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The story of this play is taken from The Pleasant History of Dorastus and Fawnia, by Robert Greene, which was first printed in 1588. The parts of Antigonus, Paulina, and Autolycus, are of the Poet's own creation; and many circumstances of the novel are omitted in the play.
“A booke entitled A Winter's Night's Pastime,” entered at Sta tioner's Hall, in 1594, but which has not come down to us, may have suggested the title, by which Shakspeare thought the romantic and extraordinary incidents of the play well characterized. He several times, in the course of the last act, makes one of his characters remark its similarity to an old tale. Schlegel has observed, that “The Winter's Tale is as appropriately named as the Midsummer Night's Dream. It is one of those tales, which are peculiarly calculated to beguile the dreary leisure of a long winter evening, which are even attractive and intelligible to childhood, and which, animated by fervent truth in the delineation of character and passion, invested with the decoration of a poetry lowering itself, as it were, to the simplicity of the subject, transport even manhood back to the golden age of imagination. The calculation of probabilities has nothing to do with such wonderful and fleeting adventures, ending at last in general joy; and, accordingly, Shakspeare has here taken the greatest liberties with anachronisms and geographical errors: he opens a free navigation between Sicily and Bohemia, makes Julio Romano the contemporary of the Delphic oracle, not to mention other incongruities.”
It is extraordinary that Pope should have thought only some single scenes of this play were from the hand of Shakspeare. It breathes his spirit throughout;-in the serious parts as well as in those of a lighter kind: and who but Shakspeare could have conceived that exquisite pastoral scene in which the loves of Florizel and Perdita are developed ?
It is indeed a pastoral of the golden age, and Perdita “no shepherdess, but Flora,
Peering in April's front," and breathing flowers, in the spring-tide of youth and beauty. How gracefully she distributes her emblematic favors! What language accompanies them! Well may Florizel exclaim,
when you speak, sweet,
I'd have you do it ever!” The reader reëchoes the sentiment of the lover, and is sorry to come to the close. With what modest, unconscious dignity are all her words and actions accompanied ! even Polixenes, who looks on her with no favorable eye, says that there is
nothing she does or says But smacks of something greater than herself.” The shepherds and shepherdesses, with whom she has been brought up, are such as ordinary life affords, and are judicious foils to this delightful couple of lovers.
The arch roguery and mirthful stratagems of Autolycus are very amusing, and his character is admirably sustained. “The jealousy of Leontes (says the judicious Schlegel) is not, like that of Othello, developed with all the causes, symptoms, and gradations; it is brought forward at once, and is portrayed as a distempered frenzy. It is a passion which does not produce the catastrophe, but merely ties the knot of the piece.” But it has the same intemperate course, is the same soulgoading passion which wrings a noble nature to acis of revengeful cruelty; at which, under happier stars, it would have shuddered, and which are no sooner committed than repented of.
The patient and affecting resignation of the wronged Hermione, under circumstances of the deepest anguish, and the zealous and courageous remonstrances of the faithful Paulina, have the stamp of Shakspeare upon them. Indeed I know not what parts of this drama could be attributed to any even of the most skilful of his contemporaries. It was perhaps the discrepancies of the plot, (which, in fact, almost divides it into two plays with an interval of sixteen years between,) and the anachronisms, which made Dryden* and Pope overlook the beauties of execution in this enchanting play.
* Dryden, in the Essay at the end of the second part of the Conquest of Granada, speaking of the plays of Shakspeare and Fletcher, says :-“Witness the lameness of their plots ; many of which, especially those which they wrote first, (for even that age refined itself in some measure,) were made up of some ridiculous, incoherent story, which in one play many
Malone places the composition of The Winter's Tale in 1611, because it was first licensed for representation by Sir George Bucke, Master of the Revels, who did not assume the functions of his office until August, 1610. The mention of the “ Puritan singing psalms to hornpipes” also points at this period, as does another passage, which is supposed to be a compliment to James on his escape from the Gowrie Conspiracy. These are conjectures, but probable ones. Malone had in former instances placed the date much earlier; first in 1594, and then in 1602. The supposition that Ben Jonson intended a sneer at this play in his Induction to Bartholomew Fair, has been satisfactorily answered by Mr. Gifford.*
Horace Walpole, in his Historic Doubts, attempts to show that The Winter's Tale was intended (in compliment to Queen Elizabeth) as an indirect apology for her mother Anne Boleyn; but the ground for his conjecture is so slight as scarcely to deserve attention. Indeed it may be answered, that the plot of the play is not the invention of Shakspeare, who therefore cannot be charged with this piece of pattery: if it was intended, it must be attributed to Greene, whose novel was published in 1588. I think, with Mr. Boswell, that these supposed allusions by Shakspeare to the history of his own time, are very much to be doubted.
times took up the business of an age. I suppose I need not name Pericles, nor the historical plays of Shak speare ; besides many of the rest, as, The Windt. 14.0, Love's Labor's Lost, Measure for Measure, which were either grounded on impossibilities, or at least so meanly written, that the comedy neither caused your mirth, nor the serious parts your concernment.” Pope, in his Preface to Shakspeare, almost reëchoes this :-" I should conjecture (says he) of some of the others, particularly Love's Labor's Lost, The Winter's Tale, Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus, that only some characters or single scenes, or perhaps I few particular passages, are from the hand of Shakspeare.”
* Works of Ben Jonson, vol. iv. p. 371.