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The Hybridity of Popular Culture in The Winter’s Tale

François Laroque


Dans sa préface à La bergère fidèle (1609), John Fletcher critique la vulgarité populaire des goûts de son auditoire, incapable selon lui de comprendre le genre nouveau de la tragicomédie. Shakespeare, lui, a su éviter pareille erreur. Dans Le conte d’hiver, il fait en effet de Perdita « la reine du lait caillé et de la crème » (4.4.161). Autolycus vend et chante ses ballades dans les « kermesses, les foires et les combats d’ours » (4.3.99-100) qu’il est dit fréquenter. D’un autre côté, tout en disant mépriser ce qu’il appelle « les gens du commun » et les « basses classes » (1.2.222, 224), Leontès n’hésite pas à recourir à des expressions populaires telles que « traînée »  (1.2.273) ou « débauchée » (2.1.93) pour désigner la reine Hermione. Aiguillonné par la jalousie, le roi de Sicile recourt à des expressions populaires et à des traditions issues du folklore, de sorte que « l’édifice de sa folie » (1.2.424) n’est en fait guère éloigné des absurdités les plus criantes qui peuplent les ballades d’Autolycus. La culture populaire et celle de l’élite se combinent et se font écho dans les deux moitiés de la pièce qui sont donc moins antithétiques qu’elles n’en ont l’air.

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  • 1 Unless otherwise stated, all quotes will be drawn from Stephen Orgel’s edition.

1Given the specific background of the Jacobean resistance to the Puritan onslaughts against popular festivals and theatrical performances, the study of the importance and function of popular culture and festivity in The Winter’s Tale1must be historicized as it seems to require that one pay particular attention to dates and chronology. Indeed, it is almost impossible to compare and contrast this late romance with say A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It or The Merry Wives of Windsor, all of them comedies of the green world where song and dance, festive pastimes and folklore are part and parcel of the overall festive structure. Indeed, Shakespeare’s late play implies that one should take into account the important historical and political changes between the mid-1590s and the 1610s. By 1610-11, the date when the play was written and performed, church-ales, Hocktide pastimes, May games and morris dancing had all gone into an irremediable decline:

[…] despite James’s reputation for being a friend to traditional pastimes, the ecclesiastical politics of the early part of his reign continued to support the dismantling of the traditional year, and sabbatarianism continued to be the mainstream position of the church of England. (Jensen 2008, 198)

2So, in a way, one could argue that the revival of Robert Greene’s 1588 romance, Pandosto, dramatized for the public stage of the Globe may have represented for Shakespeare a way of joining forces with the Jacobean nostalgia for the folk games and entertainments of Merry England. Even though this backward glance reconstructed a world that never really existed rather than a world that had been lost, there was a general illusion that Maypoles and hobby horses represented entry points into an originary or native folk culture that was thought to provide some sort of antidote to the fragmentation and alienation experienced in an increasingly urban society. This is how John Aubrey conveys his views of the situation a propos the world of fables and fairy tales:

Before Printing, Old-wives Tales were ingeniose, and since Printing came in fashion, till a little before the Civill-warres, the ordinary sort of People were not taught to reade. Now-a-days Books are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good Bookes, and variety of Turnes of Affaires, have putt all the old Fables out of doors: and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frighted away Robin-goodfellow and the Fayries. (Aubrey, 67-68)

3For John Aubrey, the world of oral culture and illiteracy was synonymous with the proliferation of “winter’s tales” or “old wives’ tales” with “sprites and goblins” as in the tale which Mamillius begins to tell his mother:

A sad tale’s best for winter; I have one
Of sprites and goblins […]
There was a man […]
Dwelt by a churchyard (2.1.25-6).

4According to Mary Ellen Lamb, such narratives were generated by a female-dominated environment which would have raised the strictures of Erasmus’s humanist pedagogy:

A boy (may) learn a pretty story from the ancient poets, or a memorable tale from history, just as readily as the stupid and vulgar ballad, or the old wives’ fairy rubbish such as most children are steeped in nowadays by nurses and serving women. (Erasmus, 214)

  • 2 On this, see Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1978).

