Thoughts on Acts I and II of The Winter’s Tale

the winter's tale cover image

It occurred to me the other day that I can’t remember the last time I read a Shakespeare play that I had never read before. There’s one exception – I did read As You Like It for the first time a couple of years ago, but before that it’s been at least since graduate school. Shakespeare’s oeuvre tends to divide itself into two parts: the plays that one reads and the plays that one does not read (unless one is a Renaissance scholar or ambitious bookblogger like myself). I mean All’s Well That Ends Well? Pericles? The Merry Wives of Windsor? I’ve never read any of these and don’t especially want to, though it would be nice to be able to say that I have read ALL of Shakespeare.

I’ve never read The Winter’s Tale before, but I have owned a copy for many years, and I have opened it now and then to Act III, scene iii to giggle at the most famous stage direction in English literature: Exit, pursued by a bear. It just never gets old. I am excited to see how Jeanette Winterson incorporates this stage direction into the novel she wrote based on this play (for information on the Hogarth Shakespeare series, click here).

Another thing that occurs to me is that this is the first Shakespeare play I’ve read that has prompted me to puzzle over its title. Usually Shakespeare’s titles are no-brainers: his tragedies and histories are named after their protagonists, and his comedies have whimsical titles that are probably a bit interchangeable, but at least Twelfth Night is set on the holiday called Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes use of the extended daylight of midsummer, and so forth. But I’m two acts into this one and I have no idea why it’s called The Winter’s Tale. I know I could Google it, but I’d rather not. I’d rather puzzle it out a little bit, to make this strange experience last awhile.

But anyway. The Winter’s Tale is about a king (Leontes, of Sicily) who decides based on almost no evidence that his wife (Hermione) is having an affair with a different king (Polixenes, of Bohemia). Polixenes disappears along with one of Leontes’ courtiers, Camillo – and somehow Leontes interprets this as even more proof that Polixenes and Hermione (who, by the way, is pregnant at the time – with Leontes’ baby) are having an affair, and he has Hermione locked up in prison.

One thing that Shakespeare does better than any other writer I’ve read is depict the moment when a character moves from rational to irrational. This is an extreme phenomenon – not something one encounters every day, and I know a lot of people might find it hard to connect Leontes’ instantaneous reversal to anything they’ve experienced in reality. I think that if Leontes were examined by a modern-day psychiatrist, he would be diagnosed as having had a psychotic break. Like many mentally ill individuals, Leontes believes that he is the only person who can see Hermione and Polixenes with any clarity. “How blest I am / In my just censure, in my true opinion” (II.1.46-7), he says, and continues:

Alack, for lesser knowledge! How accursed

In being so blest! There may be in the cup

A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,

And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge

Is not infected; but if one present

Th’abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known

How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,

With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider. (II.1.48-56)

This passage manages both to suggest the altered perceptions of people whose thinking is disordered while also being a powerful statement of the placebo effect. Did science know about the placebo effect in 1609, or was Shakespeare yet again on to something entirely new? I wouldn’t be surprised if he were.

I have a friend whose marriage ended in more or less this fashion. Her husband didn’t accuse her of cheating, but he did suddenly turn on her after ten years of marriage and declare that he had never been happy, that she had forced him into marriage and home ownership before she was ready, that he had been miserable every day of their marriage. I’ve also seen enough of dementia to know that the veil between the empirically real and the subjectively real is so thin as to almost be nonexistent.

Leontes has a courtier named Antigonus (he’s the one who later exits, pursued by a bear – spoiler alert!), who spends a good bit of Act II sucking up. He goes as far as to say that he planned to “geld” all of his daughters, who are eleven, nine, and five years old, now that he has discovered how treacherous women are. The footnote in the Folger edition defines gelding as “spaying,” which is an alarming term to use about human children, but I suppose the reproductive systems of humans aren’t that different from those of other mammals. Only slightly less surprising than the editor’s use of “spay” is the reference to the specific ages of Antigonus’ children. I didn’t realize until I read these lines that Shakespeare almost never has anything specific to say about children. Macduff’s son in Macbeth is a cross between Pearl Prynne and a minor Beat poet, and Hamlet, who acts as if he’s about sixteen, turns out to be thirty. This specific reference to the ages of Antigonus’ daughters (which makes the thought of him “gelding” them all the more horrific) prefigures another Shakespearean “first,” at least for me: a pregnant woman and a birth as a major part of the plot. Is there another character in any of his plays whose pregnancy is a major plot point? I was so surprised by this, but in a good way. This play has a “domestic” feel to it that I haven’t encountered in Shakespeare before, but I do like it. It makes for a nice counterpoint to Lady Macbeth’s boasts about smashing her baby’s head open on the stone floor.

