An introduction to the late romance, The Winter’s Tale, the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to have the stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s late romance plays, probably written in or around 1610, when Shakespeare was secure in his reputation and presumably in the awareness of his talents. The play has been a favourite of directors and audiences alike and has been staged on many occasions since its first appearance and all audience members eagerly look forward to perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare’s stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
The action features madness, death and misery for many years before a magical ending sees a kind of rebirth and redemption for those characters who make it to the end. The action is sparked by a flaw in the character of King Leontes of Sicily which leads to the tragic events of the early part of the play but what appears to be set for a tragedy is confounded by the happy ending. Hence, it is considered a romance or, as some would prefer, a problem play.
At the opening of the play, King Leontes invites King Polixenes of Bohemia to extend his stay on the island (Sicily is an island of course and islands are often associated with special realms where magic may take place). Ostensibly, this invitation results from friendship but in fact Leontes has become deeply jealous of Polixenes, whom he suspects of impregnating (entirely consensually) his wife Hermione. Leontes orders Camillo, a courtier, to poison Leontes but the good courtier instead informs the endangered king of the plot and so the two men flee. Subsequently, Hermione gives birth to a girl but the baby is taken away and abandoned in the wild and the queen accused and taken away in an unconscious faint. The little girl survives, tended to by an old shepherd and she is named Perdita (‘lost’), while Hermione is reported dead. The advice of the Oracle of Delphi is sought by Leontes but when the priestess replies that the late queen was entirely innocent, the king is distraught. Adding to his misery is the fact that his only son and heir has also died, apparently through grief at the fate of his mother. This unhappiness continues for 16 years. The action then focuses on Perdita, who has grown into a young woman and, when she encounters Florizel, the son of Polixenes, the two fall in love. Before they can be united, false identities must be uncovered and disguises set aside. In the final scene, a statue of Hermione arrives on stage and she is then returned to life just like the statue of Pygmalion or one of the other of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Considering the title of the play, it seems clear that there is some spiritual or religious elements to Hermione’s resurrection: Christians associate the return of the world to harmony and health to result from the acts of Christ and, indeed, celebrate Christmas in the (northern hemisphere) winter for that reason. However, winter comes every year and when acts of magic are needed to bring the sun back every year, then this is generally connected to a pagan understanding of the universe.