5The success of “stupid and vulgar ballads” or of “the old wives’ fairy rubbish”, here flouted by the Dutch humanist, is indicative of lower-class female influence over children placed under their care and guidance, and it expresses an anxiety about the widespread existence of these oral traditions which often had an abiding influence over young minds (Lamb 1998, 529-54). As opposed to this, the learning of Latin made the young male élite amphibious, bicultural and also bilingual.2

  • 3 The quote comes from the Oxford edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

6So, in spite of Puritan attacks and staunch opposition to popular festivities, folk celebrations went on but they acquired new meanings in the process of resistance. They were used as a repertory of images for insult or as ways of stigmatizing deviant sexual behaviour, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for instance when Hermia calls her friend Helena “painted maypole” (3.2.296).3 This may explain Perdita’s spontaneous rejection of any form of painting (4.4.101) in the sheep-shearing scenes (John Pitcher ed.) as opposed to the ladies in waiting at the Sicilian court but also to Hermione’s statue which is also said to be painted:

Paulina (to Perdita)
The statue is but newly fixed; the colour’s
Not dry […] (5.3.47-8)  

7As if this warning were not enough, another allusion to the statue being painted is found in 5.3.83. So, the insistent refusal of make-up and cosmetics in the play is certainly part of this anti-theatrical, iconoclastic movement that associated face-painting with immorality.

8In this paper, I will argue that if, in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare does echo the contemporary nostalgia for popular games and for the sense of hospitality and community allegedly found in good old ‘merry England’, he also combines this idealized vision with a critique of such naïve posture, as the green world had by then become a commercial site for the peddling of goods. So, the festival traditions of yore seem to have essentially survived in the form of printed ballads and chapbook literature. Moreover, the playwright reveals the naïve country shepherds and shepherdesses to be literate and he discloses the cross-fertilization of court and country language in a subversive, carnivalesque version of pastoral, where rogues are regarded as mock-kings and shepherds as “gentlemen born”.

Shakespeare’s Version of Pastoral in The Winter’s Tale

9The long sheep-shearing scene in act 4, scene 4, may, up to a certain extent, be regarded as an expression of the Jacobean nostalgia for Elizabethan popular culture and rural pastimes, while it certainly rejects the Protestant Arcadia of Spenser and Sidney. In this, Shakespeare may have wanted to dissociate himself from John Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess (1608), the first attempt at tragicomedy on the English stage which turned out to be a complete failure in the Blackfriars theatre where it was first presented:

Writing for the more pretentious repertory and clientele of the boy Company at the Blackfriars, poets might reasonably be irked if their verse was misunderstood, though Fletcher had more grounds for grief than most since the playgoers at Blackfriars seem to have expected a traditional and populist kind of play with May-games and rural clowns, not at all the usual Blackfriars pretension (Gurr, 94).

10Indeed, in the printed quarto of the play published in 1610, Fletcher added a one page address “To the reader” where he gave vent to his personal grievances, deriding the unappreciative audience while trying to justify himself by giving a definition of what the new genre of tragicomedy was supposed to be about:

It is a pastoral tragic-comedy, which the people seeing when it was Played, having ever had a singular gift in defining, concluded to be a play of country hired shepherds in gray cloaks, with curtailed dogs in strings, sometimes laughing together, and sometimes killing one another; and missing Whitsun-ales, cream, wassail, and morris-dances, began to be angry. (Beaumont and Fletcher, 252)

11At this particular period, Elizabethan pastoral was supposed to be full of rustic amusements, so that representing the peasant in the grotesque guise of the clown was a way for dramatists to please the more popular parts in the audience. The paradox here is that Fletcher’s play was presented in the expensive private theatre of the Blackfriars, a theatre without groundlings and with supposedly more sophisticated tastes than in the public playhouses. So, Shakespeare must have been careful not to repeat Fletcher’s mistake in his tragicomedy. The whole sheep-shearing scene in 4.4. is developed from a simple hint in Pandosto which informs us that a meeting of farmers’ daughters took place with Fawnia as mistress of the feast:

[…] there was a meeting of all the farmers’ daughters in Sicilia, whither Fawnia was also bidden as the mistress of the feast, who having attired herself in the best garments went among the rest of her companions to the merry meeting, there spending the day in such homely pastimes as shepherds use. (John Pitcher, 425)

12Shakespeare prefers to describe in detail a real shepherd’s feast rather than allude to some vague type of rejoicing, thus making Perdita “the queen of curds and cream” (4.4.161), i.e. the whitepot queen who presided over the ‘Whitsun pastorals’ (4.4.134), or Whitsuntide celebrations, of rural England. As J.H.P. Pafford puts it in his introduction to the play, “[t]hough Florizel and Perdita have something of the traditional artificiality of Arcadia, the sheep-shearing is not a conventional idyll but largely a realistic picture of a well-known popular festivity” (J.H.P. Pafford ed., lxvi).

