Title of the play
A play called "The Winter's Tale" would immediately indicate to contemporary audiences that the work would present an "idle tale", an old wives' tale not intended to be realistic and offering the promise of a happy ending. The title may have been inspired by George Peele's play The Old Wives' Tale of 1590, in which a storyteller tells "a merry winter's tale" of a missing daughter. However, early in The Winter's Tale, the royal heir, Mamillius, warns that "a sad tale's best for winter." Indeed, his mother is soon put on trial for treason and adultery - and his death is announced seconds after she is shown to have been faithful.
While the language Paulina uses in the final scene evokes the sense of a magical ritual through which Hermione is brought back to life, there are several passages which suggest a far likelier case – that Paulina hid Hermione at a remote location to protect her from Leontes' wrath and that the re-animation of Hermione does not derive from any magic. The Steward announces that the members of the court have gone to Paulina's dwelling to see the statue, Rogero offers this exposition: "I thought she had some great matter there in hand, for she [Paulina] hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house" (5.2. 102-105). Further, Leontes is surprised that the statue is "so much wrinkled", unlike the Hermione he remembers. Paulina answers his concern by claiming that the age-progression attests to the "carver's excellence", which makes her look "as [if] she lived now." Hermione later asserts that her desire to see her daughter allowed her to endure 16 years of separation: "thou shalt hear that I, / Knowing by Paulina that the oracle / Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved / Myself to see the issue" (5.3.126–129).
However, the action of 3.2 calls into question the "rational" explanation that Hermione was spirited away and sequestered for 16 years. Hermione swoons upon the news of Mamilius' death, and is rushed from the room. Paulina returns after a short monologue from Leontes, bearing the news of Hermione's death. After some discussion, Leontes demands to be led toward the bodies of his wife and son: "Prithee, bring me / To the dead bodies of my queen and son: / One grave shall be for both: upon them shall / The causes of their death appear, unto / Our shame perpetual" (3.2) Paulina seems convinced of Hermione's death, and Leontes' order to visit both bodies and see them interred is never called into question by later events in the play.
The seacoast of Bohemia
Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson ridiculed the presence in the play of a seacoast and a desert in Bohemia, since the Kingdom of Bohemia (which roughly corresponds to the modern-day Czech Republic) had neither a coast (being landlocked) nor a desert. Shakespeare followed his source (Robert Greene's Pandosto) in giving Bohemia a coast, though he reversed the location of characters and events: "The part of Pandosto of Bohemia is taken by Leontes of Sicily, that of Egistus of Sicily by Polixenes of Bohemia". In support of Greene and Shakespeare, it has been pointed out that in the 13th century, for a period of less than about 10 years, under Ottokar II of Bohemia, the territories ruled by the king of Bohemia, although never incorporated into the kingdom of Bohemia, did stretch to the Adriatic, and, if one takes "Bohemia" to mean all of the territories ruled by Ottokar II, it is possible to argue that one could sail from a kingdom of Sicily to the "seacoast of Bohemia". Jonathan Bate offers the simple explanation that the court of King James was politically allied with that of Rudolf II, and the characters and dramatic roles of the rulers of Sicily and Bohemia were reversed for reasons of political sensitivity, and in particular to allow it to be performed at the wedding of the Princess Elizabeth.
In 1891, Edmund O. von Lippmann pointed out that "Bohemia" was also a rare name for Apulia in southern Italy. However, Apulia was at this time a province of the Kingdom of Sicily. More influential was Thomas Hanmer's 1744 argument that Bohemia is a printed error for Bithynia, an ancient nation in Asia Minor; this theory was adopted in Charles Kean's influential 19th century production of the play, which featured a resplendent Bythinian court. At the time of the medieval Kingdom of Sicily, however, Bithynia was long extinct and its territories were controlled by the Byzantine Empire. On the other hand, the play alludes to Hellenistic antiquity (e.g. the Oracle of Delphos, the names of the kings), so that the "Kingdom of Sicily" may refer to Greek Sicily not to the Kingdom of Sicily of later medieval times.
The pastoral genre is not known for precise verisimilitude, and, like the assortment of mixed references to ancient religion and contemporary religious figures and customs, this possible inaccuracy may have been included to underscore the play's fantastical and chimeric quality. As Andrew Gurr puts it, Bohemia may have been given a seacoast "to flout geographical realism, and to underline the unreality of place in the play".
Another theory explaining the existence of the seacoast in Bohemia offered by C.H. Herford is suggested in Shakespeare's chosen title of the play. A winter's tale is something associated with parents telling children stories of legends around a fireside: by using this title, it implies to the audience that these details should not be taken too seriously.
In the novel Prince Otto by Robert Louis Stevenson reference is made to the land of Seaboard Bohemia in the context of an obvious parody of Shakespeare's apparent liberties with geography in the play.
The Isle of Delphos
Likewise, Shakespeare's apparent mistake of placing the Oracle of Delphi on a small island has been used as evidence of Shakespeare's limited education. However, Shakespeare again copied this locale directly from "Pandosto". Moreover, the erudite Robert Greene was not in error, as the Isle of Delphos does not refer to Delphi, but to the Cycladic island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo, which from the 15th to the late 17th century in England was known as "Delphos". Greene's source for an Apollonian oracle on this island likely was the Aeneid, in which Virgil wrote that Priam consulted the Oracle of Delos before the outbreak of the Trojan War and that Aeneas after escaping from Troy consulted the same Delian oracle regarding his future.
The play contains one of the most famous Shakespearean stage directions: Exit, pursued by a bear, presaging the offstage death of Antigonus. It is not known whether Shakespeare used a real bear from the London bear-pits, or an actor in bear costume. The Royal Shakespeare Company, in one production of this play, used a large sheet of silk which moved and created shapes, to symbolise both the bear and the gale in which Antigonus is travelling.
One comic moment in the play deals with a servant not realising that poetry featuring references to dildos is vulgar, presumably from not knowing what the word means. This play and Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist (1610) are typically cited as the first usage of the word in publication. The Alchemist was printed first, but the debate about the date of the play's composition makes it unclear which was the first scripted use of the word, which is much older.