The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Act 5, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Three gentlemen of the court tell Autolycus the story of Perdita's recognition as the legitimate, long-lost daughter of Leontes. There was no room for doubt about Perdita's identity, to which a number of tokens or "proofs" clearly attested, including her mother's mantle, a costly ornament, and a letter in Antigonus's handwriting. The Third Gentleman discloses that the royal party will convene at the house of Paulina in order to view a statue of Hermione recently created by the Italian master Julio Romano. The scene closes with banter between Autolycus, the Shepherd, and the Clown, with the latter two characters taking much pleasure in their rich clothing and sudden elevation in status.

Analysis

The most striking aspect of this scene is Shakespeare's sudden shift to narration, as opposed to dramatization. The accounts of the gentlemen return us to the tone and perspective of Act 2, Scene 1, when Hermione and her ladies exhorted young Mamillius to tell them a tale. Indeed the gentlemen refer several times to the content of their story as "like an old tale." They also repeat the word wonder, marveling at the discovery of the king's daughter.

That discovery and its confirmation involve one of the staple plot devices of classical comedy: the use of recognition tokens. This technique, which typically featured proof that a character (usually female) was nobly born and therefore eligible to be married to a noble suitor, was often present in the Greek New Comedy plays of Menander (c. 342–c. 292 BCE), and also in the comedies of his Roman imitators, Plautus (c. 254–184 BCE) and Terence (c. 195–159 BCE). It was also a feature of the prose and verse romances—fanciful stories of adventure, love, and magic—that were read throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The device was thus well known to Shakespeare.

The historical Giulio Romano (c. 1499–1546) was a painter and architect—not a sculptor—and was thought to have been a student of Raphael. He is the focus of a dramatic monologue by English poet Robert Browning (1812–89).

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