Shakespeare’s Sources – The Winter’s Tale

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Continuing my series exploring Shakespeare’s literary and poetic sources I am going to look at a late play The Winter’s Tale. For those of you not familiar with the story it is about a king Leontes who becomes suddenly convinced that his best friend has been sleeping with his wife. Determined to prove he has been wronged he makes his innocent wife stand trial during which humiliation she appears to die. He also causes the death of his young son (who dies of grief) and his baby daughter (who he has abandoned in the wilderness). 16 years later Leontes has seen the error of his ways and is filled with remorse for the death of his wife and children. Luckily for Leontes, his wife’s old friend Paulina, seeing that he is ready to forgive, takes him to see a statue of his lost wife which miraculously comes to life (Paulina has perhaps been keeping the wife in secret all these years). The daughter who was left for dead also survives having been found and raised by shepherds and arrives in court having married the son of Leontes’ old best friend – so all are happily reunited.

The main source for The Winter’s Tale is a story by Robert Greene called Pandosto which dates from 1588. Here is an extract from the beginning (spelling has been modernised)

“Among all the passions wherewith human minds are perplexed, there is none that so galls with restless despite, as the infectious sore of jealousy: for all other griefs are either to be appeased with sensible persuasions, to be cured with wholesome counsel, to be relieved in want, or by tract of time to be worn out. (Jealousy only excepted) which is so full of suspicious doubts, and pinching mistrust, that whoso seeks by friendly counsel to raze out this hellish passion, it forthwith suspects that he gives this advice to cover his own guiltiness.”

In his own version Shakespeare has given life to these imagined moments where nothing can ‘razed’ out. When Leontes talks to Camilllo his man servant about his suspicions the more Camillo tries to reassure him, the more Leontes thinks there is something going on, until Leontes becomes so crazy with jealousy that even Camillo’s life is in danger.

Although the characters names are changed and a few details differ the stories of Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale are recognisably the same in many ways. Except that Pandosto is darker, in this story there is no renewal or second life for the wronged wife, who in Pandosto dies and remains dead.  And Shakespeare, unlike Robert Greene, decides to give his tale of jealousy a happy or at least potentially happy ending with a redemptive tone of forgiveness and renewal.

Robert Greene’s version is much darker.

“Pandosto, … without delay (to the perpetual joy of the two young Lovers) celebrated the marriage: which was no sooner ended, but Pandosto (calling to mind how first he betrayed his friend Egistus, how his jealousy was the cause of Bellarias death) moved with these desperate thoughts, he fell into a melancholy fit, and to close up the Comedy with a tragic stratagem, he slew himself.”

So from a story of the suicidal ending of a jealous man, Shakespeare creates a new story of renewal, rebirth and forgiveness.


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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Elizabeth Woledge

    Good point – although it is interesting to debate to what extent we are supposed to see magic and to what extent a trick (like them pretending Hero is dead in Much Ado). I think that in moving from Ovid to his own work Shakespeare offers a human explanation for an apparent miracle. 

  • Christian Smith

    I also really like how Shakespeare reshaped the precedent Pygmalion story from Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Book X). In Metamorphosis, it is the goddess Aphrodite who brings the statue to life. Shakespeare gives that task to a human, thus returning power from the gods to the humans. Further, Paulina is not just any human character. She is the woman who held the immature Leontes to his responsibility to grow up and become worthy of Hermione. Only then did Paulina bring Hermione back to life. Ovid gives no such challenge to Pygmalion, he remains a misogynist. Shakespeare’s renewal, rebirth and forgiveness comes with the responsibility to be a better human.

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