Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare Re-Read #6)

When English students hear the name "Nahum Tate," they have a tendency to spit on the ground like when the residents of Dog River hear about their rival town of Wullerton.  Tate had a respected career and was in fact England's poet laureate for a time, but he is mostly remembered today as the guy who put a happy ending on "King Lear."  Seriously.  About 70 years after Shakespeare's death, Tate produced a rewritten version where all the good guys live and Cordelia gets married in the end.  While Tate's version was popular for the next century or so, eventually humanity came to its senses and Shakespeare's Lear became the accepted rendition of the story. 

Of course, Shakespeare himself adapted the story of Lear from earlier works so it's not like he had claim on the subject, but still, Tate's rewrite has gone down in literary history as hack work; the 17th-century equivalent of a studio executive giving notes and wanting to send the crowd home happy.  While I haven't read Tate's play, I can presume that it's not simply a case of Tate using Shakespeare's text for the first four acts and then slap-dashing his own material into the end, but rather Tate adapted the entire story, perhaps adjusting earlier elements to make Lear's tragedy seem less harsh, so the King is deserving of the happy ending that Tate provides.

I couldn't help but think of Tate while reading "The Winter's Tale" since this play actually reads as if someone stuck a happy ending onto a tragedy.  As if Shakespeare submitted a very tight, three-act, gut-punch of a play to his theatre company and a patron took him aside and said* "Billy, you've got a real corker of a play here but man alive, it's gloomier than ten Februarys.  We're not going to sell one ticket past opening night with this one.  Why not stretch it out, make it a five-acter, bring it all back around so we can put some smiles on people's faces and then we'll be cooking with gas!"

* = in the voice of a 1930's newspaper editor, naturally

It's as if the adage of "tragedy plus time equals comedy" was taken literally by Shakespeare, as he takes a 16-year jump between the third and fourth acts so that we see the aftermath of King Leontes' folly and now the King's horrible error in judgement is eventually (somewhat) resolved.  Usually Shakespeare's tragic heroes pay for their mistakes with their lives, but Leontes' survival means that he lives long enough to get a bit of redemption.  Whether he deserves such redemption is another question that we'll get to later.

It's a tough transition, story-wise.  We get this very dark, layered melodrama in the first three acts and then a complete tonal shift into a zany comedy in Act IV, with Autolycus' antics, the ongoing dopiness of the shepherd and his son and the love story between Florizel and Perdita.  Shakespeare essentially starts a new play in Act IV, with the only characters really known to us beforehand being Polixenes and Camillo, who are now just dressing up in disguises and other standard romantic-comedy fare rather than being embroiled in the drama from Sicily.  In fact, he almost literally does write another play given the extreme length of Act IV, particularly the last scene -- at a whopping 975 lines, Act IV/Scene IV has to be just about the longest scene in the Shakespearean canon. 

While the fourth act takes its bloody time, the fifth act is resolved with bizarrely quick fashion, as what should be the emotional high point of the play (Leontes realizing that Perdita is his long-lost daughter, his reconciliation with Polixenes and Camillo, and the subsequent allowance of their children to marry) is not shown to us, but is literally just recapped by a bunch of random supporting players.  It's a bizarre way of undercutting this huge moment, which I presume was done to make way for what Shakespeare chooses as his climax, the moment when Hermione's statue COMES BACK TO LIFE and reunites with her husband and daughter.

Yeah, things get weird in the second half of this play.  But then, it is a winter's tale, after all.  Young Mamillius says as much in Act II, Scene I: "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/Of sprites and goblins."  It's supposed to be fanciful, with the horrible events of the opening three acts perhaps being so tragic that only the magical acts and coincidences in the last two acts (in the spring, 16 years later) are extreme enough to bring balance back to the kingdom.  I'd say the gods were bending the laws of nature, but not really.  After all, nature dictates that winter eventually ends, then we get back into spring and the season of comedy.  It's an old metaphor that the dramatic cycle is represented by the changing of the seasons, but Shakespeare gives the cycle another spin and runs through two seasonal changes in one single play.

Because this is the natural order of things, then that essentially excuses Leontes from any question of if he "deserves" redemption.  Leontes, it should be said, is an incredibly unsympathetic character.  Here's a guy who tried to have his best friend (and another king) assassinated, had his wife put his wife on trial for adultery and treason and had his infant daughter sent out into the wilderness to die.  The King is a paranoid wretch whose jealousy was brought on by absolutely nothing.  There was no Iago whispering in his ear, or anything beyond a simple conversation between Hermione and Polixenes* that would've made Leontes' actions somewhat understandable, if not justifiable.  Once he realizes his mistake, he is horrified and crestfallen about his actions, but his 16 years of mourning is literally an act break.  To the audience, Leontes seems to get off pretty easy, given his prior three acts' worth of insanity and devastation he brings upon his family.         

