Skip to main content
The Winter’s Tale /

A Modern Perspective: The Winter’s Tale

By Stephen Orgel

For modern audiences and critics The Winter’s Tale is a strangely discordant play. The title declares it a fable—a winter’s tale is a trifle, a fairy tale to enliven long winter nights. Yet the first half presents, in the depiction of Leontes’ jealousy, one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant and deeply felt studies of human psychology, uncompromising in its intensity and realism. It is also a pointed and powerful dramatization of the dangers and responsibilities of monarchy, a logical corollary to King Lear. But why, then, the change of direction for the conclusion? Why does Shakespeare set up the tragic momentum of the first three acts, only to disarm it with fantasy and magic? And if the tragedy is to be disarmed, why is the happy ending so partial—why is Mamillius not restored along with Hermione and Perdita? Why, indeed, is the death of Leontes’ young son, the heir to the throne, so much less of an issue dramatically than the loss of his infant daughter? Most puzzling of all, why does Shakespeare—quite uncharacteristically, if one thinks of his earlier plays about bad kings—preserve and finally exonerate Leontes? Why not let him atone for his crimes by dying, and resolve the tragic issues through the succession of a new and innocent generation, on the models of Henry IV, Macbeth, King Lear? Reconciliations are the stuff of Shakespearean comedy; but why does Shakespeare want this play to be a comedy?

These questions may express modern critical concerns, but for the history of the play on the stage, they are not at all new. From the time The Winter’s Tale was first revived in the mid-eighteenth century, revisers and performers have set to work to diminish the play’s tragic aspects, to soften and rationalize Leontes’ jealousy, to focus the play more clearly on the pastoral scenes and the young lovers (Garrick’s adaptation was even called Florizel and Perdita). At the same time, the statue scene has always been the play’s emotional center: however illogical or frankly incredible, the conclusion has always been theatrically foolproof.

Though the play has a family setting, its issues are deeply informed by the political and legal history of Jacobean England—by questions of the perquisites and responsibilities of the monarch, the relation between royal authority and the will of the people, the limits of protocol, and what sanctions may be brought to bear on the actions of a criminal king. All these issues were being actively debated throughout the first decade of King James I’s reign, and the play’s focus on the king is certainly a reflection of the world of contemporary politics. At the same time, however, the play’s political issues were ones that had concerned Shakespeare in his deepest tragedies throughout his career, and even overtly political tragedy, for Shakespeare, invariably starts in the family. It is Richard II’s behavior toward his uncles and cousins that prompts the rebellion that deposes him; the tragedy of Hamlet begins with fratricide and incest, and takes shape around the complex relations of parents and children; Macbeth, assassinating Duncan at the urging of his wife, is murdering his cousin; Lear’s tragedy is from beginning to end a family matter. It is to the point that when James I came to the English throne in 1603, there was a fully constituted royal family at the center of English society for the first time since the death of Henry VIII.

Leontes’ jealousy of his wife’s affection for his oldest friend seems to appear, dramatically, out of nowhere. It springs, paradoxically, from his wife’s ability to persuade Polixenes to extend his stay in Sicily, when Leontes’ own pleas had failed. In doing so, she is fulfilling his wishes, acting as his agent—being a good wife—and Leontes’ response obviously includes a large measure of ambivalence toward both his marriage and his best friend. Criticism has widely regarded Leontes’ jealous rage as unmotivated, and critics and editors have often attempted to provide the play with a rational basis for his delusion, arguing that Hermione, though certainly innocent, must have presented the appearance of impropriety. Directors, similarly, often give Hermione and Polixenes some suspiciously intimate stage business to justify Leontes’ outburst. But in Shakespeare’s text, the motivation comes from within—the play’s psychology, indeed, is strikingly modern in its recognition of the self-generating nature of Leontes’ passion and the compulsiveness of paranoid behavior.