13In the Bohemian scenes, the Old Shepherd’s son, the Clown, dutifully rehearses the list of goods he must buy for the feast while alluding to the flower decorations made by Perdita for the shearers and also, in a rather incidental way, to a Puritan “singing psalms to hornpipes” (4.3.36-45). As to the rogue and peddlar Autolycus, the “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles” “littered under Mercury” (4.3.25-26), he is said to “haunt[s] wakes, fairs and bear-baitings” (4.3.99-100). To all this we should add the “gallimaufry of gambols” (4.4. 332) by the twelve rustic dancers dressed as satyrs (4.4.347, SD). Recreative as Shakespeare’s green world may be, it is not a never-never land as its strong touches of realism tinged with irony and a measure of cynicism make the upside down world of Bohemia a site which is poles apart from the bleak wintry world of Sicilia but also a wonderfully liberating space where things are repeated in a lower key but represented in lively, sometimes flashy, colours.

14In doing this, Shakespeare may have followed the example of Michael Drayton (1563-1631) who, in his 1606 re-edition of his earlier Elizabethan eclogues, added an entirely new poem describing a Cotswold sheep-shearing in great detail instead of alluding to some vague, undifferentiated Arcadia (Hutton, 164). The description of the feast includes allusions to some traditional English fare characteristic of rural England:

And soon preparing for the shepherd’s board,
Upon a green that curiously was squared,
With country cates that plentifully stored:
And ’gainst their coming handsomely prepared.

New whig, with water from the clearest stream,
Green plums, and wildings, cherries chief of feast,
Fresh cheese, and dowsets, curds and clouted cream,
Spiced syllabubs, and cider of the best.
(Drayton, 329-30, ll. 41-8)

  • 4 See Hutton, 166: “In the same period [1609-1615], playwrights continued to incorporate folk pastime (...)
  • 5 The Porter scene in Henry VIII is 5.3, where line 13 contains an allusion to “May-day morning” to g (...)

15It seems likely that Shakespeare directly borrowed from Drayton the allusion to “curds and clouted cream” in the line where Camillo calls Perdita “the queen of curds and cream” (4.4.161), thereby assimilating the changes in pastoral conventions by referring to traditional pastimes and to the rural, festive fare of real country people while drastically departing from the Protestant Arcadias of Elizabethan poets and prose fiction writers.4 And, in incorporating festive practices into his pastoral scenes, he was able to achieve effects very different from those of Jacobean Spenserian writers as well as from Jonson’s court panegyrics. We should also note that, in his collaboration with Shakespeare, John Fletcher was careful not to repeat his original mistake as both Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen include important moments and scenes in which festivity and popular culture are being celebrated (the Porter’s scene for the christening of Elizabeth in the first, and the Morris dance in the latter).5

16Phebe Jensen reads Shakespeare’s Bohemian scenes as part of what she calls “the play’s exploration of a diseased iconoclasm”, presenting Leontes in the first three acts as the one figuratively “singing psalms to hornpipes” as “his obsession with his cuckolded forehead can be linked to his abhorrence of plays, playing and unlawful images” (Jensen 2004, 282). According to her, Perdita’s strictures against art, make-up and festivity simply repeat her father’s iconoclastic spirit since “she also adopts the radical Reformed position seen in both Leontes and anti-festive writers in order to attack festivity, performance and art […].” But when she argues that

Shakespeare uses the Bohemian sheep-shearing scenes as a way to explore the dangers of Protestant iconoclasm [as] the play endorses exactly those aspects of traditional pastimes – their link to a Catholic past, and affinity with Catholic forms of ritual behaviour – that had been purged from customary pastimes by the early Jacobean period…(Jensen 2008, 212)

17I find it difficult to agree with her, as I personally object to the idea of Shakespeare’s using festivity for the sake of ideological purposes. If he did so, it was to please his audiences in writing a type of tragicomedy suited to the new Jacobean spirit and aesthetics. So, while Jensen denies The Winter’s Tale to be “a Catholic play”, she insists that it “recuperates epistemologies of Catholic worship”, “defends the old religion on aesthetic grounds, advocating an anti-iconoclastic aesthetics of ‘real presence’ for the theatre and a festive world for early modern audiences” (Jensen 2004, 282). To me, such views are indeed both distorted and excessive as they tend to reduce the complexity of Shakespeare’s play (certainly one of his most obscure and difficult) to a fairly simple, readable ideological message. Jensen misreads the difficult issue of the place and function of popular culture in the play by making it boil down to the Jacobean nostalgia for Elizabethan festivals and “Merry England” as well as to what Leah Marcus has called the “politics of mirth” (Leah Marcus).

