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The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale

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Believed to have been first performed in 1611, William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) The Winter's Tale is a complex story of love, jealousy, redemption, and forgiveness. When Leontes, the King of Sicily, suspects his wife of having an affair, he is overcome with jealousy. He takes action that results in the deaths of his wife and son, the estrangement of his best friend, and the loss of his daughter. However, after sixteen years of remorse and atonement, Leontes finds forgiveness, and his family is miraculously reunited.

Combining elements of comedy and tragedy, The Winter's Tale is a five-act play that is one of Shakespeare's late romances, or 'problem plays,' that defies easy classification.

The Winter's Tale: summary

As with all of Shakespeare's dramatic works, The Winter's Tale is a play in five acts.

Overview: The Winter's Tale

Author of The Winter's TaleWilliam Shakespeare
Literary PeriodJacobean
Written in1609-1611
First performance1611
Brief summary of The Winter's Tale
  • A jealous King Leontes abandons his daughter, convinced that he is not her father. Sixteen years later, father and daughter are reunited.
List of main charactersLeontes, Hermione, Polizenes, Perdita, and Florizel.
FormVerse and prose
ThemesForgiveness, jealousy, love, rebirth
SettingSicily and Bohemia
AnalysisThe play explores how suffering for a period of years can lead to forgiveness and compassion. Dramatic devices include soliloquy, and dramatic irony.

Act one

The Winter's Tale begins in Sicily, where Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, has spent several months visiting his friend, King Leontes. Leontes believes that his pregnant wife, Hermione, has had an affair with Polixenes.

This is not true, but Leontes is convinced that the father of Hermione's unborn child is Polixene. Leontes orders his nobleman, Camillo, to poison Polixenes. Camilo believes that Polixenes is innocent. Camillo warns him and escapes to Bohemia with him.

Act two

Leontes is furious to discover Polixenes' escape and Camillo's betrayal. Lacking any evidence, he publicly accuses Hermione of infidelity and imprisons her. He sends two lords to speak with the Oracle at Delphos, sure that this will confirm his suspicions.

Meanwhile, in prison, Hermione gives birth to a baby girl. She gives the child to Paulina, a trusted friend, who brings her to Leontes, hoping that seeing his new daughter will soften his irrational attack on Hermione. Leontes, however, is only enraged further at the sight of the child. He orders Paulina's husband, Antigonus, to take the baby away and abandon it somewhere far away.

Act three

Leontes has sent two of his noblemen to talk to the Oracle of Delphos. The Oracle confirms that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, and predicts that Leontes' only heir will be his daughter. Leontes doesn't believe in the Oracle's word.

Soon after, both his wife and his only son, Mamillius, die. Leontes swears that he will repent for what he's done. Meanwhile, Antigonus leaves the baby in Bohemia. Hermione appears to Antigonus in a dream and tells him that the child's name is Perdita. Antigonus is killed by a bear. A Shepherd and his son find Perdita and raise her as their own.

Act four

A personified vision of Time appears and announces that sixteen years have passed since the end of the last act.

Sixteen years later, Perdita falls in love with the son of Polixenes, Prince Florizel, who pretends to be a shepherd. The two of them are about to get married. Polixenes finds out about his son marrying a shepherd girl and is determined to stop them, and he suggests that he and Camillo attend the local sheep-shearing feast to disrupt the engagement. In disguise and accompanied by Camillo, Polixenes attends the feast.

Polixenes reveals himself and denounces Florizel. He threatens the old Shepherd and insists that Florizel never see the shepherd girl again.

Act five

Still anxious to return home, Camillo helps the lovers disguise themselves and escape on a ship to Sicilia with the Shepherd and his son. When they arrive, they find Leontes still in mourning. In addition to living with the grief of losing his family, Leontes regrets the loss of his life-long friend, Polixenes.

He is, therefore, delighted to receive Polixenes' son and his bride. Florizel pretends that his father sent him on a diplomatic mission; however, Polixenes and Camillo arrive not long after and ruin this story. With everyone reunited, the Shepherd tells his whole story, and the young shepherd girl is revealed as Perdita.

Leontes is overjoyed to be reunited with his daughter, and Polixenes is happy that his son's lover is a worthy match for him after all. The group moves to Paulina's house in the country, where a statue of Hermione has been built. Leontes continues to grieve the loss of his beautiful wife. However, the statue suddenly comes alive, and Hermione is brought back to life.

The Winter's Tale, Statue of Hermione, StudySmarter
Fig. 1 - Hermione is resurrected when her statue comes to life at the end of the play.

Amazed, everyone celebrates this miracle. Florizel and Perdita's engagement is approved, Hermione and Leontes are reunited, and Camillo and Paulina are also engaged.

The Winter's Tale: characters

There are many characters in The Winter's Tale. However, the most important ones are the members of the Sicilian and Bohemian royal families.


