Is “a sad tale best for winter”?

Charis – GSAL Alumna (2019 Leaver)

Editor’s Note: Former student Charis (2019 Leaver) was an editorial member of Salutaris, the Sixth Form academic journal, during her time at GSAL. This thought-provoking essay was originally published in Salutaris 2019, a project led by Mrs Gray, E-Learning Designer. CPD

An interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy and its name

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale[1] was one of his last comedies, ridiculing the hamartia of Leontes and featuring the most famous stage direction of all time: “Exit, pursued by bear.” It may, however, surprise some to learn that the story behind this comedy is in fact a tragedy – Pandosto[2], by Robert Greene. The 16th century prose was written 35 years prior to The Winter’s Tale and features sections of almost identical dialogue to Shakespeare’s play. Kenneth Muir notes in his Shakespeare’s sources, Comedies and Tragedies[3] that the most noticeable comparison between the two texts occurs in Act 3, Scene 2 where Hermione and/or Bellaria gives her testimony on trial. The dramatic monologue is almost identical to Greene’s original prose with short interjections by Leontes added in Shakespeare’s script.

The most noticable difference between the two is Shakespeare’s comedic twist to the final act. Instead of sticking to Greene’s tragic ending, Shakespeare suddenly transforms the outcome: Hermione is not actually dead and, by some magic, has been kept alive as a statue; Leontes is forgiven as he finally realises his mistakes; and Bohemia and Sicilia come together to celebrate the union of Florizel and Perdita. When comparing the two texts, one might question the reasons Shakespeare had for altering the final act after staying so true to Greene’s work. One interpretation is reflected in his choice of the play’s name.

Shakespeare typically uses character names in his plays’ titles (Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet etc.) and even Greene named his work, the play’s source, after the central character. So why did Shakespeare make an exception here? In Act 2, Scene 1, Mamillius, the heir to the Sicilian throne, says, when asked for a story, “A sad tale’s best for winter.” Perhaps Shakespeare uses this as an ironic device as Pandosto is a tragedy and consequently a sad tale, whereas this play becomes a comedy.This argument sounds conclusive, however Shakespeare leaves small clues for his audience to pick up surrounding Mamillius’ passing comment. After saying he won’t tell a sad tale, the prince begins to tell a tale of a man ‘dwelt by a churchyard.’ It is possible that Mamillius is about to tell Leontes’ story and this is emphasised by his saying: ‘I will tell it softly: yond crickets shall not hear it.’ This phrase has been interpreted as a secret held between Hermione and her son that foreshadows some key elements in the play and Shakespeare decides to withhold the information from an audience, the ‘crickets.’ However, this is no more than a small clue, open for audience interpretation. Yet, one could argue that Shakespeare is deliberately highlighting the differences between his play and Greene’s novel. Though we hear little of it, is Mamillius merely entertaining his mother or is he telling the tale of Pandosto?

One interpretation[4] of the name ‘The Winter’s Tale’ lies in the contemporary’s meaning of a winter’s tale being a story told to pass the time on long winter’s nights, though one mostly not credible or plausible. If this was Shakespeare’s reasoning, perhaps it would explain how Perdita is able to survive after being a baby abandoned in the Bohemian wilderness, as her storyline is almost a fairy tale. The Winter’s Tale is a great play, but this also calls into question Shakespeare’s reasons for suggesting through his title that it is merely a tale to pass the time.

Although there were a couple of other changes to his version of Greene’s tragedy, the most significant is the surprising ending to the play that felt like a tragedy throughout. One interpretation is that perhaps Shakespeare chose this as his title to suggest that, like Mamillius had said, this is a sad tale; however this ultimately becomes irony as the play changes to a comedy after Act 4. Perhaps he uses this name to create intrigue surrounding the play: it will be something light hearted and will pass the time for those who are bored and consequently could attract a crowd at the theatre; it appears to be a tragedy and by consequence the surprise of the ending is even more amusing due to the expectancy created by the title and the events of the first half of this broken-back play. But how have critics received this play? Arthur Symons[5] notes ‘it has the like and charm of a fairy tale’, which suggests that perhaps Shakespeare did want his play to be easy-going and something to pass the time like the phrase ‘a winter’s tale’ suggests.  Early criticism of the play also suggest a simplicity of plot as Ben Jonson and eighteenth century neo-classicists alike ‘dismissed The Winter’s Tale as rife with “mouldy tales” and plot absurdities’[6] which perhaps reference the impossibility of Perdita’s survival.  Jonson was however, a literary competitor of Shakespeare’s, and so perhaps his dismissal of the play could reflect his ongoing disputes and not his true opinion of the play. Another motive for his adaptations in the play can be interpreted from Peter Malin’s critical analysis of his structure as ‘partly based on the Christian patterning of sin, penance and redemption.’ With this is mind, perhaps Shakespeare uses Pandosto as merely a skeleton for his play – albeit rather fleshed out – and the true storyline is of a long wait for forgiveness that Leontes faces. Maybe to suit this notion, the storyline would have to have adapted, as although a tragic ending would force Leontes’ penitence, it could not show God’s forgiveness and this message could not be presented – religion was after all of significant importance in the Jacobean era.

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is not a masterpiece of his own creation. In fact, only The Tempest is known to be purely his own work. However, some could argue his adaptation of Greene’s Pandosto is a triumph in itself. His transformation of a tragedy to a play about redemption and honour can be said to highlight Shakespeare’s creativity and his wit. Yet some, like Ben Jonson, may regard this tragicomedy as a simple folk tale and an exploitation of another’s work. Ultimately, Shakespeare left his play open to an audience’s imagination and with a sentiment of joy and hope for forgiveness. And, even if it was purely a lighthearted tale for comedic relief, we have Robert Greene to thank for inspiring Shakespeare, and Shakespeare to thank for bringing Greene’s story to life, despite his meddling in the plot.



[1] William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale (London, Routledge, 1623)
[2] Robert Greene, Pandosto (Modern Transcript – Nina Green, 1998) 
[3] Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare’s sources, Comedies and Tragedies (Suffolk, Richard Clay & Co. 1957)
[4] Shmoop Editorial Team, “The Winter’s Tale What’s Up With the Title?,” Shmoop University, Inc., Last modified November 11, 2008 
[5] Quizlet, “The Winter’s Tale: Criticism” Quizlet Inc., Last modified May 2018
[6] Critical Reception. Internet Shakespeare Editions[online]. University of Victoria, 2019. [Accessed 23 Jan. 2019].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s