The Winter's Tale

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Themes and Colors
Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty Theme Icon
Friendship and Love Theme Icon
Youth, Age, and Time Theme Icon
Seriousness, Levity, and Humor Theme Icon
Evidence, Truth, Persuasion, and Belief Theme Icon
Justice and Natural Order Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Winter's Tale, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Seriousness, Levity, and Humor Theme Icon

The Winter’s Tale is notorious as a so-called “problem play,” because among the plays of Shakespeare it is one of the most difficult to categorize in terms of genre. It begins like a tragedy, but then has an extended episode drawn from pastoral romance, and ends like a comedy. This mixed-up quality of the play is about more than simply categorizing Shakespeare’s play. Its genre-bending nature speaks to its unique—and at times bewildering—mixture of seriousness and levity, sadness and humor. The play begins as a tragedy, with Leontes unwittingly bringing about his own suffering due to the fault of his paranoiac jealousy. (His angry jealousy regarding his wife’s supposed infidelity is very similar to that of Othello, from one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies.) But when the play moves to Bohemia, the play approaches the genre of Renaissance pastoral romances, which emphasized the pleasures of the countryside, playful enjoyment, and young love. This portion of the play reaches a peak with the light-hearted sheep-shearing festival of act four. Finally, the play concludes like a comedy, which is to say it has a (more or less) happy ending. Comedies are defined as opposed to tragedies by having this kind of an ending with a resolution to the characters’ problems and a return to normalcy.

Not only does the play progress from genre to genre, but it also mixes genres at the same time. So, for example, Antigonus dies tragically but after being pursued off-stage suddenly by a bear who appears out of nowhere in a sudden stage direction (“He exits, pursued by a bear.”) that has an element of slap-stick comedy to it. And at the end of the play, while almost all the characters have achieved a comic resolution and happy ending, Paulina is left without her husband. She says that she will lament and grieve while everyone else celebrates their good fortune, marking her in a sense as a tragic character stuck in a comic ending. But Leontes then encourages her to move on from the past and marry Camillo. By doing this, he essentially encourages her (and the play itself) to move from tragedy to comedy.

This mixing of genres can be somewhat confusing for audiences. Each genre implies an expected response on the part of audiences and readers. One knows to laugh at a comedy, to feel pathos at a tragedy, to take light-hearted pleasure in a romance. By mixing these genres, Shakespeare complicates our idea about what the “correct” response to his play should be. But since life doesn’t always obey the strict rules of genre that separate tragedy from comedy, why should literature? Shakespeare’s generic experimentation may simply bring his play closer to the strange mix of comedy and tragedy, laughter and tears, and pleasure and despair that makes up life itself.

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Seriousness, Levity, and Humor ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Seriousness, Levity, and Humor appears in each scene of The Winter's Tale. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Seriousness, Levity, and Humor Quotes in The Winter's Tale

Below you will find the important quotes in The Winter's Tale related to the theme of Seriousness, Levity, and Humor.
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. 

Ha, ha! what a fool Honesty is! and Trust, his
sworn brother, a very simple gentleman!

Related Characters: Autolycus (speaker)
Page Number: 4.4.711-712
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines are spoken as a soliloquy by Autolycus. While it may appear from the beginning of his speech that he is going to offer a philosophical treatise on honesty and trust, Autolycus proceeds to enumerate the cheap items he sold during the festival. He brags about how much money he made selling junk, and also says that he has picked pockets and stolen from his customers. While the speech can be read in terms of the lack of trust that pervades the play, and the dishonesty and disbelief that have caused both the tragic and comedic outbursts from kings (one echoing the other), this speech also serves as simple comic relief, a classic feature of drama. While the others make plans to resolve the tension, the audience is given a humorous interlude by Autolycus.

Act 5, Scene 3 Quotes

Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some wither'd bough and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost.

Related Characters: Paulina (speaker), Antigonus
Page Number: 5.3.164-169
Explanation and Analysis:

With nearly everyone reunited, Paulina suggests that everyone should go together and enjoy the bounty they have won and the happy ending they have found. Paulina, though, has just been informed of her husband's death. So while she encourages merriment in others, she, "an old turtle," will find a quiet place to spend the rest of her life lamenting her lost love and losing herself. One of the reasons this play is problematic (though some comedies have sour notes in their endings) is that in a scene that should only be filled with marriage, happiness, and loose ends tied up, we also see a reflection on death, loneliness, and a loss of the self in lamentation and sorrow.

O, peace, Paulina!
Thou shouldst a husband take by my consent,
As I by thine a wife: this is a match,
And made between's by vows. Thou hast found mine;
But how, is to be question'd; for I saw her,
As I thought, dead, and have in vain said many
A prayer upon her grave. I'll not seek far—
For him, I partly know his mind —to find thee
An honourable husband. Come, Camillo
And take her by the hand, whose worth and honesty
Is richly noted and here justified
By us, a pair of kings.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Hermione, Paulina, Camillo
Page Number: 5.3.170-182
Explanation and Analysis:

These are almost the last lines of the play. Paulina has made her dark reflection on her loss and consigned to lose herself in sorrow, but Leontes' joy at reuniting with his daughter and wife (despite his son still being dead) is enough to give a final push towards happiness and comedy. As king, he grants Paulina his permission to take a new husband, saying he wants to repay her for finding his wife again. He doesn't need to look far to find her a husband, suggesting she wed Camillo, "an honorable husband" whose "worth and honesty is richly noted" by the pair of kings, Polixenes and Leontes.

The play concludes with Leontes asking for forgiveness, and with the union of Polixenes' and Leontes' bloodlines through the marriage of Florizell and Perdita. The natural order is restored and even augmented by this new marriage. The friendships are repaired, and honesty is reaffirmed. Despite its strange, problematic beginning and some of its absurdities, the play ends on a classically light, comedic note.