Hermione spends all of Act II in prison and delivers her baby there. Paulina – Antigonus’ wife – visits her there and decides to bring the baby to Leontes in hope that the sight of his newborn daughter will bring him back to his senses. But it doesn’t work; Leontes’ response is “Out! / A mankind witch! Hence with her, out o’ door. / A most intelligencing bawd” (II.iii.81-83), which makes even less sense than Shakespeare’s crazy characters usually make. Leontes then proceeds to lambast Antigonus about what kind of a man he is who can’t control his wife: “Give her the bastard [i.e. Leontes’ own daughter], / Thou dotard; thou art woman-tired, unroosted / By thy Dame Partlet here. Take up the bastard, / Take ‘t up, I say. Give it to thy crone” (II.iii.91-94). Paulina then proceeds to verbally tear King Leontes apart in typical Shakespearean strong-woman fashion. Leontes blames Antigonus for all of this and then orders him to take the baby away into the woods and burn it. Antigonus and Paulina both indicate to Leontes that they think this plan is perhaps a bit extreme, and then Leontes bemoans his fate: “I am a feather for each wind that blows. /Shall I live on to see this bastard kneel / And call me father. Better burn it now / Than curse it then. But be it; let it live” (II.iii.191-194). Leontes then tells Antigonus to take the baby into the wilderness and just abandon it there – because, you know, that worked out so well for Laius and Jocasta.

I recently read James Shapiro’s new book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, which I will review soon. For now, suffice it to say that 1606 – when Shakespeare wrote both King Lear and Macbeth – was an awful year all around for Shakespeare and for much of England. The Winter’s Tale was written a couple of years later, and I’m really glad that I was reading this play with The Year of Lear in my head. There’s a lot of Lear in this play, especially in Leontes’ deep descent into madness, and there’s also a lot of Macbeth – but there’s also another quality that’s not familiar to me. This may be the latest play of Shakespeare’s that I’ve ever read – and I’m wondering if this je ne sais quoi that I’m picking up on is true maturity. I don’t think Shakespeare is at the height of his powers as a playwright here (this play is good, but it’s no Hamlet, no Henry IV, Part I, no A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but it may well be that he’s at the height of his wisdom as a man. Maybe that’s what I’ve been sensing.

That’s it, I guess, except to say that Leontes sent some guys (Cleomides and Dion, to be specific) off to see the Oracle at Delphi (again, because that worked so well for Laius and Jocasta), although Leontes has admitted in soliloquy that he doesn’t care what the oracle says and intends to kill Hermione no matter what message Cleomides and Dion bring back. I’m looking forward to reading more – and especially to finding out what Antigonus does to deserve to be pursued by a bear as he exits, though of course in Shakespeare there doesn’t have to be a reason for horrible things to happen.

More soon.

Beads and More Beads: A Holiday Fundraiser

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Hi Friends,

I have a fundraiser in the works this holiday season. I am selling beading and beadmaking kits. Each and every bead in these kits was handmade from recycled magazines and newspapers (see photos). Each kit comes with fishing line for threading and instructions on how the recipient can make more beads him/herself. The kits are small enough for stocking stuffers and provide a mellow, pleasurable activity for kids and adults age 7 and up.

Product Description:

  Small Large
Contents 75 handmade beads in a tiny glass container

Fishing line for threading

Instructions for making beads


150 handmade beads in a small glass container

Fishing line for threading

Instructions for making beads

Cost $25 + shipping* $45 + shipping*


Gift Wrap


Add $3.00 Add $3.00
NOT included in kit Materials for further bead-making (newspapers or magazines, a medium-sized nail, scissors, glue)


Materials for further bead-making (newspapers or magazines, a medium-sized nail, scissors, glue)


*Shipping costs will vary based on location. Estimated cost for single kits are $2-3 for small kits and $4-5 for large kits. I will ship via USPS first-class mail unless you request otherwise. If you live in the San Francisco area and would like to pick your kit(s) up from me in person to avoid shipping costs, please let me know when you place your order and we can arrange a pick-up time.

