The themes of The Winter's Tale are similar to the themes in Shakespeare's
three other final plays: The Tempest, Cymbeline and Pericles. All these plays are
known as romances.
Youth and Age
One theme is the power of youth to regenerate age. For example, it is the young
people, Perdita and Florizel, who effect the reconciliation between the old kings,
Leontes and Polixenes. This theme is struck in the very first scene, in which
Camillo comments that young Mamilius is such a promising prince that he makes
"old hearts fresh." (See also Polixenes' comments, Act 1, scene 2, lines 170-71.)
Mamilius of course does not live to fulfill his promise, but Perdita does. There is a
sense of human life renewing itself through the cycle of generations.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
The importance of forgiveness and reconciliation is another theme in the last
plays of Shakespeare. Hermoine forgives Leontes the wrong he inflicted on her,
and they are finally reconciled. Polixenes forgives Leontes. Leontes must also try
to forgive himself.
Supernatural or improbable events often feature in the Shakespearean
romances. In The Winter's Tale, the god Apollo intervenes, through the oracle,
when Leontes is blind to the truth and bent on injustice. The "resurrection" of
Hermoine is also presented as a supernatural event, a miracle. Paulina is
anxious to avoid any implication that she is bringing Hermoine back to life by the
use of magical arts. Shakespeare's concern is not to produce a trick by magic,
but to demonstrate in a symbolic way the power of life to regenerate itself.
Nobility of Woman
Another theme of the romances, prominent in The Winter's Tale, is the nobility,
purity and resoluteness of woman. These qualities are embodied in Hermoine,
who is not only beyond reproach in her duties as queen, but also endures false
accusation and condemnation with great dignity. Paulina is steadfast, loyal and
persistent, and Perdita is the embodiment of the innocent regenerative power of
nature. In no other play by Shakespeare does he present as many women of
such admirable qualities. They stand in contrast to the appalling conduct of
Leontes and, in Act 4, of Polixenes, who performs a function similar to that of
Leontes in the first two acts. Man's belligerence and even madness is therefore
contrasted with woman's quiet strength.
Nature and the Perpetual Renewal of Life
Perhaps the main theme is the triumph of life, as expressed through nature's
perpetual powers of renewal. This is the "great creating nature" (Act 4, scene 4,
line 89) that is shown in all its variety in the great sheep-shearing scene. The
rhythms of nature are reflected in the structure of the play. The first three acts
are tragic (decay; winter), the last two comic (rebirth and growth; summer). The
two moods meet in the Old Shepherd, as he discovers the babe Perdita at the
same time that Clown witnesses the death of Antigonus: "Now bless thyself: thou
met'st with things dying, I with things new-born" (Act 3, scene 3, lines 112-13).
The structure of the play suggests that human life will be healed by nature and
time, just as spring always returns to the earth. What time takes away it will
ultimately restore. The miraculous return of Hermoine (no one ever explains
where she has been all those years) is simply part of the symbolic message that
life has infinite restorative powers. Just as Perdita can be found, so can
Hermoine be restored.