The Hidden Mystery behind “The Winter’s Tale” as one of the Dramatic Romances of Shakespeare’s Last period: Reflecting His New Attitude of Life


The Winter’s Tale is one of the last plays of Shakespeare along with Pericles, Cymbeline and The Tempest. These are a cluster of plays, forming as it were a distinct group, indicating a happy end of a long joinery of spirit along the many-splendoured path of drama and poesy. They resemble the romantic comedies and are in a way an extension of the preceding tragic mood at least in patches. They combine in their queer way realism and romance and give to Elizabethan fancy and imagination “a local habitation and a name”. The cruelties and caprices of characters and situations are ultimately redeemed in happy ending with innocence getting victorious in a not-unlike Spenserian world of flower and poetry depicting the charms of a pastoral beauty. The recurrent theme is of recognition, redemption and if one might say regeneration.

The Winter’s Tale is set into this magic world of flowers and fairies. Here impossible things happen without our feeling their improbabilities. Here a King is cruel to his Queen without a cause and sixteen years pass between the two halves of the play without our sensing it. The play’s enchanting people and still more enthralling poetry simply make us forget and forbid us to question. Here as nowhere perhaps time merges in the timeless and we all go back mentally with the poet to our boyhood days to partake, if possible, of the childlike pleasures in innocent trifles in a new Arcadia.

As has been observed already The Winter’s Tale is neatly divided into two halves conceived In contrast. The first half is really the tale of winter with harsh, cruel winds blowing all about and making play-things of peace and innocence. The second half deals with the spring-time of regeneration, recognition and reconciliation. The symbols used are of wintry blasts and piercing storms and then of green branches and dancing daffodils of eternal spring. They show with great poetic force the contrast between age and youth, cruelty and kindness, jealousy and faith. Although apparently Leontes and his daughter, Perdita seem to divide the play between them, the plot really is woven round the whirling fortunes of the queen, Hermione. The Shakespearean formula is here reminiscent of Sophocles’ Electra, a typical classical tragedy which In course of time developed a romantic handling and interest. The magic is found again and again in Shakespeare’s last period, happening in Pericles and with Prospero in The Tempest losing and regaining his kingdom and still again in Cymbeline recovering his lovely Imogen.

As has been well observed by Mark Var Doren, this play is really a tale of divisions—division between husband and wife, friend and friend, father and daughter and in the second half between father and son. The plot centres round the fortune of Hermione and the first three acts are fully engaged with Leontes’s obsession. He is a more jealous character than Othello for while jealousy makes Othello mad. Leontes is madly jealous from the beginning. His delusion seems somewhat masochistic and his ravings are disproportionate to the - cause. In fact, there is no cause and Shakespeare also shows us nothing while innocent Hermione suffers worse than Death. In the first half it is really a wintry tale and it is not for nothing that the boy Mamillius tells his mother (Hermione) that “a sad tale’s best for winter”. Ultimately Mamillius has to die and Perdita, the daughter escapes death for good Antigonus only to find herself grow up among shepherds in an alien land. There she grows like a fine daffodil till the unknown princess is entangled in love with the Prince of Bohemia, Florizel. The act of regeneration begins in spring to end happily in a genera resolution of divisions except for those already lost in the earlier tempest of winter. Their memory lingers and despite all the finest poetry and romance makes us somewhat sad Indeed.

William Shakespeare
Along with three others, this play is called a dramatic romance. In romance truth is reached through many disguises, wrongs apparently perpetuated are ultimately righted and strange wanderings end in happy home-coming. Shakespeare develops this romantic theme here by arranging artfully many mystic and inciting incidents. Men are found shipwrecked on the coasts of coastless Bohemia, a name that immediately conjures up mystery and romance; a princess is found in a casket of jewellery and gold and a statue suddenly becomes a living woman. Here again the story was old and known but Shakespeare, as is his wont, with some sure and deft touches and additions and alt rations in the characters of the roguish Autolycus and humane Paulina, makes of Greenes’ graceful tale a quite different thing dramatically and aesthetically. That Shakespeare was too eager to occupy himself with romance in his last period is fully clear from The Winter’s Tale where he deliberately refrains from analyzing the cause and motive of Hermione’s torturer because he knew more than anybody else that a Romance cannot stand too searching a psychology. That is why again Leontes’s obsession cannot stand ny real comparison with the torrent of terrific and tragic passion of the noble Othello. As is natural in such dramatic rom4nces, there is a dearth of dramatic intensity as compared with the preceding tragedies but that is attempted to be made up by the magic of poetry, exquisite description of spring and flowers and other decorative and episodic elements. Romance is again paramount in the spotless love of Florizel and Perdita by means of which the two royal houses of Sicilia and Bohemia come together among universal merry-making.

In discussing the play it is pertinent to ask of Shakespeare’s attitude to life in these last plays. What was Shakespeare coming to as be evidently reached the end of the journey? Critics and scholars advance many theories agreeing where we also agree that these plays were definitely peculiar in nature and structure. An autobiographic approach is preferred by Dowden seeking in these plays Shakespeare’s final vision and wisdom after he had emerged from the shadowy valley of tragic chaos to climb ultimately the pinnacle of piety and Christian charity. The reconciliation theme full of Christian concept of forgiveness is cited as proof. It is also said that Shakespeare, now materially prosperous being owner of considerable property at New Place and Stratford and passing a retired life in rural England peacefully in the company of his loving and growing daughter, wanted to symbolize this happiness of youth and spring and love some lovely romances. That is why it is said we find the presence of a young, charming girl in The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline as a constant symbol of radiant regeneration, which in turn means the triumph ultimately of Good over Evil. In the same time it is also the victory of innocent youth over remorseful age. It is so to say the surrender of the aged to the grace and poetry of youth in the hope of a better future resplendent with the actualized dreams of the past. E. K. Chambers sees in these plays a sort of spiritual conversion of Shakespeare after the latter’s supposed crisis and suffering in 1607 1608. Lytton Strachey finds in them an aged and weary dramatist relaxing in his last days with dream and poetry after the feverish work of a whole life-time. This again is severely opposed by Prof Tillyard who finds no lack of vitality in them and then argues that the innate poetic qualities of the play are evidence enough that Shakespeare was not bored at all hence the question of relaxation is meaningless. G. W. Knight and Derek Traversi emphasize the spiritual and Christian theme and significance of these last plays which they analyze sympathetically with reference to the key words and images. Perhaps it was Shakespeare who wanted to live away from the shadows; perhaps the crowded city of London was growing weary and irksome to itself and the tired Londoners of the day hungered for a new type of drama; perhaps Shakespeare over eager to respond to his auditors’ yearnings, responded for the last time by writing these fairy tales of plays full of the poetry of reaction from civilization. 
1. The Winter's Tale. N.p., n.d. Web.
2. Shakespeare, William. "The Winter's Tale." The Oxford Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale (1623): 89-90. Web.


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