Although in a generic way, "winter's tales" are supposed to be like "old wives' tales" (Wells 339), and certainly the implausibilities in what Shakespeare does present as an old-fashioned tale are always noted, the title otherwise bears very little relationship with the play itself in any intrinsic manner, and the best explanation I've heard is that it's a matter of bilingual wordplay. In French, "winter's tale" would be rendered "conte d'hiver" ("account of winter," vs. "histoire" / story) -- which sounds like Count de Vere (especially in Elizabethan pronunciation) with Count being the French equivalent of Earl: hence an encoded identification of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. [See C. Richard Desper and Gary C. Vezzoli. "A Statistical Approach to the Shakespeare Authorship Question." Elizabethan Review 1.2 (Fall 1993): 36-42.]
Robert Greene wrote a sloppy euphuistic prose romance called Pandosto
(1588) which Stratfordians consider the source for the play; Charlton Ogburn
thinks vice versa (675), and his parents took Pandosto to be another
case of a secondary work seeming like a source simply because of
publication order (Ogburn and Ogburn 535-536). Pandosto is dedicated
to George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, with the hope that he will be "measuring
my work by my will" (xxix). Inside the work, we hear that "conscience is a worm
that ever biteth, but never ceaseth" (10). Differences between the "Greene" work
and the play include all the changed names: Shakespeare probably derived Hermione
from the Greek play Andromache (Thomas xvii); Pandosto of Bohemia becomes
Leontes of Sicily, Egistus of Sicily becomes Polixenes of Bohemia, Bellaria
becomes Hermione, Garinter becomes Maximilius, Dorastus becomes Florizel,
Fawnia becomes Perdita. The queen really dies of grief in Pandosto, is
embalmed, and entombed (so the statue bit occurs only in Shakespeare). And
Pandosto tries to kill himself after his queen's death; he does end by
suicide at the end of the work.
[See: Thomas, P.G., ed. Greene's 'Pandosto' or 'Dorastus and Fawnia' Being the Original of Shakespeare's 'Winter's Tale.' London: Chatto and Windus, Pub., 1907.
See also, for the importance of Greek mythology to this play, Earl Showerman's "Look Down and See What Death Is Doing: Gods and Greeks in The Winter's Tale." The Oxfordian 10 (2007): 55-74.]
Recorded mention of performances come in 1611, but A Wynters nightes pastime was registered in 1594. Here's a representative and ambivalent Stratfordian attempt: "The play's author had also lost a son, and had married off a daughter. Hamnet Shakespeare died at age eleven in 1596. Susanna married Dr. John Hall in 1607. Yet, there is no specific reason to read the play as in any way 'autobiographical,' except in the sense that all artistic work is part of the autobiography of its creator" (Garber 828).
E.T. Clark and the elder Ogburns detect allusions to Mary Stuart's trial, Raleigh's rise in court, and the introduction of tobacco by the Virginia colony, pushing the composition date back to the mid-1580s. They advise that we read for "Sicily" the term "Cecilianum": a designation for England assigned by Leicester's party derisively because of Burghley's enormous political influence (Clark 755; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 746ff).
Critics have problems with the plot but typically praise the poetry; and that some key dramatic events are narrated instead of shown in Act V seems to indicate strategic condensing after reconsideration.
Archidamus, a Bohemian lord, and Camillo, a Sicilian lord, with rhetorically showy courtly etiquette, discuss visits between Leontes, the King of Sicilia, with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. The latter has been here in Sicilia for an extended period with his childhood friend Leontes. Archidamus declares that should Leontes visit Polixenes the coming summer, a consideration that introduces a "seasonal and cyclical framework" (Garber 828), Bohemia could never reciprocate adequate hospitality. The humility pose extends so far that he remarks,
I know not what to say -- We will give you sleepy drinks, that your senses (unintelligent of our insufficience) may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse us. (I.i.13-16)Camillo retorts, "You pay a great deal too dear for what's given freely" (I.i.17-18). Mention is made of Leontes and Polixenes' childhood friendship: "there rooted betwixt them then such an affection" (I.i.23-24) -- another kind "affection" will soon take root. "The heavens continue their loves!" (I.i.31-32), says Camillo, "which seems, in a Shakespearean universe, as much a dare as a hope" (Garber 829). Leontes' young son Mamillius receives great praise too as "a gentleman of the greatest promise" (I.i.35-36), although Archidamus undermines Camillo's hyperbole that old men in Sicilia live solely to see the day Mamillius will become king -- a zealous succession anticipation.
One assumes that this first scene should be played as two courtiers tacitly agreeing to engage good-naturedly in over-the-top courtesies. Perhaps the next scene shows one of the potential problems with taking courtly banter to extremes.
