In 1963 Andy Williams recorded a new song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” meaning the Christmas season, and the lyrics included the lines, “There’ll be scary ghost stories/And tales of the glories of/Christmases long, long ago.” Most likely the reference is to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but it points to a tradition going back at least as far as William Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale. First performed around 1611, the play has two mentions of ghosts, as well as what ranks among the strangest stage directions of all time.
One of Shakespeare’s later plays, The Winter’s Tale is called a Romance, although its happy ending may be why in the First Folio (1623) it comes under Comedies. In any case, it delves into the realm of fairy tale, and, as G. Wilson Knight observed in The Crown of Life (1948), it “may seem a rambling, perhaps an untidy, play; its anachronisms are vivid, its geography disturbing.” For example, literalists balk at the play giving landlocked and wooded Bohemia a seacoast and a desert, and one of the characters consults an oracle of Apollo on the non-existent island of Delphos.
Such fussiness misses the play’s larger point. Frank Kermode, in his introduction to the Signet Classics edition, explained that it “deals with sin and forgiveness, and with the triumph of time—also a Christian theme.” The sin here is jealousy, and forgiveness comes through a kind of resurrection. At the start of Act IV, Time himself appears as the Chorus, and he concludes his setting of the scene with the kind words, “Of this allow,/If ever you have spent time worse, ere now;/If never, yet that Time himself doth say,/He wishes earnestly you never may.”
In May, 1611, Simon Forman, a London alchemist and medical doctor, saw The Winter’s Tale performed at the Globe theatre, and afterwards he wrote a brief summary of the plot. “Observe there,” noted Forman, “how Leontes, King of Sicilia, was overcome with jealousy of his wife with the King of Bohemia his friend,” and so on, yet leaving out two elements most characteristic of this play: the seemingly magical resolution at the end, and earlier on, the chase by a bear.
Alec Guinness, in his memoir, My Name Escapes Me (1996), wondered if “a real bear was borrowed from the adjacent bear-baiting pit to chase Antigonus near the end of Act III: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’—every actor’s favourite stage direction.” Off stage the bear mauls and eats Antigonus, who had just explained to baby Perdita (and thus, the audience) why he was abandoning her on the desert shore of Bohemia. Antigonus’ “ungentle business” was to dispose of the child somewhere remote, and in a dream the ghost of her mother, Hermione, came to him and told him to take Perdita to far-off Bohemia and leave her there.
Much critical speculation has focused on that bear. Whether it was a real bear or an actor in a furry costume, Shakespeare’s audience would at once have got the allusion to 2 Kings 2:23. There forty-two rowdy lads are attacked and killed by two bears, their punishment called down upon them by the prophet Elisha for mocking his baldness. A just end, any bald man like Shakespeare would agree, but like those yobs, Antigonus, in obeying such a wicked order, mocks the right order of the world and sets it askew, such disordering symbolized in that scene not only by the avenging bear, but also by the eruption of a fierce storm.
In all his writings, Shakespeare drew upon biblical and classical themes, and often upon British history. Some critics then and since have deplored his limited learning, but Daniel J. Boorstin, in The Creators (1992), saw the benefit of Shakespeare’s small-town schooling: “The narrow scope and traditions of his elementary education focused his imagination.” From Plutarch Shakespeare knew about ancient Greeks consulting an oracle of Apollo, and from the Bible he knew about a witch in Endor conjuring up the ghost of King Saul. From such basic bits Shakespeare could create a masterpiece.
Just as Antigonus dreams about a ghost, so does another character, young Prince Mamillius, tell a ghost story. Or, rather, he begins to tell it. “There was a man dwelt by a churchyard,” the boy begins, only to be interrupted by Leontes and his nobles breaking in to accuse Mamillius’ mother, Hermione, and try her for adultery with a foreign king, and therefore also for treason. Before long, the young prince takes ill and dies, and Hermione is sentenced to death.
As Joseph Pearce reminds us in The Quest for Shakespeare (2008), when writing about a boy dying young, Shakespeare would have recalled his own son, Hamnet, who died in 1596 at age eleven. Family grief broods over the traumas in Shakespeare’s final plays. In Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, being true to one’s vows stands paramount, along with the importance of family, so that a fresh reading of his sonnets will be open to the famous “dark lady” being none other than the poet’s wife, for whom he longs as he works in London and she stays home in Stratford.
With Mamillius never getting to finish his story, we are forever left in suspense. In 1924, the master of English ghost stories, M. R. James, used Mamillius’ opening line for the title of a brief tale that could fill in for what the prince might have had in mind. James’ story takes place in an English village in Shakespeare’s day and features a hag who dies and is buried and a miser who lives beside a churchyard, which necessarily contains a cemetery, and he would have done well to heed local reports of strange sightings in the churchyard at night.
In a parallel to Mamillius’ haunted churchyard, The Winter’s Tale concludes with a scene in a chapel, and a chapel implies a churchyard. There Leontes sees what he takes to be a statue of Hermione and soon thinks that it has the breath of life. In 1940 C. S. Lewis imagined the scene from Hermione’s perspective; his poem, “Hermione in the House of Paulina,” has her addressing the spirit who was “Coloring with life my paleness, with returning power,/By sober ministrations of severest love.” With those five last words, Lewis put his finger on the Christian faith of William Shakespeare.