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If you would like to place an order, please send me a Facebook message, a blog message, or an email ( and tell me the following information:

    1. Quantity – how many kits would you like?
    2. Size – Small or Large (see product information for more details.)
    3. Please tell me WHEN you would like your kits to arrive (If you give me less than 7 business days, I may need to charge you for additional shipping costs.)
    4. Please tell me if you would like your kit(s) to be gift-wrapped (for an additional $3 per kit).
    5. Please tell me if you would like to pay $5 to donate a kit to a needy child in the SF Bay Area.
    6. Please provide the mailing address to which you would like your item(s) shipped.

When I receive your order, I will begin packaging your beads. When your order is ready to ship, I will send you an email confirming the cost of your order as well as shipping (shipping will vary based on region). At that point, please pay me via PayPal. As soon as I receive your payment, I will ship your beads.

Satisfaction is guaranteed: I will refund your money if an item arrives damaged or does not meet your expectations.

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The purpose of this fundraiser is to allow me to take one or more research trips in 2016. I have several long-form writing projects in the works – both fiction and nonfiction – and am working hard to bring them to completion. I have several destinations on my wish list, all of which will allow me to do valuable research to advance my work. These trips range in distance from a day’s drive from home to the other side of the world, and even just a few purchases will help. I may also use money from this fundraiser to attend a writing conference. If you participate in this fundraiser in any way, you will also receive a postcard from me from one of my destinations so you’ll know how your purchase enabled me to move my writing projects forward.

In addition, I plan to donate 10% of the money I make to a local children’s charity, along with several bead kits.

If you want to support this fundraiser but do not want to purchase kits, please SHARE this offer on your own social media.

Many thanks!



Yarn Along

Yarn Along 11.25

My short attention span for books continues, but today’s photo is of Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King, which is really good but a little cringeworthy for all the racism and ignorance it showcases – in the first chapter at least. I do mean to finish it – but I feel that way about so many other books too. We’ll see…

I’m enjoying seeing my oatmeal English rib sweater take shape as I decrease for the sleeves on the back. I’ll be on to the front in no time.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

A Review of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train cover image

This review will be brief – I read a library copy almost two months ago, and I did take a few notes but not enough for a detailed review. But that’s OK, since this book was extremely popular and I’m sure there are many other reviews out there for you to choose from. The girl referenced in the title is Rachel; Rachel is a woman in crisis. She is a frighteningly severe alcoholic, and in the last year she has lost her husband (to divorce) and her job. She lives in a single room in her friend Cathy’s house, and she has not yet told Cathy that she lost her job, so she leaves in the morning at what used to be her usual time and then rides the train all day until it’s time to come home. There is a particular spot she is especially interested in passing on the train, and at the beginning of the novel all we know is that there is a couple whose house is near that spot whom Rachel likes to imagine as “the perfect couple.” She calls them Jason and Jess, and she has an elaborate fantasy life planned out in her imagination that is based on the little glimpses she sees of their lives, when they have cocktails on the porch in the evening or when she sees “Jason” leaving for work in the morning.

Jason and Jess are really Scott and Megan, and Megan is one of the novel’s three narrators. Rachel is another, and I’ll get to the third – Anna – in a moment. When we meet Megan, we don’t know that she is also “Jess” – that realization comes a few chapters later. We do get the sense that Megan is unmoored in some way; we know that she used to work in an art gallery but no longer does so, and we don’t know why, and we know that she recently quit a job as a childminder (that’s British English for babysitter; was I the only one who didn’t know that?) for a neighbor and is not willing to discuss her reasons for doing so. We know that her husband Scott loves her and tries to be patient, but that Megan’s unhappiness upsets him and that he sometimes storms out of the house angrily and displays his frustration in other ways which, while not abusive, are upsetting to Megan and cast doubt on their status as the perfect couple. But Rachel knows nothing of that.

Eventually it becomes clear that another reason Rachel likes to stop at this particular train stop is that she used to live on that street too. Furthermore, her ex-husband, Tom, still lives there with his new wife, Anna, and their baby. In addition, Tom and Anna’s baby is the one Megan cared for during her brief stint as a childminder. Once this connection becomes clear, this novel settles into the relatively-predictable-but-still-entertaining rhythm of the typical bestselling novel, in which we have a few pieces of the puzzle put together and our task as reader is to find the missing shards of grass, of sky, of character, of conflict, and so forth – in hopes of anticipating the novel’s resolution a moment or so before the author reveals it.

