The 2019/2020 Season

After the Show | Post-Play Discussion

Summary

The Winters TaleThe Winter’s Tale was written sometime between 1609 and 1611 and published in the First Folio in 1623. It is one of Shakespeare’s later plays. Following the story of Leontes, the King of Sicilia, the story works in two parts: a tragedy in Sicilia and a comedy in Bohemia. At the start of the show, Leontes is content, a loving husband and father. His best friend from childhood, Polixenes, king of Bohemia, has been staying with Leontes and his wife, Hermione, who is expecting their second child. Leontes is suddenly overwhelmed with poisonous jealousy and is convinced that Polixenes and Hermione are having an affair, and that the child she carries is Polixenes’. Out of the destruction Leontes causes, many of the characters are forced to exile or death. The second half of the play returns, 16 years later, with the story of Leontes and Hermione’s lost daughter, Perdita, who was left in Bohemia as an infant. Once in Bohemia the story turns to one of singing, dancing, and love. Before the show concludes we travel back to Sicilia just in time for redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness and a bit of magic. 

Original Production

The show was originally performed at the Globe Theatre before being presented as part of King James’ daughter’s wedding celebrations. Although the play defies typical tragedy/comedy/history classification, most would consider it one of Shakespeare’s comedies (a clue being its happy resolution). It was originally printed as part of the comedy section in the First Folio.

  • What is a Folio?

    The First Folio was the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s works put together by two of his friends and fellow actors several years after Shakespeare’s death. A “olio is a large book made by folding a sheet of paper in half to form four pages. Other books at the time were made by folding a sheet of a paper twice to form eight pages, meaning that a folio was a much sturdier book and was normally reserved for lengthy books on history or religion, making Shakespeare’s folio the exception. (1).

    Setting

    Picture2The play is set in Sicilia and Bohemia. The play and the unique history of Bohemia gives us an interesting clue as to what Shakespeare may have known about the country, or it may have been simply a product of his imagination. For a majority of Bohemia’s history, it was landlocked, but in the course of the play, Polixenes, takes a ship from Sicilia back to Bohemia. Antigonus also gets to Bohemia by way of ship, and the Clown watches a shipwreck from the shore. This points to a short window in the late 13th century where the Kingdom of Bohemia stretched through the modern-day Czech Republic to the Adriatic Sea. (2)

    Language

    Shakespeare provided the English language with quite a few new words throughout his plays. You can thank him for “uncomfortable,” “bedazzled,” and “fashionable.” (3) The Winter’s Tale debuted “unearthly.” But not every word from Shakespeare’s time can have the same staying power; adapting Shakespeare’s plays involve a lot of decisions about what words to keep and what words just aren’t clear enough to modern audiences. These words appear in the original The Winter’s Tale but have been exchanged for a synonym for this production:

    “Dam” became “mother”
    “Moiety” became “portion”
    “Fardel” became “bundle”

  • Bears

    One of the most famous lines from The Winter’s Tale isn’t a spoken line but a stage direction. Antigonus’ direction “exit, pursued by bear” can be comical or heartbreaking, but it also had a special connection to Shakespeare’s original audience. Not a stone’s throw away from the original Globe Theatre, bear baiting was happening. A gruesome entertainment, bear baiting was part of popular culture where people pitted a bear against a pack of dogs. This sport was enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth, and Elizabethan audiences would have found a bear sighting completely normal! As the cruelty of bear baiting fell out of fashion, modern audiences can still revel in the surprise appearance of a bear with a much better conscience. (4) (5)

    The Arrests of Other Famous Queens

    Kings and Queens don’t just fight in plays. History gives a lot of examples of kings arresting their queen, which share shocking similarities to Queen Hermione’s tragic fate. Very close to Shakespeare’s time is perhaps the most notable perpetrator: Queen Elizabeth I ruled over England during most of Shakespeare’s life, and her father, King Henry VIII, instigated many trials against his wives. Both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were arrested and executed under accusations of adultery. The two had trials to defend themselves just as Hermione does in the show. Anne in particular was said to have given a sympathetic and convincing defense. Unfortunately, Henry held too much sway over the court and despite him not formally judging the trial like King Leontes does, no one would stand against his wishes. Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, fared much better. Henry issued the warrant for her arrest, but when forewarned of the warrant, Catherine suddenly fell ill. With his wife bedridden, doubt crept into Henry’s mind. He caved and then visited her room where she was able to make amends with him. The following day, guards came to arrest Catherine as she sat with Henry. Henry grew enraged at the guards (for doing exactly what he asked them to do) and threw the guards out, much to the relief of Catherine. (6) (7)

    (1) https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare/first-folio/faq
    (2) https://www.britannica.com/place/Bohemia
    (3) http://mentalfloss.com/article/48657/20-words-we-owe-william-shakespeare
    (4) https://americanshakespearecenter.com/2018/11/staging-an-exit-pursued-by-a-bear/
    (5) https://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/resources/shakespeares-theatres/globe-theatre-entertainment
    (6) The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Gladys Malvern
    (7) The Trials of Five Queens by R. Storry Deans

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Discussion questions

  • Where do you think jealousy stems from? Can you relate to King Leontes and his feelings?
  • What felt different about Sicilia and Bohemia and how was this reflected in the characters? 
  • What did you think of Hermione’s resurrection? Was it magic? or something else?
  • What are the principal themes you perceive in the play?  
  • Which character did you relate to the most? Why?