By 1611 at age 47, William Shakespeare had already penned most of the plays that would come to define his oeuvre. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Othello had all premiered in London, along with 27 other plays. Though he could not have known how long-lasting his legacy would be, he had earned the admiration of peers, audiences and both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I.
In the five years before his death, Shakespeare would write four more plays.
One of these was The Winter’s Tale, the story of Leontes, King of Sicilia, who has enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Suddenly, Leontes suspects that Hermione, his pregnant wife, has had an affair with his friend—and that Polixenes fathered the unborn child. His green-eyed rage results in the destruction of his family; Hermione dies after giving birth to a baby girl and the couple’s older child, Mamillius, succumbs to his grief. Leontes banishes the baby, Perdita, to Bohemia, assuming she will die of exposure.
Had he chosen to write a tragedy, Shakespeare could have ended the play there: with death, abandonment and a shattered king. Instead, he wrote on. In the second part of The Winter’s Tale, the world appears less bleak. Shepherds dance, jokesters jest, young love asserts itself, and death—usually an irreversible plot point—proves permeable. Beginning in the 19th century, many scholars classified The Winter’s Tale as a “romance,” a hybrid of comedy and tragedy, featuring a plot that unfolds over much space and time and includes fantastical elements.
As citizens of the 21st century, we are accustomed to entertainments which take us to sorrowful depths at one moment and peaks of joy the next. The Goodman’s production of A Christmas Carol exposes us to the societal ills of 19th century England while also delivering hearty humor and hijinks. Countless television shows, from All in the Family to Weeds, balance humor and pathos. And even the most “serious” playwrights of the 20th century—Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams and the often-morose Eugene O’Neill—had funny bones.
But a Shakespearean audience might not have been as accustomed to such genre-blending. For them, a comedy meant a play that ended happily, usually with marriage. Delightful plot twists involving witty banter, slapstick, deceptions, mix-ups and clever servants often overshadowed character development. Young lovers overcame obstacles and strutted off to their marriage bed to make the next generation: indeed, a happy ending for all. A tragedy, by contrast, ends with death. Many scholars link early modern tragedy with the Ancient Greek concept laid out by Aristotle in his treatise on dramatic theory, Poetics. Aristotle writes about the tragic hero—a character with enough admirable traits that the audience will sympathize with him, but who possesses a flaw that brings about his downfall. Early modern tragedies, including Shakespeare’s, generally adhere to Aristotle’s concept.
Shakespeare likely began writing in the 1590s, and for much of that decade alternated between writing comedies (Love’s Labor’s Lost and All’s Well That Ends Well) and history plays (King John, Henry VI Parts I, II and III, Richard II and Richard III), with the occasional tragedy (Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet). These plays were performed by a troupe of actors called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an ensemble which included Shakespeare himself, and which, as its name suggests, excluded women. During the first five years of his career as a playwright, Shakespeare’s writing style was decidedly influenced by other writers of his day with plots derivative of other plays. By the middle of the 1590s, however, he had begun to deviate slightly from his source texts and his voice emerged. Around 1595, he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in 1600 produced Hamlet—both now considered some of the finest works in the English language.
In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died and her successor ‘King James I’ offered to sponsor Shakespeare’s troupe, which accordingly changed its named to The King’s Men. This new, close relationship to the crown pressured them to perform more frequently at court—and they soon found themselves remounting older plays while working to produce new ones. By this period, Shakespeare had begun to experiment with blending comedy and tragedy; Measure for Measure examined a city teeming with crime and political power plays while also delivering clownish comic relief and an ostensibly happy ending. Around 1608, he wrote Pericles, the first of his plays that was later dubbed a “romance.” Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest were also of this era, all complex, experimental and markedly different from his earlier works.
With the exception of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s romances have proved less popular than his plays that adhere more closely to traditional comic or tragic structures. The Winter’s Tale, in particular, suffered critical derision. “Grounded on impossibilities, or at least, so meanly written, that the Comedy neither caus’d your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment,” wrote 17th century literary critic John Dryden. It was rarely performed throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, though occasionally theatermakers adapted it, cutting out whichever elements—often the tragic ones—weren’t to their liking. By the 20th century, interest in the play had increased, and countless directors found success with the play—perhaps aided in part by audiences who accepted the combination of tragic and comic elements as a matter of course.
When Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, referred to him as “not of an age, but for all time,” he probably didn’t count The Winter’s Tale among Shakespeare’s greatest contributions. But along with several other plays that defy easy categorization, The Winter’s Tale makes Shakespeare an experimenter who didn’t balk at reinventing himself even after he’d made his mark. Now, 408 years later, we might also consider him a man ahead of his time.
Neena Arndt is the Resident Dramaturg at Goodman Theatre.
Learn more and get tickets for The Winter’s Tale at GoodmanTheatre.org/WintersTale