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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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A Mad Tale's Best for Winter

Monday, October 12, 2009

I went to see The Winter's Tale last weekend, but a strong production (see postscript) could not conceal the cracks in Shakespeare's original, and my prior impression of the play was confirmed: it is something of a mess.

The problem begins with Leontes, and his swift turn from love and hospitality towards Hermione and Polixenes, into deep jealousy, anger, and rejection. The whole reversal occurs so swiftly that it plunges the entire court, and audience, into bewilderment and fear. This production was particularly good in presenting advisers, suited like government spin doctors, who are left baffled, and torn between loyalty to their king and morality towards his wife and children. Shakespeare here seems more concerned with the effects of jealousy and false accusations on family and court, rather than with establishing any feasible or extended motivation for them in Leontes.

To rationalise his actions, we are supposed to perceive, embedded in Leontes' early lines, that he has long been harbouring suspicions about Hermione's and Polixenes' relationship, and so he instructs his wife to ask his brother to extend his stay to see if she can persuade him, whereas at Leontes' request he would not. This hidden strategy lends irony to Hermiones' bantering that she will make Polixenes stay as her prisoner, if not as her guest (for Hermione will subsequently end up imprisoned by Leontes). When she succeeds in her persuasion, there is also an irony in Leontes' noting that the only other time she spoke to such good purpose was when:
Three crabbed months had soured themselves to death
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand
And clap thyself my love. Then thou didst utter
"I am yours forever."
It is as if Hermione's entreaties towards Polixenes can be successful only if they are tinged with the love she formerly expressed to Leontes.

The problem is that these ironic connections are embedded deep in the language, and do not quite emerge in the moment of dramatic speech. Instead, Leontes becomes a sort of Iago figure, malign (or a "tyrant," as he is repeatedly called), but without just motive; yet unlike Iago, of course, Leontes actually develops as a character, from vindictive jealousy to repentance.

Such a reverse movement happens in the trial in Act Two, when Leontes is forced to admit his mistaken accusation of Hermione and the now exiled Polixenes. Having reiterated his indictment of Hermione, the oracle of Apollo announces that:
Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless,
Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his
innocent babe truly begotten, and the King shall live
without an heir if that which is lost be not found.
Duly, in rushes a servant to announce that the young prince has been found dead, Hermione swiftly follows (or appears to), and Leontes utterly repents. All this happens within the space twenty lines. The problem here is the explicit reliance on Fate as the motivational trigger. Whilst many of Shakespeare's tragedies involve the intervention of forces beyond human control (one thinks of the missed letter that condemns the "star crossed lovers" of Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet's encounter with the pirates that finally turns him back to kill Claudius), fate seems somehow plausible, acting as it does through physical forces or other characters. In A Winter's Tale, however, Fate is presented in its purest form, delivering absolute judgement on Leontes and more or less despatching thunderbolts from the heavens to kill the young prince, and seemingly Hermione too.

The power of fate is clearest in Paulina, a kind of nurse-like figure to Hermione, and the one who fakes her death. Paulina is perhaps one of Shakespeare's most powerful female figures, maternally appealing to Leontes to "soften" at the sight of his new born, innocent child, whilst being possessed of the masculine boldness to confront him and his male courtiers. As she argues, she alone can defend Hermione and bring Leontes to see the truth:
The office
Becomes a woman best. I'll take't upon me.
If I prove honey-mouthed, let my tongue blister,
And never to my red-looked anger be
The trumpet any more.
Yet the influence of fate diminishes the striking (Elizabethan?) independence of this woman. At the trial scene, after the "death" of Hermione, Paulina confronts Leontes, telling him:
I say she's dead; I'll swear't. If word nor oath
Prevail not, go and see: if you can bring
Tincture or lustre in her lip, her eye,
Heat outwardly or breath within, I'll serve you
As I would do the gods. But, O thou tyrant!
Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair. A thousand knees
Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou wert.
Of course, we are to believe here that Paulina, at the apex of her apparent anger at Leontes, is also plotting his redemption, for Hermione is not dead but merely appears so. Certainly, the opening four lines above are loudly echoed in the final scene, when the statuesque Hermione comes alive. Thus is Paulina's plan, hatched in the moment of Apollo's judgement of Leontes in Act 3, realised and completed in Act 5.

Yet as the final couple of lines above indicate, the plan is actually one exercised by the gods, with Paulina as their mere agent of action - a kind of daemonic intermediary - rather than the independent figure she appears at first to be.

