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the winter's tale

15 october 2015

The Winter's Tale is a lovely, affecting, lyrical play that also has a great deal of dramatic energy. It is a notable favorite of academic critics. But its stage history has been uneven at best. It's sometimes disappeared for many years at a time; it might not even have been performed between 1634 and 1741, a long spell even given that the theaters were closed for a couple of those decades. And the amazing resources at the Internet Shakespeare Edition note that "By the fall of 2001 … the play seemed to lose its currency for nearly a decade." Hardly any Shakespeare play goes completely unperformed these days, but The Winter's Tale is still relatively obscure. I've never seen it on stage or film.

Like many of Shakespeare's other comedies (both "romances" and more "festive" plays), The Winter's Tale involves righting an old wrong and reconciling old enemies. The play is unusual, however, in showing us how those enemies fell foul of one another to start with, and then skipping over sixteen years to see them become friends again. It's even more unusual in skipping the actual reconciliation, and having it narrated by non-principals (Act 5, Scene 2), before proceeding to an even more comprehensive reconciliation in the final scene, involving a raising from the dead, art come to life, a mother finding a daughter, and what not else, as a Shakespeare character might say.

The plot is driven by the jealousy of Leontes, King of Sicilia. He's like Othello, except there's no Iago to get him started. Like so many men in old English plays, he's deathly afraid he might be cuckolded, and therefore always convinced that he is. This is unfair to his wife Hermione (though I'm sure there are interpretations where she really is unfaithful, which would serve Leontes right). His very first words in Act 1, Scene 2 establish that Polixenes King of Bohemia, her putative boyfriend, has been in country nine months. Hermione is about to give birth, which means that they either got started on this project the day Polixenes arrived, or Leontes is a moron and Hermione is chaste. Or perhaps she started fooling around with Polixenes after she got pregnant. In any case, the sexual details are not as important as the thought that the baby on its way might not be Leontes'. In order to clean up this imagined mess, Leontes orders Polixenes poisoned and the newborn exposed to die. Supposedly Hermione dies too.

For his irrational malice, Leontes gets torn into strips by the lady-in-waiting Paulina – who is right, we understand, but who is as OTT in her own way as Leontes in his. This makes the scenes between Leontes and Paulina some of the most energetic and electric in all of Shakespeare. Meanwhile all sorts of magical-festive-world stuff is happening on the seacoast of Bohemia, including the adoption of the exposed infant princess by a kindly old shepherd and his idiot son, and the exit from the stage and this life by Paulina's husband Antigonus, pursued by a bear.

Sixteen years past and the foundling Perdita, daughter of Leontes, is now the beloved of Florizel, son of Polixenes, and you can see where this is going – though maybe you can't see how Hermione is going to come back to life, after being hidden by Paulina for many years and displayed by her as a living statue. It gets to that weird destination along weird plot paths that pass one of the lovelier scenes of poetry in Shakespeare, the sheep-shearing in Act 4 – which has its loveliness interrupted by Polixenes being as irrationally malicious in his old age as Leontes in his youth.

Maybe it doesn't really work on stage, and that's why it's not a really famous play. There's no big part for an actor; rising stars don't dream of playing Leontes or Paulina some day. The tone balances between "romance" and "problem play." The little prince Mamillius really does die, though not before giving the play its title line: "A sad tale's best for winter" (Act 2, Scene 1): a sad tale he promises to tell and never gets to. Ultimately the gentle, elegaic, poetic, and deeply sad accumulation of wrong turns in these characters' lives is not righted by a few magic tricks. They have to depend on the next generation to fulfill their happiness, but they've done their best to send them off embittered. Perhaps the theme of The Winter's Tale is somewhat like Philip Larkin's poem "This Be the Verse." I wouldn't want to see a play based on those lines, either.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter's Tale. 1623. Edited by Frederick E. Pierce. 1918. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.