Nevertheless, the play has occasionally been extremely popular, and enjoyed theatrical productions in various forms and adaptations by some of the leading theatre practitioners in Shakespeare performance history, beginning with David Garrick in his adaptation called Florizel and Perdita (first performed in 1784 and published in 1756), and again in the nineteenth century, when the third "pastoral" act was widely popular. In the second half of the twentieth century The Winter's Tale, in its entirety and drawn largely from the First Folio text, was often performed, with varying degrees of success, for the first time since it was first performed in London in 1611.
The play contains the most famous Shakespearean stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear, describing the death of Antigonus. It is not known whether Shakespeare used a real bear from the London bear-pits, or an actor in bear costume. The Royal Shakespeare Company, in one production of this play, used a large sheet of silk which moved and created shapes, to symbolise both the bear and the gale in which Antigonus is travelling.
The main plot of The Winter's Tale is taken from Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1590. Shakespeare's changes to the plot are uncharacteristically slight, especially in light of the romance's undramatic nature, and Shakespeare's fidelity to it gives The Winter's Tale its most distinctive feature: the sixteen-year gap between the third and fourth acts.
There are minor changes in names, places, and minor plot details, but the largest change is in the survival of Hermione. The equivalent character in Pandosto dies after being accused of adultery. This change, while presumably intended to create the last scene's coup de théâtre involving the statue, creates a distinctive thematic divergence from Pandosto. Robert Greene follows the usual ethos of Hellenistic romance, in which the return of a lost prince or princess restores order and provides a sense of closure that evokes Providence's control. Shakespeare, by contrast, foregrounds the restoration of the older, indeed aged, generation in the reunion of Leontes and Hermione.
It has been suggested that the use of a pastoral romance from the 1590s indicates that at the end of his career, Shakespeare felt a renewed interest in the dramatic contexts of his youth. Minor influences also suggest such an interest. As in Pericles, he uses a chorus to advance the action in the manner of the naive dramatic tradition; the use of a bear in the scene on the Bohemian seashore is almost certainly indebted to Mucedorus, a chivalric romance revived at court around 1610.
One modern historian, Eric Ives, believes that the play is really a parody of the fall of Queen Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded on false charges of adultery on the orders of her husband Henry VIII in 1536. There are numerous parallels between the two stories - including the fact that one of Henry's closest friends, Sir Henry Norreys, was beheaded as one of Anne's supposed lovers and he refused to confess in order to save his life – claiming that everyone knew the Queen was innocent. If this theory is followed then Perdita becomes a dramatic presentation of Anne's only daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.
The play was not published until the First Folio of 1623, in which it is the fourteenth and last play in the section of Comedies. However, some researchers, including Charles Barrell and A.R. Cairncross, believe that a pirated version of the play was listed in the Stationers Register on May 22, 1594, under the title "a Wynters nightes pastime".
The Winter's Tale was not soon revived during the Restoration, unlike many other Shakespearean plays. It was performed in 1741 at Goodman's Fields and in 1742 at Covent Garden. Adaptations, titled The Sheep-Shearing and Florizal and Perdita, were acted at Covent Garden in 1754 and at Drury Lane in 1756.
The most famous recent production was staged by Peter Brook in London in 1951 and starred John Gielgud as Leontes. Other notable stagings featured John Philip Kemble in 1811, Samuel Phelps in 1845, and Charles Kean in an 1856 production that was famous for its elaborate sets and costumes. Johnston Forbes-Robertson played Leontes memorably in 1887, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree took on the role in 1906. The longest-running Broadway production starred Henry Daniell and Jessie Royce Landis, and ran for 39 performances in 1946. In 1980, David Jones (director), former Associate Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company chose to launch his new theatre company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with The Winter's Tale starring Brian Murray supported by Jones' new company at BAM. In 1983, the Riverside Shakespeare Company mounted a production based on the First Folio text at The Shakespeare Center in Manhattan. In 1993 Adrian Noble won a Globe Award for Best Director for his Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation, which then was successfully brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1994.
There have been two film versions, one silent version and a 1968 version starring Laurence Harvey as Leontes. Another film version, starring Dougray Scott as Leontes, is due for release in 2009, directed by Waris Hussein.
Following a brief setup scene the play begins with the appearance of two childhood friends: Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Polixenes is visiting the kingdom of Sicilia, and is enjoying catching up with his old friend. However, after nine months, Polixenes yearns to return to his own kingdom to tend to affairs and see his son. Leontes desperately attempts to get Polixenes to stay longer, but is unsuccessful. Leontes then decides to send his wife, Queen Hermione, to try to convince Polixenes. Hermione agrees and with three short speeches is successful. Leontes is puzzled as to how Hermione convinced Polixenes so easily, and Leontes suddenly goes insane and suspects that his pregnant wife has been having an affair with Polixenes and that the child is a bastard. Leontes orders Camillo, a Sicilian Lord, to poison Polixenes.
When Camillo instead warns Polixenes and they both flee to Bohemia, Leontes arrests Hermione on charges of adultery and conspiracy against his life. She gives birth to a daughter in prison, and Leontes orders Antigonus, a Sicilian courtier, to dispose of the infant. At Hermione's trial, the Oracle at Delphos pronounces her innocent, but Leontes defies the oracle; he immediately receives word that his young son, Mamillius, has died of grief. Hermione faints and is reported to have died. Leontes laments his poor judgment and promises to grieve for his dead wife and son every day.
