitions team and Abbie Weinberg for their assistance with this blog post
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