The Winter’s Tale

Prince Mamillus says early in the first Act of this play: “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one Of sprites and goblins.”  Shortly afterwards, he falls ill and dies of shock when his mother, Queen Hermoine, is falsely accused of infidelity by King Leontes.  So begins this beautiful story of jealousy and forgiveness, with its famously unconventional structure.  After the Queen gives birth prematurely in prison, the King of Sicilia orders that the child to be taken out of his sight and left to die in the elements.  Then Time shows up, decides that 16 years are going to pass in a matter of seconds, pretty much tells the audience to deal with it.

Ah, the inevitability of swift Time

Although The Winter’s Tale seems to be relatively obscure in popular culture – nowhere near the status of Romeo & Juliet or Midsummer Night’s Dream – it is frequently cited as the favorite play of Shakespeare fans.  And with good reason, because the language is beautiful and the relationships are fantastically poignant.  It also possesses great fairy-tale aspects of the story that seem to creep in very heavily near the end of Shakespeare’s career.  Even a Gentleman in Leontes’ court admits in the final act: “this news which is called true is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion.”  The improbability of this play’s happy ending reminds me of the joyful reunions in Cymbeline and Pericles: almost unbelievable, but profoundly deserved after the suffering endured by the characters.  Perdita, the princess that was abandoned in “deserts of Bohemia,” is discovered by a Shepherd and raised as his own.  By chance, she meets Florizel, prince of Bohemia, and they fall in love.  Naturally, such a marriage is forbidden by King Polixenes, and it is not until they flee back to Sicilia that everyone realizes her true royal heritage.  Leontes, who has realized the error of his ways by now, takes his newly rediscovered daughter to see a statue of Hermoine that has been commissioned by the snarky badass Paulina.  The statue then comes alive, embraces Leontes and Perdita, and happily ever after.

Unlike Don Giovanni, where the statue drags the offender down to hell.

The crux of any production rests on the director’s decision for that final moment: has Hermoine been alive and in hiding all this time, or is this an actual statue that comes to life?  Either way, the image of a statue coming to life seems to be a fairly archetypal fantasy.  From the Pygmalion myth to Night at the Museum, the idea that anthropomorphic art can actually achieve life is something that haunts the subconscious.  Textually speaking, you can actually make a solid argument for either choice.  But as I said, it radically alters how you portray the rest of the fairy-tale.

And there are some beautiful fantasy elements to play with.

Instinctively, I prefer a realistic interpretation.  Every other event in the play, though improbable,can be explained realistically.  The infant Perdita, for example, is supplied with royal treasure in a bag on the desert ground.   The Shepherd immediately assumes “This is fairy gold, boy, and ’twill prove so,” but the audience knows better.  Perdita exclaims, when the Hermoine statue comes to life, “That she is living, Were it but told you, should be hooted at Like an old tale: but it appears she lives, Though yet she speak not. Mark a little while.”  Magic or not, she has plotted this entire thing, and is clearly in control of the situation.  And yet, while the other characters try to get close enough to touch the life-like statue, Perdita is trying to fend them off and even hide the statue: “Good my lord, forbear: The ruddiness upon her lip is wet; You’ll mar it if you kiss it, stain your own With oily painting. Shall I draw the curtain? ”  She’s just so damn coy!  The decision to make the statue real or not is mired by her coyness.  And, honestly, I could spend this entire post talking about the possibility of one or the other.  But one final piece of evidence does support the fantasy world: Autolycus, Perdita’s husband who is eaten by a bear at one point, provides two textual anomolies when he lands on Bohemia’s borders: “Our ship hath touch’d upon The deserts of Bohemia.”

One of them is visible on this map.

Yeah, there’s no way to access Bohemia by ship.  Also, what you may not be able to deduce from that map is the fact that Bohemia has no desert.  While this can easily just be a plothole explained by the author’s lack of geographic knowledge, and half of the play is set in a fictional kingdom with a name that happens to evoke a carefree lifestyle.  But a stronger choice might be to, what the hell, have Perdita raised in some magical landlocked Neverland desert, accessable only through some rift in the Time-space continuum that lets your ship out at an oasis.

Which is also susceptible to storms. And bears.

Right, and bears don’t live in the desert, anywhere in the world.  Again, giving the author the benefit of the doubt, these choices seem to be deliberately invoking a fantasy world where, sure, a statue could come to life and offer forgiveness after Princess Perdita has come home and Leontes has healed his friendship with Polixenes.  Every other time in a Shakespeare play that someone like Paulina would devise a con like what this statue might be, the audience has been informed beforehand.  So that suggests that this is not a trick.  My inclination then would be to place Time as a figure throughout the play, casting the same actor as Gentlemen and other characters in the background, secretly weilding immense power over how the “old tale” is told.

Basically, throw the entire thing into an elaborate fantasy world

So that is probably my final Shakespeare post for 2011, though Blunt Objects Theatre will announce the official 2012 season well before the ball drops in Times Square.  The Winter’s Tale clearly takes place across different seasons and climates, but it seemed like a lovely choice for a winter play.  If you haven’t read it yet, I do highly recommend it, because it feels so much more open to interpretation than Shakespeare’s other plays, and everyone will find something in it.  Perhaps the reason it isn’t done so often is precisely because it demands such a strong direction before the production even starts.  But reading it is a blank slate, and a treat to read and reread.  Especially as this project expands beyond Shakespeare, I hope the Copyright-Free Play Archive will help encourage others to explore old texts that deserve more time on the stage.

And, naturally, I end this entry with Shakespeare’s most fun stage direction:

[Exit, pursued by a Bear]

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  1. […] the Americas is a tempting setting to draw upon.  Exact geography has never restrained Shakespeare before, so I don’t see a problem with setting this play in a fictionalized version of early colonial […]

  2. […] and the Sixes at the beginning, and then Shakespeare gradually mellows out into things like the Winter’s Tale and eventually whitewashes anything bad in the sterile Henry VIII.  Hamletoccupies an interesting […]

  3. […] love with Prospero’s daughter Miranda.  Themes that are echoed in the similarly fantastical Winter’s Tale are played out here in a tighter and, in my opinion, better structure, turning the vengeance of a […]



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