Like most of Shakespeare's late plays, The Winter's Tale has elements of fantasy and romance that attract some viewers and repel others. Some consider the play light and unrealistic and all the more charming for being so; others agree that the play is unrealistic but see this quality as evidence of its lack of seriousness and worth compared with Shakespeare's other works. Such judgments are made not only by critics but by students reading the play for the first time. Here, for instance, are the responses of two of my students to The Winter's Tale:
Other studentsand criticsarrive at a very different conclusion and find The Winter's Tale as serious and, in its own way, as realistic as anything Shakespeare wrote. Though I share this opinion, the way I teach the play accommodates itself to different views on the play's realism. My approach involves bringing into the open what my students think of the play and then, while we examine the text, discussing the issues it raises in connection with my own and my students' lives. Eventually, most of us find that The Winter's Tale both challenges and satisfies our sense of realism.
By the time we reach The Winter's Tale, my students know that I expect them to consider questions that genuinely arise as they encounter the text. They also know thatdespite my view that aesthetic and dramatic considerations account for many of the problems they seeI find it quite legitimate for them to question the play in terms of their own experience. Students are to bring to class a one-page interpretive response the first day we talk about the play. As discussion begins, I open the floor to concerns students have about the play: anything that bothers them, anything they don't understand, anything intriguing or unusual or problematic.
Both the question raisingwe call it "brainstorming"and the written responses always lead us to the issue of realism. Each of us, that is, at some point asks: Is The Winter's Tale believable? Is it so wildly unlike my own life that I can't connect the two? We start looking for answers by identifying unrealistic elements in the play. We consider the settinglong ago and far away, a pagan never never land where the facts of geography are notable mainly for their irrelevance. We note the various coincidences (including Perdita's and Florizel's encounter), the onset of Leontes's jealousy, his quick turnaround when he learns of his son's death, Hermione's long hiding and return as a statue, Paulina's insistence on Leontes's prolonged repentance, and usually too the supernatural elements (the oracle and so forth).
We ask why these features of the play strike us as unrealistic. The setting, obviously, is unfamiliar and does not adhere to standards of strict mimetic fidelity. Yet as we consider the setting's functionthe sea symbolism, for instance, and the contrast between court and countrywe see that in this play, as in literary fantasy generally, an unfamiliar setting may be a kind of workshop, a provisional space, in which familiar problems and issues can be faced.
Other questions prove more difficult. Did Hermione have to remain hidden for the oracle to be fulfilled? Was she testing Leontes? Or is Shakespeare simply creating effectivebut less than fully credibletheatre? Some of these questions are left unresolved; often the best we can do is to open ourselves to possibilities. But usually, as we discuss the problems and look carefully at the text, we find that seemingly unrealistic elements can serve realistic ends: within them may be hidden some of Shakespeare's surest insights.
It soon becomes apparent that The Winter's Tale deliberately raises the issue of credibility. The characters themselves question the reasonableness of what they experience. The play's frequent references to "old tales" and wildly fantastic ballads remind us of the habit we human beings have of telling beautifulor merely entertaininglies. But is the play saying no more than thisthat we should not expect fiction to resemble real life? Many students make precisely this assumption or pick up a similar idea from introductions or critical commentary. Some agree with Philip Edwards, who emphasizes the play's "insubstantiality" and unlikelihood, the "fragility of [its] fiction" ("'Seeing'" 91-92, 89), or with Hallett Smith, who argues, in his introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare, that "most of the critical problems disappear if we remember the play's title and its meaning. . . . Winter's tales were not supposed to have credibility, consistency, or conciseness" (1567-68).
Believing that the play has greater depth and significance than such statements indicate, I ask my students to look carefully at the references to old tales and to consider other ways of understanding them. The following possibilities generally emerge:
First, we examine the phrases used to describe the discovery of Perdita's identity ("Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it" and "Like an old tale still" [5.2.23-25, 61]) and Paulina's speech near the end of the final scene ("That she is living, / Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale" [5.3.115-17]). Then we ask whether, far from emphasizing the play's unreality, these references to "old tales" paradoxically make the play seem more realistic by allowing the incredulity of the play's characters to deflect our own. In other words, the characters' response to the play's improbabilities serves as a kind of lightning rod for our difficulties believing the story.
Second, many of us see these references as going further, beyond this pragmatic function, to challenge directly our sense of what is realistic and rational. By having things happen thatexcept for the fact that they are happeningseem unrealistic even to the characters experiencing them, the play emphasizes the limits of human rationality, the limits set by human preconceptions and expectations, and raises the issue of faith in its many senses, including the ability to believe the apparently unbelievable.
Florizel does not see how Camillo can resolve the problems he and Perdita faceyet the problems are resolved. Paulina considers Perdita's hypothetical return to be "monstrous to our human reason" (as monstrous as a resurrection)but within one hundred lines Perdita appears (5.1.40-44, 123). Later in the scene a messenger announces that Polixenes has arrived, but he starts by saying: "That which I shall report will bear no credit, / Were not the proof so nigh" (5.1.179- 80). Similarly, Hermione's return would be incredible except that the characters see it happen. Credibility is not, in other words, an adequate test of truth.
