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About this book

This Handbook provides an introductory guide to 'The Winter's Tale' offering a scene-by-scene theatrically aware commentary, contextual documents, a brief history of the text and first performances, case studies of key performances and productions, a survey of film and TV adaptation, a wide sampling of critical opinion and further reading.

Table of Contents

1. The Text and Early Performances

Abstract
The only early version of the text of The Winter’s Tale is that printed seven years after Shakespeare’s death in the 1623 First Folio of his works. Certain features of this text, including the heavy, ‘literary’ style of its punctuation, suggest that the manuscript from which it was printed was not in Shakespeare’s hand, but had been copied, probably by the scribe Ralph Crane. Shakespeare, in common with many poets, probably punctuated quite lightly. Heavy punctuation can sometimes break up rhetorical patterns and therefore get in the way of actors’ performances. There are few overt problems with the words of the play, however, and those that have a bearing on the sense or on performance are considered in the Commentary section below as they occur.
Ros King

2. Commentary

Abstract
Like Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which was probably written for performance at court in 1609–10, this play begins with a conversation between two courtiers. As in the earlier play, the style of speech is rather elaborate, careful and diplomatic, as befits the status of the speakers. Unlike Cymbeline, it is in prose, although it is not easy to read. But, as usually the case with Shakespeare, the difficulties incorporate a wealth of clues for actors and readers; they are designed to influence the pace of the scene and to indicate something of what is to come. They introduce not just the story but also the plot: the way in which that story will be presented, arranged and developed.
Ros King

3. Sources and Cultural Context

Abstract
The main source for Shakespeare’s play is Robert Greene’s prose romance, Pandosto, the Triumph of Time. Subtitled The History of Dorastus and Fawnia, it was published in 1588 and proved the most popular of all Greene’s works, appearing in six editions by 1609, and reprinted frequently thereafter. Shakespeare relies heavily on Greene’s story for the first half of his play, adopting wholesale Greene’s account of the King’s behaviour — his unfounded jealousy, fear of being poisoned, sleeplessness, and murderous intent towards both his wife and the person he regards as his rival. Greene is also the origin of some striking phrases, for example ‘rigour and not law’ and ‘refer myself to the divine oracle’ in Hermione’s speeches to the court (cf, III.i.113–14). But the differences are also illuminating. Shakespeare swaps around Bohemia and Sicily (see below pp. 90–4); his king denies the truth of the oracle; his queen becomes pregnant much earlier in the story, and does not die. Rather than continuing the narrative of the baby girl’s upbringing, he skips over those sixteen years, settling into a succession of different modes of story telling for the Bohemia scenes and the subsequent return to Sicily.
Ros King

4. Critical Assessments

Abstract
Perhaps the most important advice contained in Aristotle’s Art of Poetry is that ‘a poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities’ (24.10). Everything about the story of The Winter’s Tale from its geography to its statue is impossible, and throughout the play (not just in the closing scenes), characters tell us that the events they have witnessed or heard about are a source of wonder or surprise. But partly because of their recognisably real emotional responses, including laughing at what they see, and partly because, most of the time, we are ahead of them in terms of precise knowledge about those events, we accept those events as probable within the strange world created by the patterns in Shakespeare’s language, and his plot — the arrangement of the story.
Ros King

5. Key Productions

Abstract
Writing in 1993 while reviewing Adrian Noble’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play for Shakespeare Survey, Peter Holland remarked that he had never seen a successful production of The Winter’s Tale on the Stratford stage. It seems that the critical approaches to the structure of the play have carried over into the theatre with directors unsure how to handle what they have often seen as a ‘broken backed’ text. The fact that Shakespeare’s text mixes up geographical, historical and cultural details has, however, enabled theatre directors to present it as an allegory for the cultural concerns of their own period. And as with the masque of 1611, Leontes’s cold kingdom has been as likely to suggest a snowbound Russia as an oppressive Sicily.
Ros King

6. The Play on Screen

Abstract
Considering the dearth of modern films of the play, it is perhaps surprising that there might be as many as four silent film versions: by Edison (1909); the Thanhouser film company (1910, 12 minutes, 35 seconds, reissued on DVD); the German Das Wintermärchen, by Belle Alliance (1913–14), about which almost nothing is known, and which may therefore bear no more resemblance to Shakespeare’s play than the title; and Tragedia alla Corte di Sicilia by the Italian Milano company, distributed in England as The Lost Princess (1913, 34 minutes). The Milano version was very well received at the time, and is credited as being the most successful film adaptation of Shakespeare prior to World War I. The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 15 March 1914, reported that it ‘is splendidly acted, magnificently staged, and photographically beautiful’ and although taste in acting style has changed, the photography still appeals. The story is carried by 44 subtitles, but in a silent movie, verbal jokes are impossible and the character of Autolycus is understandably cut entirely. The death of Antigonus is accomplished by having him set upon by robbers rather than a bear, and thrown into a volcano. This not entirely successful attempt at spectacle was shot on red film stock, with other night-time sequences shot on green stock. Book-ended by scenes of Shakespeare reading his play to a couple of friends, the film adds scenes to the story of Hermione, who is threatened with madness by the loss of her baby. It also attempts to rationalise her sixteen year disappearance by showing Paulina purchasing and administering a ‘potion to save the life and reason of her mistress’, as the subtitle explains, before, like Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, she is buried in a tomb.
Ros King
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