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The Winter’s Tale

A scene from The Winter's Tale

Introduction to the play

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.

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Cover of the Folger Shakespeare edition of The Winter's Tale

The Folger Shakespeare

Our bestselling editions of Shakespeare's plays and poems

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 Mercury, was likewise
a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.

Act 4, scene 3, lines 24–26

The Winter’s Tale in our collection

A selection of Folger collection items related to The Winter’s Tale. Find more in our digital image collection

Photograph of a production of Winter's tale, starring Viola Allen, performed in 1904
Owen Jones. Scenes from The Winters Tale, plate 36: Florizel and Perdita dancing with shepherds.
Act 3, scene 3: Antigonus: "This is the chase - well may I get aboard!" Painted by J. Halls; engraved by Bragg.
Crown with faux diamonds and emeralds worn by Marie Drofnah (Mrs. Charles B. Hanford) as Hermione

Essays and resources from The Folger Shakespeare

The Winter’s Tale

Learn more about the play, its language, and its history from the experts behind our edition.

About Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale
An introduction to the plot, themes, and characters in the play

Reading Shakespeare’s Language
A guide for understanding Shakespeare’s words, sentences, and wordplay

An Introduction to This Text
A description of the publishing history of the play and our editors’ approach to this edition

Shakespeare and his world

Learn more about Shakespeare, his theater, and his plays from the experts behind our editions.

Shakespeare’s Life
An essay about Shakespeare and the time in which he lived

Shakespeare’s Theater
An essay about what theaters were like during Shakespeare’s career

The Publication of Shakespeare’s Plays
An essay about how Shakespeare’s plays were published

Related blog posts and podcasts

Teaching The Winter’s Tale

Early printed texts

The Winter’s Tale was printed for the first time in the 1623 First Folio (F1), and that text is the basis for all subsequent editions of the play.