The Winter's Tale

by: William Shakespeare

Study Questions

1

Discuss and analyze Leontes's jealousy.

The innocence of Hermione is never in doubt—every character in the play testifies to it, and the Oracle confirms it—so Leontes's suspicions of his wife and best friend are clearly irrational. As the victim of misplaced jealousy, he resembles one of the most famous Shakespearean heroes, Othello, who murders his wife Desdemona because he believes her to be unfaithful. But Othello is led into error by his villainous aide, Iago, whereas Leontes is his own Iago—the entire dream of adultery is concocted within his own mind. The play offers us hints, in the childhood friendship of the two kings, and the suggestion that Leontes may have been too close to Polixenes; in the king's insecurity over the legitimacy of Mamillius, and the threat that bastards posed to any kingdom; in Leontes's misogyny and fear of women, which comes out when Paulina tries to reason with him. But none of these is sufficient to solve the problem, and Shakespeare seems to intend it thus. "Your actions are my dreams," (III.ii.81) Leontes tells Hermione, and while he means it sarcastically, the play does not—he has allowed his nightmares to infect his view of the waking world.

2

Discuss the changes in mood, plot and imagery that occur between Act I-III and Act IV-V.

In Mamillius's words, "a sad tale's best for winter," (II.i.25) and the first three acts are set in a Sicilian winter, and are determinedly sad. Indeed, these acts offer a kind of miniature tragedy, as Leontes's errors, like Lear's or Othello's, bring death and destruction down upon his family and kingdom. What makes The Winter's Tale a romance, rather than a tragedy, is the abrupt shift in mood after Time announces the passage of sixteen years, and the action shifts to Bohemia. Winter comes to an end, and spring enters, bringing with it the promise of rebirth—and as the seasons change, so the story shifts away from tragedy and into the realm of fairy tale and romantic comedy. The imagery of Act IV is dominated by the flowers that Perdita wears and dispenses as hostess of the sheepshearing, and the mood of the act is found in the cheerful songs of Autolycus. This spirit is eventually brought back to Sicilia, where Act V undoes much of what seemed so tragic in Act III—Perdita is restored to her rightful home, Hermione is restored to life, and even Paulina is given a new husband. The Winter's Tale, then, ends the way all winters end—by giving its characters the promise of forgiveness and a fresh start.

3

Discuss the resurrection scene. Is the apparent miracle real?

There is evidence on both sides of this question. Paulina, who orchestrates the entire scene—and who ostensibly commissioned the statue—seems remarkably unsurprised by the "miracle," and she is, after all, our only witness to the fact that Hermione actually died. Her behavior in the years since suggests a foreknowledge of her queen's return, as she steadfastly kept the king fixated on his own guilt, and on the impossibility of ever marrying again. On the other hand, if the entire business is only a trick, it seems rather an over-the-top stunt for two level-headed women like Hermione and Paulina to orchestrate. And no one who witnesses the miracle raises even a scrap of doubt as to whether the statue was ever an actual statue. Clearly, Shakespeare wants to have it both ways—a genuine miracle to cap off his "Tale," and a hint of a naturalistic explanation for the careful reader. And in either case, the miracle is an appropriate conclusion to the play, since it provides for a truly happy ending that Hermione's death seemed to place out of reach.


More Help

From the SparkNotes Blog