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The Winter's Tale: A short summary

This is a great play to read by Shakespeare because it's quite short, easy to understand and very entertaining. It is filled with lots of drama too: accusations of a love affair, an abandoned baby daughter, a king's descent into madness, three deaths, a marriage and finally, a miracle.

  • one of Shakespeare's final plays.
  • Composed and performed around 1610-11
  • joins Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest in the list of Shakespeare's genre-defying later plays that are usually referred to as romances, or tragicomedies.
  • examines death and the dangers of evil in the world
  • demands the madness of Leontes and the deaths of 3 innocent people before reaching a happy ending

King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia have been friends since childhood. Polixeness has been away from the kingdom for nine months, but his pregnant wife Hermione convinces him to extend his visit in Sicilia a little bit longer. Leontes is suspicious that Polixenes and Hermione may be lovers, so he tells his nobleman Camillo to poison Polixenes. But Camillo warns Polixenes instead, and both men flee Sicilia.

Furious, Leontes accuses his wife of having an affair and an illegitimate child, throwing her in prison despite the protests of his noblemen. He goes to the Oracle of Delphi (a Seer) to confirm that he is right.

Meanwhile, the queen gives birth to a girl and her friend Paulina brings the baby to the king, hoping it will soften his heart. Instead, he gets angry and orders Paulina's husband Lord Antigonus to take the child and abandon it somewhere.

Antigonus leaves to do this and while he's gone, the Delphi answers that Hermione is innocent and Leontes will have no heir until his abandoned child is found.

Mamillius, Leontes's son, dies of a wasting sickness brought on by the accusations against his mother. The queen then dies after losing consciousness.

Now Antigonus has abandoned the baby somewhere on the Bohemian coast. The queen comes to him in a dream and tells him to name the child Perdita, and to leave gold and tokens to her future guardian. Antigonus is then killed by a bear and Perdita is raised by a shepherd.

Sixteen years pass.

Prince Florizel, son of King Polixenes, falls in love with Perdita. King Polixenes and Camillo disguise themselves and watch the enamored couple. They tear off the disguise and intervene, the king telling his son never to see Perdita again.

However, Camillo wishes to return to his homeland of Sicilia and takes ship there with Florizel and Perdita. He uses the clothes of a local rogue named Autolycus as a disguise to do this. They are joined in their voyage by the Shepherd and his son, a Clown.

Leontes, still in mourning from the death of his son, wife and losing his daughter, greets Prince Florizel. The Prince pretends to be on a diplomatic mission from his father, but his cover is blown when Polixenes and Camillo arrive.

What happens next is told by the gentlemen of the court: the Shepherd tells everyone his story of how Perdita was found, and Leontes realizes she is his long-lost daughter. Everyone rejoices and go to Paulina's house in the country, where a statue of Queen Hermione was recently made. The sight of his wife's statue makes Leontes sad, but then the statue comes to life - Hermione returns in life form.

As the play ends, Paulina and Camillo are engaged and the whole company celebrates this miracle.

Folio Society edition of the Norton Facsimile from 1996 - Copyright expired

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