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The Shakespeare play The Winter's Tale does not actually take place entirely in winter (unlike, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream where almost all the action does indeed take place on midsummer night). The only line in the play that seems relevant to the title is Mamillius's "A sad tale's best for winter", but why was this throwaway line used to name the entire play? Was "winter's tale" a well-known metaphor or proverb in Shakespeare's time, informing the audience what kind of story to expect?

Why the title The Winter's Tale?

  • There is a line in the play by the boy, Mamillius: "A sad tale's best for winter." (WT 2.1.25). – Benjamin Godfrey Jun 6 at 22:38
  • @BenjaminGodfrey There's a lot more to it than just that line. – Tsundoku Jul 13 at 15:55
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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,

incongruities and 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 Delphi !

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).

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Winter afforded plenty of time to sit around and tell each other stories, since there was a lot less work and the weather was inclement. The popular tales were often unrealistic fairy tales or similar stories. It's alerting the audience to expect such a story.

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    Can you provide any source or reference to show that this would be the expected connotation of "winter's tale" in the early 17th century? – Rand al'Thor May 27 at 14:45
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    John Olde referred to "olde wiues fables and winter tales" as a doublet of synonyms -- which the OED referred to in its second edition definition of "winter." – Mary May 27 at 15:07

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