Leontes is the King of Sicilia. He is married to Hermione and they have two children - Mamillius and Perdita. He's good friends with Polixenes. At the beginning of the play, Leontes has love and fortune but he doesn't appreciate it. He throws it all away because of jealousy. He refuses to listen to anyone's advice.

After sixteen years, Leontes has suffered and has repented for his crimes. When he is reunited with his loved ones, he can appreciate them. After having to live without them, he knows how valuable they are.


Hermione is the Queen of Sicilia. She is Leontes' wife and mother to Mamillius and Perdita. Leontes wrongfully accuses Hermione of infidelity. She and her son die. At the end of the play, Hermione is brought back to life by her friend, Paulina. Hermione forgives Leontes and is happy to be reunited with him and their daughter, Perdita.

Some scholars argue that Hermione is not miraculously reborn. Their theory is that she was hiding and waiting for the right moment to come back. What do you think?


Polixenes is the King of Bohemia. He's the father of Florizel. Polixenes loses his good friend Leontes after Leontes blames him for having an affair with his wife. In sixteen years time, Polixenes forgives Leontes and their friendship is restored. Polixenes doesn't always have the best judgement. He threatens his son, Florizel, and won't let him marry Perdita because he thinks she's a lowly shepherdess.


Perdita is the daughter of Leontes and Hermione. She is abandoned by Leontes and raised in Bohemia by the Shepherd. Even when she doesn't know her real heritage, Perdita's royal blood shows in the way that she behaves. Perdita is smart and has common sense. She marries the Prince of Bohemia, Florizel. She is often the voice of reason in their relationship.


Florizel is the son of Polixenes. He's the Prince of Bohemia. Florizel pretends to be a shepherd named Doricles to woo Perdita. He marries her. This infuriates his father who disowns him. Florizel is a passionate young man who is madly in love with Perdita and is ready to leave his royal responsibilities to be with her.


Camillo is a nobleman. At first, he works for Leontes in the Sicillian court. Then, he follows Polixenes to Bohemia. Camillo is a wise man and an excellent advisor to both kings. At the end of the play, Camillo marries Paulina.


Paulina is Hermione's lady-in-waiting. She's married to Antigonus. After he dies, she's a widow until she marries Camillo. Paulina is a loyal friend to Hermione.


Antigonus is a nobleman in the Sicillian court. He's married to Paulina. Antigonus follows Leontes' orders to leave his daughter, Perdita, in a desolate place. Antigonus feels sorry for the newborn and he leaves her in a convenient place where someone might find her. He is eaten by a bear.

Shepherd and Clown

The Shepherd is a kind old man. He raises Perdita as his own child, together with his biological son.

The Clown is the Shepherd's son and Perdita's adoptive brother. He's not particularly smart and he provides much of the comic relief in the play.

The Winter's Tale, the sheperd who raises Perdita, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Shepherd's kindness to a baby starts events that lead to Perdita and Leontes' happy reunion.

The Winter's Tale: setting

The Winter's Tale is set in Sicily and Bohemia.

The first three acts occur in Leontes' Sicilian court during a cold winter. Halfway through Act III, Antigonus takes Perdita away, and the setting shifts to Bohemia.

The fourth act begins sixteen years later, in the Bohemian countryside in the middle of summer. The play ends back in Sicily as Florizel, Perdita, and the others leave Bohemia, and Leontes' family is reunited.

How does the change in season and setting mirror the shift in mood from the first half of the play to the second half?

The Winter's Tale: genre

The Winter's Tale is considered to be one of Shakespeare's problem plays.

'In Shakespearean studies, certain of the ‘dark comedies’ are known as problem plays, notably Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida. These plays are difficult to classify because their sombre themes and cynical tones contrast oddly with their comedic elements, and the moral issues raised are not satisfactorily resolved. The term was originally applied to these plays by Frederick S. Boas (1862–1957, scholar of early modern drama).'¹

Oxford Reference

Shakespeare's 'problem plays' don't fit into the category of either comedy or tragedy. The Winter's Tale is a problem play because it contains both comic and tragic elements, and there is an unresolved issue.

The Winter's Tale has a happy ending, which is typical for a comedy. However, the first part of the play is quite tragic and, although Hermione comes back to life in the end, her son Mamillius doesn't. The years of family separation remain unaddressed, at least as far as Leontes is concerned.

How does he grieve? Does he forgive Hermione after she died? Does he feel guilt and remorse for not believing her or the Oracle? How does the Sicilian public feel towards him after Hermione's death? Does he send for his daughter or try to find out where she is? Because all of these questions are not answered, the 'happy-ending' doesn't seem quite satisfactory, and leads to its categorisation as a 'problem play'.

