The action of The Winter’s Tale is often seen as progressing from winter's death to spring's rebirth. Shortly after the play begins Camillo says "I think this coming summer the King of Sicilia means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him." (1.1.5; Arden Shakespeare Third Series, ed. John Pitcher [London: Methuen Drama, 2010]) The line implies that the season is notsummer. “A sad tale's best for winter” says young prince Mamillius as he plays with queen Hermione’s attendants in act 2. (2.1.25) Hence the common view that the first part of the play happens in winter. But a literal reading of several lines doesn’t reveal Shakespeare’s complex interplay of seasonal imagery and what we may call the action’s “emotional temperature.” A deeper appreciation of the play may be attained by viewing the action as encompassing all seasons, often commingled.
What temperature, what season does Leontes’s sudden, rash jealousy evoke in your mind? Probably not winter. “Too hot, too hot,” (1.2.108) he mutters, describing what he thinks he sees in the relationship between his wife Hermione and Polixenes, his dearest friend. That these words also describe Leontes’s emotional state is suggested by the fragmented syntax and fevered imagery of his following speech to Mamillius—especially the passage “Affection? Thy intention stabs the centre” (1.2.138–146). Earlier in the scene, Polixenes describes the happy boyhood he and Leontes shared: “We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun” (1.2.67). Thus, well before we hear Mamillius’s line about winter in act 2, Shakespeare gives us images of gentle summer and of blasting heat.
The time elapsed between acts 1 and 2 is only the few hours needed for Polixenes and Camillo to escape Leontes’s murderous rage. “A sad tale's best for winter” does imply that the season is winter. The tale we are watching is indeed a sad one. But Mamillius is a child; a child’s view of time is limited. As Edith Sitwell notes, “He could not foresee the spring” (Edith Sitwell, A Notebook on William Shakespeare [Boston: Beacon Press, 1961], 204). Against this winter reference Shakespeare opposes a powerful, if indirect, sun reference. Even when he’s most misguided, Leontes seeks the truth from Apollo’s oracle. (2.1.183–7) Apollo, we remember, is the sun god.
Emotional heat and references to fire dominate act 2, scene 3. Hermione has delivered the child Leontes believes Polixenes fathered. The queen’s friend Paulina brings the baby girl to Leontes in an attempt to persuade him to acknowledge the child is truly his. Leontes tries to silence her, but Paulina’s hot temper proves a match for his. Six times Leontes threatens burning Hermione, the baby, or Paulina. (2.3.8; 94; 113; 133; 140; 155) Later he yields and orders the baby to be abandoned in the wild.
At the start of Hermione’s trial Leontes’s mood is one of grief (3.2.1) but his anger soon erupts. Hermione’s tone is in marked contrast to Leontes’s passionate, irrational accusations. In defending her honor she too is impassioned but ordered and controlled. Shakespeare explains Hermione’s cool rationality: “The Emperor of Russia was my father; / O that he were alive, and here beholding . . . / The flatness of my misery; yet with eyes / Of pity, not revenge!” (3.2.117–20). Twice earlier in the scene we heard that Hermione is the daughter of a king. This time Hermione adds a detail—her cold homeland—that is unnecessary in terms of plot but significant, particularly in her rejection of revenge, in moderating the emotional temperature. Her defiance of Leontes’s accusations avoids the heat of Paulina’s earlier confrontation and is the more powerful for it. Leontes rejects the oracle’s confirmation of Hermione’s innocence. In swift succession Mamillius’s death is announced, Hermione swoons and is carried off, and Paulina announces her death. Finally realizing his errors, Leontes is plunged into emotional winter.
The scene shifts to Bohemia where the infant is abandoned in the wilderness as ordered. She is immediately found by the Old Shepherd along with gold and a note that she is to be called Perdita (3.3.32). Sixteen years pass, as a Chorus in the person of Time tells us (4.1.5–6).
Act 4, scenes 3 and 4 abound in seasonal references. Autolycus, a thief and con man who lives by adapting to all situations/seasons makes his first entrance singing, and his song contains specific references to three seasons: “daffodils,” “winter's pale,” and “summer songs” (4.3.1–12). His reference to “tumbling in the hay” may suggest autumn when hay is in the barn or summer when hay is cut. The great pastoral scene (4.4) celebrates the recently completed sheep shearing which, in Elizabethan England, occurred in summer. (Shakespeare’s England: Life in Elizabethan and Jacobean Times. R. E. Pritchard, Ed. [Gloustershire: Sutton Publishing, 1999], 80). Perdita confirms that it is mid-summer: “the year growing ancient, / Not yet on summer’s death nor on the birth / Of trembling winter” (4.4.79–81), she says as she gives rosemary and rue to two strangers (Polixenes and Camillo in disguise) who appear at the feast. These flowers, she notes, “Keep seeming and savor all the winter long” (4.4.75). Polixenes replies “well you fit our ages / With flowers of winter” (4.4.78). A moment later she gives them lavender, mint, marjoram—“flowers / Of middle summer” (4.4.106–7). Next Perdita tells her lover Doricles (actually Florizel, Polixenes’s son) “I would I had some flowers o’ th’ spring that might / Become your time of day” (4.4.113). Before concluding “O, these I lack,” she describes seven spring flowers. Thus Shakespeare establishes that the season is mid-summer and simultaneously invokes memories of winter and spring.
The action returns to Sicilia in act 5. The first scene’s sorrowful mood and multiple references to the deaths of Hermione, Mamillius, Antigonus, and the infant convey a penitential chill. Additionally, the likelihood that Leontes will die without an heir suggests winter’s sterility. The scene plays out Paulina’s earlier rebuke to Leontes: “Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting, / Upon a barren mountain, and still winter / In storm perpetual, could not move the gods / To look that way thou wert” (3.2.208–11).
Paulina briefly moderates the chill. After extracting from Leontes an oath that he will not remarry except by her leave, she hints that she might find him a wife: “she shall be such / As, walk'd your first queen's ghost”; but no; he shall not remarry until his “first queen's again in breath” (5.1.84). A teasing impossibility! Is this not like those final days of winter when it seems spring will never come? But, of course, it does come. A servant enters with news of Florizel’s arrival with his princess—“the most peerless piece of earth / That e'er the sun shone bright on” (5.1.93). Leontes greets the young couple: “Welcome hither, / As is the spring to the earth” (5.1.150).
The restoration to Leontes of his friends, daughter, and wife in the final two scenes may indeed be considered an analogy of spring’s rebirth. Yet Camillo’s reference to sixteen winters and summers (5.3.51–52) implies that the play’s ending transcends any specific season and embraces the entire cycle of seasons and of life. References to death and life and to time’s passage recur throughout the final scene. Hermione’s supposed statue looks older than Leontes remembers her. Hermione and Perdita have been “preserv’d”—not reborn—and are now restored to their rightful places, suggesting a storing up until ripeness has been attained. Her work done, Paulina will live secluded, lamenting her lost husband until her own end (5.3.13–5). Leontes draws Paulina back into the group of “precious winners all” by betrothing her and Camillo, and the play concludes with marriages and one remarriage of three generations. Renewal is not just for the young, but for all.