Old Tales

18In the early seventeenth century, the Jacobean elites, abandoning the public for the more elegant and fashionable private theatres where the price of a single performance was six times higher than what a groundling had to pay for admission into the Globe, changed the tastes that seem to have prevailed in the late 1590s and began the regard the ‘jig’ and popular culture in general as a ‘low’ form of art. Following in this the French nobility, the English gentry left the genre of the romance to the lower orders and Peter Burke notes that “from the mid-seventeenth century on, Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton were reprinted only in chap-book form” (Burke, 278).

19In her book about the genre of the romance in England, Lori Humphrey Newcomb is able to explain this in some detail:

Romance, that pervasive, enduring, and pleasurable genre, began to drive the work of distinction from the sixteenth century, when London printers began to offer Continental chivalric romances in quarto editions and English authors began to write prose romances specifically for the print market. The wealthy and educated, seeing that the experience of reading for pleasure was no longer exclusively theirs, attempted to subdivide the genre of romance along lines of social class. Only a few romance texts were granted elite literary status; the rest came to be scorned as merely popular. The “pleasant histories” – chivalric romances and native Elizabethan prose romances like Pandosto that were constantly in press and reliable sellers – were singled out as cultural leftovers fit only for the low-status readers, including women, servants, and eventually children. (Humphrey Newcomb, 8-9)

20So, romance was clearly outdated for the literati in 1611, and by turning a highly popular ‘old tale’ into something new on the public stage of the Globe, Shakespeare added rustic realism and festivity as well as strong visual and dramatic elements of surprise (like the revelation of Apollo’s oracle in 3.2 or the statue scene in the final scene). He also stressed the opposition between mimeticism (the capacity to believe in the tales and ballads in the play) and a type of theatricality and meta-theatricality that essentially works through the visual and the spectacular. Also, Shakespeare shifts the interest away from the young lovers, Florizel and Perdita, in order to call attention to other motifs than love and romance, so as to emphasize the question of the reunion of families and the creation of a strong sense of wonder at the end. Moreover, he pits the exchanges between Prince and Shepherdess against the comic realism and mercurial agility of Autolycus who runs into the roles of con-man, peddlar, ventriloquist and quick-change artist, so that the function of the long sheep-shearing scene obviously exceeds the simple love exchanges. Beyond this, this scene was obviously meant to please contemporary audiences by gratifying their wish to see festivities so sadly absent in pastorals like Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess and to praise folk celebrations and fertility rituals in a new environment, since the rural rejoicings take place in Bohemia rather than in Sicily as in traditional pastoral narratives.

21At this juncture, it would be naïve to think that, by the 1610s, ballads, fairy or old wives’ tales, and the stuff of romance in general, were still part of a traditional, real, rural culture. Just as the calendar of traditional recreations had been appropriated by sabbatarians and anti-theatricalists like Philip Stubbes (The Anatomy of Abuses, 1583), so as to attack their superstitious nature as well as their pagan or popish idolatry, thus unwittingly preserving them from oblivion, ballads and popular literature in general were circulated in print and marketable goods such as Autolycus shows. If it is true that print romances had become the province of women, servants and country folk, one should also note that the interest for these stories crossed social barriers as “it was their very mingling of popular and elite audiences, undermining social distinctions, that may have made such forces worth denouncing” (Henderson and Siemon, 211). In other words, popular culture was marked by its hybridity and it seems to have worked for the upper as well as for the lower classes in spite of the strong contemporary desire for social distinction. This was especially true of the ‘Old wives’ tales” and other Cinderella or Mother Goose stories that nurses and women frightened or enchanted young children with and which survived well into their adult age. In The Winter’s Tale such hybridity is particularly striking and it goes along with Shakespeare’s rather complex and altogether ambiguous attitude towards them. As Lori Humphrey Newcomb puts it,

