Winter’s Tale – A Bit of History

The Winter’s Tale is the second to last play William Shakespeare published in1611,  is generally grouped with his comedies. But like his final work, The Tempest (a future Sweet Tea production),  is part of Shakespeare“third period” in some ways defy categorization as kinds of mature dramas focusing on human reconciliation, and overcoming misunderstanding. It is based  on Robert Greene’s  prose novella Pandosto, which was published in 1588, with surprisingly few alterations, although the original ends more tragically, with the equivalent of the character of Hermione experiencing no resurrection, and Pandosto (the character equivalent of Leontes) killing himself in remorse for his wrongful accusations against his wife. Rather, it is the return of the long-lost daughter that provides the restoration of order. There has also been some suggestions that The Winter’s Tale was a “redo” of Othello, because both are stories of how unreasoned jealousy can destroy a marriage, with The Winter’s Tale offering the possibility of a happier ending.

The literary history of The Winter’s Tale  provides an additional explanation of  the improbability of the “seacoast of Bohemia” (which is landlocked!). Because this play is partially in the pastoral genre,  popular during the late period of Shakespeare’s plays,  it by definition mixes references from different times and places to purposefully create a sense of not-quite-reality. Even the title is an argument for this explanation, since a “winter’s tale” is one traditionally  told by parents to children that is by definition fanciful rather than realistic. Beyond Bohemia, there is also the question of why Shakespeare located the Oracle of Delphi on an island, when Delphi (ancient and modern) is located in the mountains in Central Greece. Rather, this seeming relocation of the Oracle to the island of Delos (known in Shakespeare’s time as Delphos) is lifted straight from Pandosto, whose author in turn refers to the Oracle of Delos (not Delphi) in Virgil’s Aeneid.

~ Dr. Susan Breitzer