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THE WINTER’S TALE

by Shakespeare


[This synopsis, like my others, is very, very brief. The reason is that I find the normal programme note much too long, and needlessly detailed and complicated. What I want is more of an overview. If I’ve read an overview – a sort of synopsis of a synopsis – I find that, particularly with the help of surtitles, there is then absolutely no need for a blow-by-blow description of the plot.]


The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, neither a comedy or a tragedy, often called a romance. The first part deals with manic jealousy and its tragic consequences. In the second part (16 years later) all is resolved and there is a happy ending.


In the first part, Leontes, King of Sicily, welcomes his old fiend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, who is visiting. Leontes then suspects his wholly virtuous – and pregnant – wife Hermione of having an affair with Polixenes. He also thinks that her child will be Polixenes’s.


Leontes orders a Sicilian noble Camillo to kill Polixenes. Instead, Camillo warns Polixenes and they both escape to Bohemia.


Leontes puts Hermione on trial and throws her in prison. She gives birth to the child. Leontes orders another Sicilian noble Antigonus to take the child and abandon it.


The Oracle at Delphi confirms that Hermione is innocent. It also foretells that Leontes won’t have an heir until his lost daughter has been found. As a reaction to all this, Leontes’s only son Mamillius dies. So, apparently, does Hermione. Leontes now sees the error of his ways and vows to atone.


Meanwhile, the baby, abandoned on the coast of Bohemia (one of Shakespeare’s geography mistakes? Actually, not), is rescued, called Perdita, and brought up by a shepherd, known throughout the rest of the play as the Old Shepherd. (His son, who also doesn’t get a name, is referred to as Clown.)


Antigonus, who abandoned the baby, disappears, as described in the most famous stage direction in any Shakespeare play: “Exit, pursued by a bear”.


In the second part – after 16 years – Florizel, the son of Polixenes, falls in love with the “shepherd girl” Perdita.


Polixenes is enraged. There follows one of the longest scenes in Shakespeare – the sheep-shearing festival – which, among other things, introduces the loveable rogue Autolycus. Polixenes threatens the Old Shepherd and Perdita with death. With the help of Autolycus, all of Florizel, Perdita, the Old Shepherd and Clown escape back to Sicily. Shortly afterwards, Polixenes and Camillo go too.


The two kings are reconciled. The truth is revealed. Finally, Paulina, the widow of Antigonus (he having been pursued by the bear) reveals to the assembled company a statue of Hermione, which then miraculously comes to life – or had Paulina been looking after her all these years?


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