The Winter's Tale
By William Shakespeare
Simon and Schuster January 2005
From the library
King Leontes seems to have it all - his beautiful wife Hermione who is expecting their baby, a son and heir to the throne, and even a best friend in King Polixenes, who rules an adjoining kingdom. But his jealousy ruins everything for him. When Hermione manages to convince Polixenes to extend his visit when Leontes could not, he suspects that they are having an affair. Polixenes hears of his suspicion and flees, but Hermione stands trial for her supposed crime. Soon after the trial, she dies and Leontes orders that their infant be left in the wilderness to die. Sixteen years later, the consequences of Leonte's decisions will come back to haunt him.
The Winter's Tale is somewhat of an anomaly among Shakespeare's plays. While most of them are classified as a tragedy or a comedy, this play is both. The first act is very much a tragedy, akin to Othello. Leontes is consumed by his jealousy and he makes big sweeping decisions without thought for the consequences. The play marks a change in tone with the best and most wonderful of Shakespeare's stage directions. "He exits, pursued by a bear." Yes, we have officially crossed over into comedy territory. It's time for young lovers whose parents don't approve of their match, crafty but delightful crooks, and some bumbling shepherds.
The characters in The Winter's Tale are an interesting bunch. While we get some very specific types (Leontes as the jealous husband, the young lovers, Autolycus as the clown), Shakespeare introduces us to one of his truly unique characters in Paulina. She is an attendant to Hermione and she is the one who gets to call Leontes out on all of his ridiculousness. It's nice to see a woman who gets to break out of the role of lover. Paulina is married already, so romance is not on her mind. However, justice for the woman she serves and loves is a prime concern of hers. While several characters make jokes at her expense because she does not bend to the authority of the king or her husband, she is well respected in the kingdom as she speaks truth in every situation, regardless of the personal repercussions.
The Winter's Tale is not Shakespeare's most popular play because it does not fit neatly into a category and it lacks the instantly memorable lines of other plays like Hamlet. However, this story is imbued with a unique sense of magic and possibility. The reader gets to encounter unforgettable characters like the courageous Paulina and the clever clown Autolycus. And hey, this is Shakespeare. The play is, and always will be, the thing.