Professor Emma Smith explores how The Winter's Tale reboots Shakespearean tragedy to place women centre stage and present the possibility of forgiveness.
AWAKING OUR FAITH
To be a tragic character in Shakespeare’s plays is to take on a role that is at once doomed and triumphant: doomed, in that there can be no escape from the fatal ending, and triumphant, in that no one else on stage really matters. Once Macbeth has decided to kill the king, once Lear has divided his kingdom between his daughters, the die is cast. There can be no going back. Recognition – what Aristotle called anagnorisis – is usually swiftly followed by death. Only moments elapse between Othello’s murder of his wife, his realisation that she was always faithful to him, his final grandiloquent speech, and his own suicide.
There are no second chances in Shakespeare’s tragic worlds, but, equally, tragic death means that protagonists do not have to live with the consequences of their actions. Suggesting a sequel to a Shakespearean tragedy would seem like a cruel joke: tragedy eliminates not just individuals, but the very idea of a future.
At the end of his career, Shakespeare began to experiment with this unforgiving template. The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale are probably Shakespeare’s final solo-authored plays (along with Cymbeline) around 1610-11. Both take up the outlines of tragedy – in The Tempest, a ruler deposed by his brother recalls Richard II and Hamlet; Othello lies behind the male jealousy that destroys Leontes’ world in The Winter’s Tale – and twist them. In place of the headlong rush towards tragedy, these plays occupy the dilated space of medieval romance, in which space and time spread out to cushion traumatic experience.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare manages a cross-generational story through an extended narrative flashback, explaining events from a daughter’s infancy to a now-marriageable young woman. In The Winter’s Tale, the figure of Time enters to bridge the gap between girlhood and maturity. Unlike the tragedies on which the play is built, The Winter’s Tale explores a new ethics of forgiveness: not fuzzy or feel-good but the most difficult, bravest response to hurt. Leontes’ vow that ‘tears shall be my recreation’ points to the play’s insistent collocation of grief, time, and restoration.
This play asks: what happens after tragedy? What do you do when you realise the extent of your own failures and their terrible cost? How do you continue into a future where you are constantly reminded of what you have done? Who can forgive you your deluded self-centredness? Using elements of fairytale – the shepherdess who is really a long-lost princess, the life-like statue coming to life – and aspects of myth – the goddess Persephone, whose enforced shuttle between Hades and this world governs the seasons – The Winter’s Tale broaches pressing psychological truths about responsibility, power, and forgiveness.
HOPE, NOT CERTAINTY
This emotional and ethical experiment explains the play’s double ending. One narrative line through The Winter’s Tale suggests that the breach between Leontes and his friend Polixenes can only be healed by the next generation. That ending emphasises the marriage of their children, Perdita and Florizel, and the hope that resides in their relative naivety and in consigning the terrible quarrel to the past.
But the other storyline suggests that time, repentance and clemency can – perhaps ̶ reinstate the marriage of Leontes and Hermione. Sometimes this final reunion is seen through rose-tinted glasses, whereas it is actually remarkably clear-eyed. Things can never be as they were. In scripting no lines for Hermione to deliver to her husband, the play’s final tableau thrums with all that is unsaid. The absence of their first son, Mamillius, from the conclusion symbolises the grief and guilt that can never be ameliorated.
Shakespeare’s insight here, then, is not about forgetting or erasing the past. The tentative reconciliation of husband and wife after 16 years offers hope, but not certainty, amid the play’s human wreckage. This view of love is not the idealised rush to marriage that characterises Shakespeare’s comedies, but something more compromised, more world-worn. In taking the shine off both comedy and tragedy while incorporating elements of these genres, The Winter’s Tale does something different. A play that takes its name from a folk or children’s story turns out to be bracingly grown-up.
SHAKESPEARE’S PLOT TWIST
At the heart of the play is Leontes’ sickening realisation of how wrong he has been. But, as Shakespeare’s only play where a major plot twist is kept from the audience, The Winter’s Tale’s structure requires that we, too, experience a double-take. Told that Hermione is dead, we believe it – and the ending of the play blurs the rational explanation for her return in an atmosphere that is part Marian miracle and part Pygmalion sorcery. Revisiting our assumptions and questioning the stories we are told becomes part of the theatrical contract as well as the playworld. Being willing to accept the play’s ending, rooting for that broken family, requires that we, like Leontes, ‘awake [our] faith’.
And crucial to Shakespeare’s reboot of tragedy is a new role for women. Not only must Leontes live with the consequences of his actions, but he must also cede the stage and the power traditionally given to the central tragic character. The rustic scenes in Bohemia are, in part, a time of waiting and recreation. Although Leontes’ rage fuels the play’s first section, the dramatic structure is thereafter in the hands of Paulina, Hermione, and Perdita. He has forfeited the central role in his play. The women work together to create a space for optimism and futurity. The transfer of agency from Leontes to the women embodies the play’s emotional shift from tragedy to comedy, from trial to clemency, from court to country, and from winter to summer.
Dramatising the psychological space beyond tragedy, The Winter’s Tale is a parable about facing up to our human failings, and about the fugitive possibility of forgiveness.
Professor Emma Smith is a fellow and tutor in English at Hertford College, University of Oxford.
You can watch our full 2021 production of The Winter's Tale on BBC iPlayer.
Watch on iPlayer BSL version