The beautiful pastoral scene (Act IV) in The Winter ‘s Tale with the sheep-shearing festival with graceful innocent Perdita as hostess serving, singing and dancing with shepherds and shepherdesses are reminiscent of rural England. In these plays Shakespeare gives full vent to his fancy of logic, unities or natural causation. Arthur Symons writes, “The Winter’s Tale is a typical romantic drama. The winter’s dream when nights are longest, constructed in defiance of probabilites which it rids over happily. It has all the licence and it has all the charm of a fairy- tale…”. There are unbelievable incidents, super-naturalism, but the drama is delightful.
The Winter’s Tale is a romance. The play belongs to the fourth phase of Shakesheare dramatic career. The plays of this period include Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest. These plays are also described by certain critics as tragi-comedies. They bring in a new concept of drama or romance different from Shakespeare’s earlier comedies or even tragedies. Shakespeare composed these plays in forties at a mature age in serene surroundings of his native place Stratford.
The Winter s Tale is concerned with the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation . regeneration and redemption; so the drama knits together human bonds, unites parted friends and relations. Grevious errors of heart, and wrong of man to man is there in as cruel and horrible and irrational as in his great tragedies, but in the end mere is comedy and reconciliation. In The Winter’s Tale King Leontes of Sicilia causes great sufferings to his chaste and beautiful Queen Hermione through his mad jealously which goes to his head and he loses reason and acts in a cruel revengeful and unjust manner. He charges his wife of adultery with his boyhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. At the same time he sends two messengers to Delphi for Apollo’s oracle. In the third Act of the play he charges in the trial scene his wife. Queen Hermione with adultery committed with his friend King Polixenes. Hermione appeals for oracle of Apollo and expresses no faith in tyrannical human justice. The oracle declares Hermione as chaste, Polixenes innocent, Camillo loyal servant and Leontes tyrant. Leontes’ declares oracle untruth and orders to proceed with trial.
His blasphemy leads to immediate horrible consequences. His heir and promising son Mamillius dies due to his mother’s poor plight. Hermione swoons to hear the death of her son. Paulina later on declares that she is also dead because she could not bear the shock of her son’s untimely death. Leontes is shocked by the tragic happenings and takes them as Heaven’s revenge. His grief and pain revive his reason and he decides about observing penance to absolve himself of his sin. His infant daughter is taken away by Antigonus per orders to desert coast of Bohemia to die by nature’s rigours, for Leontes considers her a bastard of Hermione and Polixenes. She survives and is brought up by a shepherd. Antigonus is eaten by a bear.
In Act IV. sixteen years after. Perdita grows up as an innocent graceful beauty of a rare charm. Florizel, son of King Polixenes falls in love with Perdita. The act presents a beautiful pastoral scene with romantic love of two handsome young person—Perdita and Florizel. The elown and Autolycus. the rogue provide good humour. And the act provides comic relief after the tragic first part of the play in Act 1 to Act III Covering three fifth part of the play. Polixenes threatens his son Florizel to love a lowborn shepherd girl. The old shepherd and Perdita are also threatened with dire consequences. Florizel refuses to leave his love and tells his father that he can forgo his kingdom. Camillo helps the two lovers to escape to Sicilia and King Leontes. In a huddled fifth Act. the process of forgiveness and reconciliation brings together Leontes and his old friend, Polixenes. Off the stage Perdita turns out to be beautiful daughter of Leontes and Hermione. Florizel and Perdita are united with betrothal and Paulina in the statue scene invites King Leontes, his brother king Polixenes, Camillo and the young heirs to the kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia to her solitary place to see a beautiful life-like statue of Hermione. In the incredulous but famous statue-scene statue comes out as Hermione alive. She forgives Leontes and all are reconciled happily.
The play is full of improbabilities and unbelievable episodes and anachronisms. Edmund Chamber writes, “Men set sail and are shipwrecked on the coast of Bohemia, where never coast was, a bear comes opportunately to make a meal of witnesses and agent of crime, shepherds find an infant princess with a casket of jewels that looks like a fairy gold : a statue steps from its pedestal to become a living breathing woman.”-
The play opens in pre-Christian Greek world. Delphi is shown as a island but Hermione is shown as daughter of Emperor of Russia. Resurrection, purgation and redemption are Christian principles. The process implies that a man may commit any sin, but through suffering and penance or purgation he is absolved of the sin and becomes good and virtuous again. In this process Leontes, the chief sinner in the play who treats Hermione and his daughter so cruelly is through a sixteen years of penance, saved from his sin and a changed king is reconciled to his wife, daughter and time old friend King Polixenes. The unity of the friends is cemented with marriage of their children Perdita and Florizel.
Geographical inaccuracies are there. But the new imaginative locale in the play the sea-coast, pastoral scene, the sheep-shearing feast and dancing, singing of young shepherdess Perdita and others shepherd girls and boys provide romantic atmosphere in the comic part of the play in last two acts (IV & V).
Supernaturalism plays a decisive role in the play. Apollo’s oracle declares Hermione chaste, Polixenes innocent, Camillo a loyal servant, Leontes a tyrant, and infant daughter his legitimate child. And he will remain without heir till the lost daughter is found. In the final Act, when Dion asks Leontes to marry again for the sake of an heir to his kingdom. Paulina alone of all the characters and including the audience knows that Hermione is alive. So she asks Leontes to listen to the oracle which demanded the search for the forgotten child. Leontes agrees to Paulina’s good advice and resolves not to marry. Antigonus in his dream is guided by the the spirit of Hermione that he should place the infant on the desert-coast of Bohemia. She is picked up by a shepherd and grows to a young beautiful girl of rare charm. Florizel, young son of Polixenes meets her, and they fall in love with each other, and the process of reconciliation takes roots.
Romance of Love
The Winter’s Tale is a romance. It begins with love of two friends Leontes and Polixenes and the love of Leontes and his Queen, Hermione. They have a promising son in Mamillius and Hermione is pregnant and expecting a child. Polixenes is enjoying the hospitality of his friend for nine months. Mad jealousy of Leontes makes the play tragic. He suspects his wife and charges her of adultery with Polixenes and the child in her as a bastard of Polixenes. However, the time passes. On the coast of Bohemia a beautiful pastoral scene with a lovely love scene between Florizel and
Perdita, the children of Polixenes and Leontes present a wonderful romantic love-scene which ultimately ends in not only their marriage but also reconciliation of Leontes and Polixenes families. The children’s romantic love brings a romance to a wonderful and happy end. Thus the play begins with love and ends in Romance. Since one part of the plot is tragic and the other part is comic; so the play is termed a tragi-comedy by some critics. The romance thus presents a new construction and theme and is regarded a great creation of the great playwright, Shakespeare.
To sum up, the play is a mixture of realism and romance. It has been correctly called Romance. Tragi-comedy is also a fit label for it. The first three Acts of The Winter’s Tale are serious and tragic, while the last two Acts contain such different elements as a pastoral romance, songs, humour, roguery, and the re-union of long-separated individuals. The mixture of sorrow, suffering, romance, humour, reunion, and forgiveness in the play justifies the label tragi-comedy for it. These different aspects of the play may be examined under the following heads: tragic elements, romantic elements, comic elements, and the happy ending.