Shakespeare’s play admits its continuity with Autolycus’s “unconsidered trifles” and Greene’s romances. The Winter’s Tale, today dignified as a Shakespeare romance, betrays a very complex attitude toward prose romance, simultaneously mocking its conventions and appropriating its power. (81)

22The passage where Autolycus sells his ballads is particularly interesting because the scene summarizes the popular, if not promiscuous, sites where these printing commodities are being bought by female servants and shepherdesses like Mopsa and Dorcas, thus confirming Henry Parrot’s later desire to avoid having his texts “with your Ballads mixt,” “at Play-houses, ’mongst Pippins solde” or “brought in Peddlers’ packs, / To common Fairs” (quoted by Wright, 95). And, according to Lori Newcomb, “the ballad scene, for all its mockery of the foolishness of ballads and buyers, reflects Shakespeare’s investment in the performance of popular culture” (117).

23Now, when Mopsa exclaims “I love a ballad in print, a-life, for then we are sure they are true” (4.4.260-61), she is indirectly echoing the central question of textual truth posed by Apollo’s oracle in 3.2.130-33 after Leontes has passed his verdict, claiming that “There is no truth at all i’th’oracle” (3.2.137). Mopsa’s rustic naivety regarding printed matter as invested with the authority of truth is here poles apart from Leontes’s mad scepticism for which “All’s true that is mistrusted” (2.1.48). Later on, the wonderful nature of the truth is said to exceed the wildest fiction of the ballads:

The oracle is fulfilled, the king’s daughter is found. Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it. (5.2.22-5)

24If popular culture reveals the way the newly literate can thus fool themselves with the so-called authority of printed matter, it also puts in perspective the king’s excessive mistrust which leads him to become blind to the simple truth, a truth which he will only be able to see and accept after sixteen years’ penance and by “awak[ing] his faith” in front of the miraculous awakening of Hermione’s statue in the end.

25So, in the sheep-shearing scenes marked by the cross-breeding of romance, pastoral and the underworld of Robert Greene’s cony-catching pamphlets, in which the green world is made to co-exist with the racy realism of city comedy, the two worlds of élite and popular culture keep echoing each other, the latter offering a distorted image of the former. This reveals the existence of a whole network of correspondences and allusions which tie in the Bohemian and the Sicilian worlds, so that the tragic half is replayed in a lower key, and resurfaces in a parodic or subverted form in the comic half that serves to heal and exorcise the errors of the past. The play itself is a hybridization of various genres ranging from romance through pamphlet literature to city comedy.

“Nature’s Bastards”

26Perdita will have none of the “streaked gillyvors” (a flower whose name rhymes with whore) and she calls them “Nature’s bastards” (4.4.83), thereby ironically repeating at the level of gardening and horticulture the exclusion which she herself was a victim of in 3.3. Contrary to this, Polixenes advocates the art of grafting as a technique allowing man to better simple nature:

    You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. (4.4.92-5)

27This plea may be read as an indirect acceptance of a possible union of high and low, a marriage between a prince and a shepherdess (which it is not as the play soon reveals) or as a plea for the cross-breeding of élite and popular cultures.

28So, Shakespeare represents a complex social and cultural fabric in the Bohemian scenes of The Winter’s Tale. By point of fact, it quickly appears that neither the Old Shepherd nor his son the Clown are illiterate. The latter is fluent enough to rehearse his shopping list for the sheep-shearing while the former uses the verb to read in the sense of understanding or surmising the origin:

A boy or a child, I wonder? A pretty one, a very pretty one — sure some scape; though I am not bookish, yet I can read waiting-gentlewoman in the scape. This has been some stair-work, some trunk-work, some behind-door work (3.3.69-73).

29In this, the Old Shepherd probably recognizes the leitmotiv of the exiled princess turned into a ‘foundling’ or a ‘changeling’, later identified thanks to the marks hidden in the secret ‘fardel’ (4.4.711) found close to her cradle. Could we go as far as to suppose that this Shakespearean character indirectly acknowledges that the discovery of the lost child literally rings a bell that reminds him of the plot of a romance he had read in the past, this particular romance being none other than Pandosto written twenty-three years before The Winter’s Tale? This of course would amount to an extraordinary mise en abyme in a play that then would no longer appear as a reworking and rewriting of Greene’s romance but as part of Pandosto’s reception. As Lori Newcomb puts it, “the narratological self-consciousness of The Winter’s Tale has been recognized as a meditation on the play’s relationship to its prose source […]” (117). Indeed, in the end, the truth of the whole story is repeatedly compared to an “old tale”:

Second Gentleman
This news, which is called true, is so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion… (5.2.27-9).