One implication of this view is that literary realism is largely a matter of convention. Audiences and critics privilege certain things as realisticconsistent characters, gradual development, coherent plots, familiar settingswhen in fact the lives we actually live, often include inconsistencies, incoherencies, and surprises that would baffle or offend us in fiction. Fictionat least "realistic" fictionis often much safer than life: we are asked to accept only what is familiar and apparently rational; what we understand. Except in certain limited and conventional ways, it seems, we don't really want to be surprisedwe don't want to have to stretch our view of the world beyond its comfortable boundaries. Or, at least, when we do, we don't want to have to take the stretching very seriously.
Looking at The Winter's Tale in this way requires us to reevaluate the coincidences and supernatural elements. We all know that coincidences are part of real life, however much we may be put off by them in fiction, and many of us believe in, or have even experienced, the supernatural. Why, then, do we reject these as unrealistic in fiction? Coincidences, in the "unrealistic" sense, are conjunctions that are meaningful but that seem to have come about by chance; we can't explain them rationally. Likewise, the supernatural is what is beyond human power and understanding. To find the supernatural acceptable in literature, we have to enlarge our definition of what counts as real and set aside, if we can, preconceptions and biases most of us have grown up with, influenced as we are by skeptical post-Enlightenment thought.
Within the world of The Winter's Tale, both the coincidences and the supernatural are expressions of an overarching powerthe gods, the powers abovethat acts through time, through nature, to accomplish ends that humans don't entirely understand. The meeting of Florizel and Perdita is explicitly attributed to providence ("This' your son-in-law, / . . . whom heavens directing / Is troth-plight to your daughter" [5.3.149- 51]). Even the famous bear may be acting as part of a larger plan. As in Hamlet, there is more in earth and heaven than is dreamt of in our philosophy, and there is a divinity that shapes human ends, whatever rough-hewing humans do. Yet, though the supernatural in The Winter's Tale transcends human understanding, it is emphatically immanent in human experience. In fact, in contrast to The Tempest, where the supernatural element, represented visibly by magic-performing fairies, is difficult for us to view as realistic, The Winter's Tale presents the supernatural in strictly human, and therefore more believably realistic, terms.
But what studentsas well as criticsresist in The Winter's Tale is not just the unusual and suprarational events. They resist, curiously enough, the happiness with which the play ends. It appears that most of us resonate to a statement by Woody Allen that I quote to my students: "In real life, people disappoint you. . . . They're cruel, and life is cruel. I think there is no win in life. Reality is a very painful, tough thing that you have to learn to cope with in some way. What we do is escape into fantasy, and it does give us moments of relief" (qtd. in Farber 80).
Does The Winter's Tale, despite everything we can say in its defense, finally offer an easy out, the deceptive notion that things always end happily? I argue that precisely the opposite is true. The Winter's Tale challenges not only the notion of the happy ending, but the notion of literary closure of any kind. Despite its sometimes festive and even awe- inspiring spirit, the play does face the hard facts of life: evil, death, the potential for human misery. There are real and permanent losses: Leontes's son, Mamillius, dies, Antigonus dies, so do others; and sixteen years have been lost. This is not a play with an easy fairy-tale ending. Furthermore, the play reminds us that in a sense there are no endingsno closing scenes to any of our storiesexcept perhaps death. And in raising the issue of death, the play challenges even its right to say the last word.
The Winter's Tale is about the process of human lifebirth, growth, aging, death. We are reminded in the play's final scene that, despite a strong sense of closure, this is not the end of the story. Hermione is wrinkled (as Shakespeare is careful to have us see); she and Leontes are aging; a new generation is ready to begin its own story of marriage and offspring, but meanwhile the older characters are moving toward death (5.3.28, 132). The last scene thus refuses to enter a state of static happiness, beyond time. With its emphasis on explanations yet to be given, life yet to be lived, the scene may be taken, not as a happy ending in any ultimate sense, but as a victory of happiness and love that will have to be continually renewed if the wonder and joy are to persist or reappear.
Perhaps most significantly, the play uncovers and responds to our deep suspicion of happy endings by showing this suspicion to be directly parallel to Leontes's jealousy. Both are expressions of what might be called "fear fulfillment." At root, Leontes's jealousy is an expression of insecurity. This insecurity manifests itself in his difficulty believing that Hermione actually loves him, perhaps that he is worthy of being loved; and (given his irrational assumption that she doesn't love him and therefore is not true to her vows) in his not believing her to be as good and gracious as she seems. Blinded by these failures of belief, Leontes resists and finally destroys his own happiness.
I ask my students to consider whether the play's treatment of Leontes's jealousy shows us something about ourselves. I even tell my students of some of my own experiences. I quote to them from an account of my courtship and marriage and of the difficulty I had believing in my own possible happiness:
If Leontes suffers from a similar resistance to happiness, what happens to change him? An answer, though by no means a simple one, is suggested by Paulina's statement in the closing scene: "It is requir'd / You do awake your faith" (5.3.94-95). What does she mean? Class discussion suggests various possibilities, including the view that Shakespeare is commenting on the necessity of "dramatic faith," or as Coleridge put it, the "willing suspension of disbelief . . . which constitutes poetic faith" (6). Most critics seem to share this view: we find happy endings only in the world of the imagination. Life is not really like this, and the only real miracle the play affirms is the dramatist's power to convince us of what we know is not real.
