As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
The plot is thus: King Leontes of Sicilia unreasonably suspects his wife, Hermione, of having an affair with his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. Believing his newborn daughter Perdita is illegitimate, he sends Hermione to prison and orders his manservant Antigonus to abandon Perdita in the wilderness. Hermione pleads for reason, to no avail.
Leontes's other child, Prince Mamillius, dies because he has been separated from his mother, and soon after, Hermione dies as well. Leontes realizes his error and decides to grieve his family for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Antigonus bemoans his job but leaves the infant Perdita in a wild area of Bohemia, before being devoured by a bear. A shepherd and his son find the baby and resolve to care for her.
Flashforward sixteen years! Time itself comes onstage to tell the audience that Florizel, Polixenes's son, has fallen for Perdita (who knows nothing of her royal heritage). His father is none-too-pleased and decides to spy on them at a sheep-shearing festival. Florizel, after being confronted by his father, flees with Perdita to Sicilia, and everyone (including Lovable Rogue Autolycus) pursues. There, Perdita's heritage is revealed. Father and daughter reunite just as a statue of Hermione is brought onstage. Amazingly, the statue comes to life, and so the happy family is together once more. note Autolycus becomes the servant of Perdita's foster father, and all loose ends are tied up nicely.
It is believed to be one of Shakespeare's last plays; although there is no firm evidence as to when it was first staged, the earliest references to performances of The Winter's Tale date to 1611. The play is famous for a number of things: the vast difference in tone between the first part, which plays out like a tragedy, and the second part, which is more of a pastoral comedy; the Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane scene at the end, where Hermione's statue comes to life; the name Hermione, which became famous in a certain book series; and of course, the iconic stage direction Exit, Pursued by a Bear, proof that even Shakespeare knew Bears Are Bad News.
Tropes in The Winter's Tale:
- Aerith and Bob: Paulina and her husband Antigonus (and the king Leontes, and the other king Polixenes, etc., etc., etc.)
- Arcadia: Bohemia, where it is always spring, unlike wintry Sicilia. Despite it being the other way around in Real Life.
- Artistic License – Geography: Ben Jonson's reaction to the "seacoast of Bohemia," was more or less this (Bohemia is more or less where the Czech Republic is right now). Debate rages about whether Shakespeare was trying to get someone's goat with that or not. The Other Wiki offers various explanations for this geographical error, one being that in the past the lands of Bohemia did border the Adriatic coast. Alternately, it's a way of saying "This story is set nowhere real".
- The Atoner: Leontes for sixteen years after Hermione's death.
- Babies Make Everything Better: Paulina tries to invoke this, taking the newborn baby princess to Leontes in the hope his heart will soften. He refuses to see the baby and orders her killed.
- The Barnum: Autolycus
- Bears Are Bad News: Antigonus is torn apart by a wild bear after abandoning baby Perdita.
- Break the Haughty: Hermione's death does this to Leontes. Turns out it was intentionally invoked by Paulina and Hermione. Maybe.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: Poor Antigonus; after his famous exit the shepherd's son describes the way the bear ripped him to pieces.
- Crystal Dragon Jesus: An oracle at Delphi and the doctrine of Original Sin both in the same act.
- Deus ex Machina:
- The Oracle's uncharacteristically straightforward prophecy is all it takes for Leontes to realize his error.
- Hermione being alive.
- Diabolus ex Machina: The famous bear appears completely at random.
- Exit, Pursued by a Bear: The Trope Namer, but actually not played straight: Antigonus is pursued and torn apart by a bear after abandoning Perdita in the wilderness, but he's very sympathetic.
- Faux Death: Hermione. Maybe.
- Green-Eyed Monster: The explanation for Leontes's behaviour, though even that doesn't excuse the stuff he pulls.
- Kangaroo Court: Hermione's trial starts out with Leontes declaring that he wants a fair and open process, but when all the evidence goes against him, he arbitrarily declares Hermione guilty regardless.
- King Incognito: Polixenes spying on his son.
