The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Motifs



Often mentioned in The Winter's Tale, the cycle of the seasons is closely related to the themes of time and nature. The seasons symbolize the ongoing, steady activity of natural processes. In the course of the play the "sad tale" told for winter morphs into a celebration of summer, as dramatized in the sheep-shearing festival of Act 4 and the reconciliations of Act 5.


Both Leontes and Polixenes are preoccupied with the issue of succession in Sicilia and Bohemia, respectively. Leontes, stricken with jealousy, anxiously contemplates the legitimacy of his son Mamillius in Act 1, Scene 3. In the stern prophecy of Apollo's oracle at Delphos, reported in Act 3, Scene 2, Leontes will remain without an heir "if that which is lost be not found"—an allusion to Perdita. In Act 4, Scene 4 Polixenes threatens to disinherit his son Florizell, barring him "from succession" because of his betrothal to a seeming commoner. Happily, the issue of succession is settled with the revelation of Perdita's identity, which provides Leontes with an heir and Polixenes with a suitable wife for his son.


The idea that The Winter's Tale resembles an old story or a "sad tale" draws attention to its elements of fantasy and its romantic conventions. In The Winter's Tale the device first appears in Act 2, Scene 2, when Hermione and her ladies-in-waiting urge the young Mamillius to tell them a tale—the "sad tale" of sprites and goblins best suited to the winter season—it ties in imaginatively to the story of Leontes's family. Storytelling is also prominently mentioned in the conversation of the three gentlemen in Act 5, Scene 2, when they say that the improbable rediscovery of Perdita is like an "old tale."


The motif of festivity undergirds Act 4, Scene 4, which is the longest scene in the play. The explicit occasion is the sheep-shearing festival, a community-wide celebration devoted to feasting, music, dance, and jests. Shakespeare's principal source, Robert Greene's Pandosto (1588), refers to a "merry" country meeting filled with "homely pastimes and sports." Fawnia (Perdita) was the mistress of the feast, or hostess.

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