Antigonus is sent by Leontes to abandon Hermione's newborn daughter on the seacoast of Bohemia. Hermione appears to Antigonus in a dream and tells him to name the child "Perdita" (derived from the Latin word for "lost"). He wishes to take pity on the child, but is chased away in one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions: "Exit, pursued by a bear." Fortunately, Perdita is rescued by a shepherd and his son also known as "Clown". There is a large amount of money with the baby and the shepherd is now very rich.
Time enters and announces the passage of sixteen years. Leontes has spent the sixteen years mourning his wife and children. In Bohemia, Polixenes and Camillo become aware that Florizel (Polixenes' son) has become infatuated with a shepherdess. They attend a sheep-shearing festival (in disguise) and confirm that the young Prince Florizel (Polixenes' son) plans to marry a shepherd's beautiful young daughter (Perdita, who knows nothing of her royal heritage). Polixenes objects to the marriage and threatens the young couple, so they flee to Sicilia with the help of Camillo. Polixenes pursues them. Eventually, with a bit of help from a comical rogue named Autolycus, Perdita's heritage is revealed and she reunites with her father. The kings are reconciled and both approve of Florizel and Perdita's marriage. They all go to see a statue of Hermione kept by Paulina, a lady of Hermione's court, the widow of Antigonus, and Hermione's most ardent defender. The statue apparently comes to life and is then revealed to be the real Hermione, who went into hiding to await the fulfilment of the oracle's prophecy and be reunited with her daughter.
While the language Paulina uses in the final scene evokes the sense of a magical ritual, one often-overlooked moment in 5.2 shows us the far likelier case - that Paulina hid Hermione at a remote location to protect her from Leontes' wrath and that the re-animation of Hermione does not derive from any magic. When the Third Gentleman announces that the members of the court have gone to Paulina's dwelling to see the statue, the Second Gentleman offers this exposition: "I thought she had some great matter there in hand, for she [Paulina] hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house" (5.2.104-106). What's more, Leontes is surprised that the statue is wrinkled, unlike the Hermione he remembers. Paulina answers his concern by claiming that the age-progression attests to the "carver's excellence", which makes her look "as [if] she lived now." Hermione later asserts that her desire to see her daughter allowed her to endure 16 years of sequestration. Hermione, after her unveiling, says to Perdita, "thou shalt hear that I, / Knowing by Paulina that the oracle / Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved / Myself to see the issue" (5.3.126-129)
Also, in 1891, Edmund O. von Lippmann pointed out that 'Bohemia' was also a rare name for Apulia in southern Italy. More influential was Thomas Hanmer's 1744 argument that Bohemia is a printed error for Bithynia, an ancient nation in Asia Minor; this theory was adopted in Charles Kean's influential nineteenth century production of the play, which featured a resplendent Bythinian court.
Also, the pastoral genre is not known for precise verisimilitude, and, like the assortment of mixed references to ancient religion and contemporary religious figures and customs, this possible inaccuracy may have been included to underscore the play's fantastical and chimeric quality. As Andrew Gurr puts it, Bohemia may have been given a seacoast "to flout geographical realism, and to underline the unreality of place in the play".
Another theory explaining the existence of the seacoast in Bohemia is suggested in Shakespeare's chosen title of the play. A winter's tale is something associated with parents telling children stories of legends around a fireside: by using this title it is implying to the audience not to take these details too seriously.
What, exactly is "The Winter's Tale" referred to in the title? One possible answer was suggested in a 1983 production of the uncut First Folio script of The Winter's Tale by the Riverside Shakespeare Company at The Shakespeare Center, in which the director, W. Stuart McDowell, posited an answer to who the man is in the story told by Mamillius, and hence, what, exactly is The Winter's Tale. The production, which combined modern (Grace Kelly's Monaco) and historical (pastoral 18th century England) periods, staged a magical transformation when Mamillius begins to recount "the winter's tale" to his mother, Hermione. According the program note, the concept arose from the moment in the First Folio text when Mamillius is asked to "tell's a Tale", to which the boy responds with "There was a man...dwelt by a Church-yard..." (See photo, right) According to the Riverside program, McDowell's interpretation posited that these eight words - the entirety of "A sad Tale" that's "best for Winter" - are nothing less than a prophecy concerning Leontes (in this tale told by Mamillius, who subsequently reappears in the role of "Time" in Act IV, i.) Leontes would some day virtually dwell by a graveyard (i.e., church-yard), mourning the passing of Hermione and Mamillius for whose deaths he had himself to blame.
Leontes: Once a day I'll visit
Hermione is resurrected magically at the play's end, when Mamillius' (who also played the role of Time in the Riverside production) "sad tale...best for Winter" draws to a conclusion.. The director noted in the program that:
Verzella, Massimo, “Iconografia femminile in The Winter's Tale”, Merope, XII, 31 (settembre 2001), pp. 49-68;
Verzella, Massimo,“Petrarchism and anti-Petrarchism in The Winter's Tale” in Merope, numero speciale dedicato agli Studi di Shakespeare in Italia, a cura di Michael Hattaway e Clara Mucci, XVII, 46-47 (Set. 2005- Gen. 2006), pp. 161-179.