The first writers to propose, using an argument based partly on Antigonus’ dream, that there was an earlier version of the play in which Hermione did not come back to life, and in which the climax was instead the recognition of Perdita, were J. E. Bullard and W. M. Fox in a 1952 letter to the Times Literary Supplement, quoted in full below. I’ve also quoted a couple of important earlier sources, and a few later critics who concurred with Bullard and Fox.
A contemporary source for performances of Shakespeare’s plays was astrologer Simon Forman (1552–1611), who kept memoranda of the plots of plays he had seen, including The Winter’s Tale at the Globe in 1611:
Observe there how Leontes the king of Sicilia was overcome with jealousy of his wife with the king of Bohemia, his friend that came to see him; and how he contrived his death and would have had his cupbearer to have poisoned, who gave the king of Bohemia warning thereof and fled with him to Bohemia.
Remember also how he sent to the Oracle of Apollo and the answer of Apollo, that she was guiltless and that the king was jealous, etc., and how except the child was found again that was lost, the king should die without issue. For the child was carried into Bohemia and there laid in a forest and brought up by a shepherd and the king of Bohemia his son married that wench. And how they fled into Sicilia to Leontes, and the shepherd having showed the letter of the nobleman by whom Leontes sent was that child, and [by] the jewels found about her, she was known to be Leontes’s daughter, and was then 16 years old.
Remember also the rogue that came in all tattered like colt pixie, and how he feigned him sick and to have been robbed of all that he had and how he cozened the poor man of all his money, and after came to the sheep-shearer with a pedlar’s pack and there cozened them again of all their money. And how he changed apparel with the king of Bohemia his son, and then how he turned courtier, etc. Beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning felons.
Simon Forman (15 May 1611). ‘In the Winter’s Tale at the Globe’. MS Ashmole 208, folios 201v–202r. Folger Shakespeare Library. Spelling modernized.
An early complaint about the coherence of the plot of the The Winter’s Tale comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Although, on the whole, this play is exquisitely respondent to its title, and even in the fault I am about to mention, still a winter’s tale, yet it seems a mere indolence of the great bard not to have provided in the oracular response (Act II sc 2) some ground for Hermione’s seeming death and fifteen years voluntary concealment. This might have been easily effected by some obscure sentence of the oracle, as for example—
‘Nor shall he ever recover an heir, if he have a wife before that recovery’
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. ‘Notes on the Winter’s Tale’. In Henry Nelson Coleridge, ed. (1836). The literary remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, volume II, p. 250. London: William Pickering.
This is the letter to the Times Literary Supplement that introduced the theory that there was an earlier version of the play:
Sir,—The object of this letter is to suggest reasons for believing that The Winter’s Tale was originally composed with a fifth act different from that printed in the First Foilio, and was in fact acted in the original version at the earliest performance of which we have any knowledge.
It is hardly necessary to mention that Greene’s novel Pandosto, from which the plot of The Winter’s Tale up to the end of the fourth act was plainly taken, makes no mention of the revivification of Hermione, the climax being simply the recognition of Fawnia (Perdita) as the daughter of Pandosto (Leontes) and her marriage to Dorastus (Florizel). The first four acts of The Winter’s Tale notoriously contain no indication that the play is to terminate with the revivification (a feature in its structure which has been the subject of much comment); and there is, as it seems to us, one rather curious piece of evidence that at the end of the third act Hermione is in fact dead—namely, that Antigonus, landing on the coast of Bohemia with the infant Perdita, describes Hermione “in pure white robes, like very sanctity” appearing to him in a dream. We take leave to doubt, though persons learned in demonology may perhaps correct us, whether the contemporaries of Shakespeare would have thought it possible that a living person should appear in a vision. Certainly the other visions in the plays of Shakespeare himself are all of dead people; the line quoted seems plainly to refer by its imagery and its language to a celestial personage; the vision vanishes with the shriek characteristic of a ghost; and Antigonus himself draws the natural conclusion.
The alteration in the climax has left its traces in a change of “direction” between the fourth act and the fifth. At the end of the fourth act there is some elaborate stage business, including a change of clothes with Florizel, the effect of which is to transport Autolycus, along with the shepherd and his son, to Sicily, where it is clearly intended that he should be associated in some way, not now discoverable, with the recognition of Perdita. This recognition we take to have been the main stage-business of the original fifth act. Autolycus does indeed appear in that act as it now stands, but his only considerable speech is a lame apology for the failure to carry out the expectations created by the fourth act, and the recognition of Perdita, which one might have expected to stimulate some superb rhetoric, takes place off-stage: the audience has to be content with the “relation” of the Lady Perdita’s steward, and the part of Perdita herself, which in the fourth act has been built up to the top of her creator’s powers, is reduced in the fifth act to two short speeches, one of three lines (in the first scene) and one of five lines (in the third). Part of the original fifth act has, we presume, been preserved in that section of the opening scene which follows the entry of the Servant to announce the arrival of Prince Florizel; the only insertion made in revision seems to have been Paulina’s speech beginning “O Hermione” together with the first half of the following speech down to “Tongue too,” after which the words “This is a creature, &c.,” pick up in metre and sense the Servant’s speech which Pauline now interrupts.
