A tragicomedy unique among Shakespearean plays; typically bawdy in the second half.
Leontes, King of Sicilia, has been friends with King Polixenes of Bohemia since childhood - but now that friendship goes sour as Leontes begins to suspect an affair between his own queen and Polixenes. The two are innocent, but the more Leontes ruminates on the possibility, the more insane his jealousy becomes. His madness leads to the ruin of his family and the alienation of his friend - can the love of the next generation bring Leontes' tragedy a happy ending?
The first three acts center on the tyranny born from Leontes' jealous passion and include his attempted murder of Polixenes, great injustice toward his own wife, and banishment of an infant to the wilderness. Few of his lords are willing to cross him; while some feel conflicted, most are more willing to shed innocent blood in the king's name than to break their oaths of fealty to him. The Lady Paulina, however, does oppose his cruelty and champions the cause of Queen Hermione.
In the last two acts, a prince goes behind the king's back in order to betroth himself to a shepherd's daughter; when pressed to acquaint his father with the upcoming marriage, he refuses and speaks disrespectfully of the king. When the king (naturally) commands the engagement be broken off, his action is portrayed as tyrannical and all sympathy is rendered to the prince and his betrothed. Filial respect is wholly lacking on the part of both the prince and the shepherdess in this section, and afterwards they also elope and lie about their situation.
The setting is ancient Greece, though like most Shakespearean plays, little energy was devoted to accuracy. Characters seek wisdom from the Oracle of Delphi. In an obscure passage, a character calls upon magic and recites an incantation, presumably to recall someone to life; it is never made clear whether this is a ploy or not.
Leontes attempts to have Polixenes poisoned. At least one, possibly two characters die of shock or illness. Leontes orders an infant killed in a brutal fashion; he later changes this judgment to "merely" having it sent away to be exposed and die in the wilderness. A character relates having seen a ship and its crew destroyed by a storm. Another character "exits, pursued by a bear," and is later said to have been killed by the beast.
Drug and Alcohol Content
One reference to a "sleepy drink," presumably a drug.
The first part of the play centers on a supposed adultery. See "Crude/Profane Language" box.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
A "rogue" in the second half of the play sings bawdy songs, one with a particularly crude reference. "B******" is used to refer to a supposedly illegitimate child. Leontes accuses his wife and friend of adultery in colorful terms. As is usual for Shakespeare, there are numerous crude wordplays, many of which are not plain in today's speech.
"The Winter's Tale" is one of Shakespeare's more difficult plays, as it does not fall into any one genre. Instead it divides fairly equally between tragedy in the first part and comedy in the second, the two being separated by a famous sixteen year gap; this is one of the play's most memorable and unique features, but it can make the tale choppy and inconsistent. The cast, too, is so wide that no one character is ever fully developed.
However, it does have interesting features, including the use of the statue of Hermione late in the tale, and the most famous stage-direction in playwright history: "exits, pursued by a bear." It is also worthy of note simply because of the vastness with which it departs from Shakespeare's stylistic norm. That said, it is difficult to recommend the play as one of the Bard's most enjoyable works - the movement is too swift and the characters, generally speaking, too unlikeable. For readers who desire to study Shakespeare's works in more depth, on the other hand, "The Winter's Tale" ought to be taken into consideration.