17 June 2014

The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale was a fresh read for me. I've never seen it performed, I haven't had to read it for a class, and I'd never gotten around to just sitting down with it until now. I had heard good things about it, but I had always been unclear on the plot and the only thing I could really remember was that one of the primary female characters was named Hermione, and there was something about a statue. Now I've read it, and well, wow.

Winter's Tale gets bundled in with the comedies in my Complete Works, though it's not really comic. It has a happy ending, but it's better called a drama or a romance. The story is set at a break-neck pace, though it covers the span of sixteen years, and there are only a very few incidental moments (occurring in the last two acts), unlike with some of the other comedies. The comic subplot is a character whose business is thieving and meddling.

I was tempted to title this post, "The Winter's Tale, or, Pregnancy Makes Men Crazy, Too," because the events of the first three acts happen so quickly and so strangely that I'm half-way convinced Leontes is an early example in English literature of couvade's syndrome. Listen to this:

Leontes, King of Silicia, and his wife, Hermione, are expecting their second child. They already have an heir, Mamillius, a cheeky boy of indeterminate age. Leontes' best friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia, has been visiting for the last nine months. He announces his intention to go home, Leontes pleads with him not to go, Polixenes stays firm, and then Hermione persuades him to stay. Leontes promptly loses it. He becomes convinced that his beloved wife has been cheating on him with his best friend for the last nine months, and that the baby she's carrying must be a bastard. He assigns a nobleman to murder Polixenes, but Camillo refuses to do it (killing a king, historically, proves to be very bad luck for the assassin), warns Polixenes, and flees with him back to Bohemia. Leontes, however, is still on a murderous rampage. He sends for the oracle of Apollo to testify as to his wife's chastity and has her imprisoned. Everyone thinks he's gone nuts. When she delivers a baby girl who looks exactly like Leontes, he wants to have the baby killed immediately. One of his nobles persuades him to relent, so king decrees that Antigonus, the noble, should take the baby to some remote place and just leave her there (a literary device found in Oedipus Rex, among others, and based on the Greek and Roman practice of exposing an unwanted newborn child to the elements and animals outside the city). Antigonus' wife, Paulina, has argued staunchly in the favour of the queen, but the king refuses to listen to reason.

Then the messengers from the oracle arrive. The decree is that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, and the king should acknowledge his daughter and have her rescued post-haste, or the kingdom will be in jeopardy for want of an heir. The king, still crazy, shouts that Apollo is a liar and the trial will go on. Suddenly, a messenger arrives with the news that the king's son and heir, Mamillius, has died from grief over his father's actions. Hermione collapses, and suddenly Leontes is no longer crazy. Hermione is taken from the room and Paulina returns to announce her death. The king is stricken with grief--his wife, heir, and daughter are all lost to him.

Meanwhile, Antigonus is attempting to fulfill the king's wishes while preserving the child's life. He lays her down in a remote area with some indicators of her identity, names her Perdita, and then, when he sees his ship sink in a sudden storm, is about to hang it all and just save the kid when a bear (yes, a bear!) appears and pursues him offstage. Perdita is found by a shepherd and a clown. The shepherd adopts the baby.

Sixteen years go by. In Bohemia, Polixenes' son, Florizel, has fallen in love with the beautiful daughter of a shepherd. Camillo, now attendant on Polixenes, brings Polixenes to the sheep-shearing celebration hosted by Perdita and her adopted father to soften his heart towards Florizel's intended. When Polixenes learns that not only does Florizel want to marry a peasant, he also has no intention of informing his father, he grows angry, shouts some rubbish about destroying Perdita's beauty because of her pretensions, and storms off. Camillo convinces Florizel and Perdita to go to Silicia to make amends with Leontes on Polixenes' behalf, sends them off, and heads out to tell Polixenes in the hopes of returning to Silicia and bringing about reconciliations with everyone. Meanwhile, the shepherd and the clown also head out to tell Polixenes about the stuff they'd found with Perdita, in hopes of sparing themselves torture (obviously, they can't read the letters they found with Perdita which establish her identity as the princess of Silicia. Fortunately, Polixenes can).

Perdita and Florizel arrive in Silicia, followed by Camillo and Polixenes. Leontes has been grieving for sixteen years, refusing to remarry to atone for his sins. Paulina extracts a promise from him that he will only marry at her behest and of her choosing, and only a woman exactly like Hermione. The reunion between Polixenes and Leontes takes place off-stage, as does the revelation that Perdita is Leontes' lost daughter. The events are discussed by two other characters.

Then the really crazy thing happens. Paulina invites them all to her house to see a statue of Hermione that she has comissioned. It is recently finished and has just been painted to be exactly as Hermione would be, were she alive now. It is so lifelike that Leontes wishes to kiss it, and begs his wife's forgiveness. And the statue comes to life. Hermione is alive, her daughter is alive, and Leontes and Polixenes are reconciled. It's never made clear whether Hermione was just in hiding all those years, or if she really was restored to life. There's evidence for either reading in the text. The story has a happy ending, though Antigonus and Mamillius are both still dead, victims of Leontes' temporary insanity (and of the lack of safeguards to prevent a king suffering temporary insanity from wreaking havoc).

I very much enjoyed the play, though it is much weaker in the last two acts than in the first three, which are absolutely riveting. Most of the sheep-shearing scene is completely irrelevant, and Autolycus, the subplot guy, is pretty superfluous, too. I'd like to see this performed and watch how it works out on stage. The disadvantage of reading Shakespeare is that a play is harder to follow when read than prose. Like a number of Shakespeare's works, Winter's Tale contains a couple of choice female roles: both Hermione and Paulina have some good speeches, especially in the first half of the show, and the story bears them out as in the right.

One thing I keep noticing with Shakespeare is his tendency to sprinkle names throughout the text that don't match up to the locale. Polixenes is from Bohemia. Polixenes is a Greek name. Florizel, also from Bohemia, sounds vaguely Italian. Perdita is Latin ("lost," the root of such lovely words as "perdition"). Leontes and Hermione are both Greek names (and Hermione states that she is the daughter of the Russian Emperor), and Paulina is Latin. I suppose Shakespeare assumed the names were roughly from the same area and thought they sounded good. And it's not as though names can't spread from one area to another, or be old enough for us to forget where they came from. 

And so, with The Winter's Tale, we close out the comedies and move on to the histories. The Life and Death of King John will be our next stop in the Shakespeare canon.


"Be pilot to me and thy places shall
Still neighbour mine." Polixenes, The Winter's Tale, I.2.577-578

"Were I the ghost that walk'd, I'ld bid you mark
Her eye, and tell me for what dull part in't
You chose her; then I'ld shriek, that even your ears
Should rift to hear me; and the words that follow'd
Should be 'Remember mine.' " Paulina, The Winter's Tale, V.1.2897-2901

"Such a deal of wonder is
broken out within this hour that ballad-makers
cannot be able to express it." Second Gentleman, The Winter's Tale, V.2.3130-3132

"If ever truth were pregnant by
circumstance." Third Gentleman, The Winter's Tale. V.2.3139-3140

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