William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is neither history, comedy, or tragedy. So no one knew what to call it, because apparently, back then, those were the only choices. As a result, the scholars (both of them) argued (what scholars do best) and finally decided to flip a coin. The play has been called a romance ever since, which doesn’t tell us much about the play but does tell us about how scholars are shockingly lazy thinkers.
We would categorize The Winter’s Tale as one of Shakespeare’s mosaic plays (similar to The Tempest), because it has a lot going on. There is crude humor, intense psychological drama, dancing, singing, storms, shipwrecks, and a bear (not the kind you see in Provincetown – though that would be awesome). The play’s first half is tragic. The second half is largely comedic. One entire act is pastoral. In short, it is a pageant – like Block Island on a Saturday evening in August.
The Winter’s Tale is believed to be one of Shakespeare’s later plays. As such, it incorporates many themes and elements from his earlier works: the perpetual fear of being cuckolded, all-consuming jealousy, a punitive patriarchy, forbidden love, and superior women inexplicably in love with inferior men. The play opens with a charming scene of two childhood friends (Leontes, the king of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the king of Bohemia) near the end of a happy reunion. Suddenly and irrationally, Leontes fears his wife, Hermione, has been “sluiced” and “his pond fished by his neighbor (Polixenes).” This concern is delusional, but Leontes convinces himself that he has been cuckolded. The resulting crazed jealousy causes Leontes to lose everyone in his family. And we are only half way through the play. The second half is devoted to a chastened and sorrowful Leontes getting what is left of his family back.
Autolycus saves the play from tragedy. He is a charismatic scoundrel that lies and steals his way across Bohemia. “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive.” And, shamelessly, he thrives. “Ha, ha, what a fool Honesty is! and Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman!” Autolycus is not trustworthy, and he certainly is no gentleman. But he is a delight, in part, because he immediately follows the gut-wrenching first half, and he brings song and mischief – both of which are desperately needed at this point. Autolycus is humorous, but he is not a clown. He is too intelligent and self-aware for that. “Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance.” In this sense, he is a cousin of the peerless Falstaff. And the play benefits mightily from his presence.
The Winter’s Tale is frequently remembered because it contains one of Shakespeare’s few stage directions – the glorious “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Over the centuries, it has gone in and out of style. This is something we do not understand, because the play is so much more than a “romance” or a man-eating bear (so maybe it is a Provincetown bear). It is a pageant that belongs just below the top tier of Shakespeare’s plays.
Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans.