Jeanette Winterson has written a great novel based on The Winter's Tale called The Gap of Time.
This really isn't Shakespeare at his best. It isn't just that he mucks up the business about what Florizel is wearing. The moments of dramatic spectacle when Antigonus is chased by a bear and when Hermione's 'statue' comes to life seem rather forced. There are key points which grip: the wonderful fractured poetry of Leontes as he becomes obsessed with jealousy, when the happy atmosphere of the court is torn apart; the pivotal moment during Hermione's trial when the oracle is read, Leontes blasphemes, his son dies, he realises his jealousies are ill-founded and Hermione (apparently) dies; the moment Florizel is about to marry Perdita and his father throws of his disguise to ban the nuptials. But why, why, why, oh why did Shakespeare put the crucial recognition scene off-stage?
As usual Shakespeare mingles comedy and drama. There's little humour at the start, in the grip of Leontes and his jealousy, but the moment that Antigonus is chased off the Shepherd and the Clown start playing for laughs, and then Autolycus the trickster arrives. These three get the audience laughing again just after Perdita's recognition is reported, before Hermione comes back to life.
The best poetry comes from Leontes but the best character is the wonderful Paulina.
Act One: After a short scene in prose in which Camillo and another character give the back story we are straight onto the meat. Polixenes, King of Bohemia has been staying with Leontes, King of Sicily. They were childhood friends. But Leontes decides that his queen, Hermione, is too friendly with Polixenes and suddenly suspects that the two of them are having an affair; he suspects the paternity of the baby Hermione is carrying. Camillo, his most trusted servant, cannot persuade him he is wrong and therefore agrees to poison Polixenes but, getting cold feet, he warns Polixenes and the two of the flee back to Bohemia.
Leontes tries to persuade his friend and brother king Polixenes to extend his visit to Sicily but Polixenes repeatedly refuses. So Leontes asks his wife and queen, the very pregnant Hermione to help. But when she manages to persuade Polixenes to stay he suddenly becomes miffed; he has been watching them and thinks their friendship is more than it seems. He becomes irrationally convinced that they are having an affair:
... Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
... my heart dances,
But not for joy, not joy. ...!He is jealous of their "paddling palms and pinching fingers"
He calls Mamillius, his little son, to him and remarks how much the boy looks like him (although he is not 100% convinced, saying "We are/ Almost as like as eggs. Women say so,/ That will say anything"), reassuring himself of the boy's paternity. Then, in a wonderful speech where the words are disjointed and tumbling and the ideas are disjointed and tumbling and full of word play and metaphors, a speech that betrays his fevered uncertainty, he concludes that he has been cuckolded by Polixenes and Hermione and the child she is about to bear is not his. "It is a bawdy planet" he decides
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now, while I speak of this, holds his wife by th' arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic'd in 's absence,
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour
... Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? ...
... Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours minutes? Noon midnight? ...
... is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that's in 't is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.
Who? asks Camillo and Leontes says: "Why, he that wears her like a medal, hanging,/ About his neck"
Then Leontes persuades Camillo to poison Polixenes and Camillo agrees, on condition that afterwards Leontes forgives Hermione. But after Leontes has gone, Camillo realises that those who assassinate royalty never prosper and, meeting Polixenes, tells him about the suspicions of Leontes and what Camillo has promised to do and persuades Polixenes to flee back to Bohemia, taking Camillo with him.
For me, this scene had the best poetry of the play, full of caesurae and enjambments, reflecting the turbulent and broken unreason of Leontes.
Act Two: After such a dramatic start we have to breathe. Act 2 starts with a scene of cosy domesticity in which Maximilius, the little prince, is teasing his mother's servants and telling a story to his mum. But Leontes enters, in a rage having heard the news of Camillo's flight, which serves to confirm his suspicions and, having had the boy removed to a safe place, accuses his wife of adultery. She is astonished. Is this some sort of joke? Had anyone else accused her he would have been evil but her sweet lord must only be mistaken. But Leontes is adamant. His only concession is that he agrees to consult the oracle at Delphi. So Hermione is taken to prison where her baby daughter is born. Leontes commands his servant Antigonus to take the child and abandon it in a foreign land.
Act Three: Starts with Hermione's trial. At the end of it she appeals to the oracle. This is the pivotal moment of the play and suddenly everything happens in just a few lines. The oracle pronounces Hermione innocent but Leontes says it lies. Immediately he has spoken this blasphemy (the very next line) a servant enters with news that his son, Maximilius, is dead. Leontes immediately repents but Hermione falls to the floor. She is taken away and Pualine swiftly returns to announce that she is dead. Leontes has lost his friend and fellow king, his son, his wife, and his new baby daughter. Dramatic brilliance.
We move to the shore of Bohemia. Some people think this betrays Shakespeare's ignorance (Bohemia has no coast) or carelessness, others believe that he deliberately swapped Sicily and Bohemia to emphasise the unreality of the play.
Antigonus lands, bearing the baby whom he names Perdita. Having put her on the ground he is chased away (and eaten, off stage) by a bear. Perdita is found by an unnamed Shepherd. Some young lads have scattered his sheep and he is angry: "I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest: for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting. Hark you now: would any but these boiled brains of nineteen and two-and-twenty hunt this weather?" Then he discovers Perdita: "a barne! A very pretty barne. A boy or a child, I wonder? ... Sure, some scape ... this has been some stair-work, some trunk-work, some behind-door-work. They were warmer that got this than the poor thing is here." His son, an unnamed Clown, comes along and tells him that Antigonus has been eaten by the bear and that the ship he came in has sunk. Then they discover the gold in the box.
Act Four: Starts with Time doing a Chorus in which he tells us that 16 years have passed. But the main action is the sheep-shearing feast at which Florizel, the King's son, declares his love for Perdita (and she for him) but King Polixenes (attending the party in disguise to find out what his son has been doing, truanting from court to dally with the daughter of a mysteriously rich shepherd) threatens the Shepherd and Clown with death, Perdita with cosmetic surgery to make her ugly and Florizel with disinheritance. At which point Camillo persuades Florizel and Perdita to run off to Sicilia so he can get the King to chase after them so that he, Camillo, can get to go home. Then Autolycus, a con man and pick pocket, persuades the Clown and the Shepherd to follow the King bearing their proofs that Perdita is not part of their family (so they escape punishment). All is set for the final showdown.
Unfortunately, this bit doesn't really work because Florizel appears in peasant's disguise at the start of the scene and then he chages clothes with Autolycus to ... disguise himself as a peasant, and Autolycus is now dressed as a courtier to impress the Clown and the Shepherd. Shakespeare got this wrong.
Act Five: Florizel and Perdita go to Leontes with Polixenes in hot pursuit and the Shepherd and the Clown pursuing them. Bizarrely, the revelation scene happens off stage and is reported by 'gentlemen' to Autolycus: the proofs the Shepherd had have enabled Perdita to be acknowledged as Leontes' princess and heir so Polixenes is OK about Florizel marrying her.
And in the last scene the whole court decamps to a house in town which Paulina has been visiting two or three times a day for sixteen years (without exciting any suspicion until now). Here there is a marvellous statue of Hermione, exactly as she was but with added wrinkles, which they all admire. Then the statue moves. It is Hermione, preserved. Everyone is very happy.