Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.
Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's final plays. Composed and performed around 1610-11, it joins Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest in the list of genre-defying later plays that are usually referred to as romances, or tragicomedies. Each of these productions has a happy ending that sets them apart from earlier histories and tragedies, but each emphasizes the danger and power of evil in the world, and death, while never finally victorious, is an ever-present force in the stories. In The Winter's Tale, we are given a joyous ending, but the playwright demands that we endure the savage madness of Leontes, and the deaths of three innocent people before we reach the happy resolution.
There is no one source for The Winter's Tale, although Shakespeare relies heavily on the works of Richard Greene, a London writer in the 1580s and '90s. (Greene may have been the author of a 1592 pamphlet attacking Shakespeare, which makes the Bard's borrowings from the deceased writer particularly appropriate.) From Pandosto, Greene's 1588 prose romance, Shakespeare borrowed most of the characters and events of the first three acts; and the character and habits of Autolycus seem to be drawn from Greene's pamphlet accounts of criminals in Elizabethan London. The story of the abandoned royal baby, meanwhile, owes much to popular folklore of the time, and the seasonal themes touched on in Act IV echo Ovid's Metamorphoses—Perdita is associated with Proserpina, whose emergence from the Underworld in Greek myth was supposed to herald the return of spring. Finally, the resurrection of Hermione in Act V owes an obvious debt to the Pygmalion story, in which a sculptor's work comes to life through divine intervention.
In terms of strength of character, unity of plot, and audience satisfaction, The Winter's Tale may be the best of the later romances, and it has been a favorite of directors and audiences down to the present day.