Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Shakespeare, wonder and The Winter’s Tale

  Exploring the influence of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher on William Shakespeare’s late plays

6 minute read

‘Wonders will never cease’, we are told – usually ironically (‘oh look, Gordon has paid for dinner: wonders will never cease…’). The roots of this phrase in fact lie in theological debate. One way Protestant Reformers differentiated themselves from Roman Catholics was by arguing that miracles ceased when Christ was revealed, after which the miracle’s role as proof of spiritual claims became unnecessary. This created a curious dilemma for Shakespeare and his contemporaries writing stage plays. How, and whether, to dramatise wonders?

Actors having a candlelit dinner

‘Shakespeare wrote his late plays […] both for the Globe and for the company’s new indoor playing space, the Blackfriars.’ Photographer: Tristram Kenton

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a scholar called Ashley Thorndike published a book with the apparently innocuous title The Influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on Shakspere. Thorndike’s point – that writers note other writers’ successes and pick up aspects of their work to include in their own – would not normally be considered exciting, but his book caused outrage because the collaborating playwrights Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher were the contemporaries of Shakespeare that the Victorians and Edwardians loathed most (they were far too frank about sex, for one thing) and which they bowdlerised into incomprehension. It was monstrous, simply, to suggest that Shakespeare the genius could possibly have been influenced by a pair of playwrights so coarse and louche.

Yet things had not always been so. There was a period in the mid-to-late seventeenth century when the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were bigger than those of Shakespeare; and when they first emerged on the scene, around the time Shakespeare was writing his late plays, they had a series of instant hits. Fletcher then actually co-wrote three plays with Shakespeare – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio – and went on to become Shakespeare’s successor as chief playwright for the King’s Men.

‘…writers note other writers’ successes and pick up aspects of their work to include in their own’

Shakespeare wrote his late plays – plays of spectacle and reconciliation written between 1608 or so and 1613 – both for the Globe and for the company’s new indoor playing space, the Blackfriars. Critics have traditionally read these plays as dramatising sincere, transcendent emotions and one emotion above all – wonder – by contrasting them with what they saw as the insincerity of the Fletcher plays, which cannot resist showing the mechanisms of things, how events work out through material motivations. A key phrase repeated in several of Fletcher’s plays is ‘Wonders are ceased; we must work by means’ – a wilfully Protestant assertion, though one that seems post-theological in its wry materialism: ‘Stop hoping for a miracle; get on and actually do something’. In other words, critics have traditionally made Shakespeare more wholesome, more genuine, than Beaumont and Fletcher, and they make his art one of a kind of positive illusion that depends on the audience’s acceptance that wonders have not ceased.

Yet the idea that Shakespeare is sincere and transcendent, that other playwrights may look at the mechanics of things but Shakespeare rises above to engage on a higher moral plane, is simply not sustainable, and The Winter’s Tale is a fine instance of why it is not, and why emphasising Shakespeare’s sincerity may mean you miss out on some of the most fascinating aspects of his drama.

A line of actors staring down at another actor.

The ‘revelatory final scene of The Winter’s Tale‘ (2023). Photographer: Tristram Kenton

Take the revelatory final scene of The Winter’s Tale. Not only is this an extraordinary way to end the play, it is also Shakespeare’s principal development of his source. The action of the scene is simply not there in Greene’s Pandosto, which ends in a downbeat way. In Shakespeare’s ending, wonder is associated with both the natural and the supernatural, together operating to overcome Leontes’ destructive jealousy. Yet what becomes clear in this extraordinary scene is the extent to which the wonder – ostensibly the product of a virtuous combination of nature and supernature – is in fact engineered by a character who quietly becomes the play’s internal director, Paulina.

It is all the fault of the king, Leontes, whose pathological behaviour has lost him, it seems, both wife and daughter. His actions from the beginning of the play have severely questioned the social and familial norms that he thought in his self-delusion he was defending. He is repentant – Paulina, his de facto chief courtier, has, over the years, made sure of that – yet he retains his kingly urge to be sovereign, to be in charge. In the climactic scene he does his best, even in a moment of total bewilderment for nearly everyone on stage and in the audience, to tie up the loose ends that implicitly question his sovereignty. But he is upstaged throughout by Paulina, working on behalf of her mistress, the apparently dead queen. Gender is central to this scene. We see a series of negotiations over conventions for defining women, and we see a woman manipulating the collective emotion of the room – wonder – in order to create a sense of resolution that would be profoundly difficult to make convincing without the emotional process she crafts.

‘[Leontes] retains his kingly urge to be sovereign, to be in charge.’

