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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 Stationer'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 characterised 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 favours! What language accompanies them! Well may Florizel exclaim:
The reader reechoes 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 favourable 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 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 soul-goading passion which wrings a noble nature to acts 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 times took up the business of an age. suppose I need not name Pericles, nor the historical plays of Shakspeare; besides many of the rest, as The Winter's Tale, Love's Labour's Lost, Measure for Measure,