And then Megan is murdered. On the night that Megan was murdered, Rachel was walking around on their street, so drunk that in the morning the entire experience is blacked out, and when she is told by Tom that he interacted with her that night, she becomes obsessed with finding out what she had seen and experienced, convinced that her missing memory holds the answer to how Megan died. And – of course – it does, and her attempt to get her questions answered consumes the rest of the book.

This novel is engrossing, but it is also formulaic, and it never really transcends its formula. What I do find interesting, though, is that the novel seems to have a sociological point to make, which is that the loss of babies makes women crazy. With Anna and her new baby on daily parade and both Megan and Rachel increasingly miserable yet unable to stop watching Tom, Anna, and their baby, we gradually learn that an inability to have babies is areason for both Rachel’s alcoholism and depression and for Megan’s murder – and also that all three women in this novel have reasons to be obsessed with Tom. I’m not going to throw stones at anyone’s glass house when it comes to being upset about not having babies, but the reason I find this underlying message in the novel so interesting is that just a few months ago I read another novel – Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – that explores exactly the same idea. That novel is not formulaic and is much more literary in its approach, but both novels resolve themselves by letting the reader know that childlessness – in two very different circumstances – is a breeding ground for self-hatred and insanity. In both novels, the protagonists respond to the trauma of not being able to bear children by subconsciously shedding their identities. In Vida’s novel, the protagonist takes on an alternate identity when her ID is stolen and then gets a job as a body double for an actress, and in this novel Rachel’s alcoholism, divorce, and job loss effectively erase much of her sense of self. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of other novels that make this kind of statement, although crazy/manipulative/smothering mothers abound. I make this point not to expound a well-developed thesis, but I wonder if this is part of a trend in how (some) women see themselves and their roles as mothers in a world that we increasingly expect we should be able to manipulate and shape to our own specifications. I recommend the book only moderately, but I did enjoy contemplating some of the questions it asks.

That Time I Made Hundreds of Beads and Photographed Them in the Evening Light (And Yes, Also Yarn Along)

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Above you can see why I haven’t been knitting much lately. I needed to do a craft with second and third graders as part of a job interview, so I pulled out this old favorite. These beads are easy and almost always beautiful, and I underestimated my ability to get badly addicted to this project. To say that I made hundreds is not an exaggeration. I even have a bead-making injury: the tip of my right index finger got a callus on it, and I picked the callus off, so now I have to wait until it heals before I make more.

This is a great project for families because everyone from about 7 years old on up can participate and the end products are beautiful. Here’s how they’re made:


Magazines and newspapers

Nails (medium-sized are best, but you can experiment)


Glue Stick

Thread or fishing line for threading


  1. Cut out LONG, SKINNY triangles from magazines or newspapers. You can experiment with a variety of sizes, but the base of the triangle must be SHORTER than the nail you are using. At minimum, the triangle should be about 7-8 inches long, though ideally it should be much longer. The longer the triangle is, the wider the bead will be at its middle.
  2. Align the base of the triangle with the nail. Holding the paper in place with the thumb and forefinger of one hand (this is how I got the callus), use the other thumb and forefinger to rotate the nail so the paper is gradually wrapped around the nail. The bead will grow and thickness as your wrap it around the nail.
  3. When there are about two inches left on the “point” end of the triangle, put the bead on the table and cover the remaining paper with glue. Then finish wrapping the paper around the nail, pressing the point firmly in place. Carefully slide the bead off the nail. The glue will dry quickly.

Clearly any jewelry made from these beads is not suitable for rainy days, but in other ways the beads are much sturdier than they look. On my to-do list is to stop into an art store to see if they have a fixative spray or other product that will make these beads slightly more waterproof than they currently are. If anyone has suggestions, please let me know!

Yarn Along photo 11.18

And no, I haven’t completely stopped knitting. I did some work on my English rib sweater and am almost ready to start decreasing for the sleeves. I am still finishing up both The Year of Lear and The Winter’s Tale, but I’ve also started Welcome to Braggsville and am enjoying it so far. More details to come!