* = who just seems like a naturally flirty dude, not a lecherous one.  He's even flirting with Perdita in Act IV and she's his son's girlfriend…uh wait, that doesn't help my "not a lech" argument.

To this end, the so-called turn of the seasons is an unsatisfactory resolution to his story.  Tragedy teaches us that the tragic hero's downfall comes at his own hand, while comedy is the province of wild coincidence, good fortune and the heroes being somewhat playthings of the gods.  To give a tragic hero a comic ending, therefore, is just a bit too jarring since it stands to reason that Leontes should DO something to reverse his fate, just in the same way that his actions causes his fall in the first place.  He chooses to not marry again but that doesn't seem quite enough.  As it is, it just looks like Leontes gets off the hook by waiting around.  He hides under the proverbial pile of coats until everything turns out all right.

…well, "all right."  His son is still dead, after all.  Poor Mamillius really gets the shaft in this play.  The Leontes family is reunited in the end, even to the extent of Hermione returning from the dead, yet ol' Mamilli Vanilli doesn't even merit a mention in the last scene.  That's just one of several oddities that kind of fall through the cracks given the shift of the last two acts.  Since magic is on the table, anything goes, which is why Shakespeare can insert a modern artist* into ancient times, have characters eaten by bears**, and why he can have a stone statue turn into a living woman, with her full memory and personality intact, plus even 16 years of age added to her face.  Paulina is so careful to lay these details out that some critics have argued that Hermione actually never died and was just kept in hiding by Paulina all these years.  Leontes asks to see her body in Act III, Scene II, however, so unless Paulina had access to some of that fake-death potion from Romeo & Juliet, it seems like Hermione was truly dead and there's magic afoot.  Also, if Hermione really was just in hiding for 16 years, I think her attitude towards Leontes would be less loving forgiveness and more capital-V Vengeance, no matter if Perdita had been found.

* = Julio Romano, a famous artist of the early 1500's, is name-dropped as the sculptor behind the Hermione statue, which is very out of place given the play's indeterminate time period.  This is the Shakespearean equivalent of the court dancing to David Bowie music in A Knight's Tale.  

** = The turn between the two 'moods' of the play is symbolized in the silliest possible way in Act III, Scene III when Antigonus is EATEN BY A BEAR!  What the what?!  His ship was wrecked in the storm anyways, couldn't Shakespeare just have had Antigonus get back onto it and THEN the ship is lost, rather than having Antigonus suffer such a hilarious fate?  Maybe all literary characters whose names begin with 'Antigon' are doomed.

All in all I'm pretty torn on Winter's Tale.  I just couldn't get on board with the last two acts, given the major shift in tone (and, possibly, the fact that Autolycus' antics fell pretty flat with me) and yet the first three acts are just so, so good.  It's almost like a horror movie, as while Leontes' jealousy isn't really explained, it escalates in such fashion that even the other characters are shocked at the lengths to which the king is going to erase his perceived cuckoldry.  Leontes' lunacy is countered by the tremendous characters of Hermione and Paulina, two of Shakespeare's better female roles.  I'm not picking the plays in any particular order in this Re-Read series so it's only by coincidence that I've thus far dealt with a number of plays that center around male jealousy and cuckoldry.  The common thread thus far was that the topic was almost entirely approached from the male perspective, so it was refreshing to have a scene like Hermione's "trial" where the woman actually gets a chance to defend herself against such charges, not to mention Paulina's bravery in openly calling Leontes on his nonsense.  

I almost feel like someone should do a reverse Tate on the story and omit the happy ending, just cutting things off after Act III and leaving one sliver of hope as Perdita is found by the shepherd.  Ooh, wait, adopted by a shepherd?  Biblical allegory!  That's gold, Jerry, gold!  That ending perfectly sets up Winter's Tale II: Perdita's Revenge!

(A note about the picture choice for this post.  Former Toronto FC head coach Aron Winter admittedly has nothing to do with the play, aside from his name and from the fact that TFC's 2012 season was awfully tragic.  But hey, what the hell, if Julio Romero can be inserted into the play itself, I can insert a picture of a failed soccer coach into a post about a 500-year-old play.  Deal with it.)


6. Much Ado About Nothing
5. Coriolanus
4. The Comedy Of Errors
3. The Winter's Tale
2. A Midsummer Night's Dream
1. Othello

Two of my New Year's resolutions for 2012 were to lose 38 pounds and to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  Well, 2012 ended and I'm 0-for-2, but still, onward and upward.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here are a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William goddamn Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

It's better that you read these instead of waiting for a weight-loss blog, since brother, that ain't happening.  The 'before' picture alone would break the internet.

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