A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Winter's Tale


The Winter's Tale actually feels a little un-Shakespearean at first. That's because Shakespeare unusually took as his starting point a folk tale that if it isn't Grimm, is still grim enough. It's useful to remember that the Bard was not as big on writing stories as he was on telling them; the only plays he conceived entirely himself appear to be Hamlet, A Midsummer's Night Dream and The Tempest. Even so, a folk tale was not his usual source material. But as The Winter's (Folk) Tale progresses, we begin to see the reasons Shakespeare had for choosing this story.

As the curtain rises, Leontes, King of Sicily, is hosting his boyhood friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. When the Bohemian feels he needs to return home, Leontes' wife, Hermione (Harry Potter fans may now say, Aha!), at her husband's request entreats him to stay longer. But as she does so, Leontes is seized by a sudden, mistaken conviction that Polixenes and his wife are lovers (physic means medicine; bawdy means sexually loose; barricado means barricade):

Leon: "…Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. Physic for 't there's none.
It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where 'tis predominant; and 'tis powerful, think it,
From east, west, north, and south. Be it concluded,
No barricade for a belly…".

He locks Hermione in prison, where she gives birth to a daughter that he renounces and orders to be abandoned in a barren wasteland within Bohemia. When his young son dies of shock at these events, Leontes recovers himself, but not in time to save Hermione. He is told that she too has succumbed, and he dedicates himself to a life of mourning.

Leon: "…Prithee, bring me
To the dead bodies of my queen and son,
One grave shall be for both. Upon them shall
The causes of their death appear, unto
Our shame perpetual. Once a day I'll visit
The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there
Shall be my recreation. So long as nature
Will bear up with this exercise, so long
I daily vow to use it. Come and lead me
To these sorrows."

While I usually pull a scene out of a play to tell a story, I've decided to devote the occasional post, as today, to telling the story of one of the plays. This is a Shakespeare blog after all, and the plays are complicated. Even the famous ones have nooks and crannies that go unexplored, although Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet have so invaded our popular imaginations that most people probably can trace their major plot points. But the other thirty-five plays may benefit from the occasional, quick guided tour.

So where were we? Ah yes, the recounting of boyhood innocence has been interrupted by its very opposite; misplaced sexual jealousy, leading to the irretrievable loss of a child and of a wronged wife, and the severing of the link between the generations (between Leontes and his remaining baby daughter, apparently abandoned to die of exposure). We begin to see what attracted Shakespeare to the story. Time and again in the plays, a good woman is wrongly accused by a man who lives to regret it, whether it is Othello accusing Desdemona, or Claudio accusing Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, or King Lear accusing Cordelia (of not loving him, when in fact she is the only daughter who does). How is innocence to be recovered in the aftermath of such pain and irrecoverable loss? For Shakespeare, again and again: That is the question. Ultimately, A Winter's Tale finds an answer.

The man who was charged with leaving Leontes' daughter to die among the elements is himself is eaten by a bear, but the girl is found and adopted by a peasant family, who name her Florizel. Naturally, the local Prince, Perdita, falls in love with her. When his father, who usefully is the same Polixenes, King of Bohemia, who was Leontes' erstwhile friend, learns that his son is in love with a commoner, he becomes as enraged as Leontes became years before over his wife's presumed infidelity. Polixenes addresses first Florizel, then his son Perdita (knack means a scheming woman):

Pol: "I'll have thy beauty scratched with briers and made
More homely than thy state, - For thee, fond boy,
If I may ever know thou dost but sigh
That thou no more shalt see this knack – as never
I mean thou shalt - we'll bar thee from succession,
Not hold thee of our blood, no, not our kin…".

Perdita and Florizel flee to – wait for it – Leontes' Sicily, pursued by the enraged father. Leontes welcomes the two young strangers, and the implausible strands of the story are implausibly tied together. Proof is offered that Florizel is Leontes' daughter. Because she is of noble blood, Perdita's father Polixenes is placated. Leontes invites everyone to visit the statue he has made of Hermione his late wife, but in its place they discover Hermione herself, who has been kept in hiding for sixteen years for no good reason except to serve a real Lifetime channel moment. All is well that ends well:

Hermione: "You gods, look down
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter's head!"

These reunions with the imagined dead, or at least with those imagined to have been dead, offer a glimpse of something like Shakespeare's heaven, a place where injustices, and especially those caused by our own hand, are at last undone, their victims made whole; where the irrecoverable is recovered, the irretrievable retrieved.

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