But if The Winter's Tale is more than a play about plays, if it has something to do with human life generally and the possibility and conditions of happiness, then other interpretations present themselves as well. Before Leontes's happiness can be restored to him, he must awaken his faith not only in the sense of his belief in the apparently unbelievable (the miracle of an apparent resurrection) but also in the sense of faithfulness: fidelity, trust, a willingness to believe in his wife's goodness and lovethe very kind of faith whose absence destroyed his happiness and for a time destroyed his family. Closely related to this belief in his wife's love is another aspect of faith that must awaken in Leontes: a belief that he can be loved; a belief, in other words, in his own possible happiness.
But the play is more than just a feast of joy, and we have to consider what an awakening of faith could mean in a world where Mamillius (among others) dieswhere all will eventually die. Many students find, as I do, that the seriousness of the playits recognition that there are real, permanent losses; the autumnal feel of the ending; the acknowledgment of aging and deathmakes its happy, even awe- inspiring ending all the more satisfying and the concept of faith emphasized as the play ends all the more powerful.
Shakespeare's treatment of death is complex, and the ways teachers approach the issue will depend on their own views and on the settings in which they teach. I take advantage of my school's religious affiliation to give the play a religious readingthough not, I would emphasize, an allegorical one. The allusions to the parable of the prodigal son and its repeated phrases, "He who was lost is found, he who was dead is alive again," invite a religious reading. Yet such a reading is made problematic by other details: the pagan setting and the fact that the apparent resurrection is only apparent. Without denying resurrection a symbolic and theatrical function, I want my students to see how the play connects the the idea of such an event to the questions of realism and belief: resurrection is another of the possibilities the play identifies as "irrational," especially from a pagan viewpoint (see 5.1.40-44). As with other events that strain belief, the impossibility of even so miraculous an event as this is called into question. Of course, Hermione does not literally return to life because she has not actually died. Yet her return to the fulness of her physical and social beingto life in a family and communityreveals the value of the very things a genuine resurrection would restore. Thus, though the play presents only a temporary "resurrection," it shows the vanquishing of death to be something worth hoping for and believing in, certainly not something to be dismissed as impossible. If Leontes's resistance to happiness is relevant to the question of death, it may, in fact, be worth asking whether the belief that death is final is yet another expression of fear fulfillment.
My emphasis in teaching The Winter's Tale is on problems most human beingscertainly most of my studentsencounter in the mundane rounds of their daily lives. I am thinking especially of the problems involved in forming and maintaining personal relationships: whether and how it is possible to live happily with other people, the dangers of insecurity and of the desire to dominate, the terrors and blessings of trying to share one's life with others. Any play that raises such concerns as challengingly as The Winter's Tale does, I am willing to consider eminently realistic.
But do my students find the play relevant to their "real lives"? Certainly many do, if what they tell me in class and in their writing is valid evidence. My students' class journals are especially revealing, because I tell them they can write anything there they want to as long as it relates to the class and to Shakespeare. Many use their journals to make connectionsfrom play to play, from class to class, and from their reading of the plays to other things happening in their lives. One student in her "Last Journal Entry!" wrote:
I am moved and enlightened by this student's response. I would put things just a little differently: The Winter's Tale challenges our notion of what is possible, what is real, and it does so in part to help us see that the narrowing of our vision of what is possible is as responsible as anything for the misery, the destructive conflicts, that enter our lives.
By the end of the semester, my students are usually willing to grant that, in significant respects, The Winter's Tale is both realistic and unrealistic. It is only a fictionan imagined, artistically shaped storyand even among fictions, it challenges belief in unusual ways and to an unusual degree. But it also raises issues we cannot avoid seeing as relevant to our lives, and it does so with characters who engage our sympathies and reveal to us truths about ourselves. In sometimes odd and disconcerting ways, the play prevents us from putting its characters and events into neat packages, comfortably subject to rational understanding. Further, the play challenges us to exercise faith, to break beyond the narrow bounds of our fears and preconceptions and dare to believe in our own and others' possibilities. The Winter's Tale can thus help us see our lives anew; it can help us keep our lives open to new realities, beyond the usual and the plausible, especially as we move forward on the edge of possibility, as we always do.
Edwards, Philip. "`Seeing is Believing': Action and Narration in The Old Wives Tale and The Winter's Tale." Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Ed. E. A. J. Honigmann. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1986. 79-93.
Farber, Stephen. "No Laughing Matter: Woody Allen." Vis a Vis: The Magazine of Allegis Corporation April 1987: 80.
Shakespeare, William. The Winter's Tale. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 1569-1605.
Smith, Hallett. Introduction to The Winter's Tale. The Riverside Shakespeare. 1564-68.
Young, Bruce W. "The Miracle of Faith, the Miracle of Love: Some Personal Reflections." A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars. Ed. Philip L. Barlow. Centerville, UT: Canon Press, 1986. 259-76.