My Shakespeare Project has gained new life since I decided to approach the remaining works by seasonal appeal rather than sticking to some purported order of chronological appearance. Timelines can plod so! After I polished off The Merry Wives of Windsor on the feast day of St. Stephen (fortuitous, that, as the twelve days of Christmas – in which we now find ourselves – can always use a Lord of Misrule – I’m looking at you, Falstaff), I headed straight to The Winter’s Tale (1609). (I’m already calendaring Julius Caesar for March.) Fortunately I found a very passable production online featuring a small group of English undergraduates who did the script some good justice. I always find it is better to see it staged, no matter how simply. The main issue with community theater videos is that they have no sound engineering to speak of, giving me a headache by the end of Act I due to the whining, hissing, whirring, and static continuously present in the audio.
There’s not much discernibly wintry about this tale, save perhaps the late season of the author’s career when he penned it. It’s set between Sicily and Bohemia, featuring the kings of the respective countries – Leontes and Polixenes, respectively. Polixenes is visiting Leontes and his family – his comely pregnant wife Hermione and their handsome young son, the prince Mamillius – in Sicily on a long-promised trip. As far as I could tell, the Sicilian queen, Hermione, moves to make Polixenes feel welcome at a reception, at the behest of her husband, Leontes. Things seem to be going well until Leontes gets a sideways look at their chat and flies into a fit of jealous rage, convinced that the queen and his friend are now in love, and contrive to mock him, at best, and murder him, at worst. Of course he suspects the worst. He’s been cast in the Irrational Husband Mode of Shakespeare.
Hermione has a baby whom Leontes swears is Polixenes’s child. Audience sympathies tend toward Hermione. Leontes really comes off as a nutcase, but who among us has not drawn similarly injurious and unjust conclusions from evidence that we gathered with our own senses? (The plot of Ian McEwan’s Atonement comes to mind.) Leontes cannot be dissuaded. He puts Hermione on trial, along with Camillo, a servant whomhe insists was in on the conspiracy with Hermione and Polixenes, and summarily convicts them of a variety of trumped-up charges. The pregnant Hermione is banished from Sicily. So is Camillo.
The drama seems to pause, then snap back to life. Hermione delivers a girl, who is shown to Leontes. He insists that the baby is not his and demands that his courtier Antigonus take the child and kills it. Antigonus begs Leontes to turn toward reason, and if not reason, then leniency. Leontes will have non eof it. Like a shamed chil, he just digs in harderBut Antigonus cannot kill the child and instead sets the baby girl on a boat bound for Bohemia with a chest of gold and a letter. (TOTALLY REASONABLE. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?)
News comes to Leontes that his wife has died, as has his golden son. He reconsiders his actions. He regrets. He repents. He is now a childless widower. He is lonely. He wishes he had been more forgiving, gentler, more generous. But the damage is done.
A chrous appears to narrate the passage of sixteen years. The baby princess, now a comely maiden named Perdita, survived in a new family of shepherds. The play reopens in Bohemia. Of course Perdita has no idea of her noble origins. But she’s managed to meet and fall in love with Florizell, the son of Polixenes, whom we hadn’t met yet. His dad hears about it and contrives to attend a sheep-shearing party in disguise with Camillo. He’s not happy with the turn in events, he doesn’t know who Perdita is, curses and damnation! (Again with the Shakespeare dads!) Perdita and Florizell make way to Sicilia to find Leontes. When Leontes understands that Perdita survived, he is overcome, blessing their union.
In perhaps the most poignant moment of Shakespearean magic – the place where we’ve all been before, where we wish the gods would forgive us our excesses of judgement and action, and just make things whole again – the cast gathers in front of an extremely lifelike statue of Hermione. Their longing – in particular Leontes’ longing – as they brings about a Galatea Surprise, where the statue comes to life and descends to embrace and forgive Leontes. (Alas, no further word on Mamillius, who remains in the Beyond.) It is said that in this moment we truly feel the age of Shakespeare – the longings of the older man, less given to madcap action and more focused on wouldn’t it be nice if…. This brief commentary by the Folger Shakespeare Library Director pretty much sums it up.
So, therein the winter’s tale, here on the fifth day of Christmas, (five golden rings!) Shakespeare seems to say, amid the traditional feasting and the holidays, imagine the gifts of forgiveness that we might give to ourselves and others so that would would not long for magic to intervene in later years. Statues aren’t going to step down off their pedestals, come back to life, and make amends. We got what we got here, guys. Be good about it. Love your family and friends, and be gentle and kind.