30Later, Antigonus’s fate is also compared to “an old tale” (5.2.60) and Perdita says that, if the truth of the living statue “were it but told you, [it] should be hooted at/ Like an old tale” (5.3.115-17). It is as if the characters of the play, by being able to recognize the themes and motifs of the romance, could all of a sudden escape from the fairly rigid and conventional frame of prose fiction and acquire a new dimension in the mobile, many-layered and kaleidoscopic world of theatricality. Thus The Winter’s Tale presents us with a complex and ambivalent attitude towards the world of popular culture, romances, ballads or ‘old wives’ tales” told by the fireside during the long wintry nights, as it is simultaneously invoked and used with an undeniable sympathy and distanced and “hooted at” by the Gentlemen in 5.2. According to Richard Wilson, Shakespeare does not naturalise class and property in The Winter’s Tale but rather subverts the “natural aristocracy of the Cinderella fantasy” affirming the existence of a dialectical relationship between “high” and “low” in the play (Wilson, 70).

  • 6 We may notice here that, if Leontes may think of himself as falling from “prince” to “beggar,” in t (...)

31In accusing his wife of adultery, Leontes insists on “mannerly distinguishment” (2.1.87), i.e. on the need for the king to stick to a decent, decorous language as opposed to the “vulgars [that] give bold’st titles” (2.1.93-4). Otherwise, he says, ‘barbarism’ or uncivilized rudeness would erase the difference between “the prince and beggar” (l. 87).6 Yet, these are rhetorical afterthoughts as well as a purely political stance in front of the queen since the king has already badly abused her in his earlier exchanges with Camillo. Indeed, after applying to what he thinks must be the courtier’s superior judgement (“[…] thy conceit […] will draw in/More than the common blocks […] Lower messes/Perchance are to this business purblind?”) (1.2.224-25), he will freely indulge in a vulgar language oblivious of any kind of aristocratic or kingly restraint:

My wife’s a hobby-horse, deserves a name
As rank as any flax-wench that puts to
Before her troth-plight… (1.2.273-76)

32The image of the hobby-horse may anticipate on Antigonus’s “I’ll keep my stables where I lodge my wife…” (2.1.134-35). As to the allusion to the country girl (“flax-wench”) obviously it anticipates on the rural pastimes and the racy, popular idiom used in part of the Bohemian scenes, in particular when Autolycus peddles his “trumpery” and sells his ballads to the Clown and to the two rival shepherdesses, Mopsa and Dorcas. The term ‘hobby-horse’ was then commonly used to designate a prostitute or woman of ill fame. In the play, it oddly resonates with Perdita’s “gillyvors”, a name which she takes as a synonym for ‘whore’ because of the rhyme or echo between the words, all the more so as, in the 1623 Folio, the popular expression appears under the odd form of “holy-horse”, which remained the standard text until Rowe changed it into “hobby horse”, an emendation now universally accepted. This in itself shows the imbrication of higher and lower cultures in the play as the grotesque, hybrid hobby-horse, a compound of man and beast, appears as another instance of this hybridity of popular culture. Besides, the hobby-horse could easily be added to the rich bestiary of play where Leontes is a lion-king (‘Leo’), Autolycus the wolf (“lykos”), Giulio Romano the “ape” of nature (5.2.97) while the country shepherds are the sheep whose fleece is being shorn by the rogue peddlar. There is also a bear which seems to be lurking almost everywhere due not only to its irruption on stage in the middle of 3.3 [SD Exit Antigonus pursued by a bear] but also to the extensive word-play that links it to the act of bearing and giving birth, and to the popular word for baby, i.e. “bairn”, which the Old Shepherd resorts to when he catches sight of little Perdita (3.3.68-9). The fact that the jealous king fails to respect courtly decorum a propos his wife also applies to himself when he imagines himself as a “forked one” playing the part of the cuckold:

(To Mamillius) Go play, boy, play—thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave; contempt and clamour
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is, even at this present
Now, while I speak this, holds his wife by th’arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence,
And his pond fished by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour […] (I.2.186-95).