In the light of these two pieces of evidence—namely the evidence that Hermione is actually dead at the end of Act III and the evidence that the intentions about Autolycus at the end of Act IV are not carried out in Act V as we now have it—it is surely significant that when Dr. Simon Forman saw the play on May 15, 1611, he made no mention in his notes of the revivification of Hermione, though that concludes the piece as we now have it and provides its most striking and unexpected incident. Contrast his omission with his account of Macbeth which, erroneous as it may seem in detail to us who have had the text before us since childhood, omits nothing of importance in the stage action, and is indeed something of a feat of memory in relation to the action of a complicated play seen only once.
J. E. Bullard & W. M. Fox (1952). ‘The Winter’s Tale’. In The Times Literary Supplement, 14 March 1952, p. 189.
Here’s a selection of later critics who concurred with the speculation of Bullard and Fox. My thanks go to W. W. Greg for actually citing his source rather than using a vague non-attribution like “some critics” (Muir) or “repeatedly given rise to speculation” (Mueller).
It is remarkable that the survival of Hermione plays no part in Greene’s romance of Pandosto, which the play follows closely through the first four acts, and that Simon Forman, in his account of the performance at the Globe in 1611, is equally silent about the striking catastrophe. There are also some hints in Acts III and IV both that Hermione is really dead and that the climax of the play was to be the recognition of Perdita, which in the extant version is curiously slurred over. It has therefore been suggested with some plausibility that the last act as we have it is not the original conclusion of the play.6 Since, however, the present Act V is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s, it cannot have been written much later than the rest of the play, and the most likely occasion for the alteration would be the performance in connexion with Princess Elizabeth’s marriage festivities in the winter of 1612–13.
6 In a letter by J. E. Bullard and W. M. Fox in TLS, 14 Mar. 1952.
W. W. Greg (1955). The Shakespeare First Folio, p. 417. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
The first critic of The Winter’s Tale, the astrologer, Dr. Simon Forman, who witnessed a performance at the Globe on 15 May 1611, mentions the fact that Perdita is restored to her father after sixteen years and he gives a description of Autolycus—from whom he deduced the moral that one should ‘beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning fellows’. But, oddly enough, he does not mention the statue scene or the restoration of Hermione. This has led some critics to suppose that in its original form Shakespeare’s play was closer to its source, Greene’s Pandosto, and though it is unlikely that he made Leontes fall in love with Perdita and commit suicide when he realized that she was his daughter, it is possible that Hermione was not restored to life. This receives some support from the fact that Hermione appears to Antigonus in a dream; this is not, of course, decisive, even though it leads the audience to assume that Hermione is dead. But if in the play, as Dr. Forman saw it, Hermione was not restored—and her restoration is not hinted at by the oracle—Shakespeare must have attempted to round off his tragi-comedy with the restoration of Perdita to her father, and the reconciliation of Leontes and Polixenes through the marriage of their children.
Kenneth Muir (1969). ‘The Conclusion of The Winter’s Tale’. In Kenneth Muir (1977). The Singularity of Shakespeare, p. 81. Liverpool University Press.
Such crass deception of the audience is unique in Shakespeare and has repeatedly given rise to the speculation that the text we have is a revised version that still shows traces of an earlier version in which Hermione really died. This hypothesis has not been positively disproved and would no doubt be held more widely if speculations of this type were not now as unfashionable as they once were fashionable.
Martin Mueller (1971). ‘Hermione’s Wrinkles, or, Ovid Transformed: An Essay on The Winter’s Tale. Comparative Drama 5:3, p. 227.
The statue scene is without parallel in Pandosto; at some stage Shakespeare made the momentous decision to keep Hermione alive, and invented the motif of the statue. It is possible that he did so in the course of writing; as Coleridge early pointed out, it would have been simple enough to provide for her survival by some ambiguity in the oracle, but Shakespeare does not do so, and it is a remarkable instance, the only one in Shakespeare or perhaps in the whole drama of the period, of the playwright’s concealing so material a circumstance from the audience. Simon Forman, reporting on a performance of 1611 when the play was still fairly new, did not include in his account of the plot any allusion to the statue scene, so the play may have been without it in its first form.
Frank Kermode (1972). ‘Introduction to The Winter’s Tale’. In Sylvan Barnet, ed. The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, p. 1497. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Others have suggested the possibility that this renewal of Hermione was not in the earliest version of the play; I support their conjectures and then suggest dramatic and historical sources that may have affected Shakespeare’s final design of the play, and consider the nature of the statue of Hermione. My argument is admittedly hypothetical, resting on debatable suppositions, but I believe that it is plausible.
David M. Bergeron (1978). ‘The Restoration of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale’. In Carol McGinnis Kay & Henry E. Jacobs, eds. Shakespeare’s Romances Reconsidered, p. 125. University of Nebraska Press.