Several unresolved issues at the end of The Winter's Tale prevent the ending from being completely satisfactorily happy. The best example is the death of the young prince Mamillius; although his mother comes back to life, he does not, and the family remains incomplete.

The Winter's Tale: themes and quotes

The Winter's Tale is a complex tragicomic play that explores many serious themes. At the centre of the story is Leontes, who suffers for many years from the consequences of his jealousy and the resulting actions that destroy his family. Ultimately, love triumphs in the play; Leontes is forgiven, and his family is reunited.


Polixenes talks to Hermione about his friendship with Leontes. He describes what Leontes and he were like when they were young and innocent.

'What we changed

Was innocence for innocence. We knew not

The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed

That any did.'

- Polixenes, Act 1, Scene 2

The Winter's Tale explores different kinds of love - between friends, between lovers, and between family members. The love between Leontes and Polixenes is based on their friendship as they have been friends since childhood.

Leontes' jealousy comes between them and for sixteen years they don't see each other. Polixenes forgives Leontes and the two friends are reunited. Another example of friendship is the bond between Hermione and Paulina. Paulina remains so loyal to Hermione that she brings her back to life.

Romantic love is more complicated. Leontes has such strong feelings towards Hermione that they lead him to destructive jealousy. After he causes her death, he mourns her for sixteen years. The love between Perdita and Florizel threatens the prince's relationship with his father. On the other hand, the feelings of the young lovers are pure and they can't stand to be apart. When they run away to Sicilia, Perdita is reunited with her father.

At the end of the play, all the different forms of love are restored. The message is that all forms of love are equally important.


Leontes looks at Hermione's statue and is overcome with shame and regret. He thinks that he is even colder than the stone that the statue is made of.

'I am ashamed. Does not the stone rebuke me

For being more stone than it?'

-Leontes, Act 5, Scene 3

At the end of the play, everyone forgives Leontes for the harm he has caused. However, his redemption takes time. Sixteen years need to pass before he can get a second chance. Hermione's death and Perdita's disappearance represent the pain that Leontes needs to go through to learn his lesson and to be worthy of forgiveness.


The Shepherd talks to his son. His son has just seen death - the bear killing Antigonus. The Shepherd tells his son about the newborn baby he has found.

'Thou met'st with things dying,

I with things newborn.'

- Shepherd, Act 3, Scene 3

The title of the play, The Winter's Tale, is symbolic. The first part of the play is a tale of winter because it's marked by death. Hermione, Mamillius and Antigonus die, Perdita is lost, Polixenes and Leontes fall out. By the end of the play, spring comes and most of what was once lost is reborn. Hermione comes back to life, Perdita finds Leontes, Polixenes and Leontes are friends again.

The Winter's Tale contains the most famous stage direction in the history of plays: 'Exit, pursued by a bear.' (Act 3, scene 3). This direction describes Antigonus' last appearance in the play.

The Winter's Tale - Key takeaways

  • The Winter's Tale is a five-act play by William Shakespeare that was first staged in 1611.
  • The Winter's Tale is about the jealous king Leontes who abandons his daughter, convinced that he is not her father. Sixteen years later, father and daughter are reunited.
  • The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's problem plays. The play has both comic and tragic elements. Not all of the issues that it brings up are resolved.
  • The main themes in the play are: love, forgiveness, and rebirth.
  • The main characters in The Winter's Tale are: Leontes, Hermione, Polixenes, Perdita, Florizel, Camillo, and Paulina.


¹ Oxford Reference, 2022, oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100347336

Frequently Asked Questions about The Winter's Tale

The message of The Winter's Tale is that redemption is possible, when there's compassion and forgiveness.

At the end of The Winter's Tale Hermione comes back to life. She's reunited with her husband, Leontes, and her daughter, Perdita. 

The Winter's Tale was written between 1609 and 1611.

The Winter's Tale is around 300 pages long.

Final The Winter's Tale Quiz

The Winter's Tale Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


The Winter's Tale is a...?

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Problem play

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True or False: In the play, romantic love is presented as more important than the love between friends.

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True or False: At the end of the play, everyone forgives Leontes and he is redeemed.

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Why is the play called The Winter's Tale?

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Because winter symbolises the tragedy of the first part of the play. 

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Who is Perdita?

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The daughter of Leontes and Hermione, raised by the Shepherd

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Whose death is described using the stage direction, 'Exit, pursued by a bear.' (Act 3, Scene 3)?

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True or False: Polixenes is the King of Sicilia.

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Who predicts that Leontes' only heir will be his daughter?

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The Oracle of Delphos

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True or False: Florizel pretends to be a shepherd named Doricles.

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Which character is resurrected at the end of the play?

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True or False: Leontes and Polixenes are childhood friends.

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How many years pass before Leontes and Perdita see each other again?

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16 years

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True or False: When Polixenes thinks that Perdita is a shepherdess, he approves of her marriage to his son.

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