In order that her plan can reach its climax at the end, with her famous request that "you do awake your faith," the wheels in the intervening acts must be turned by something larger, something metaphysical. Thus that other divine power, Time, sliding over sixteen years, moves us from Sicily to Bohemia, where Perdita coincidentally meets Florizel. Florizel blesses, "the time/When my good falcon made her flight/Across thy father's ground." The weaving of the web of hidden connections that link Perdita, the shepherd child who is actually Leontes' princess daughter, to Florizel, Polixenes' son, is of course typical of the comedies, and so The Winter's Tale switches out of its tragic mode, into the more festive one. It is this mode that allows Perdita to unveil Hermione to a reunited audience (Leontes and Polixenes, Florizel and Perdita), as the final mark of the forgiving of Leontes.

In Shakespeare's earlier comedies, fate or the fairies are given licence to act, because they entertain. Because they are agents of laughter, contemporary viewers can suspend their disbelief, allowing them to do their matrimonial work. However, in another late play, The Tempest, Shakespeare has Prospero admit that he, reduced to a mere human once again, lacks such "Spirits to enforce, art to enchant." Similarly, in The Winter's Tale the awakening of faith demanded at the end in order to have the wish-fulfilment of Hermione's resurrection seems to admit that in life, unlike in art, fate does not act to happy endings, and is instead beyond human control. Such an admission puts these two plays contrary to a modern, secularist mindset, for which such a submission before fate seems unreal, and contrary to the liberal humanist idea that people have the power to change themselves.

The central problem with A Winter's Tale, then, lies in Shakespeare's representation of Fate. On the one hand, the limited rationale behind Leontes' anger, and the way in which this focuses our attention less on the origins of jealousy than on its bewildering effects, seems to present a world in which things happen that cannot be rationalised or predicted. People behave strangely, erratically, turning their emotions on the head of a pin, quite as we would expect of people who live in a world ultimately controlled by the gods. The achievement of Shakespeare's tragedies, by contrast, is to show that actually humans behave in self-motivated ways, often opting to laugh in the face of providence, just as they may do against other characters who try to swerve them from their determined course of action. Macbeth's fate is predicted for him at the beginning, yet we do not feel that Macbeth is a mere puppet of providence, but that he alone has reached the end foretold, and therefore he merits his downfall.

The intervening movements of the The Winter's Tale - as it switches from the tragedy of Hermione's apparent death, to the comedy that will see her resurrection - seem to substantiate the view of the world as driven by higher powers, with even intelligent and independent women such as Paulina actually mere daemonic agents for providential whims. Such a view is enforced by the comedic trait where the right lovers, typically disguised, are brought together. However, in spite of its comic plot, The Winter's Tale seems to also suggest that humans, like Paulina, can act to judge human behaviour, even that of kings; judgement and reward are obtainable within this world, without recourse to prayer. The only problem is, the final reward of the reawakening of Hermione, whilst deeply moving, could only happen in a fatal world, or the world of the theatre controlled by the playwright, that is a metaphor for the world authored by the gods. The human reality that the theatre, especially the tragic theatre, should embody is kept at arm's length by the metadrama. Reconciliation can only happen in art, not in life, and especially not in one authored by higher powers.

As a member of the audience, such ambivalence seemed to me to be acutely problematic. I am sure that there are critical readings that might offer a more coherent account of Shakespeare's vision in The Winter's Tale. Indeed, noticing the ambiguity embedded in Leontes' language right at the beginning, which points to the existence of his jealousy even before the play begins, accounts for his sudden switch when I read the play, whereas it seemed unaccountable in performance. There is, surely, therefore much more that can be said about the play as a text, which points to Shakespeare's logical strategy. Nevertheless, as a theatre spectacle, the unevenness of the switch from tragedy to comedy, the ambivalence with which characters seem at once independent and then driven by powers above them, means that the whole does not quite hang together. Perhaps the ultimate problem is that this twenty-first century viewer, rationalist and atheist, simply cannot awake his faith to the overwhelming force of fate in the way Shakespeare originally intended.

Postscript: The production I went to see, which was a co-production between Headlong Theatre and the Nuffield Theatre, is on tour across the UK until 28th November. My intrinsic reservations about the play aside, this is a strong performance, fairly faithful to the original but updating the setting to a decadent, roaring '20s Sicily and Bohemia. Golda Rosheuvel as Paulina is particularly convincing as a decisive woman, which is perhaps why I noticed so critically the ambiguity about her also being the puppet of fate.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:19 am

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