The Winter's Tale is a tragicomedy by William Shakespeare. This play is one of Shakespeare's later romances, probably written in 1610 or 1611. Some critics, among them W.W. Lawrence and R.A. Foakescitation needed, consider it to be one of the "problem plays", because the first three acts are filled with intense psychological drama, but the last two acts are comedic and supply a happy ending.
The play opens with the appearance of two childhood friends: Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Polixenes is visiting the kingdom of Sicilia, and is enjoying catching up with his old friend. However, after nine months, Polixenes yearns to return to his own kingdom to tend to affairs and see his son. Leontes desperately attempts to get Polixenes to stay longer, but is unsuccessful. Leontes then decides to send his wife, Queen Hermione, to try to convince Polixenes. Hermione agrees and with three short speeches is successful. Leontes is puzzled as to how Hermione convinced Polixenes so easily, and Leontes inexplicably suspects that his pregnant wife has been having an affair with Polixenes and that the child is a bastard. Leontes orders Camillo, a Sicilian Lord, to poison Polixenes.
When Camillo instead warns Polixenes and they both flee to Bohemia, Leontes arrests Hermione on charges of adultery and conspiracy against his life. She gives birth to a daughter in prison, and Leontes orders Antigonus, a Sicilian courtier, to dispose of the infant. At Hermione's trial, the Oracle at Delphi pronounces her innocent, but Leontes defies the oracle; he immediately receives word that his young son, Mamillius, has died of grief. Hermione faints and is reported to have died. Leontes laments his poor judgement and promises to grieve for his dead wife and son every day.
Antigonus is sent by Leontes to abandon Hermione's newborn daughter on the seacoast of Bohemia. Hermione appears to Antigonus in a dream and tells him to name the child "Perdita" (derived from the Latin word for "lost"). He wishes to take pity on the child, but is chased away in one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions: "Exit, pursued by a bear." It is not known whether Shakespeare used a real bear from the London bear-pits, or an actor in bear costume. Fortunately, Perdita is rescued by a shepherd and his son also known as "Clown".
Father Time enters and announces the passage of sixteen years. Leontes has spent the sixteen years mourning his wife and children. In Bohemia, Polixenes and Camillo attend a sheep-shearing festival (in disguise) only to discover that the young Prince Florizel (Polixenes' son) plans to marry a beautiful young shepherd's daughter (Perdita, who knows nothing of her royal heritage). Polixenes objects to the marriage and threatens the young couple, so they flee to Sicilia with the help of Camillo. Polixenes pursues them. Eventually, with a bit of help from a comical rogue named Autolycus, Perdita's heritage is revealed and she reunites with her father. The kings are reconciled and both approve of Florizel and Perdita's marriage. They all go to see a statue of Hermione kept by Paulina, a lady of Hermione's court, the widow of Antigonus, and her most ardent defender in life and death. The statue comes to life and it is intimated that Hermione went into hiding in the hope of finding Perdita again, but it also appears that she has been brought to life by magical means. All the characters are happy at the end of the play (except for Mamillius and Antigonus, who are still dead).
Some claim that the text leaves unanswered the question of whether Hermione is genuinely brought back to life by magical means or whether the "resurrection" is some kind of trick. But one often-overlooked moment in 5.2 gives fairly conclusive evidence that Paulina hid Hermione at a remote location to protect her from Leontes' wrath and that the re-animation of Hermione does not derive from any magic. When the Third Gentleman announces that the members of the court have gone to Paulina's dwelling to see the statue, the Second Gentleman offers this exposition: "I thought she had some great matter there in hand, for she [Paulina] hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house" (5.2.94-96). What's more, Leontes is surprised that the statue is wrinkled, unlike the Hermione he remembers. Paulina answers his concern by claiming that the age-progression attests to the "carver's exellence," which makes her look "as [if] she lived now." Hermione later asserts that her desire to see her daughter allowed her to endure 16 years of sequestration. Hermione, after her unveiling, says to Perdita, "thou shalt hear that I, / Knowing by Paulina that the oracle / Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved / Myself to see the issue" (5.3.126-129)
Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson ridiculed the presence in the play of a seacoast and a desert in Bohemia, since the kingdom of Bohemia (which roughly corresponds to the modern-day Czech Republic) had neither a coast (being landlocked) nor a desert. However, the pastoral genre is not known for precise verisimilitude, and, like the assortment of mixed references to ancient religion and contemporary religious figures and customs, this apparent inaccuracy may have been included to underscore the play's fantastical and chimeric quality.
The main plot of The Winter's Tale is taken from Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1590. Shakespeare's changes to the plot are uncharacteristically slight, especially in light of the romance's undramatic nature, and Shakespeare's fidelity to it gives The Winter's Tale its most distinctive feature: the sixteen-year gap between the third and fourth acts. There are minor changes in names, places, and minor plot details, but the largest change is in the survival of Hermione. The equivalent character in Pandosto dies after being accused of adultery. This change, while presumably intended to create the last scene's coup de théâtre involving the statue, creates a distinctive thematic divergence from Pandosto. Robert Greene follows the usual ethos of Hellenistic romance, in which the return of a lost prince or princess restores order and provides a sense of closure that evokes Providence's control. Shakespeare, by contrast, foregrounds the restoration of the older, indeed aged, generation in the reunion of Leontes and Hermione.
It has been suggested that the use of a pastoral romance from the 1590s suggests that at the end of his career, Shakespeare felt a renewed interest in the dramatic contexts of his youth. Minor influences also suggest such an interest. As in Pericles, he uses a chorus to advance the action in the manner of the naive dramatic tradition; the use of a bear in the scene on the Bohemian seashore is almost certainly indebted to Musedorus, a chivalric romance revived at court around 1610.
One modern historian, Eric Ives, believes that the play is really a parody of the fall of Queen Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded on false charges of adultery on the orders of her husband Henry VIII in 1536. There are numerous parallels between the two stories - including the fact that one of Henry's closest friends, Sir Henry Norreys, was beheaded as one of Anne's supposed lovers and he refused to confess in order to save his life - claiming that everyone knew the Queen was innocent. If this theory is followed then Perdita becomes a dramatic presentation of Anne's only daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series named one of her main characters Hermione Granger after Hermione, one of the main characters in this play.