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The Winter's Tale: Synopsis

Discover the full story of Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet, based on Shakespeare's play.

By Christopher Wheeldon (Artistic Associate, The Royal Ballet)

9 April 2014 at 3.13pm | 8 Comments


Two kings separated as children are reunited in adulthood. One king, Leontes of Sicilia, marries Hermione, giving her a beautiful emerald. They have a son, Mamilllius, and are blissfully happy. The other king, Polixenes of Bohemia, visits the court of Leontes. He is delighted to be reunited with his old friend and stays for nine months. By the time of his departure, Hermione is about to give birth to her second child.

Act I

The court of Sicilia

It is the day of Polixenes’ departure. The Bohemian court say goodbye to their Sicilian friends. At Hermione’s request, Polixenes agrees to stay on another week. In a flash of jealousy, Leontes becomes convinced that his wife has been unfaithful and is carrying Polixenes’ child. Jealousy turns to rage and he attacks Polixenes, who flees back
to Bohemia. Leontes publicly accuses Hermione of adultery and treason, then has her arrested. This so distresses Mamillius that he falls seriously ill.
 In prison, Hermione has given birth to a daughter. The head of her household, Paulina, brings the newborn to Leontes, hoping to convince him that the baby is his daughter. Instead, Leontes violently rejects the child, then orders Paulina’s husband Antigonus to abandon the baby in a remote place. Antigonus sets sail into a brewing storm with the baby and some treasure, including the emerald once given to Hermione by Leontes. Hermione is brought to trial and pleads her innocence. Leontes, now quite mad, refuses to believe her. Dazed and feverish, Mamillius enters the courtroom and, upon witnessing the unfolding tragedy, he collapses and dies from distress. Seeing the death of her child, Hermione too collapses dead and is taken away. Only now does Leontes realize the disastrous consequences of his terrible mistake.

The shores of Bohemia

Battling the storm, Antigonus struggles ashore to abandon the baby princess. As he leaves, he is pursued and killed by a wild bear. His ship, waiting at sea, is smashed to pieces on the rocks. As day breaks, a shepherd and his son Clown discover the baby girl and the treasure.

Act II

A hillside in Bohemia. Sixteen years later.

Perdita, the abandoned daughter of King Leontes and Queen Hermione, has been raised by the shepherd who found her. She dances beneath the great tree with her love, Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes, whom the other villagers know only as a shepherd boy. The villagers arrive for the annual springtime festival. King Polixenes, who has heard that his son has been cavorting with a shepherdess, sends his steward to spy on the young prince. When the steward confirms his suspicions, Polixenes is enraged, and demands to see for himself.

 At the festival, Perdita is to be crowned May Queen. In honour of the occasion, Father Shepherd presents her with the emerald necklace he found with her on the beach. Polixenes and his steward arrive in disguise, keen to see what Florizel is up to. On witnessing Florizel’s engagement to a mere shepherdess, Polixenes reveals himself. He is furious with Florizel, and condemns Perdita and her family to death. They all flee by boat to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes.


A clifftop in Sicilia

King Leontes mourns by the clifftop graves of his wife and son, watched over by Paulina. Perdita and Florizel’s ship approaches Sicilia.

The palace in Sicilia

Perdita and Florizel appeal to Leontes to allow their union, and to intercede with the enraged Polixenes on their behalf. Leontes is taken with the likeness of Florizel to Polixenes. He agrees to help the young couple, who remind him of his lost children. Polixenes arrives and Leontes tries to reason with him, but he violently handles Perdita, revealing the emerald. The long lost Princess of Sicilia is miraculously alive and the two kings are reunited. The Palace celebrates the wedding of Florizel and Perdita. As the festivities die down, Leontes is led by Paulina to see a new statue of Hermione. Deeply remorseful, he kneels at its base. Suddenly, the statue comes to life – it is Hermione, who is alive and has been kept in hiding by Paulina for 16 years. She embraces Leontes, and the family is reunited.

The Winter's Tale runs 13 February–21 March 2018. Tickets are still available.

The production is a co-production between The Royal Ballet and The National Ballet of Canada 

By Christopher Wheeldon (Artistic Associate, The Royal Ballet)

9 April 2014 at 3.13pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged background, by Christopher Wheeldon, introduction, Production, shakespeare, synopsis, The Winter's Tale

This article has 8 comments

  1. Tracey Lord responded on 10 April 2014 at 4:35pm Reply

    Can't wait for this evening's performance! I am feeling emotional already. Of course, I dithered until it was sold out ...then last night reasonably priced amphitheatre tickets became available on the website...
    I am quite new to ballet and I'm adoring it. Thank you ROH for your commitment to making ballet accessible and for updating the online booking so efficently!

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 10 April 2014 at 4:58pm

      Hope you have a lovely time, Tracey!


  2. Rosa responded on 10 April 2014 at 5:18pm Reply

    Funny about efficiency as I received an email from ROH re general booking. Instead of receiving it on 8th, I received it more than two days late. All the Manon Lescaut tickets have been sold out.

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 10 April 2014 at 5:48pm

      Hi Rosa

      Sorry to hear that you received your email reminder so late - all of them were sent on the booking day. Unfortunately, there are lot of things that can cause delays to emails: ISP problems, mail filters etc and we have no control over these factors.

      Best wishes


  3. Peter Erdos responded on 23 April 2014 at 10:12am Reply

    I am afraid there is a lot more to blame for the lack of efficiency in today's booking system at the ROH. After 30 years of being a Friend I have given up my membership as even for a long standing Friend I had difficulties in obtaining tickets for my choice. I remember the days when I managed to see all Callas, Sutherland, Pavarotti and Domingo performances without any of the hassle of the present booking system (Tiered Friends system gives priviliges to the highest contributors!_) I am now quite happy to enjoy performances in the cinema or have a DVD for a fraction of the price of the exorbitantly high prices of the ROH.

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 24 April 2014 at 3:10pm

      Hi Peter,

      We've passed your feedback on to the Friends team, who've responded in writing/via phone to your comments on previous occasions. Glad you enjoy the cinema relays.


      ROH Content Producer

  4. Emily responded on 14 April 2016 at 7:28pm Reply

    Lovely storyline, and thank you for the synopsis. It's really helped me understand what appeared a very confusing ballet. Looking forward to seeing it this weekend :)

  5. Very helpful to have the storyline explained in full. Looking forward to seeing it tomorrow (25/3/2018) transmitted live from the ROH to our local cinema in Parthenay (79) France. And we only pay 12 euros for our ticket! Great way to see the ballets and operas.

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