The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s very late plays, puts onstage a story so filled with improbabilities that the play occasionally seems amused at its own audacity. Near the story’s end, for example, as incredible details accumulate, one character says “This news which is called true is so like an old tale that the verity [i.e., the truth] of it is in strong suspicion”; he has just exclaimed “Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad makers [the tabloid writers of Shakespeare’s day] cannot be able to express it.” As the “old tale” spins to its remarkable conclusion, another character tells us that what we are about to see, “Were it but told you, should be hooted at / like an old tale.”
The sense of the incredible and the wonderful seems built into the design of the play, as the play’s title indicates. And the play’s dialogue forces upon us an awareness of the title’s significance. “Pray you sit by us / And tell ’s a tale,” Queen Hermione says early in the play to her young son Mamillius, who replies, “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins.” The tale that the play tells, like that promised by Mamillius, is indeed of “sprites and goblins”—of ferocious and murderous passions, of man-eating bears, of princes and princesses in disguise, of death by drowning and by grief, of Greek oracles, of betrayal, and of unexpected joy. And the play draws much of its power from its heavy dependence on Greek myths of loss and of transformation.
Yet the story the play tells is at the same time solidly grounded in the everyday, while the play itself is closely tied to Shakespeare’s earlier, more straightforward, tragedies and comedies. The monstrous jealousy that descends upon Leontes, for example, is mythlike in its resemblance to the madness sent by the gods to punish Hercules in classical drama, but it seems not unfamiliar as an emotional state that can threaten anyone who loves someone else and who is thus vulnerable to loss and betrayal. Leontes’ actions are so extreme that one at first discounts them as rather un-Shakespearean, yet his story is recognizably a retelling of Othello’s (with the Iago-figure here incorporated into the hero’s own psyche), as well as being a retelling of the Claudio-Hero plot in Much Ado About Nothing.
A “winter’s tale” is a story to be told or read in front of a fire on a long winter’s night. Paradoxically, this Winter’s Tale is ideally seen rather than read. Its sudden shift from tragedy to comedy, its playing with disguise, its startling exits and transformations seem addressed to theater audiences, not readers. But the imagination can do much to transform words into living characters and stage directions into vivid action, and thus to turn this play that is quintessentially for the stage back into a tale of wonder, a tale “of sprites and goblins.”