Shakespeare’s explanation for Leontes’ behavior is rooted in childhood and in the complex tensions between male bonding and heterosexual love. The king turns from his wife and friend to his child, and this provides the rationale for his evident dismay:

             Looking on the lines

Of my boy’s face, methoughts I did recoil

Twenty-three years, and saw myself unbreeched,

In my green velvet coat, my dagger muzzled

Lest it should bite its master and so prove,

As ornaments oft do, too dangerous.


He finds himself in the seven-year-old Mamillius, and the return to childhood is a retreat from sexuality and the dangers of masculinity represented by unmuzzled daggers. He sees himself “unbreeched,” not yet in breeches—Renaissance children of both sexes were dressed in skirts until the age of seven or so, and the “breeching” of boys was the formal move out of the world of women and into manhood. Polixenes, questioned by Hermione, describes his childhood with Leontes as both Edenic and pre-sexual:

            What we changed

Was innocence for innocence. We knew not

The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed

That any did. Had we pursued that life,

 . . . we should have answered heaven

Boldly “Not guilty,” the imposition cleared

Hereditary ours.


The world of their childhood was without vice or temptation, innocent even of original sin, of whose “imposition” we are guilty by heredity. Hermione pointedly observes, “By this we gather / You have tripped since.” Polixenes concurs; the fall from grace was the fall into sexuality—the entrance of women, and thereby of sin, into the garden: “Temptations have since then been born to ’s, for / In those unfledged days was my wife a girl” (98–99). The temptations are the prelude to marriage. But this is not a happy ending: Hermione draws the logical inference, that “Your queen and I are devils” (104). The banter is lighthearted, but her teasing account of wedlock as a continuing state of sin with diabolical women confirms the view of sexuality implied in the men’s fantasy.

The entry of women into the childhood Eden is also, of course, a disruptive element in the perfection of male friendship. The tension between friendship and marriage is a recurrent Shakespearean theme: think of Portia’s elaborate strategy to undo Bassanio’s allegiance to Antonio, or Othello’s automatic assumption of his friend’s honesty as against his wife’s. Leontes’ sudden, violent spasm of jealousy is triggered by nothing—“nothing,” indeed, becomes a key word in his litany of evidence against his wife (“Is whispering nothing?,” etc.)—but the transformation of the best friend into a rival and the faithful wife into a whore is part of the same fantasy, its worst-case scenario. Marriage is a dangerous condition in Shakespeare, and in agonizing over whether his wife is chaste, his children legitimate, Leontes is articulating a critical subtext that resonates throughout the patriarchal culture of early modern Europe.

The women in this world have their own society too. Hermione’s prison is also the birth chamber, and she has as her champion not some heroic knight of romance but the fearless Paulina, whose challenge to Leontes’ authority provides some of the most thrilling moments of the play. Her shrewish tongue is the agent of reconciliation and restoration, but she is also a half-comic figure, one whom the play refuses to take entirely seriously: what she restores, after all, is the culpable Leontes’ equanimity and some—not all—of his losses.

Hermione’s trial is not really a trial, since there is no evidence; or more precisely, no agreement about what constitutes evidence. What for Leontes is empirical is to Hermione merely “surmises, all proofs sleeping else / But what your jealousies awake” (3.2.119–20). The appeal to the oracle itself acknowledges the radical fallibility of human justice, the impossibility of determining truth through the processes of reason. The play certainly assumes the oracle’s infallibility, though this, for a Renaissance audience, may have constituted one of its many improbabilities. There was, by Shakespeare’s time, a considerable literature denying any divine inspiration to the ancient oracles, and Leontes’ rejection of Apollo’s word is entirely consistent with orthodox Christian opinion. For Shakespeare’s audience, the crucial testimony, the word of the oracle, would have been rather like the word of the ghost in Hamlet—something the play requires you to believe but that you knew, as a good Reformation Christian, you were supposed to reject.

The oracle minces no words, but neither does Leontes in his reaction; nor is any evidence necessary in declaring the oracle false. What brings Leontes to his senses is not Apollo’s word but the sudden report of the death of Mamillius:

The Prince your son, with mere conceit and fear

Of the Queen’s speed, is gone.

.   .   .

                                                   Is dead.


