The Winter's Tale
In about 1590 the dramatist George Peele wrote a play called The Old Wives’ Tale in which an old woman is asked to tell ‘a merry winter’s tale’ in order to ‘drive away the time trimly’. ‘Once upon a time,’ she begins, as all traditional storytellers do, ‘there was a king or a lord or a duke that had a fair daughter, the fairest that ever was, as white as snow and as red as blood: and once upon a time his daughter was stolen away.’ An old wives’ or a winter’s tale is like a fairy story: it is not supposed
to be realistic and it is bound to have a happy ending. Along the way, there will be magic, dreams, coincidences, children lost and found. This is the style of play to which Shakespeare turned some twenty years after Peele, in the final phase of his career.
Polixenes, King of Bohemia, has been on a nine-month visit to the court of his childhood friend Leontes, King of Sicilia, and his wife, Queen Hermione. Groundlessly, Leontes becomes convinced that his heavily pregnant wife has been having an affair with Polixenes. He orders Camillo to poison Polixenes. Convinced of the queen’s
innocence, Camillo warns Polixenes and they depart for Bohemia together. Antigonus is ordered to leave Hermione's newly born daughter. The baby girl is found by a sheperd and his clownish son. She is brought up and named Perdita.Sixteen years later, she is being courted by Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel. When the king denounces his son for courting a low-born shepherdess, Florizel and Perdita flee to Sicilia, with the assistance of Camillo.The shepherd and clown follow, bringing tokens that reveal Perdita’s true identity.
ARCHIDAMUS: If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia, on the
like occasion whereon my services are now on foot, you shall see,
as I have said, great difference betwixt our Bohemia and your
CAMILLO: I think this coming summer the King of Sicilia means to
pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.
ARCHIDAMUS: Wherein our entertainment shall shame us we will be
justified in our loves, for indeed—
CAMILLO: Beseech you—
ARCHIDAMUS: Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge: we
cannot with such magnificence — in so rare — I know not what to
say. We will give you sleepy drinks, that your senses,
unintelligent of our insufficience, may, though they cannot
praise us, as little accuse us.
CAMILLO: You pay a great deal too dear for what's given freely.
Introduction to The Winter's Tale