33As horned beast and cuckold, Leontes joins the gallery of the grotesques and the intermediary zone between men and animals (Laroque, 55-62). His fury erupts in a string of misogynous images alive with violent plosive syllables such as “no barricado for a belly” or “with bag and baggage,” the latter expression being lifted verbatim from Pandosto and given an obscene connotation not present in the original. Another moment in the play when the king resorts to popular culture and parlance is when he inveighs against Paulina’s intrusion with the baby in her arms while he is persuaded that it is Polixenes’ issue and calls her “Dame Partlett” (2.3.74), the name of the hen in Reynard the Fox and “Lady Margery” (2.3.158), another name for the country fowl. All this reveals the king’s diseased imagination to be haunted by popular, carnivalesque images as in the more delirious passages of Philip Stubbes’ Anatomy of Abuses (1583). Leontes’ revulsion at feminine boldness extends against the one he regards as a weak, complacent husband, a “losel […] worthy to be hanged,/ That will not stay her tongue” (2.3.108-109), Antigonus, against whom he organizes a form of verbal charivari.

34With its real, symbolic and comic animals, The Winter’s Tale thus takes on the contours of a fable fraught with many popular, satirical and anti-feminine elements, thus adding another genre to the complex, volatile mix of the tragicomedy. The hybridity here is generic as well as part of the cross-breeding of motifs, characters, modes, moods and cultures, so much so that it may be said to constitute one of the main and easily recognizable characteristics of Shakespeare’s play.


35The image of grafting in 4.4. may certainly be regarded as a structural metaphor to designate the complex fabric of a play where high and low, upstairs and downstairs are in turn opposed, inverted and mingled. Contraries do meet in The Winter’s Tale as the most sophisticated and the most vulgar interlock and echo each other through a series and system of repetitions, correspondences and mirror effects.

36This play remains a fertile terrain for mythological investigation and anthropological excavation as it is certainly a piece of work where Shakespeare, in truly Lévi-Straussian terms, plays the part of the “bricoleur,” using a number of “unconsidered trifles” to reveal such or such detail to be the symptom or tell-tale sign of a passage from “intention” (1.2.137) to “interpretation” (4.4.348), from oral tales to printed texts (Wilson, 72).

37As to the festive heritage, it serves to introduce a realistic note associated to contemporary rural sports and peasant culture while it also offsets Perdita’s natural refinement and elegance, thus introducing a continuity between her father’s initial iconoclasm and her own refusal of painting, cross-breeding and play-acting. Finally, it is also undeniably part and parcel of a virtuoso performance with songs and dances, allusions, wordplay and a wonderful display of linguistic and rhetorical fireworks. It explores and exploits the paraphernalia of contemporary folklore—or of what was left of it in the 1610s—as a way to enliven the play, fill it with comic and popular energies rather than to convey any specific religious or ideological message. Like Autolycus’s “ribbons of all the colours i’th’rainbow” (4.4.206), it is the expression of multiplicity and of mobility, the locus of what Richard Wilson, in a recent and brilliant article, has called “migrant meanings” and of “mercurial beautification” (Wilson, 72).

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1 Unless otherwise stated, all quotes will be drawn from Stephen Orgel’s edition.

2 On this, see Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1978).

3 The quote comes from the Oxford edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

4 See Hutton, 166: “In the same period [1609-1615], playwrights continued to incorporate folk pastimes in the way which had begun to be fashionable around 1600. The greatest of all did so in 1611, when Shakespeare added a rural revel to The Winter’s Tale […].”

5 The Porter scene in Henry VIII is 5.3, where line 13 contains an allusion to “May-day morning” to give the spectator an idea of the crowd’s restlessness. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, the Morris dance occurs at the end of 3.5 (ll. 101-58), where it is called a “country pastime” (3.5.101). Fletcher was to take it up and include it in a later play called Women Pleased (1618).

6 We may notice here that, if Leontes may think of himself as falling from “prince” to “beggar,” in the upside down green world of Bohemia, Autolycus proudly claims in his entrance song that “a quart of ale is a dish for a king” (4.3.8), thus making the vagrant tinker a sort of mock-king or lord of misrule in the apparently lawless world of the pastoral.

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François Laroque, « The Hybridity of Popular Culture in The Winter’s Tale »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 13 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2011, consulté le 21 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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François Laroque

Université Paris III - Sorbonne Nouvelle

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