Apollo’s angry, and the heavens themselves

Do strike at my injustice.


There is no reason for Leontes to realize he is mistaken at this point. He takes Mamillius’ death as a judgment of Apollo, but he need not give it this interpretation. Indeed, the messenger has offered a perfectly satisfactory physiological explanation: the boy died from fear and grief over his mother’s situation. It is Leontes who supplies an alternative explanation that gives Mamillius’ death a metaphysical meaning, that implies a providential universe, a world of rewards and punishments, and perhaps most important, a world that contains a mechanism enabling you to determine whether you are actually right or wrong, that solves the problem of your skepticism. Leontes sees this particular event as part of a larger scheme. But the process by which he arrives at this conviction is no different from that by which he had convinced himself of Hermione’s guilt. Being released from one’s delusions and restored to one’s senses has nothing to do with a return to rationality.

Leontes’ reaction to all this is worth pausing over. To Hermione’s swoon at the announcement of the death of Mamillius, his response is remarkably casual: “Her heart is but o’ercharged.” Mamillius has been represented as the joy of his life, and also as his twin (they are “almost as like as [two] eggs”) and the hope of the kingdom. His reaction to the boy’s death produces not a recognition of the limits of human physiology under grief, and the acknowledgment of his responsibility for the most profound of losses, but the conviction that “Apollo’s angry”—and therefore can be appeased. He accommodates himself to his losses very easily. Hermione is to be revived, heaven is squared with an apology, and all past errors are assumed to be easily rectifiable:

            Apollo, pardon

My great profaneness ’gainst thine oracle.

I’ll reconcile me to Polixenes,

New woo my queen, recall the good Camillo,

Whom I proclaim a man of truth, of mercy.


It is significant that nothing here is said about Mamillius. This is, in a sense, Leontes’ ultimate salvation: his ability both to ignore what it does not suit him to recognize and to make metaphysical leaps of faith, to move beyond the immediacies of facts and evidence. It is an ability that Paulina will invoke in the final scene as an essential element in the restoration of Hermione: “It is required / You do awake your faith” (5.3.118–19).

To call Leontes’ accommodation to the death of his child (and later that of his wife) easy is not to deny the realities of the feeling involved, but it is to see it as a psychological strategy that, morally, leaves the king unpleasantly intact. Even in coming to his senses, Leontes’ ego remains relentlessly unbruised: “I have too much believed mine own suspicion” (3.2.167)—as if there were some difference between the belief and the suspicion, and some lesser degree of credulity would have been warranted. The death of his son and wife, the loss of his daughter, are to be lessons for him—terrible lessons—but that is all they will be. It is Antigonus who suffers death for the abandonment of Perdita; Leontes remains at the center of the play’s moral universe. The restored Hermione accepts him back at the play’s end; Perdita reappears to provide him with the heir his actions have destroyed; Mamillius, the twin/rival/successor, remains safely dead: the preservation and continuance of the king is throughout the critical issue.

We can, if we wish, describe Leontes’ transformation, with its recognition of the reality of divine intervention, as the affirmation of a religious vision (critics often account for the miraculous endings of the late plays by invoking Shakespeare’s supposed belief, in his old age, in a transcendent Christianity—his age, remember, was forty-six in 1611), but I doubt that there is much about it to comfort the religious sensibility. What Leontes constructs is a version of events in which God has killed his innocent child in order to teach him a terrible lesson; the child was in no way at fault, but the sins of the father are here visited on the son in the worst possible way. It may well be true that Shakespeare is expressing a religious doctrine in this, but if so, it should serve to remind us that religion in Shakespeare’s age was not at all a comforting matter. The church was not the infinitely welcoming mother you could always return to, but a fierce and angry father—people were still being burned alive for heresy, for believing the wrong version of Christianity, in Shakespeare’s time.

For all the ultimate restorations, Mamillius is really dead, and nothing restores that loss. To stress the effectiveness of the fantastic reconciliations at the end of Shakespeare’s career is surely to ignore Mamillius. The play itself is curiously compliant about the matter: Paulina is as hard as the severest moralist could wish in recalling to Leontes’ attention his responsibility for the loss of his wife and daughter, but Mamillius is scarcely mentioned. It is as if the death of the son, the heir—the rival—really solves all the play’s problems, leaving the transcendent resolution to the unthreatening, infinitely accommodating daughter and wife.

