The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s later plays and at the time he was writing (around 1611) the ‘tragicomedy’ was in vogue.
A tragicomedy is defined by the Oxford School Shakespeare as a play in which ‘alarming events and overwhelming passions narrowly avoid their tragic consequences only in the nick of time.’
There is some light-hearted banter in The Winter’s Tale but overall the story is melancholy and serious.
Polixenes King of Bohemia has been visiting his childhood friend, Leontes, King of Sicilia. Nine months have passed and Polixenes is planning to return home but Leontes tries to coax him into staying longer. At first Polixenes insists he must go but when Hermione joins her husband in coaxing him to stay, he agrees.
Suddenly Leontes’ mind is filled with groundless suspicion and alarm. A form of madness overtakes him and he interprets every innocent word and gesture between his friend and his wife as betrayal and deceit. His behaviour changes towards them both and in his overwhelming jealousy he speaks to his courtier, Camillo, of his suspicions. Camillo sees nothing untoward and reproves his master but Leontes takes no heed.
Camillo, concerned by the situation, warns Polixenes who by this time is aware of the change in his friend’s attitude towards him. He decides to return home immediately and Camillo goes with him.
When Leontes discovers that Polixenes has flown, he confronts Hermione and accuses her of adultery. Believing that the child she is carrying was fathered by Polixenes he sends her to prison.
Hermione gives birth to a daughter, Perdita, whilst in prison but Leontes rejects his child and commands Antigonus, one of his lords and an honourable man, to take the baby and abandon her to the elements.
Antigonus loses his life while trying to save Perdita but she is found on the Bohemian coast by an honest shepherd who understands there is a mystery behind her appearance and she grows up under his care.
Meanwhile word comes to Leontes that the Queen is dead and he is filled with remorse.
‘Leontes is deeply affected.
It’s now clear he should not have suspected
The Queen of deceit;
His despair is complete,
Both for them and the babe he rejected…’
James Muirden (Shakespeare in a Nutshell)
Years pass and Polixenes’ son, Florizel meets and falls in love with Perdita the ‘shepherdess’ and is determined to marry her even though his father threatens to disinherit him if he does so.
Camillo steps in and helps the young couple escape to…Sicilia where Leontes, completely humbled and repentant still grieves over his actions sixteen years before.
All through this tale I was struck by the honourable actions of everyone else in contrast to those of Leontes. He was surrounded by people who were loyal and trustworthy but his jealousy distorted and tainted everything.
The closing scene is moving as Leontes comes to a place of forgiveness and restoration and reminds me of the biblical verse, ‘I will restore the years the locust has eaten.’
We listened to the Arkangel audio recording of this play over a twelve week period. My 14 year old followed along with a free online script
and I used the Oxford School Shakespeare
. My 9 year old daughter just listens and having a basic outline of most of Shakespeare’s plays from having read both the Lamb and Nesbit versions she follows along very well.
Be aware that if you have younger ones listening in that the word ‘bastard’ is used a number of times in the first few scenes. When you hear it belted out by a vehement Ciaran Hinds it is rather jarring when you’re not prepared for it.
Our 12 Week Schedule
Scene 1 – Scene 2 finishing after Leontes says: ‘Go play, Mamillius. Thou’rt an honest man.’ (Exit Mamillius)
Scene 2 from ‘Camillo, this great sir will yet stay longer,’ to end of Scene 2
All of Scene 1 and Scene 2
All of Scene 3
All of Scene 1 and Scene 2
All of Scene 3
Scene 1 (very short)
All of Scene 2 and Scene 3
Scene 4 (this is a very long section and I just stopped about a third of the way through)
Continue with Scene 4
Finish Scene 4
All of Scene 1
All of Scene 2 and 3