- Laser-Guided Karma:
- The oracle of Apollo delivers an uncharacteristically clear message, stating explicitly and in detail that Leontes's suspicions are baseless and all the people he's accused are innocent, and warning of dire consequences if he persists. Despite having promised to abide by the oracle's pronouncement, Leontes declares that he doesn't believe it and orders the Kangaroo Court to proceed — and immediately a messenger arrives to announce the beginning of the dire consequence.
- The expedition dispatched to abandon baby Perdita in the wilderness all meet violent death as they depart; the ship is wrecked in a storm as it pulls away from shore, and Antigonus, the leader of the expedition, doesn't even make it back to the ship before being eaten by the famous bear.
- The Old Shepherd decides to adopt the baby abandoned on the seashore— "I'll take it up for pity," he says. Only then does his son find a casket full of gold, rewarding them for their kindness.
- Lovable Rogue: Autolycus, the "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles", who pickpockets and cons his way through life.
- Mad Oracle: Averted; oracles have never been so blunt.
- Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Leontes suspects the paternity of both his son and his daughter.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It could be that the statue of Hermione really does come to life. It could also be that her servant, Paulina, kept her hidden for years and only decided to reveal it once her daughter shows up.
- Meaningful Name:
- Perdita comes from the Latin word for "lost"; the meaning of the name is intentional in-universe as well since she is only named after her father has ordered her banishment.
- In Greek mythology, Autolycus was the son of Hermes, the god of thieves, and a well-known crook.
- Mistaken for Cheating: Hermione
- Mood Whiplash: So much. It starts out as a tragedy, then swings around into a comedy, complete with romance and wacky hijinks.
- Moses in the Bulrushes: Perdita is left to die in the wilderness, but found and raised by a family of shepherds.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Leontes.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: If Paulina hadn't insisted on taking newborn Perdita to see her father in the hope that she would soften his heart, he may not have ordered her husband Antigonus to take Perdita and abandon her someone unpleasant, preventing both Antigonus' death and potentially Hermione's.
- No Name Given: Perdita's foster father and foster brother are not named, even in the script, where the father is denoted as "Shepherd", and the son is denoted as "Clown" (referring to the performer's role in the show, as the Plucky Comic Relief, rather than the character's identity in the story).
- Pair the Spares: At the end, Leontes rewards the widowed Paulina by marrying her off to his servant Camillo.
- Paper-Thin Disguise: Subverted; various disguises adopted are transparent to various degrees
- Plucky Comic Relief: The shepherd's son, Perdita's foster brother, whose role consists almost entirely of comic relief bits (usually involving him getting gulled by the Lovable Rogue Autolycus), and occasionally to give his father somebody to exposit at. He gets one important bit of exposition of his own, describing how Laser-Guided Karma befell the people who abandoned Perdita, but even that becomes a comic relief bit because he makes such a muddle of it.
- Rags to Royalty: Perdita is raised by a family of shepherds, unaware of her true parentage until her foster father decides to reveal it so she can marry Florizel.
- Raised by Dudes: Perdita, although she seems to come out as a reasonably well-adjusted young woman.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Paulina spends half her scenes chewing out Leontes.
- Royal Blood: Perdita.Polixenes: Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.
- Second-Hand Storytelling:
- After the bear chases Antigonus off-stage, we get a conversation between two shepherds with one telling the other in lavish detail how he just saw a man being torn apart by a bear.
- Perdita's reunion with her father as well as the resolving of many of the plots takes place entirely off-screen, and instead we have a conversation between a few gentlemen, one of which notes how amazing it was and how it would have been a shame to miss it.
- Time Skip: Sixteen years pass between the third and fourth acts.
- Title Confusion: Often erroneously called "A Winter's Tale".
- Title Drop: See page quote.
- Undying Loyalty: Paulina to Hermione. In her eyes, no woman in the world was her equal, and no amount of repentance from Leontes would be enough to make up for what he did to her.
- You Have Waited Long Enough: The courtiers try this on Leontes, arguing that he needs an heir.