Shakespeare lived in a time of great transformation for Western Europe. New advances is science were overturning ancient ideas about astronomy and physics. The discovery of the Americas had transformed the European conception of the world. Increasingly available translations of classical texts were a powerful influence on English literature and art. Christian and pagan worldviews interacted with each other in rich and often paradoxical ways, and signs of that complicated interaction are present in The Winter's Tale. Onstage at least, this mix meant that plays set in the classical era often portrayed people and places in a fascinating and complicated hybrid form, half-Renaissance and half-classical.
Not least of the great changes of Shakespeare's time was England's dramatic rise to world power. When Queen Elizabeth came to power in 1558, six years before Shakespeare's birth, England was a weak and unstable nation. Torn by internal strife between Catholics and Protestants, an economy in tatters, and unstable leadership, England was vulnerable to invasion by her stronger rivals on the continent. By the time of Elizabeth's death in 1603, she had turned the weakling of Western Europe into a power of the first rank, poised to become the mightiest nation in the world. When the young Shakespeare came to London looking to make a life in the theatre, England's capitol was an important center of trade, learning, and art. In the few decades that he made his career there, the city's financial, intellectual, and artistic importance became still greater, as London continued its transformation from unremarkable center of a backwater nation to one of the world's most exciting metropolises. Drama was entering a golden age, and the young Shakespeare was to be that age's greatest writer.
The Winter's Tale was one of Shakespeare's last plays, written in the years between 1608 and 1612. Many of the concerns of the play reflect familiar political issues of the day. What, if any, should be the limits of a king's authority? Should kings be held accountable for their actions? What is the role of a good king? A good subject? How does a subject decide between loyalty and conscience?
At the center of the play is a royal family separated by tragedy, and their miraculous reunification provides the play's happy ending. Prior to 1603, England had gone a long time without a full royal family: Elizabeth had been childless and unmarried, meaning that England had a majestic Virgin Queen who was worshipped and adored. But they had no full royal family that they could look to as a model for their own families, no central family to act as a symbolic microcosm for the larger family of the English nation. In 1603, James I ascended to the throne, and suddenly England had such a family. This significant event undoubtedly influenced the writing of The Winter's Tale.
Because Shakespeare took no interest in the publication of his plays, his drama got into print in uncertain and unreliable ways. It is difficult to say which plays, if any, come to us straight from Shakespeare's manuscripts. Corrupt texts abound. The Winter's Tale was never published during Shakespeare's life. The play was first printed in 1623, in the collection of plays known as the First Folio. Modern publications of the play are based directly on this First Folio printing.