The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Context


The Seasonal Structure of the Play

The Winter's Tale is one of two Shakespearean plays to foreground in its title one of the four seasons (the other is A Midsummer Night's Dream). The seasons are, indeed, among the primary features of setting in the play. The first three acts are set in winter in Leontes's kingdom of Sicilia and convey a tragic tone. In Act 2, Scene 1 the young prince Mamillius triggers the action by responding to a request by his mother for storytelling when he says, "A sad tale's best for winter."

The last two acts take place 16 years later, in summer—"Not yet on summer's death, nor on the birth / Of trembling winter," according to Perdita—first in the kingdom of Bohemia and then back in Sicilia. The emphasis on summer rather than spring—traditionally considered the season of renewal and redemption—suggests that the forgiveness and healing in the play is not enough to completely redeem Leontes's crimes against his family.

Debate about the Play's Genre

The Winter's Tale, along with four other late plays of Shakespeare, is conventionally classified as a romance. The other members of this group are Pericles, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and Two Noble Kinsmen. All these plays, it is believed, were written between 1607 and 1614. In Shakespeare's day a romance—either in prose or in verse—contained exotic settings, surprising and often supernatural events, a love plot, and at least a partially happy ending. The Winter's Tale, with its lost daughter and a love story, gestures toward the miraculous or supernatural, and settings in Sicilia and Bohemia fit this description relatively well.

Like other romances The Winter's Tale makes extensive use of the pastoral—the idealized representation of simple people living rural lives, epitomized in the sheep-shearing festival in Act 4. With roots in antiquity, the pastoral is often treated as a refuge from the sophisticated but corrupt world of court. In Shakespeare's plays, the countryside often offers a place to correct or redeem things that have gone wrong in the court.

However, romance is not one of the dramatic types named by the editors of the First Folio (the first published collection of Shakespeare's plays, printed in 1623), in which The Winter's Tale, along with The Tempest, is classified as a comedy—a generally humorous play with a happy ending that often includes a wedding. Some critics have advocated for the designation tragicomedy, a hybrid that contains some elements of comedy and some elements of tragedy.


Shakespeare based the first three acts of The Winter's Tale on an exceptionally popular prose romance by his contemporary Robert Greene (1558–92), titled Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (1588). As he often did in his dramas, Shakespeare made significant alterations to his principal source. Among the other sources that scholars have identified are various tales in Ovid's (43 BCE–17 CE) Metamorphoses, as well as the Alcestis of Euripides (c. 484–06 BCE), which was available in England in a 16th-century Latin translation.

Unique Staging Issues

The earliest record of the play's performance is the eyewitness account of Elizabethan scientist Simon Forman, which describes a production staged at the Globe Theatre on May 15, 1611. Forman focuses on the comic second half of the play and was particularly taken by the deceptive trickster Autolycus—by contrast, modern audiences usually see Autolycus as a minor figure.

For many years The Winter's Tale was ignored by theatrical producers, who apparently assumed that the play contained too many challenges for effective performance. According to one theater historian, the play's "problems" included the time gap of 16 years between Acts 3 and 4, the fatal attack on Antigonus by a bear, and the miraculous statue scene at the culmination of Act 5.

In the mid-18th century the celebrated actor/manager David Garrick (1717–79) created a stripped-down version of the play, titled Florizel and Perdita, which was performed at his theater, Drury Lane, in London. It was only in 1800 or so that productions of The Winter's Tale became fairly frequent. Far from being regarded as unplayable, it has recently served as a springboard for the fertile imaginations of actors, directors, and set designers.

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