Indeed, in Leontes’ quick speech of repentance at 3.2.170–74, nothing is said about Antigonus and Perdita either. Out of sight, for this hero, is out of mind. It is Paulina who expresses the realities that Leontes is unaware of—that everything does not take place inside his head, that losses cannot be restored simply by apologizing, that feelings have no effect on facts:

                O thou tyrant,

Do not repent these things, for they are heavier

Than all thy woes can stir. Therefore betake thee

To nothing but despair.


But even she, at his merest gesture of repentance, withdraws the charge, declares herself “a foolish woman” (line 252), and asks forgiveness. Even for the best of women, speaking the truth to the king is going too far.

Paulina is presented in one sense as a heroic figure, intensely serious, the one person who is utterly unafraid of Leontes, willing to say, and keep saying, the hardest truths to his face. But she is also, obviously, a figure of fun, the butt of a series of jokes about women who talk too much and do not know their place, and about men who cannot control their wives—about women who behave, in the deepest sense, inappropriately. Leontes, in the height of his exasperation, sums it up by calling her “a mankind witch” (2.3.84). “Mankind” means mannish, masculine: witches are traditionally female, but Paulina violates the gender boundaries as well.

In a patriarchal society, the position of women is a basic issue; Leontes’ charge against Paulina is obviously related to his sense of his inability to control his own wife, his power within his family as a microcosm of his power over his kingdom, his potency in the largest sense. Paulina in this scene sums up everything this patriarchal culture finds dangerous in women: she is shrewish, refuses to obey her husband, meddles in the affairs of men, has no respect for the king’s authority. Leontes charges her in addition with the female vice that is predicated on the notion of women who do not know their place: she is “a most intelligencing bawd” (2.3.85)—a spying whore. Unbridled language is a sure sign of both lechery and sedition. If we put this together with the assertion that she is a “mankind witch,” one who behaves like a man, we can see the gender confusions at the heart of the play and, indeed, of the culture: what is most quintessentially female about women, their sexuality, is most masculine—or perhaps more precisely, is most clearly a projection of masculine fears about women. Sex is something that men do; anything that forces men to acknowledge a specifically female sexuality (the fact, for example, that Hamlet’s mother likes to sleep with her husband) is profoundly disturbing.

So far, we would say, Paulina is a recognizable and even commonplace figure for the Renaissance, descending from the view of women Shakespeare dramatized at the beginning of his career in The Taming of the Shrew. The trouble is, however, that to call a woman masculine in the period, while it is the worst thing that can be said about her, is also the best. When Ben Jonson wants to idealize his patron the Countess of Bedford, he gives her “a manly soul” (Epigrams 76); Queen Elizabeth addressing her troops before the engagement with the Spanish Armada told them that though she had the body of a weak and feeble woman, she had the heart and stomach of a king; and after all the jokes about Paulina, by the end of Act 3 Leontes is deferring to her. Even the charge of witchcraft gets turned around: Leontes says at the revelation of Hermione’s statue, “If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating.” To see Paulina as masculine, then, is ultimately a way of idealizing her; and her masculinity is the essential, enabling agent of Hermione’s female virtues of obedience and humility—her willingness to lay down her life because of her husband’s displeasure, however unmerited. These are the two sides of Shakespeare’s women, and together they epitomize the culture’s deep ambivalence about both gender and patriarchy.

But the other side of Paulina, the side that somehow gets forgotten, is her relation to her husband. Where is Antigonus in this world of heroic female masculinity? In fact, Antigonus is disposed of quite as coldbloodedly as Mamillius, and his death is another of the play’s unrestored losses. He is the faithful servant to an irrational and vindictive master. He has been criticized for obeying Leontes, but however barbarous the king’s orders may be, the alternative to obeying them is to see Perdita burned. He commits himself and the infant to the protection of Providence—naively, no doubt, but that is the point. Paulina essentially writes him off as soon as he leaves (see 3.2.255–56), and when, at the play’s end, Camillo is offered as a replacement, there is no question of her remaining true to her husband’s memory, as Leontes has remained true to his wife’s. Antigonus is, in the play’s terms, a total loss.

