“A sad tale’s best for winter,” asserts the young Sicilian prince Mamillius when asking for a bedtime story.
Indeed, many of our bedtime fairy tales, myths, stories and legends have a dark undertone to them. Consider the collection of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Fairy Tales, originally published under the name Children’s and Household Tales in 1812; before they were ironed into their popular candy-colored confectionery versions, these tales featured devious antagonists, monstrous dangers and gruesome deaths, not always ending quite so happily ever after.
But what does a “winter’s tale” mean—and what did it mean to Shakespeare’s audience?
The phrase is synonymous with an “old wives’ tale,” though specific to cold, dark winter evenings when there was little else to do but tell stories to pass the time. These were tales without a moralizing or serious purpose, simply meant to entertain and distract. The phrase “winter’s tale” also appears in George Peele’s 1590 play The Old Wives’ Tale: a blacksmith’s wife entertains young men taking refuge in her home by reciting a “merry winter’s tale” that magically comes to life.
Peele’s The Old Wives’ Tale draws upon and satirizes the romantic dramas popular at the time—stories of gallant nights and magical encounters—all told through the framing device of a woman telling a fireside tale to young passersby. The wife’s story has no overriding moral lesson to impart and incorporates knights, magicians and ghosts in equal measure. Such tales were nothing new to these audiences for whom fables and romances, such as those featuring King Arthur and his court, had been popular for centuries.
The trope of women telling almost trivial, yet entertaining, winter’s night stories derives from the same oral storytelling tradition from which “old wives’ tales” had come. As women were traditionally tasked with childcare, and with female literacy rates low throughout the early modern period (especially in the lower classes), tales continued to be passed through and between generations by recounting stories aloud. These stories were eventually documented and published, resulting in works like Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales (1634), Charles Perrault’s Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (1697) and later Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812).
Like The Winter’s Tale, the “old wives’ tales” in these collections contain bold characters, irrational behavior and a touch of magic. Long before the idea of “fiction” was born, audiences of The Winter’s Tale would be fully prepared to suspend disbelief and embark on a fantastical adventure. There was no need to account for instability of tone, mercurial nature of characters or illogical plot developments, as early modern audiences did not demand realism in their theatrical experiences. It was all just part of the fun.
Rebecca Watson is the New Media Assistant at Goodman Theatre.
Learn more and get tickets for The Winter’s Tale at GoodmanTheatre.org/WintersTale