Polixenes tells Leontes, Leontes' wife Hermione, Mamillius, Camillo, and attendants that after "Nine changes of the wat'ry star" (I.ii.1) -- i.e., nine months -- of enjoying the Sicilian hospitality, he must return to Bohemia. Leontes and Hermione both attempt to persuade him to stay -- there would have been news if anything were amiss in Bohemia. Although he wants to see his own son, when Hermione playfully insists that she'll make him stay even if she has to imprison him, he agrees to one more week. Looking retrospectively at this early material, we may notice the ostensibly innocent references to nine months, "burthen," "multiply," and "breed," and wonder if some of this works subliminally on Leontes.
After an exchange of "Verily"s (I.ii.45ff), and prompted by Hermione's curiosity -- "Was not my lord / The verier wag o' th' two?" (I.ii.65-66) -- Polixenes waxes nostalgic about his youth with Leontes.
We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun,This "boy eternal" notion (I.ii.65) indicates that "This is an Eden world he projects, a world out of time" (Garber 831). "Temptations, innocence, lambs, and 'boy eternal' -- the associations here are simultaneously seasonal and Christian" (Garber 831). Hermione wonders about their sexual experience before marriage. Leontes interrupts, asking if Hermione has convinced Polixenes to stay. He thanks her for the success of her eloquence, saying that only once before did she speak so well; Hermione persistently requests for him to reveal what was that previous time: "It has an elder sister, / Or I mistake you" (I.ii.98-99).
And bleat the one at th' other. What we chang'd
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill doing, nor dream'd
That any did. Had we pursu'd that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher rear'd,
With stronger blood, we should have answer'd heaven
Boldly, "Not guilty"; the imposition clear'd,
Hereditary ours. (I.ii.67-75)
Why, that was whenThis is pretty dark wording for a memory of becoming engaged! (Does "crabbed months" refer to summer months under the sign of Cancer?) But Hermione only notes that her rhetorical skills have won her a husband and now a friend.
Three crabbed months had sour'd themselves to death,
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand,
And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter.
"I am yours for ever."
Hermione and Polixenes stroll off and an angry Leontes, with an absence of motivation common in romances (Wells 340), suspects an affair, operating like an Othello who "is his own Iago" (Bloom 639, plagiarized from Goddard, II 264). He acknowledged abruptly, "I have tremor cordis on me" (I.ii.110), but this is his first private moment and it's possible he had been suspecting his wife from before the play began -- we just didn't know it because of the veneer of extreme courtesy. He notes,
... to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,Leontes calls his son Mamillius over and scans him for signs of illegitimacy, lapsing into animal imagery less vile than that in Othello. [The business about the "smut" on Mamillius' nose, according to Clark, alludes to an incident between Sir Walter Raleigh and the Queen (750), as does the bit later regarding the otherwise odd line, "Will you take eggs for money?" (I.ii.161). The elder Ogburns also point out that Leontes calls his son "captain" (I.ii.122f), another allusion to Raleigh. In the same passage here is a reference to a "neat" (I.ii.125), which is an ox, and the line, "Still virginalling / Upon his palm? (I.ii.125-126) -- both potentially significant to an allegorical reading of the play (Ogburn and Ogburn 761). Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen" -- FWAAAH!! ... excuse me -- played the virginals, the keyboard kind. She apparently "played" the "virginal" too.]
As they are now, and making practic'd smiles,
As in a looking-glass; and then to sigh, as 'twere
The mort o' th' deer--O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows!
Leontes renders what has become one of the most "notoriously obscure" passages in the canon (Wells 342):
Affection! thy intention stabs the centre."'Affection' here means both lustful desire and sexual jealousy, each active enough to encourage Leontes' deep need for betrayal" (Bloom 642) -- in other words, the passage is about both attraction and delusion. Thus, here is another play in which "the male protagonist conceives a murderous animosity toward a loving wife by imagining her unfaithful to him on the flimsiest of grounds, only to be later overwhelmed by remorse; and these three brutally condemned wives -- Imogen in Cymbeline, Hermione in The Winter's Tale and Desdemona in Othello -- are generally adjudged the most saintly and faultless of Shakespeare's heroines" (Ogburn 567-568). The critics attempt to explain this sudden degeneration of Leontes; e.g., "Absence of expressed motivation, so often a feature of romance stories, is acute here" (Wells 340). After all, jealousy is "a monster / Begot upon itself" (Othello III.iv.158-159). Besides, "there are irrational as well as rational incitements to action, and what we have here is a sudden inundation of the conscious by the unconscious, of which the agreement of Polixenes to prolong his visit is the occasion rather than the cause" (Goddard, II 264). "Leontes' mind is like a fiery furnace at such a temperature that everything introduced into it -- combustible or not -- becomes fuel" (Goddard, II 266). He is possessed now with "a self-consuming, almost fanatical state of mind, impervious to suggestion, incapable of admitting the possibility of error" (Wells 341).
