There are Shakespeare scholars who suggest that there are some Shakespeare plays that don’t really work on the stage and should be regarded as works of literature rather than dramas for the stage.
King Lear is often cited as one of those. It is a very long play, but more difficult for audiences is that rather than having a main plot with one or more subplots, it has two strong main plots, each one distracting the audience from the other. It is The Winter’s Tale, though, that presents the greatest difficulty for audiences structurally.
The Winter’s Tale has a very unusual structure – a sixteen year gap between the first and second parts: it’s the kind of story that one finds more frequently in films these days, rather than in the theatre, and it is certainly unusual, and unheard of in Elizabethan theatre. Films sometimes present a situation and then give a subtitle, something like ’Sixteen Years Later’. The story is resumed and brought to its conclusion. One never sees that in the theatre – apart from in The Winter’s Tale.
The play is centered around Perdita, the daughter of Leontes and Hermione, the king and queen of Sicilia. We first see her as a baby and then, later in the play, as a sixteen year-old woman. The circumstances around Perdita’s birth are played out in the first part of the play, then there is the sixteen year gap, after which the action is taken up again with the now grown-up Perdita a major character in the play.
Perdita is one of the many names Shakespeare made up. He took it straight from the Latin, in which ‘perdita’ is the feminine form of the adjective ‘lost.’ In the play, Perdita is lost for sixteen years.
Perdita is born in prison. Her mother, Hermione, has been confined there because the king, Leontes, is convinced that she has been unfaithful to him and that the baby is not his: he believes that she was conceived during a visit of Polixenes, king of Bohemia. It is an irrational response and completely untrue, but he has got it into his head and no-one can persuade him otherwise.
Leontes’ hatred for the baby is so intense that he orders a courtier, Antigonus, to take her and leave her to die of exposure in some remote place. Meaning to take her to safety Antigonus leaves her for a moment on a beach, where a bear confronts him and kills him. (This is where Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction appears: “exit pursued by a bear.”) She is found by a Shepherd and raised in his family as one of his children.
A message from the oracle informs Leontes of Hermiones’ innocence but he receives reports that she has died, so it is too late. He has also lost both his children. His son, Mamillius, has died with a broken heart because of his mother’s treatment. Leontes spends the next sixteen years, until the action is resumed, in a state of extreme remorse, and in mourning.
In the meantime, King Polixenes of Bohemia’s son, Prince Florizel, is on his travels. While in Sicilia he sees a beautiful young shepherdess at a country fair and falls in love with her. It is, of course, Perdita, who does not know that she is a princess.
It becomes very complicated but the upshot is that the couple, now firmly in love, arrive at the court in Sicilia. Hermione has not, in fact, died. In the play’s climax, everything is revealed. Hermione, presented to Leontes as a statue, ‘comes to life’ in true Ovidian style, and they are reunited with each other and with their daughter. Leontes and Polixenes are reconciled and the young couple is married.
That summary is very rational and smoothes over the problem with this play. And ‘problem’ is the appropriate term here because The Winter’s Tale is classed as one of what scholars have termed ‘The Problem Plays.’ They are called problem plays because they are part tragedy, part comedy.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays are difficult to classify into tragedy and comedy. There are some in which it is fairly clear which they are, like tragedies Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and comedies Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but what are we to make of The Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure, for example? And indeed, most of Shakespeare’s tragedies have comic elements and his comedies invariably contain the seeds of situations that could break into tragedy at any moment.
The Winter’s Tale is deeply tragic until the break. Centred around a king who has made a grievous mistake it could have continued on to the circumstances of retribution and the downfall of Leontes. Instead, Shakespeare changes the setting, the characters, and the whole mood of the play in the second part. From the funereal atmosphere of death, hatred and despair, the mood changes to one of abundant life, youthfulness, love and hope, and ultimately redemption, instead of retribution.
Shakespeare brings this latter atmosphere into the mortuary-like world of the Sicilian court and transforms it. Leontes is redeemed and the play ends as a traditional comedy.
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s late plays, three of which feature a daughter of the main protagonist: Marina in Pericles, Miranda in The Tempest and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. In all three plays a simple, innocent young girl brings redemption to a father who has made some big mistakes in his life. The writing of those plays coincides in time with the birth and early years of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Hall. Shakespeare scholars have made much of that in attempts to link the works of Shakespeare to his life.
The story of Miranda in The Tempest, from a baby cast adrift in the ocean with her father Prospero, and thrown up on an island, is very similar to that of Perdita with the action beginning fifteen years later when she is a beautiful young woman, so innocent that she has never seen any human being, apart from her father and Caliban, a deformed monster who lives on the island.
In The Tempest the play begins with Miranda as a young woman. Her father relates the story of how they came to be on the island. It is quite a tedious passage, and the Elizabethan audience would certainly have found it so. It’s unusual for Shakespeare to have such a long passage in which a character relates a long story. The drama is momentarily lost, but the clear division of the two stories in The Winter’s Tale, both dramatised, takes care of that. In both cases, Shakespeare had the problem of how to tell a story of redemption that depended on an influential back story, and solved it in those two different ways in those two plays.
Critics are divided about how well each of those structures works best but, whatever their verdict, the plays remain popular and both are regularly performed on stages all around the world.