Hermione’s death is one of Shakespeare’s most daring pieces of stagecraft. There is no question that, at the end of Act 3, the queen is dead—as dead as Mamillius. The evidence for both deaths is the same, the report of an eyewitness; but Shakespeare does not leave the matter there. Leontes not only demands to view the bodies but says he will see them buried together in the same grave. Shakespeare could have left Leontes in silence, or sent him into seclusion, unable to face the evidence of his crimes; but we are allowed no doubt about the reality of the deaths. What this means is that if at the play’s end Leontes is being deceived by Paulina about the reality of death, so by the same token are we being deceived by Shakespeare.

The move to pastoral and the young lovers, and that geographical figment the seacoast of Bohemia, comes via the most notorious of Shakespearean gimmicks, the bear that devours Antigonus—an impossible problem for directors, a tragic moment that always gets a laugh. The tragedy becomes comedy—black comedy initially, though as Act 4 continues, it is clear that even within the world of shepherds and romance there is a great deal that is threatening. Indeed, the very presence of aristocrats in the world of pastoral is ominous and disruptive. Florizell woos Perdita by comparing himself to a series of divine lovers bent on the rape of their mortal mistresses; Perdita invokes the flowers that fell from Proserpina’s arms as the god of the Underworld carried her off to an enforced marriage in Hades. Polixenes’ fury at his son’s wish to choose his own bride would have seemed less irrational to Shakespeare’s audience than it does to us—princes’ marriages were matters of state—but even so, the play has little to say in favor of romance. The only reason the elopement constitutes a happy ending is that Perdita is not only not a shepherdess, but the very princess Polixenes would have chosen as his son’s wife, the one bride who can heal the wounds of the previous generation.

Proserpina being abducted in “Dis’s wagon."
Proserpina being abducted in “Dis’s wagon.” (4.4.139–41)
From Claude François Menestrier, L’art des emblemes . . . (1684).

It is to the point, too, that the happy ending depends on the manipulations of both Autolycus and Paulina, and on an egregious piece of theatrical artistry. In this case the line between the artist and the con-artist is a very fine one. The faith that Paulina demands from Leontes for her tableau vivant is only a courtly version of the gullibility Autolycus’s ballads exact from his rural clientele. Hermione’s statue itself is invented out of old tales, out of Vasari’s Life of Giulio Romano (which seems to imply, erroneously, that this painter, renowned for the lifelike quality of his work, was also a sculptor), and out of Ovid’s account of the sculptor Pygmalion, whose statue of the perfect wife answered his prayers by coming to life. The catharsis engineered by Paulina depends on sixteen years of suffering and penance on Leontes’ part. Nothing is said, however, of what Hermione has undergone during the sixteen years; and indeed, the play’s stagecraft renders the question irrelevant: she has been dead. For modern audiences, the reunion of husband and wife is an essential element in what is, theatrically, an overwhelming conclusion, but this is probably an anachronistic reaction: Leontes’ courtiers continually urge him to remarry, and Paulina prevents him from doing so precisely because Hermione could have been produced at any time, the royal family reconstituted, new heirs born. The oracle would not thereby have been fulfilled, but clearly no one at court except Paulina believes that it needs to be. For Shakespeare’s age, the restoration of Perdita, the finding of the heir, the continuance of the royal line, is the crucial element; even Hermione says she has preserved herself to see Perdita, not Leontes. And once the losses are restored, Paulina returns to her proper status of obedient wife—to somebody, to anybody, to whomever the king chooses. Grace and wonder inhere only in kingship. The Winter’s Tale is very much a royalist, patriarchal vision, and the extent to which it succeeds for modern audiences and readers is a measure of the extent to which we are still willing to buy into that ideology.