The Winter's Tale


William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale: Foreshadowing 6 key examples

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Definition of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved directly or indirectly, by making... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the... read full definition
Explanation and Analysis—Imprisonment:

Hermione's conversation with Polixenes in Act 1, Scene 2 features an extended metaphor that jokingly compares staying in someone else's home as a guest to imprisonment. Encouraging Polixenes to stay longer in Sicilia, Hermione says, "Force me to keep you as a prisoner, / Not like a guest, so you shall pay your fees / When you depart and save your thanks." When Polixenes responds that he would rather be her guest than her prisoner, Hermione declares she will not be his "jailer," but rather his "hostess." Despite the playful tone of this exchange, this metaphor not only reveals that the threat of imprisonment or darker political consequences is always close at hand in the Sicilian court, but also foreshadows Hermione's own, actual imprisonment by Leontes later in the play. 

Paulina similarly uses imprisonment as a metaphor in Act 2, Scene 3 when she characterizes Hermione's womb as a prison and birth as enfranchisement: "This child was prisoner to the womb, and is / By law and process of great nature thence / Freed and enfranchised." This metaphor foreshadows the way in which Hermione will be "reborn" as a statue once her name is cleared and she is freed from prison. 

Act 1, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Childhood Innocence:

The characters of "The Winter's Tale" often describe childhood as a time of innocence untainted by sin. In Act 1, Scene 1, Polixenes describes his childhood with Leontes with an attitude of longing for a simpler time: 

We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun 
And bleat the one at th’ other. What we changed 
Was innocence for innocence. We knew not 
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed 
That any did. Had we pursued that life, 
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared 
With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven 
Boldly “Not guilty,” the imposition cleared 
Hereditary ours. 

Polixenes claims that, as children, he and Leontes were entirely unaware of the possibility of immoral behavior. Had they remained in that state of total and oblivious innocence, they would have gone to heaven untainted by sin. He tells Hermione, however, that their encounters with women removed them from that state: "Temptations have since then been born to ’s, for / In those unfledged days was my wife a girl; / Your precious self had then not crossed the eyes / Of my young playfellow." Polixenes thus suggests that this childhood innocence is irrevocably lost when one comes of age.

The motif of childhood innocence reappears in Act 2, Scene 2, when Paulina expresses her hope that Leontes will "soften at the sight" of his newborn daughter. She notes that "The silence often of pure innocence / Persuades when speaking fails." When seeing his baby still fails to persuade Leontes of Hermione's innocence later in the play, Paulina's hopes are crushed. By affirming the purity and preciousness of childhood, this motif accentuates the abhorrence of Leontes's behavior in causing the deaths (or presumed deaths) of his children. 

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Act 4, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Red and White:

In Act 4, Scene 4, Autolycus bursts into a song that uses the imagery of red and white:

When daffodils begin to peer, 
With heigh, the doxy over the dale, 
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale. 
The white sheet bleaching on the hedge [...]

The song describes lively "red blood [reigning]" once winter recedes. This use of imagery associates spring with "red blood" or life and winter with "paleness" or death. Since Acts 1 to 3 of the play are set during the winter and Acts 4 to 5 during the spring, this imagery foreshadows the rebirth of Hermione and the discovery that Perdita is still alive in Acts 4 and 5 after their apparent deaths at the end of the first three wintry Acts. 

Moreover, the sexual connotations of the imagery of the "red blood" and "white sheet" suggest that sexual and romantic coupling will follow winter. Indeed, the marital unions of Florizell with Perdita, Camillo with Paulina, and Leontes with the resurrected Hermione at the end of the play generate hope for future childbirth. In this way, the imagery of Autolycus's song both contributes to the symbolism of the seasons and foreshadows the familial and romantic resolution of the play. 

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Act 4, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Proserpina and Dis:

In Act 4, Scene 4, Perdita alludes to figures from classical mythology while selecting flowers for the Shepherdesses: "O Proserpina, / For the flowers now that, frighted, thou let’st fall / From Dis’s wagon!" Perdita's allusion to the myth of Proserpina, who was abducted by the god of the underworld, Dis, and returned to the earth after six months, foreshadows her own return from Bohemia to her home in Sicilia.  

Perdita also goes on to allude to Phoebus, the Roman name for Apollo, who is the source of the play's central prophecy:

[...] pale primroses, 
That die unmarried ere they can behold 
Bright Phoebus in his strength—a malady 
Most incident to maids

This metaphor compares primroses to young maidens that die before they can marry or see the sun. Combined with the allusion to Proserpina, a goddess who, like the primrose, is deprived of the sun while confined to the underworld, Perdita's allusion to Phoebus also raises the possibility that she will not return. Perdita's allusions to classical mythology generate suspense for the audience—whom Shakespeare would have trusted to pick up on them—regarding whether she will be reunited with her father and homeland or remain lost in the "underworld," or Bohemia. 

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Act 5, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Resurrection:

In Act 5, Scene 1, Paulina reminds Leontes of the magnitude of his loss of Hermione. Leontes declares that he will never marry again because doing so would anger the ghost of his late wife:

Thou speak’st truth. 
No more such wives, therefore no wife. One worse, 
And better used, would make her sainted spirit 
Again possess her corpse, and on this stage, 
Where we offenders now appear, soul-vexed, 
And begin “Why to me?” 

This image of Hermione's ghost appearing on the stage is an example of foreshadowing: when she is resurrected at the end of the play, her body is literally possessed and begins to walk on stage. At this point, there is no reason for the audience to expect that Hermione's spirit will "Again possess her corpse," but the unsettling image sticks in their minds and prepares them for what happens later. Compounded by three Gentlemen's references to a statue with a mysterious resemblance to Hermione in Act 5, Scene 2, it increases the audience's curiosity about and anticipation for the unveiling of the statue.

Moreover, Leontes's reference to a "stage" also breaks the fourth wall and calls attention to the play's own nature as a form of artifice, which contributes to the motif of acting, disguises, and stagecraft throughout the play. 

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Act 5, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Statue:

In Act 5, Scene 2, three gentlemen discuss events among the members of the Sicilian court that are not depicted onstage. Not only does the conversation serve as a useful dramatic device to provide a summary of the reunion of Leontes and Paulina with Camillo, Perdita, Polixenes, and Florizell, but it is also an example of tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing of Hermione's resurrection through the statue at the end of the play. 

Describing Perdita's reaction to the tale of her mother's death, the Third Gentleman observes that "Who was most marble there changed color." This comment gains significance for the audience after the play's resolution: Hermione's statue, the "most marble there," does indeed "change color." The Third Gentleman goes on to discuss how closely Hermione's statue resembles Hermione herself, describing it as

a piece many years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape; he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione that they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of answer. 

Of course, the statue resembles Hermione because it will later come to life as Hermione herself. This use of foreshadowing generates mystery around the statue and increases the audience's anticipation for the play's resolution.

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