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.

This entry was posted in Drama, Hogarth Shakespeare, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized, William Shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink.

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