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Literature: A Winter's Tale

About the book

The Winter’s Tale, play in five acts by William Shakespeare, written about 1609–11 and produced at the Globe Theatre in London. It was published in the First Folio of 1623 from a transcript, by Ralph Crane (scrivener of the King’s Men), of an authorial manuscript or possibly the playbook. One of Shakespeare’s final plays, The Winter’s Tale is a romantic comedy with elements of tragedy.

The plot was based on a work of prose fiction called Pandosto (1588) by Robert Greene. The play opens with Leontes, the king of Sicilia, entertaining his old friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. Leontes jealously mistakes the courtesy between his wife, Hermione, and Polixenes as a sign of Hermione’s adultery with him. In a fit of jealousy, he attempts to have Polixenes killed, but Polixenes escapes with Camillo, Leontes’ faithful counselor, whom Leontes has sent to kill him. The pregnant Hermione is then publicly humiliated and thrown in jail, despite her protests of innocence. When the child, a girl, is born, Leontes rejects the child out of hand and gives her over to Antigonus, the husband of Hermione’s attendant Paulina. Antigonus is instructed to abandon the baby in some wild place. Having learned of his mother’s mistreatment, Leontes’ beloved son Mamillius dies, and Hermione too is carried out and reported dead. Having lost everyone important to him and having realized the error of his ways, Leontes is left to his solitary despair.

Meanwhile, the baby girl, named Perdita, is brought up by a shepherd and his wife in Polixenes’ kingdom of Bohemia. She appears in Act IV as a young and beautiful shepherdess who has been discovered by Polixenes’ son Florizel. Needless to say, her true status is eventually discovered once she and Florizel have arrived at Leontes’ court in Sicilia. In a climactic ending, Hermione is discovered to be alive after all. She had been sequestered by Paulina for some 16 years until the time for reunion and reconciliation arrived. Leontes is shown a seeming statue of Hermione, so lifelike that one might imagine it breathes. The “statue” comes to life, and Hermione is seen to have aged during her years of separation and waiting. Leontes, to his intense joy, realizes that he loves his wife more than ever. The recovery of the daughter he attempted to kill is no less precious to him. All is forgiven.

Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). William Shakespeare. Britannica School. Retrieved December 7, 2023, from https://school.eb.com.au/levels/high/article/William-Shakespeare/109536

Themes to Explore

  • Betrayal
  • Loss 
  • Forgiveness

About the author

More than 400 years after they were written, the plays and poems of William Shakespeare are still widely performed, read, and studied—not only in his native England, but also all around the world. His works have been translated into almost every language and have inspired countless adaptations. On the stage, in the movies, and on television, Shakespeare’s plays are watched by vast audiences. People read his plays again and again for pleasure. Shakespeare is often called the English national poet. He is considered by many to be the greatest dramatist of all time.

Shakespeare’s continued popularity is due to many things. His plays are filled with action, his characters are believable, and his language can be thrilling to hear or read. He is astonishingly clever with words and images. Underlying all this is Shakespeare’s deep insight into humanity—how people of all kinds think, feel, and act. Shakespeare was a writer of great perceptiveness and poetic power. He used these talents to present characters showing the full range of human emotions and conflicts.

Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). William Shakespeare. Britannica School. Retrieved December 7, 2023, from https://school.eb.com.au/levels/high/article/William-Shakespeare/109536

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