Historical Background Information—The Winter’s Tale
This aspect of dramaturgy has posed a challenged, because technically this play reflects no actual history, at least on the surface. Probing below the surface however, it is believed to be allegorical to the second marriage of King Henry VIII of England to Anne Boleyn, or more to the point, its tragic ending. A little historical background to that is in order.
The English Reformation was different from that of Continental Europe in that
1. It was a largely top-down affair, legislated by the monarchy
2. It had very much to do with the personal life of King Henry VIII.
Henry VIII’s marital record is very well known to history, and much came down to producing a male heir. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon had produced only one surviving child—a daughter, Mary. Then as she aged, Henry genuinely developed the hots for her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. So Henry appealed to Rome for an annulment of his first marriage, on the retrospectively decided grounds of Catherine’s being his brother Arthur’s widow, something that was apparently disallowed without a dispensation (which they had gotten) The divorce suit was hardly the most frivolous one to come forth from or been granted to a monarch, but it nonetheless threatened to undo the whole legitimacy of Papal Dispensations. Furthermore, at the time, Pope Clement VII was under the political thumb of Catherine’s nephew, Charles V.
The pope therefore had little option but to dither and stall, allowing the suit to proceed in England for the next two years, before suddenly announcing that it had to be brought to Rome anew. Henry, after laying increasing pressure on the Pope, in 1531 compelled an assembly of English clergy to make him “protector and only supreme head” of the Church in England. Then, in 1533, he went ahead and married the already pregnant Anne, without waiting for an annulment of his previous marriage. When the child turned out to be a girl (the future Queen Elizabeth I), it must have seemed all for nothing—Henry refused even to attend her christening. From there, things didn’t work out so well for Anne, after subsequent failed efforts to give the king a son, ending with a miscarriage. Afterward, the king fell in love with her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, his eventual third wife. Rather than attempt another divorce, he had Anne imprisoned and executed on trumped-up charges of adultery with multiple men—including a close friend of the king’s who refused to confess even to avoid execution. It has been suggested then that Perdita was an allegorical presentation of Elizabeth, the unwanted daughter who went on to be one of the greatest (if not greatest) English monarchs in history.
There are also historical circumstances surrounding some of the geographical oddities described in the play. In The Winter’s Tale, there are references to the “seacoast” and “desert” of the Kingdom of Bohemia. If this Bohemia is the same the comprises most of the modern Czech Republic, this does not make sense, because this region has neither desert nor seacoast. But Bohemia in this context may refer to a much larger territory briefly ruled by Ottokar II of Bohemia that included the Adriatic coast, making it theoretically possible to sail from Sicily to the “seacoast of Bohemia” during the period under discussion. Other possibilities are that Bohemia was an alternate name for the region Apulia in Sicily or a misspelling of Bithynia in Asia Minor. The most likely theory is that Shakespeare, when adapting the novella Pandosto – in which King Pandosto of Bohemia was the one who suspected his wife of being unfaithful with his best friend, the King of Sicily – Shakespeare chose to reverse the locations of the two characters. This was because of King James II’s alliance with Rudolph II, the King of Bohemia (and the Holy Roman Emperor!) at the time of the play was first performed—also making it possible for the play to be performed in honor of the marriage of James’s daughter Elizabeth to the crown prince of Bohemia! There are also other explanations for this and other geographic improbabilities that have been discussed in a separate literary history of the play.
Beyond Bohemia, there is also the question of why Shakespeare located the Oracle of Delphi on an island, when Delphi (ancient and modern) is located in the mountains in Central Greece. Rather, this seeming relocation of the Oracle to the island of Delos (known in Shakespeare’s time as Delphos) is lifted straight from Pandosto, whose author in turn refers Virgil’s Aeneid.