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.
Seriousness, Levity, and Humor ThemeTracker
Seriousness, Levity, and Humor Quotes in The Winter's Tale
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.
Thou dearest Perdita,
With these forced thoughts, I prithee, darken not
The mirth o' the feast.
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.
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.