When Leontes addresses her as the scene opens – ‘O grave and good Paulina, the great comfort / That I have had of thee’, he says, usually to the amusement of the audience, who know she has relentlessly underscored his guilt – he characterises her as a woman who provides domestic comfort. She plays along: ‘you have vouchsafed / . . . my poor house to visit’. (Her house, with its aristocratic picture gallery, is anything but ‘poor’.) ‘O Paulina’, he says, ‘We honour you with trouble’ – it is, in other words, an honour for a properly domestic woman to have her day disrupted by a king. But Leontes becomes impatient, noting that he has seen Paulina’s picture gallery but not yet the promised statue of Hermione. Paulina has delayed the moment, and she delays it a sentence or two longer so as to set the scene:

 I keep it Lonely, apart.

But here it is. Prepare

To see the life as lively mocked as ever

Still sleep mocked death.

A group of actors surround a posed actor on a Jacobean, candlelit stage.

‘When they finally see the statue, she directs the on-stage audience’s response’. Photographer: Marc Brenner

When they finally see the statue, she directs the on-stage audience’s response – and that of the off-stage audience too – saying, ‘I like your silence; it the more shows off / Your wonder’. The emotion of wonder and the silence this moment produces – the times saw silence as a key attribute of women – are common to all, men and women alike. Nonetheless, as the scene progresses, Paulina has to be careful about certain gendered associations. When Leontes uses the words ‘magic’ and ‘conjured’, she carefully dissociates herself from any accusation of witchcraft, protesting that she is not ‘assisted / By wicked powers’, adding a little later, ‘my spell is lawful’ – phrasing that provokes one of the oddest lines of the play when Leontes responds, ‘If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating’.

Paulina’s role is not that of witch but of director. At each stage of the scene, she directs Leontes’ response and that of all the courtiers. ‘Prepare’, she tells them, ‘To see the life as lively mocked as ever / Still sleep mocked death. Behold, and say ’tis well’. She tells Leontes not to touch: ‘The statue is but newly fixed, the colour’s / Not dry’. She directs his responses: ‘No longer shall you gaze on’t’, she says – the statue, that is – ‘lest your fancy / May think anon it moves’. Leontes, staring at the statue of his dead wife, passively accepts her instructions:

What you can make her do,

I am content to look; what to speak,

I am content to hear; for ’tis as easy

To make her speak as move.

An actor standing in a spotlight

‘Paulina’s role is not that of witch but of director.’ Photographer: Tristram Kenton

You now see why Paulina was so careful to dispose of the concern about witchcraft. She curates the moment to ensure that both audiences – on stage and off – read what is about to happen as magical, as spiritual. ‘It is required you do awake your faith’, she says, and she conducts the moment of Hermione’s return to life as if it were a miracle, calling for music and telling the statue:

’Tis time. Descend. Be stone no more. Approach.

Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,


Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him

Dear life redeems you.

The word ‘marvel’ invokes the emotion of wonder, suggesting that Paulina is keen not only to deflect potential charges of witchcraft but also to hide her engineering of this moment and the years during which she has been controlling Leontes’ path to reconciliation.


‘Once she has achieved the effect she sought, Paulina re-adopts the language of the dutiful widow’

Once she has achieved the effect she sought, Paulina re-adopts the language of the dutiful widow, saying that she ‘[w]ill wing me to some withered bough, and there / My mate, that’s never to be found again, / Lament till I am lost. At this moment, two things happen. One, Leontes suddenly and efficiently reasserts his patriarchal control. Two, the play rushes as fast as it can to its ending. ‘O peace, Paulina’, Leontes says, ‘Thou shouldst a husband take by my consent, / As I by thine a wife’, suddenly conjuring up Camillo as an unheralded silent suitor to Paulina, who is given no lines to say what she thinks of the match. And he finishes everything by saying ‘hastily lead away’ – his haste suggesting the brittleness of his reassertion of sovereignty.

It is all over abruptly. But it does not end so quickly that we cannot see who has really been in charge for the last several years: Paulina, not Leontes. For all the language of wonder, Hermione’s revival is visibly the result of a sustained long-term plan. Paulina has engineered the primary emotion of the late plays – wonder – which, if we listen closely to the words, we understand as the effect of powerful directing, rather than something supernatural, ethereal, beyond human understanding.

An actor steps towards another actor, elegantly posed on a stage.

Leontes is reunited with Hermione in The Winter’s Tale (2018). Photographer: Marc Brenner

A close look at the changes Shakespeare made to his source for The Winter’s Tale shows that the distinction between Beaumont and Fletcher’s material frankness and Shakespeare’s sincere wholesomeness is not right. Shakespeare’s late plays may offer wondrous stories about families and reconciliation that emerge from a meshing of the natural and the supernatural, but there is always a parallel sense of something artificial, manipulated, engineered – mechanisms that are supposed to be characteristic of Beaumont and Fletcher, not of Shakespeare.

In Shakespeare’s late plays, wonders never cease. But they come about by means.


The Winter’s Tale plays across our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Globe Theatre until 16 April 2023 as part of our Winter 2022/23 season.