The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s final plays. Although it was grouped among the comedies, it has come to be widely recognized as one of Shakespeare’s later genre defying plays.  The Winter’s Tale has attracted an enormous amount of critical interest, and has even led to W. H. Lawrence to label it as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, as the first three acts are filled with extreme emotional drama, while the last two acts are comedic and supply a joyous ending.  In The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare is challenging the contemporary conventions of genre which makes the task of defining the play under a particular genus all the more challenging. In the following paper I intend to hypothesize what is the most appropriate label for The Winter’s Tale. In order to do so one must first discuss and define what exactly constitutes a comedy, a romance, a tragedy and indeed a tragi-comedy?

One argues that The Winter’s Tale does not fit the definition of a tragedy as it fails to conform to the elements which identify a Shakespearean tragedy. An OED dictionary definition is ‘a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction’ [Oxford English Dictionary online]. While The Winter’s Tale has a clear and somber political theme, raising questions of monarchial and masculine power it lacks the necessary amount of death and destruction in which tragedy demands. While King Leontes does contain a fatal character flaw or hubris it does not lead to his ultimate demise as order is restored in the final acts of the play through comedic happenings.

In order to ascertain wheater or not The Winter’s Tale fits into the comedic genre, one must first set about defining comedy. An Oxford English dictionary definition of comedy is a play, movie, etc., of light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion’[Oxford English Dictionary online]. While this may first seem to define comedy one could argue that this definition is rather unsophisticated and narrow minded and that defining comedy is no easy task. In actuality it is a rather complex and frustrating problem as the relationship between humour and horror is actually closer than one may first appreciate. One suggests that humour is a matter of perception and what one individual may find amusing another may find offensive. To illustrate this, I wish to use a contemporary film Battle Royal which was directed by Kinji Fukasaku and released in September of 2001. The film was labelled crude and tasteless by many critics, while at the same time picking up several awards and nominations. Although this particular film is grotesque and gruesome it transcends the boundaries of horror and in reality becomes comedic in effect. Similarly in The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare resolves not to adhere to the rule of comedy that no one should die, and as such Shakespeare is challenging the regular tragedy and comedy conventions. Defining humour is a difficult task and one must recognise that public perceptions of humour vary over time, Jonathan Wilcox warned that “any era of the past is best approached as an anthropologist might approach unfamiliar shores’ [Jonathan Wilcox/p. 12]. Despite this guidance merely labelling The Winter’s Tale comedy would not fully convey all elements of the play as other characteristics from genres such as romance play a hugely influential role.

Romance is a genre in which contradictions and impossibilities thrive. Steve Evans argues in his paper Shakespearean romance, tragicomedy, and the Jacobean theater that ‘romance refers to works with extravagant characters, remote and exotic places, highly exciting and heroic events, passionate love, or mysterious or supernatural experiences’ [Steve Evans/2005]. In short, the romantic genre has two main characteristics; a high level of fantasy and the geography is important. Both the coming to life of the statue coupled with the remote location, and ambiguous geography of Bohemia fits the above romantic criteria. Shakespeare ingenious employment of conventions associated with romance allows the play to mix genres. Brian Gibbons argued that the main features of the early Elizabethan romance, part folk-tale, part chivalric, are traceable right through the period, down to the later Jacobean masterpieces Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale’[Brian Gibbons/ p.197]. In The Winter’s Tale tragedy and comedy somehow unified through romance. The employment of supernatural conventions associated with romance in The Winter’s Tale achieves a final harmony, between comedy and tragedy. In what other mode could the statue come to life, or the unlikeness of King Leontes being re-united with his long lost daughter Perdita be contrived? Jean E Howard has noted that “in prose romances popular throughout the period, characters regularly undertake impossible quests, encounter marvels, and are unexpectedly reunited with lost children’[Jean E. Howard/p. 2873].

In his later life Shakespeare refuses to be confined and restrained by regular conventions thus creating a very vibrant and fluid play. Fletcher argues in his To the Reader” from The Faithful Shepherdess:  ‘A tragicomedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it lacks deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy,’[Steve Evans/2005]. However one posits that neither comedy or tragedy can be defined by the amount of violence or death, and has more to do with the general mood of the story. Audience’s like societies change over time, and it is difficult for a modern reader to speculate on whether or not an Elizabethan audience would have found the seemingly unnecessary violence horrible or entertaining. At the time of composition Shakespeare was forty-three years old, the author of twenty-nine plays, and was indeed very successful, this success brought confidence which enabled Shakespeare to experiment with mixing genres. John Pitcher  argues that ‘nearing the end of his career Shakespeare became particularly interested in mixing genres, so that his later comedies have darker, potentially tragic themes’[John Pitcher/ p1]. It is possible that Shakespeare became interested in the mixing of genre’s in order to shock and surprise audiences who may have came accustomed to the more traditional expectations of tragedy, comedy or romance. While the play conforms in many ways to the generic label laid out by the title page, it is clear even from this brief review that there is considerable fluency between subcultures of comedy, tragedy, and romance throughout. Generic traditions in Shakespeare’s time were often blended and were constantly evolving, nevertheless they served as guides to the audiences and readers in understanding the plays. It could be said that more of a mode then a genre. One comes to conclude that the most appropriate label for The Winter’s Tale would be a Romantic Tragic-Comedy.


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