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

Thoughts on Ann Patchett’s Taft (by Jill)

Thoughts on Ann Patchett’s Taft (by Jill)

Taft cover

I have been an avid purchaser of Ann Patchett’s books for quite a while, but this is the first one I’ve actually read. According to my Goodreads account, my boss lent me this book back in the fall of 2012, which sounds like longer ago than it feels like. A brief aside: I was going to wax philosophical about all the things about my life that have changed since my boss handed me this book, but I’ve spent about four days trying to make that version of this post happen, and I’ve gotten absolutely nowhere with it. So I’m starting over, and keeping it simple.

The narrator of Taft is a middle-aged African American man named John Nickel, who manages a bar in Memphis called Muddy’s. Nickel, as he is more often called, seems like a pretty good guy, though he messed things up with the mother of his child a few years ago—Marion and his son Franklin no longer live in Memphis; they relocated to Miami when Marion got a job offer at a hospital down there (she’s a nurse). Nickel used to be a drummer in the Memphis jazz scene, and it sounds like he was a pretty good one, though he never got his big break. He gave up the musician life in order to be a more present father to his son, and now that Franklin is gone, he doesn’t have much in his life besides work and the occasional phone calls he makes to Miami. One day, a white girl named Fay Taft shows up at the bar looking for work. She says she’s twenty, but no one quite believes her. She’s new to Memphis, having relocated from a small town in east Tennessee after her father passed away (we learn that later). With her comes her brother, Carl, who ends up being more than a bit of trouble for Nickel. Somehow, Nickel gets roped into the Taft family’s life drama, and this causes him to imagine what things were like for them before their dad died.

The story alternates between present-day Memphis (in short, Nickel works, misses his son, visits Marion’s family; Fay falls in love with him; Carl gets into deeper and deeper trouble) and Nickel’s imaginings of Fay and Carl’s father. As the book goes on, we spend more time with the Taft family back in Coalfield, and it becomes unclear whether or not the events being depicted actually happened or if it’s just what Nickel imagines could have happened, or a combination of the two. I’m not sure if it’s an important distinction, though it seems like it should be. As the present-day story progresses, and Nickel gets more and more wrapped up with Fay and Carl, the flashback story gets more and more page time. I actually enjoyed both storylines equally, though the question of how much of the Coalfield story was fabricated by Nickel still digs at me, and I finished this book a week ago.

Ultimately this is a novel about love: primarily paternal love, but there are other kinds of love present in Taft, too. Nickel loves Franklin so much, and Patchett writes about it so well. I’m not sure what kind of love Nickel feels for Fay and Carl (really just Fay), and I’m not sure that he knows himself for the better part of the book. I suspect he has a fatherly sort of love for Fay, though she definitely has much stronger feelings for Nickel than that. Nickel and Marion love each other, though it doesn’t seem like they are going to end up together as more than Franklin’s parents. Marion’s parents love Nickel like a son, and they love Marion too, of course. There really were a lot of healthy relationships in this novel, and it’s too bad that Carl is such a bad seed.

I do recommend this book, though the ending is definitely not neat and tidy with all loose ends tied up. I was reading on goodreads and people who have read more of Patchett’s books say that this is definitely not as strong as Bel Canto or The Patron Saint of Liars, and since it’s only her second novel that doesn’t surprise me much. I’m glad I read it, and Patchett’s writing is lovely, even when she is describing unpleasant things, like Fay’s desperate attempts to seduce Nickel, as well as Taft’s death scene. The major issue I had with it is simply not knowing how close Nickel’s version of Taft’s life in Coalfield is to the real thing.

Yarn Along

Yarn Along photo 11.11.15

I haven’t been doing much knitting lately. I do still care about this project, but I’ve been reading more than usual and also working on another craft – beadmaking – that sucks me into its web once a decade or so. So the knitting project in the photo is nothing new, but that’s OK because I can take this time to tell you about a new reading challenge that I’m kicking off this week.

I learned via promotional email from Amazon that Hogarth Press is commissioning best-selling novelists to write modern re-tellings of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays within the next several years (as far as I can tell there is no specific timetable published). The first novel in the series was just released: Jeannette Winterson’s A Gap of Time, a re-telling of A Winter’s Tale. I am reading A Winter’s Tale now and will start the novel once I’m finished. The next two novels in the series will be Howard Jacobson’s re-telling of The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler’s re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew. I am excited beyond belief about this project, which I think of as state quarters for book nerds, except the books will look better than the quarters when lined up on a shelf. And look how nice the two books look alongside my knitting!

I would LOVE it if some of our readers – or, of course, Jill – would like to read along.

Happy Wednesday!

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.