Shakespeare’s final plays—of which The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale are best known—reach beyond the comedies and tragedies to echo the tradition of the romance, or, as we are told so often in The Winter’s Tale, the “old tale.” In his previous plays, Shakespeare continually reminded his audience of the thin line that separates comedy from tragedy: Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, both explore the consequences of youthful lovers defying the older generation, but to very different ends. In the romances, however, the added elements of festival, spectacle, strangeness, magic, dreams, and prophecy speak to Shakespeare’s later vision of the possibilities for redemption, both for human beings and the world in which they live.
In the romance, the old tale, or the fairy tale the truth is revealed not in an “imitation of an action,” as Aristotle would have it, but in a vision and a narrative that seeks to transcend the harsh realities of the earlier plays, especially the tragedies. The music, dance, and song, although a presence in the tragedies and the comedies, become a major emphasis of the romance, conveying the celebration of the ideal in nature, including human nature.
To illustrate these differences between The Winter’s Tale (1610-11) and the plays that precede it, it is useful to contrast that play to Othello (1604), the tragedy so readily brought to mind by the romance. Othello traces the corruption of the title character’s mental images of his wife Desdemona, an uncorrupted woman. Through the five acts, we witness first the powers of suggestion and finally the outright lying of Iago, so skilled in psychology that he is able to take advantage of every opportunity to poison Othello’s mind about Desdemona and Cassio. Othello is first verbally and physically abusive to the bewildered Desdemona, and then smothers her to death, only to find out the villainy of Iago when it is too late.
In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes’s jealousy is self-induced, quick to erupt, and volatile. Where Othello seeks proof of infidelity, Leontes needs none, “but I do see’t, and feel’t” (2.1.152). His “proof” is that his wife, Hermoine, has succeeded in convincing the Bohemian King Polixenes to prolong his visit to their castle in Sicilia; Leontes himself had been unsuccessful in his earlier attempt to extend his hospitality to his boyhood friend. In the length of a brief soliloquy, Leontes moves from the gracious host to the raving, wild-eyed husband who seeks the death of both his lifelong friend and his faithful wife. Whereas it takes five acts for Othello’s doubt to turn to rage and then to murderous jealousy, it takes Leontes a little more than two acts to order Polixenes’s death and the death by exposure of his newborn; in despair, his son dies and Hermoine “dies” on hearing the news. Leontes, who has defied even the oracle’s proclamation of Hermione’s innocence, is crushed: “Upon them shall / The causes of their [his wife and son’s] death appear / Unto our shame perpetual” (3.2.236-8).
The difference in the two plays is that The Winter’s Tale has only just begun; for Othello the light, Desdemona, is out, and there is no possibility of rekindling it. In The Winter’s Tale, however, Time, as a character intervenes (4.1), and we are swept to Bohemia some sixteen years later, where Perdita (literally the “lost girl), who as an infant was taken from her mother Hermoine and ordered by her father, Leontes, to be left to die by exposure, has grown up in the household of the shepherd who found her and raised her as his own. Florizel, the son of Polixenes, has fallen in love with the shepherd girl.
As preparation for the annual sheep shearing festival begins, the tone of The Winter’s Tale changes; from the middle of act 3 until the end of the play, the world of the stage transforms from one of anger and grief to one of spectacle, song, music, dance, and trickery. It is a world of youthful love and of nature, the natural. The characters—Perdita herself, Florizel, the shepherd, his son the clown, shepherds and shepherdesses, and the trickster Autolycus—imbue the play with a sense of wonder. It is spring; the winter’s tale is past, but fulfillment is yet to come. Perdita herself is the very emblem of renewal; her disdain of cross-bred flowers, which she voices in the process of distributing flowers to her guests, sparks a response from the disguised Polixenes (who has come to spy on his son), who describes the kind of horticultural grafting that creates strength and vitality: “You see sweet maid, we marry / A gentler scion to the wildest stock, / And make conceive a bark of baser kind / By bud of nobler race“ (4.4.93-96). Perdita herself has the strength that comes of grafting art to nature; high-born, she is nurtured in the “wildest [natural] stock,” the result of which is a young woman whose beauty, dignity, grace, and self-possession make her remarkable to everyone who sees her.
Although there are still obstacles to overcome, the younger generation, as well as the women, triumph over the older, male behaviors that create the tragedies. Fleeing Polixenes, who has forbidden the love affair between them, Perdita and Florizel run head-on into their fate, in the form of Leontes. Unlike the tragedy of Oedipus (from whom we understand the nature of tragedy), the fulfilling of the prophecy from the oracle brings renewal and redemption.
The recognition scene in which the penitent Leontes is reconciled with the daughter he abandoned is narrated to the audience by the messenger. Why, we wonder, is this most important scene narrated rather than acted? Typical of the later romances, Shakespeare’s movement away from drama to the narrative reporting of events suggests that it is this form that offers the refinement of experience. Moreover, the recognition and reconciliation merely point to the greater miracle of the play: the revival of Hermoine.
Led by Paulina, the strong moral and visionary voice of the play, Leontes and Perdita view the statue of their wife and mother. As they do so, the statue comes to life, the prophecy of the oracle at Delphi is fulfilled: “For thou shalt hear that I, / Knowing by Paulina that the oracle / Gave hope thou [Perdita] wast in being, have preserv’d / Myself to see the issue“ (5.3.125-28). Perdita, then, is the instrument of life. In the romantic reversals characteristic of the “old tale,” the possibilities for goodness are unravelled. Those who were lost are found, the dead revived. Leontes has a second chance and will get it right this time. Although not without price—Hermoine and Leontes have lost a son and Paulina a husband—the world is renewed.
uch is said in this play about knowing; visions, dreams, and especially prophecies—the non-rational modes—speak to a higher law at work, one that will revoke the narrow, vengeful orders of human rulers and establish a harmony that transcends the villainy of control.