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat'st with dreams (how can this be?),
With what's unreal thou co-active art,
And fellow'st nothing. Then 'tis very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something, and thou dost
(And that beyond commission), and I find it
(And that to the infection of my brains
And hard'ning of my brows).
Hermione and Polixenes stroll back and detect something amiss in Leontes, who passes it off as merely nostalgia for his youth, twenty-three years ago (I.ii.155), when he was looking at Mamillius. [The elder Ogburns, who think the play was performed first in 1586, note that Oxford would have been 13 years old that long ago: roughly the age, late in 1586, of the "Fair Youth" (Ogburn and Ogburn 756). In any case, it's the first of three mentions of the number 23 in this play, each one entirely arbitrary in its context.]
Leontes asks Polixenes about his own son, Florizel, and Polixenes says that despite the miseries of being a father, his son means the world to him. Leontes tells Hermione and Polixenes to stroll off to the garden while he talks with Mamillius.
Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and IThe pun on "play" is grim, of course (Garber 832). Leontes rants to himself with insane jealousy, envisioning cuckoldry as pandemic.
Play too, but so disgrac'd a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave....
There have beenHe grills Camillo about the events of a few minutes ago, assumes that rumors are already circulating about his cuckoldry, but cannot get Camillo to confirm his crazy reading of his wife as a "hobby-horse" (I.ii.276). This further frustrates Leontes. "His nihilistic transport, at once a frenzy and an ecstasy, reaches its sublime in a litany of nothings" (Bloom 644):
(Or I am much deceiv'd) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th' arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic'd in 's absence,
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbor--by
Sir Smile, his neighbor.
. . .
It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where 'tis predominant. . . .
. . . Be it concluded,
No barricado for a belly. Know 't,
It will let in and out the enemy,
With bag and baggage. (I.ii.190-206)
Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh (a note infallible
Of breaking honesty)? horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that's in 't is nothing.
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing. (I.ii.284-296)
"But just as Leontes 'saw' a spider in the cup because he put it there [in the next act], poisoning his own imagination, so he makes something of these rhetorically conjured nothings" (Garber 835). Leontes orders Camillo, as Polixenes' cup-bearer, to poison Polixenes. Leontes has occasion to use the phrase, "go rot" (I.ii.324) -- who knew we young Delahoydes all those years ago were quoting Shakespeare at each other?
Camillo will carry out Leontes' wishes if Leontes does not punish Hermione, lest their son suffer shame and an international scandal erupt. Leontes will act friendly with the two. Camillo, alone, tells himself that he knows no cases of king-killers flourishing afterwards; he must forsake the court. This poisoning talk, claims Clark, alludes to Elizabeth's plans of "doing away with the Scottish Queen," Mary Stuart (Clark 752), which makes some sense of this utterance by Camillo, if he's speaking on behalf of Oxford concerning the trial of Mary:
To do this deed,The elder Ogburns feel Oxford was "loathing himself that he was forced to be a party to her doom" (747). Primarily though, in one sense, Oxford, "willing to pillory himself" (Ogburn and Ogburn 747), is Leontes, with his own leonine Bolebec crest (755), perhaps jealous of Raleigh (750), but also experiencing guilt over his treatment of his own wife, Anne Cecil (757). Anderson confirms this (147, 221), assessing the play, along with Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline, as performing an "emotional autopsy on a disastrous marriage" (220). Anderson goes so far as to suggest that the play was never intended for performance in Oxford's lifetime (399).
Promotion follows. If I could find example
Of thousands that had struck anointed kings
And flourish'd after, I'ld not do 't; but since
Nor brass nor stone nor parchment bears not one,
Let villany itself forswear 't. I must
Forsake the court.
Polixenes asks Camillo why Leontes is being so weird and hostile. Camillo at first is enigmatic: "There is a sickness / Which puts some of us in distemper, but / I cannot name the disease, and it is caught / Of you that yet are well" (I.ii.384-387). Polixenes appeals to Camillo's status as a "gentleman," "Clerk-like experienc'd, which no less adorns / Our gentry than our parents' noble names" (I.ii.392-393). Eventually Camillo confesses Leontes' suspicions and murder plot. Thus, he "takes the high road originally traveled by David" in 1 Samuel 24 (Anderson 384), a scriptural passage about the "anointed" king, marked in de Vere's Geneva Bible and important to Macbeth too.
"I am sure 'tis safer to / Avoid what's grown than question how 'tis born" (I.ii.432-433). Instead of confronting Leontes, which Camillo says will do no good, the plan is to slip away gradually, back to Bohemia where Camillo will have sanctuary, even though Polixenes fears Leontes may be violent with Hermione. He thinks the greatness of those involved magnifies the jealousy (I.ii.451ff).