Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Winter's Tale

By William Shakespeare. First published in Britain in 1623 by Edward Blount, William Jaggard, and Isaac Jaggard. Review copy from 'The Arden Shakespeare: Third Series', edited by John Pitcher.

I have to say, the more I read about Shakespeare's stuff, the more impressed I get. And we're talking about possibly the most famous writer in history here. The notion of 'tragicomedy' was not new when Shakespeare wrote this play in 1610 or so, but the Jacobean audiences were still having trouble with it. John Fletcher had written a tragicomedy 2 years earlier that had bombed, and was apparently bitching about how the audiences were philistines. So Shakespeare wrote The Winter's Tale, which basically is also sort of a tragicomedy, but divides it almost exactly in half. The first three acts are a tragedy, then the last 2 comedic and pastoral. Blending? What is that?

Oddly enough, the dividing point seems to be the bear. The Winter's Tale certainly contains Shakespeare's most famous stage direction in all his plays: "Exit, pursued by a bear." It's suspected that there may have been a performing troupe in London at the time, whose trained bear Shakespeare wanted to use. He had to know, however, that if this was going to be put on again, they would not have handy access to a bear every time. And, be it special effects or just a guy in a bear suit, the bear is almost impossible to pull off and not have it be ludicrous. So why not play that up, and make the appearance of the bear a big laugh? After all the drama of the first three acts, giggling at the bear (even as it does kill off one of the characters) lets the audience lighten up for the country dancing and foolish trickery that follows.

Speaking of the country scenes, this play is also unusual in that the lead romantic heroine does NOT dress up as a boy to disguise herself. Admittedly, there is a matter of mistaken identity here, as she's a missing princess masquerading as a shepherdess, but she's been raised there, so knows nothing of her magical heritage. It's odd seeing Shakespeare, who in his later plays loved to have callbacks to his earlier ones, not use the old girl dressed as a boy (played by a boy dressed as a girl dressed as a boy), but there's a surprisingly limited amount of cross-dressing here.

The play can be hard to perform, like almost all Shakespeare, because of his habit of using unlikeable characters in major lead roles, and not having them get what they deserve. King Leontes in this play may be the only jealous husband we've seen who manages to give himself brain fever through sheer force of will. His ludicrous accusations of adultery get worse and worse as the early acts go on, and it requires an actual Godly Oracle to tell him he's an idiot. Even then, he still doesn't believe the Oracle, so his wife and son die just to show him the error of his ways.

As I said, the first half reads very much like a tragedy. Leontes has some similarities to both Othello and Lear, but lacks the innate nobility of both of them. It's very frustrating seeing him create infidelity out of basically nothing at all. Some productions try to make Hermione a genuine flirt and tease to give him some motivation, but I think this not only does her character wrong, but misses the idea that he doesn't need motivation. The problem with this, of course, is that in the end he gets his happy ever after. His daughter returns, his wife is resurrected, and all is well. Many people think he didn't suffer enough. Well, he did grieve for 16 years, but we're not shown that much.

Oh yes, the resurrection. The other reason this play is so well known is Hermione's appearance as a statue come to life. It's been suggested that this was Shakespeare trying to apologize for Lear, which had in the end a dying Lear babble that Cordelia was coming back to life, and certainly it's not the only time he would do this - Pericles, which was written only 2 years earlier, has a very similar plot where the lead's wife is not really dead. The difference here is that we SEE the statue come to life. The Winter's Tale is at a period in Shakespeare's life where he was very fond of fantastic elements - after this he'd write The Tempest, which goes even further - but a lot of people can't suspend disbelief quite that much.

Tragicomedy, pastoral, romance. Whatever. It's one of three genre-blending plays Shakespeare wrote in a row (along with Cymbeline and The Tempest), and generally regarded to day as one of his better plays, if not necessarily in the top echelon. I'm not sure I'd be able to stage it well (the festival scene, which runs to about 45 minutes, can be punishing with all the dances and songs), and there's the Leontes problem, but certainly this is a lot easier to put on stage today than Shrew or Merchant of Venice. Check it out if you get a chance.

Oh yes, and the 'shores of Bohemia' thing? That was totally a joke. Shakespeare knew where Bohemia was. He was laughing up his sleeve as he wrote that. Plus it helped add to the sense of unreality.

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