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  • The Winter’s Tale: Decorum, Distinction, and Shakespeare’s Chaucer
  • Jeff Espie (bio)

This essay uncovers new aspects of Shakespeare’s engagement with Chaucer, taking its cue from the Chaucerian affiliation signalled in a Shakespearean title: The Winter’s Tale. The title most immediately recalls a scene in the play itself—Mamillius’ evocation of popular storytelling, “a sad tale’s best for winter” (2.1.27)—but it also mimics Chaucer’s formulaic use of the possessive form when identifying individual narratives in the Canterbury Tales: the Pardoner’s Tale, the Friar’s Tale, the Summoner’s Tale, the Manciple’s Tale, and so on.1 By the early seventeenth century, use of a possessive title had become a common strategy by which Shakespeare’s contemporaries could write themselves into a Chaucerian tradition. In 1590, for example, Robert Greene joined this tradition in The Cobler of Caunterburie, in which he sought to adopt the same “Methode set out [in the] Caunterbury tales” (B1v).2 Positioning his individual narratives as imitations of “old Father Chaucer” (B1v), he titled them accordingly: “the Smiths tale,” “the Coblers tale,” “the old wiues tale.” In The Cobler, as throughout his works, Greene embraces Chaucer as “the father of English Poets” (B1v), but he also recognizes Chaucer’s place lower on the generic and stylistic register. “Whosoeuer…descanted of that loue,” exclaims Greene’s Melicertus in Menaphon, “told you a Canterburie Tale” (C1v–C2r).3 Here, fit for “some propheticall full mouth,” the Chaucerian title is equated with outlandish and scurrilous fiction: an old wives’ tale, too fanciful to warrant full belief.

Derived directly from Greene’s Pandosto, The Winter’s Tale may play on both of Greene’s familiar Chaucerian associations. The play’s title adapts a possessive form associated with Chaucerian narratives—the x’s tale—and evokes a generic register that tends toward apparent Chaucerian [End Page 283] exaggeration. The phrase “a winter’s tale” occupies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries much of the same generic space as its Canterbury equivalent: a mode of popular storytelling that stretches the bounds of truth.4 The title’s double resonance presents the Winter’s as its own sort of Chaucerian Tale, one performed for a new audience in a new medium but with the same spirit between earnest and game: a new “Canterburie tale” to strain credulity, told on the dramatic stage rather than in poetic narrative.

The tangible connection to the Canterbury Tales suggested in The Winter’s Tale’s title helps bring into focus the play’s larger similarities with Chaucer’s works, the most prominent of which, I argue, stem from The Manciple’s Tale. Obsessed with marital infidelity despite his elevated status, a jealous tyrant subjects his wife to an Apolline judgment. He (seemingly) causes his wife’s sudden death; immediately regrets his hasty action; and avows his wife’s chastity instead. The drama prompts extended discussion of the limits of acceptable speech; the dangers of a garrulous tongue; and the impact of class distinctions on linguistic convention and moral standing. Chaucerians call this story The Manciple’s Tale; Shakespeareans call it The Winter’s Tale. Chaucerians might name the jealous tyrant Apollo; Shakespeareans might name him Leontes. This article connect these stories and characters, arguing for an intertextual relationship between The Manciple’s Tale and The Winter’s Tale focused more on diffuse parallels than explicit imitations. Based on a cumulative number of dispersed similarities, my case develops gradually, drawing on multiple forms of evidence. Section one concentrates on instances of diction, rhetoric, and style, aligning The Winter’s Tale with Chaucer’s poetry and reception history. Section two develops the link through details of theme and structure, joining Shakespeare and Chaucer in their mutual juxtaposition of interlocking ideas: vulgar tongues, Apolline punishment, appropriate naming, supposed cuckoldry, male tyranny, petty thievery. Both sections return repeatedly to ideas of linguistic distinction and social decorum, most forcefully exemplified in Leontes’ extended harangue of Hermione’s supposed infidelity.

“She’s an adulteress” (2.1.80), exclaims Shakespeare’s Leontes, publicizing his accusation of unfaithfulness at his royal court in Sicilia. Hermione responds to the accusation with a decorous tact, at once...


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pp. 283-306
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