No one seriously disputes Shakespeare's source for The Winter's Tale. Convincing internal evidence links his play to Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, a popular novel by Robert Greene, first published in 1588.
Shakespeare follows most of Greene's narrative for the first three acts of The Winter's Tale, but he changes the names of all the characters whom he adapted from Greene. Two favorite characters, Autolycus and the shepherd's son, are Shakespeare's creations, as are his radical changes in Acts IV and V. In such rural settings as the sheep-shearing scene in Act IV, Shakespeare adds to Greene's less developed pastoral theme, and in Act V, Shakespeare restructures Greene's ending to achieve a more satisfactory romantic conclusion. According to most critics, Shakespeare's play was probably written during the years 1610–11. One certain date is a performance recorded on May 15, 1611.
As a play written at this late stage of Shakespeare's career, The Winter's Tale can be given two important classifications: it is more Jacobean than Elizabethan, and it is more Romance than Comedy, History, or Tragedy.
The Jacobean classification is actually a subclassification of the entire span of years that is commonly referred to as the Renaissance. The Jacobean period extends from 1603 (the year of Elizabeth's death) to 1642 (the year when the Puritans closed the theaters); the term is taken from the name of King James 1, who ruled from 1603–25 (Jacobus is the Latin form of the name James). Two key characteristics of the age are the widening (1) political and (2) religious splits between the Cavaliers and the Puritans, a conflict that degenerated into Cromwell's takeover and led to dominant attitudes of realism and cynicism.
Perhaps this influence of realism and cynicism partially accounts for Shakespeare's altered vision in his final four plays. These plays, so difficult for critics to classify, are often referred to as the "problem plays." They are sometimes interpreted as a third step in Shakespeare's tragic cycle — an addition of the concept of renewal to the themes of prosperity and destruction which Shakespeare explored in his tragedies. According to this interpretation, in The Winter's Tale Shakespeare reveals King Leontes' destruction of his happiness when Leontes confuses his jealous imagination with reality; then the playwright finally reconstructs the family and the happiness of Leontes, after Leontes has passed a sufficient number of years in sincere repentance.
The four plays in this group of "problem plays" are Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. Two centuries ago, these plays were variously classified as either a history, a comedy, or a tragedy. The ambiguous label "tragic-comedy" might also apply to this group because some of their shared characteristics are: happy endings, which might be described as revelations; elements of the supernatural, combined with Christian resurrection; themes of sin, expiation, and redemption; and father-daughter pairings in which the daughter precipitates reconstruction after the breakdown of family unity.
In The Winter's Tale, the daughter, Perdita, certainly symbolizes spring and renewal throughout the play, and her mother, Hermione, is "resurrected" from a living death as a statue. Furthermore, this play shares with the other three a portrayal of love that transcends the unrealistic, total merriness of the comedies to a more realistic somberness that incorporates both natural mutability and the occasional sadnesses which love imposes.
Another genre that is identifiable in these plays is that of the pastoral romance, but they should not be confused with escapist literature; they contain serious lessons about virtue and vice. Yet they are not hampered by strict insistence upon verisimilitude. The plots are deliberately far-fetched, and the stories feature both the astounding and the incredible. Thus, Shakespeare's creation of "a seacoast" for Bohemia can be excused as perfectly suitable to the genre.
Other conventions of the Romance help explain events in The Winter's Tale that might otherwise strike the twentieth-century reader as being false or ridiculous. These conventions include mistaken identities, supernatural events, and ideal poetic justice and courtly settings, even among the lower classes. One might note also that the characters often act without concern for motivation; indeed, critics have raised serious questions about the apparent absence of motivation in these plays, especially after Shakespeare had developed psychological masterpieces in the tragedies that were written earlier. For that reason, it is important to determine whether or not the characters earn their happy endings or if the playwright merely grants them.
An important idea in these plays that has not changed from Shakespeare's earlier plays was the notion of the Order of the Universe, which he structured in accordance with popular Elizabethan beliefs. One image used to represent this view of Order is the great Chain of Being. In this Chain, each link represents some single thing in Creation. All things were linked, beginning with the foot of God's throne and ending with the humblest inanimate object. Together, they all formed a unity of the Universe with an order determined by God. The top three links represented God, the Angels, and Mankind. But as high as they are on the Chain, the Angels and Mankind were not supposed to regulate or alter the Order. Instead, the Order of the Heavens was supposed to be duplicated on Earth.
With this in mind, consider the impossibility of altering the ultimate role of Perdita (Leontes' lost daughter) in the Order that was determined by God. She is meant to live as royalty, even after she is raised by a rustic shepherd. Not surprisingly, she is credited by everyone with possessing the qualities of a queen. And in spite of his great powers, Leontes is not able, finally, to alter her destiny that is, to live and eventually to reign.
Leontes' power to exercise Free Will is an important part of the concept of the Order of the Universe. The belief that God granted the power of Free Will to Angels and to Man helps to explain the exceptions to the remarkable Order. Free Will was believed to be available, and it could be used incorrectly — to the detriment of the individual's responsibility to contribute to the orderly maintenance of the Universe. Leontes is a good example of this improper use of Free Will.
Another exception to this ordered structure was Fate, conceived of as being uncertain and subject to disorders in the Universe. The phenomena of these disorders was often represented by the Wheel of Fortune, horoscopes, and the stars. The turning wheel and the moving stars were believed to influence man's existence, with man frequently a helpless participant. Again, Free Will offered the means to challenge Fate, if anyone was willing to risk punishment by exercising it to challenge the operation of the Universe.
A key corollary to this orderly view of the Universe was the phenomenon often described as the Cosmic Dance. This Neoplatonist concept embraced the Greek representation of creation as being like music; it viewed the operations of the universe as being akin to a perpetual dance to mystical music; the planets, the stars, and other living things were all dancing on individual paths and different levels, but coalescing finally in cosmic harmony. (The different levels corresponded to the Great Chain of Being.) Of particular interest for The Winter's Tale are images of dancing seas and Perdita's "dance of nature."
Another image that is also significant is the dance of the body politic, suggested by the movement of the courtiers around Leontes and, later, the festival participants around Perdita.