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The Winter's Tale

  • First Things First
    • This lesson will teach you how to read and understand a play by William Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the English language (and the man who invented quite a lot of it).
    • These videos are not a substitute for reading Shakespeare, listening to Shakespeare, or watching Shakespeare performed.
    • Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
  • Background
    • Written 1610 – 1611
    • Taken from Robert Green’s pastoral romance Pandosto
    • Not published during Shakespeare’s lifetime (First Folio, 1623)
    • Very late in style, not as heavily adapted as other plays
  • Setting
    • “Sicily” and “Bohemia”
    • Desert coasts without a coast, or a desert
    • Lots of classical names
  • Major Characters
    • Leontes—Jealous king of Sicily who accuses his wife of adultery and sends his infant daughter to be killed.
    • Hermione—Queen of Sicily, wife of Leontes, innocent of the charges against her.
    • Polixenes—King of Bohemia, childhood friend of Leontes, accused of adultery with Hermione.
    • Camillo—Sicilian nobleman who helps Polixenes escape death.
    • Paulina—Sicilian noblewoman, friend and defender of Hermione, wife of Antigonus.
    • Antigonus—Sicilian nobleman, loyal to Leontes, agrees to help kill the infant princess.
    • Perdita—Sicilian princess raised by a shepherd.
    • Dion and Cleomenes—Two Sicilian lords sent to Delphi/Delphos to ask about Hermione’s guilt.
    • Mamilius—Leontes and Hermione’s son; he dies young.
    • Florizel—Prince of Bohemia who falls in love with Perdita.
    • Shepherd—Perdita’s adoptive father.
    • Clown—Perdita’s adopted brother.
    • Autolycus—A peddler and thief who ends up helping the lovers.
  • Plot
    • Polixenes visits Leontes
    • Leontes suspects Hermione
      • Polixenes and Camillo flee
      • Hermione imprisoned
      • A trip to the oracle
      • A daughter is born, and rejected
    • Hermione on trial
      • A message from the oracle
      • Mamilius dies
      • Hermione dies?
    • Antigonus and the baby
      • “Exit, pursued by a bear”
      • Perdita adopted
    • Prince Florizel finds the countryside very interesting
    • Polixenes and Camillo go in disguise
    • The sheep-shearing
      • Autolycus and the Clown
      • The two lovers
      • The betrothal
      • The reveal
    • An escape
      • Camillo has an idea
      • Swapping clothes
      • Autolycus’ prank
    • At the Sicilian court
      • The couple received
      • Perdita’s identity revealed
      • A happy ending all around?
    • At Paulina’s house
      • The statue of Hermione
      • Forgiveness and betrothal
      • A question about that statue …
  • Themes
    • Two halves
    • Jealousy and forgiveness
    • Gender
    • Redemption
    • Love
    • Madness and magic
  • Major Passages
    • “A sad tale’s best for winter …”

      -Act II, Scene 1

    • “I am a feather for each wind that blows …”

      -Act II, Scene 3

    • “Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance.”

      -Act IV, Scene 4

    • “If this be magic, let it be an art
      Lawful as eating.”

      -Act V, Scene 3

  • Jumping-Off Points
    • Contrast the characters of Leontes and Florizel. How are their attitudes and actions different? How are they similar? How does Shakespeare set these characters up as foils for one another?
    • The Winter’s Tale has elements of both comedy and tragedy. How is the play two stories at once? Why do you think Shakespeare chose to do this?
    • What elements does The Winter’s Tale have in common with traditional fairytales? How does it diverge from them?
    • How does Shakespeare use women in this play? How does their influence change the story from a tragedy to a comedy?
    • The origin of Leontes’ jealousy is never explored—and that’s what makes it so frightening. Compare Leontes to other jealous Shakespearean characters like Othello. How is his portrayal different? How is it similar?
    • In classical mythology, Autolycus was the son of Hermes and the most gifted mortal thief who ever lived. Discuss his role in the play. How does he affect the plot and tone?
    • Is The Winter’s Tale a comedy? A tragedy? A romance? Discuss.
    • How does Shakespeare deal with the notions of innocence and guilt (both legal and psychological) in this story?
    • Was Hermione’s return a miracle or a trick? Discuss.
  • The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare
    • Watch it performed (or on film if you can’t get to a theatrical production). All of Shakespeare makes more sense when it’s spoken by actors who have lived his words and know, bone-deep, what he’s talking about. Never underestimate the power of performance. Remember that this is how Shakespeare meant his work to be seen …

The Winter's Tale

Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.

  • Intro 0:00
  • First Things First 0:08
  • Lesson Overview 0:40
  • Background 1:12
  • Setting 2:01
  • Major Characters 3:09
    • Leontes
    • Hermione
    • Polixenes
    • Camillo
    • Paulina
    • Antigonus
    • Perdita
    • Dion and Cleomenes
    • Manilius
    • Florizel
    • Shepherd
    • Clown
    • Autolycus
  • Plot 5:43
    • Polixenes visits Leontes
    • Leontes suspects Hermione
    • Hermione on trial
    • Antigonus and the baby
    • Prince Florizel finds the coutryside interesting
    • Polixenes and Camillo go in disguise
    • The sheep-shearing
    • An escape
    • At the Sicilian court
    • At Paulina's house
  • Themes 13:33
  • Major Passages 15:09
    • Act II, scene 1
    • Act II, scene 3
    • Act IV, scene 4
    • Act v, scene 3
  • Jumping-off Points 17:01
    • Contrast Leontes and Florizel
    • Two stories at once
    • Traditional fairytales
    • Influence of women in the play
    • Jealousy
    • Autolycus
    • Comedy? Tragedy? Romance?
    • Innocence and guilt
    • Hermione's return
  • The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare 20:13