The Winter's Tale

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The Seasons Symbol Analysis

The Seasons Symbol Icon
The play’s title hints at the importance of the seasons, and while they are not always an obvious motif throughout the play, the seasons (in particular winter and summer) form a significant background to the action of the play. The first three acts of the play take place in winter, as is hinted when Mamillius prepares to tell Hermione a story and tells her, “a sad tale’s best for winter.” Acts 4 and 5, in contrast, take place in the spring and summer (the exact time is ambiguous), as is made clear by the occasion of the sheep-shearing festival in Bohemia. As Mamillius’ comment suggests, each season has particular associations appropriate to it. Cold winter is often associated with old age, death, and grimness. As such, it is appropriate for the first, tragic half of The Winter’s Tale, in which the older generation of characters is at the center of the action, and which climaxes with the deaths of Mamillius and Hermione (and also includes Antigonus’ death). Spring symbolizes renewal, rebirth, and new beginnings, and is associated with youth. Thus, in the second half of the play, the younger characters (Perdita and Florizell, especially) take center stage, and the tragic seriousness of the first three acts gives way to the light-heartedness of the sheep-shearing festival. Moreover, this part of the play reaches a climax with the “rebirth” of Perdita, as she becomes a princess once again, and with the apparent resurrection of Hermione. Both seasonal moments thus signify particular things, and emphasize aspects of the play that occur during each seasonal period. But since the play contains both time periods, it is ultimately a combination of the contradictory associations of both these times of year, just as it is a combination of the qualities of several genres (including tragedy and comedy).

The Seasons Quotes in The Winter's Tale

The The Winter's Tale quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Seasons. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of The Winter's Tale published in 2005.
Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

Come, sir, now
I am for you again: pray you, sit by us,
And tell ‘s a tale.

Merry or sad shall’t be?

As merry as you will.

A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.

Related Characters: Hermione (speaker), Mamillius (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Seasons
Page Number: 2.1.28-34
Explanation and Analysis:

This playful interaction between mother and son also shows the play's self-awareness and the tie of emotion and genre to the seasons. The pregnant Hermione asks her son Mamillius to tell her a tale (note Tale in the play's title), and the boy asks if it should be a happy or sad story. Hermione requests "merry," but Mamillius says that "A sad tale's best for winter," and plans to tell her instead of sprites and goblins.

Within these lines we see the genesis of or a reference to the play's title, the Winter's Tale. We also get a glimpse into the seasonal force of genre which dictates the play's action. This play is commonly categorized as a "problem play," since it is so difficult to place into the group of Shakespeare's Tragedies, Romances, Histories, or Comedies. Much of the plot so far is dark and tragic, hinging on jealousy and death threats. The tragic first three acts of the play fittingly (according to Mamillius) take place during winter—they tell a sad tale. But the final acts, which take place in the spring and summer, begin with absurdity and contain more comic elements, including a happy conclusion that ends with marriage (though a tinge of tragedy lingers, too).


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Act 4, Scene 4 Quotes

Thou dearest Perdita,
With these forced thoughts, I prithee, darken not
The mirth o' the feast.

Related Characters: Florizell (speaker), Perdita
Related Symbols: The Seasons
Page Number: 4.4.47-49
Explanation and Analysis:

Sixteen years have passed since act 3, making Perdita sixteen years old (ironically, the age at which the Shepherd, in the previous quote, wished "there were no age"). At a a seasonal sheep-shearing festival, Florizell, the son of Polixenes, compliments Perdita on her beauty. The two are in love, but neither knows Perdita's true identity. Because she believes she is not a noblewoman (much less a princess), Perdita is nervous about Polixenes discovering their love. Florizell, however, does not care about social status. He urges his dearest Perdita to let go of her anxious thoughts, begging her not to darken "The mirth o' the feast." Here, the prince combines a call for levity and merriment with the assertion that he is comfortable with a social inversion, or with marrying someone low born. 

The fairest flowers o’ th’ season
Are our carnations and streaked gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards. Of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren, and I care not
To get slips of them.

Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?

For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.

Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean. So, over that art
Which you say adds to nature is an art
That nature makes.
. . . This is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

Related Characters: Polixenes (speaker), Perdita (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Seasons
Page Number: 4.4.95-114
Explanation and Analysis:

Polixenes and Camillo have entered the feast in disguise, and now Perdita entertains and gives out flowers as the "mistress o' the feast." Perdita and Polixenes here discuss hybrid flowers known as "nature's bastards," an exchange that is humorous (and dark) since Perdita herself was banished since she was thought to be a bastard. Polixenes says that these flowers should not be neglected, and after a discussion of nature and art (he ultimately says that "art itself is nature"), he tells her not to call these flowers bastards.

Polixenes acceptance of the flowers and instruction not to call them bastards is ironic, since he will soon unknowingly reject Perdita, the supposed bastard (supposedly fathered by him) because he believes her to be a low-born daughter of a Shepherd.

Act 5, Scene 3 Quotes

My lord, your sorrow was too sore laid on,
Which sixteen winters cannot blow away,
So many summers dry; scarce any joy
Did ever so long live; no sorrow
But kill'd itself much sooner.

Related Characters: Camillo (speaker), Leontes
Related Symbols: The Seasons
Page Number: 5.3.57-62
Explanation and Analysis:

The statue is so lifelike (or maybe is just Hermione herself) that Leontes becomes overwhelmed with regret and sorrow and begins weeping. Camillo, along with Polixenes, tries to calm him down and assure him that he has grieved enough and showed enough sorrow for his loss. Connecting back to the seasons, Camillo says that Leontes' sorrow was more than adequate, and that sixteen winters could not disrupt it, nor could the summers dry it. He asserts that no joy or sorrow has ever lasted as long as this grief.

The juxtaposition in these lines of summer and winter, grief and joy, reminds us of some of the lingering tragic elements in the comedic second half of the play, and ground the Winter's Tale firmly as a "problem play." Though the second act is comedic and set during a summer, we know that winters have passed and will also follow. There is much joy in the ending of the play, but Mamillius and Antigonus both remain dead.

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The Seasons Symbol Timeline in The Winter's Tale

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Seasons appears in The Winter's Tale. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 2, Scene 1
Youth, Age, and Time Theme Icon
Seriousness, Levity, and Humor Theme Icon
...Mamillius to tell her a “merry” tale, but Mamillius says, “a sad tale’s best for winter,” and plans to tell her a frightening story with “sprites and goblins.” He starts to... (full context)
Act 4, Scene 3
Seriousness, Levity, and Humor Theme Icon
A con-man named Autolycus is walking along a road in Bohemia, singing a song about spring and how he enjoys “tumbling in the hay,” with women. He sees the shepherd’s son... (full context)