In an edition published in 1909,
Israel Gollancz simply notes in a gloss to Mamillius's words in Act II, scene 1,
"A sad tale's best for winter", hence the title of the play. - I[srael] G[ollancz]
Many other editors say essentially the same thing.
In addition, Israel Gollancz writes in the preface to the same edition,
anachronisms are not out of place in "a winter's tale":
he [Shakespeare] certainly bettered Greene's example, "making Whitsun
pastorals. Christian burial, Giulio Romano, the Emperor
of Russia, and Puritans singing psalms to hornpipes, all
contemporary with the oracle of Delphi," — the island of
The word "winter" is repeated later in the play. For example, when Paulina reports Hermione's death in Acti III, scene 2, she says (emphasis added),
A thousand knees
Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou wert.
At this point, we don't know that there will be a gap of sixteen years in the play, during which Leontes lives with repentance and remorse.
Paulina's words here link "winter" with repentance.
And in Act V, scene 3, Camillo says (emphasis added),
My lord, your sorrow was too sore laid on,
Which sixteen winters cannot blow away,
So many summers dry; scarce any joy
Did ever so long live; no sorrow
But kill'd itself much sooner.
These words again link "winter" with "sorrow".
Perdita, by contrast, is associated with spring, especially through the sheep-shearing festival and the flower catalogue in Act IV.
(If Perdita is born in winter, as Mamillius's words in Act II, scene 1 indirectly imply, she was conceived during spring.) This creates a contrast between winter (Leontes's accusations and his sixteen years of repentance) and spring (Perdita).
There is another way in which "winter's tale" is relevant to the play.
A "winter's tale" may be an "old wives' tale", as in Act II of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (emphasis added):
Now I remember those old womens words,
Who in my wealth wud tell me winters tales,
And speake of spirits and ghosts that glide by night
There is even a play by George Peele entitled The Old Wives' Tale, in which one of the characters says (emphasis added),
This sport does well [an it were not
sorcery]; but methinks, gammer, a merry winter's
tale would drive away the time trimly: come, I
am sure you are not without a score.
("Sport" here means entertainment, not physical exercise.)
The implication of these examples is that the story needn't be very plausible or credible. In fact, several aspects of Shakespeare's play seem to enforce this:
- the Kingdom of Bohemia having a seacoast, even though we know Bohemia as a landlocked area (Shakespeare followed his source in this respect),
- a character being eaten by a bear (not because bear attacks would be implausible, but because an actor in a bear costume would have had a comic effect; Shakespeare's audience would have known what bears looked like, since bear-baiting arenas were located in the same part of London as the Globe theatre),
- the aspects listed by Gollancz (cited above), e.g. combining the oracle of Delphi, the Emperor of Russia, etcetera, all in the same play.
The title and the implausible combination of faulty geography and conflicting historical references can be seen as an alienating device created by Shakespeare (when not borrowed from his source).