Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, pt. 1

Ooh, look! The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden — my favorite Regency Theatre, home to Kemble and Siddons and the other Kemble and the other two Kembles. (And Siddons was a Kemble by birth! Can you say nepotism?)

As long-time Risky Regencies readers know, Todd and I both have the acting bug. For the past three winters, we have taken part in a Shakespeare play at Caltech, beginning rehearsals in early January, and opening in mid-to-late February. Two years ago we were in Measure for Measure, last year was As You Like It, and this year, it’s The Winter’s Tale.

(By the way, if you have any interest in my blog entries on the Regency text of As You Like It and our production, here are the links:
As You Like It #1
As You Like It #2
As You Like It Costume Reflections )

By the way, this fair lady is Sarah Siddons herself, in the role of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale; the artist is Adam Buck.

Because this is where my mind is nowadays (busily reciting lines, and trying to remember when it’s “good my liege” and when it’s “good my lord”, and which time I say “pray you now” instead of “pray you then” or “I pray now” or “pray you, Emilia”), for the next few weeks, I’m going to blog about The Winter’s Tale, and talk about the Regency take on it, and on theatre in the Regency.

The Winter’s Tale, of course, is not one of Shakespeare’s best-known works, so I’ll start by giving a little explanation of the plot. (Anyone who doesn’t want spoilers for The Winter’s Tale, stop reading now!!!)

This photo is Judi Dench playing Hermione for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1969, as the copyright notice proudly informs you!

Generally considered one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and usually categorized nowadays as a romance (or a problem play or a comedy), The Winter’s Tale is in many ways a bizarre drama. The first half is tragedy, with lots of screaming and crying and death, and the second half is comedy (and musical), with so much laughter, new love, and joy that some of the folks who died in the first half actually come back to life.

This is another RSC picture — Patrick Stewart and Gemma Jones as Leontes and Hermione in a 1981 production. Hey, since when does Patrick Stewart have hair??? ๐Ÿ™‚

As the play begins, all is well. Good King Leontes has a perfect wife in good Queen Hermione, a young son, and a new baby on the way. His pal, King Polixenes, has been staying with them for a delightfully long time, which happens to be…hmmm…yes, just about nine months now. Nine…months. What an interesting length of time. Let’s see… Hermione is eight months pregnant… And Polixenes arrived nine months ago…

Here’s Ian McKellan as Leontes, in 1976.

Well, King Leontes, it seems, has a little strain of insanity in him. With no warning, he suddenly becomes convinced that Polixenes is the father of Hermione’s unborn child. Now, madness is one thing — many good kings are a little mad much of the time — but Leontes refuses to listen to anyone but himself. All the men in the court beg him to forgo his suspicions, or at least be merciful. And one noblewoman in particular, the rather pushy Paulina, actually has the courage to tell him in blunt terms that he’s totally in the wrong, and had better stop now, or else.

In his pride, Leontes refuses all advice, all common sense, and even the advice of the gods. He decides to kill Polixenes — and when he’s foiled in his aim, he takes out his wrath on his queen and her (now newly born) baby daughter.

Here’s Gillian Barge as Paulina and Jeremy Irons as Leontes, in 1986.

Needless to say, great tragedy ensues.

The roles of Leontes, Hermione, and Paulina, for obvious reasons, have long been prized by actors (including Regency greats such as Kemble and Siddons). In our production, Todd gets to rant as Leontes, and I get to yell at him plenty as Paulina, so we’re both having oodles of fun.

However, to Regency fans, the most famous roles in the play may be Florizel and Perdita. Leontes has his newborn daughter abandoned in the wilderness where, as so often happens in fiction, she survives, and is raised by a kindly shepherd who calls her Perdita, as the mysterious documents that were found with her instructed.

Eventually, Perdita meets Prince Florizel, the son of King Polixenes, and of course they fall in love.

Dorothy Jordan played Perdita, as did, of course, Mary Robinson, the Perdita who snared the Prince of Wales before he was Regent — giving him the nickname of Florizel.

More about the Regency versions (and 18th century abridgements) of The Winter’s Tale next week!

So, today’s questions:

Have you ever seen or read The Winter’s Tale? What did you think?

How do you think Patrick Stewart looks with hair?

Are you a Shakespeare fan? Which are your favorite plays? And have you ever acted in one of Shakespeare’s plays?

All comments welcome!

Cara King, author of My Lady Gamester, which spends a chapter or two at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, complete with elephant

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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15 years ago

This one certainly sounds unusual, the first part sounds like a tragedy in the making, but the later with the comedy and people coming back from the dead and all, not the Shakespeare I know! LOL . . . but ugh, not a fan of the tragedies. Well, there was Richard III. But mainly ’cause he was nuts, did I like it. LOL Oh, and Hamlet. . . mainly because of Star Trek VI, did I like that one. (Why does it seem like I’m all of a sudden talking like Yoda here?) LOL This is the first I really read anything of Winter’s Tale. . .

Heck, even Sean Connery once upon a time had hair. . . wonder if that really is Patrick Stewart’s at that time, or did they make him wear a wig. Hmm. . .


Cara King
15 years ago

I think that’s a wig, Lois! I seem to recall hearing him say on a talk show once that he went bald very early, and he’d tell casting directors they got two actors for one price — with a wig, he could play young romantic men, and without, he could play older men and character parts!


Diane Perkins
15 years ago

1. As befits my reputation as the world’s worst read romance author and former English major—nope. Never saw the play.
2. Re: Patrick Stewart? I think he distinguishes himself from other actors with his bald head. He looks generic here.
3. I’ve mostly seen Shakespeare in the movies. Lawrence Olivier as Othello; Richard Burton as Hamlet; Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and Branaugh’s Henry V (with a very young Christian Bale).

Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

I love The Winter’s Tale. It was the first of Shakespeare’s romances that made me understand how the term could be used in his context… in terms of a certain extravagant use of time and space, a sort of all-over-the-placeness that I quite love. Actually, the plot is pretty similar to Much Ado About Nothing, but Winter’s Tale is expanded, sad, and dreamy while Much Ado is brisk and compressed.

15 years ago

I don’t know ‘A Winter’s Tale’ as well as some of Shakespeare’s other pieces. My bad!

As to Patrick Stewart…he can command me to ‘Engage.’ boldly or as a baldy.

Keira Soleore
15 years ago

Cara, huzzahs to you and Todd for the top roles.

I pray now (ahem!) for a good crowd for your performances and also that both of you may retain your voices to the end so that you may regale said audiences with full-throated ranting and yelling.

I’ve been to a few of Shakespears’ plays; the best ones were held outdoors in the woods on a semi-circular stage with a general eschewing of too much costuming.

Sadly, I know nothing about The Winter’s Tale. (I can hear the gasp all the way up here from SoCal.) So I look forward to your blogs about the play and the Regency theatre scene.

I don’t know about Patrick Stewart, but I loved the photos of Judi Dench playing Hermione and Ian McKellan as Leontes.

Lois wrote, “Heck, even Sean Connery once upon a time had hair…

SIGH! And so he did. And mighty fine did he look, too, then.

Elena Greene
15 years ago

I’m moderately Shakespeare-impaired too and look forwarding to learning more about The Winter’s Tale.

As for Patrick Stewart he is hot with or without hair. I think it’s his voice that really does it for me. ๐Ÿ™‚

15 years ago

Your Liege is the person to whom you owe fealty. He’s your boss or a mentor with whom you have a formal arrangement for them to advise and command you. My good lord could be anyone of nobility. I could refer to my king as my liege, but I would refer to my friend as my lord. You can also call your liege your lord, if you are being informal. If I’m out drinking with my liege, I’ll call him my lord. If I want to beg a favor or address him in Court, I call him liege. I hope this is helpful.

the Royal Shakespeare Company performs at the Barbican and has the *worst* ice cream.

Janet Mullany
15 years ago

Cara, I saw The Winter’s Tale a long time ago and it’s even longer that I read it. Isn’t it the play with this brilliant line of stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear.?

Margaret Evans Porter
15 years ago

I love A Winter’s Tale.

Today (it changes) my favourite Shakespeare is Much Ado About Nothing.

I’ve seen Patrick Stewart with hair in several roles. Either way, he’s a very fine actor.

And yes, I’ve performed Shakespeare. History, Comedy, and Tragedy.

Break a leg to you & Todd!

Cara King
15 years ago

Thanks for the info on my liege/my lord, Georg! I say both to the King — but now that you’ve pointed out that my liege is a more respectful term, I’ll look through my lines and see if I can find a pattern, such as using liege when I’m being more respectful!

I did find a thou/you pattern, which helped there. (In “As You Like It”, I suspect certain things got garbled when recorded, because there is absolutely no rhyme or reason as to when you is used, and when thou. But in “The Winter’s Tale”, it’s very simple and clear, which is a big help!)

BTW, the Barbican isn’t my favorite venue, and I have no memory if I’ve ever tried the ice cream there! I do recall the sinks in the rest rooms are bizarre. ๐Ÿ™‚

Isn’t it the play with this brilliant line of stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear.?

Indeed, Janet! Apparently the most famous stage direction in Shakespeare. ๐Ÿ™‚ And actually, it’s the husband of my character who gets eaten by the bear!

Break a leg to you & Todd!

Thanks, Margaret!

Come to think of it, I’ve seen Patrick Stewart live on stage, twice — and also Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. Maybe I’ll only paste up actors I’ve seen! (British theatre is grand, isn’t it? One can see the most amazing actors, and often from up close, too!)

Much Ado is definitely one of my favorite Shakespeares too. (I would love to one day play Beatrice, though I’m not holding my breath!)


15 years ago

I have always enjoyed Shakespeare, but haven’t read him since college, UNTIL…I started reading Regency Romances about a year ago (yes, I’m a late bloomer). Then I remembered so many of the plays by The Bard, and I could see glimpses of them in the ‘lesser commercial fiction’ that so many highbrows eschew. As a result of my romance reading, I’ve also returned to the classics, and a lot of history books. I have not yet read “A Winter’s Tale”, but not that you’ve given it such a good synopsis, I will read it next-right after I finish my current Eloise James novel. Thanks Cara!
Pamela J. Knowles,
Shoreline, WA

Cara King
15 years ago

Delighted, Pamela!


15 years ago

I should have posted a comment ages ago–well, a week ago–and probably no one is listening (or reading) anymore. Hello? Hello? Is anyone out there?


(Echoes: “ello, ello, elloooooo”)

Hmm, I guess not.

Anyway, as I was saying–or writing–or whatever–I should have posted a comment before, but I’ve been kind of busy with this acting thing. Leontes. Rants and raves a lot, in iambic pentameter. What was Shakespeare thinking to give him all these blankety-blank lines??!!

Anyway, great fun, in an exhausting sort of way. It’s a wonderful role, as far as having lots of dramatic speeches and action and emotion and such-like actorly things. The play is rather odd, though. The first three acts are a blur of action, and then we pause for 16 years while certain characters grow up, and then we resume at a much more light-hearted and leisurely pace. Which is nice for me, because I can go off and sooth my throat with a cup of tea before I have to go back on again.

Anyway, those are my observations for the moment. More soon!