“All roads lead to Shakespeare… He is the very center of a literary education in our language. When we say drama, we mean Shakespeare and the rest.”
In Search of Theater
In 1592, a hack writer called Robert Greene complained in print about a young playwright named Shakespeare. Greene called him an “upstart crow,” and accused him of plagiarism.
Some eighteen years later, with Greene safely dead, Shakespeare appropriated the plot of Greene’s most popular prose romance (“Pandosto”) and transformed it into the stage romance, The Winter’s Tale.
Shakespeare’s title meant a kind of “old wives tale,” a made-up story. Perhaps the country folk of England had a tradition like some Native American tribes, of telling stories around the fire in the winter—stories with fantastic elements, that might be fables and teaching stories as well.
The Winter’s Tale was the last play that claims Shakespeare as sole author, except for one more: The Tempest. Though this play is not frequently performed, it contains some of Shakespeare’s most theatrical moments, including spectacles, song and dance, and the very theatrical ending.
Like The Tempest and the earlier As You Like It, this play examines the contrasts of court and countryside, rich nobles and poor country folk, as well as art and nature, magic and real life. Shakespeare suggests ways in which these opposites can be reconciled, as in the character of Perdita, the daughter of noble birth who is raised by shepherds, and who observes that the same sun shines on palace and cottage alike.
“In this play the human and the natural come together," writes Shakespeare biographer Peter Ackroyd, "in the great ongoing rhythm of life itself.”