Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 August 2022
‘A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins’ (2.1.27–8), says Mamillius, the young prince in The Winter’s Tale. In a sense, the whole play is the fairy story that he whispers in his mother’s ear, though the forces of evil are more banal than he imagines. As the story goes, his father, Leontes – a man prone to conspiracy theories and violence – accuses his wife, Hermione, of cheating on him with his best friend, Polixenes. He prosecutes her in a public trial that apparently results in her death and Mamillius’s. He abandons their newborn daughter, Perdita, to die on the shores of a foreign country.
At first glance, The Winter’s Tale is not the most obvious Shakespearian inspiration for a novel called Summer. Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet – the celebrated meditation on Brexit and other national as well as global crises which begins with Autumn (2016) – might be presumed to end on an optimistic note, one of sunlight and greenery rather than ‘sprites and goblins’.