Thursday, March 21, 2024

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 16: The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale, first broadcast February 8th, 1981
  • Possibly written: 1610 or 1611, possibly his 35th play
  • What’s it about? King Leontes falsely suspects his wife Hermione of sleeping with his friend Polixenes and tries to have them both killed. Leontes’s son winds up dead, and his baby daughter ends up being raised by a shepherd. She grows up to fall in love with Polixenes’s son. Insanely, things work out well for everyone (except the poor dead son.)
  • Most famous dialogue: No famous dialogue here.
  • Source: It’s apparently little changed from Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1588
  • Best insults:
    • A gross lout, a mindless slave, or else a hovering temporizer
    • Were my wife’s liver infected as her life, she would not live the running of one glass
    • She’s a bed-swerver
    • A mankind witch! A most intelligencing bawd!
    • A gross hag, and, lozel, thou are worthy to be hanged.
  • Best word: virgalling
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I had never read nor seen any production of this play. I knew about the line “exit, pursued by bear”, but that’s pretty much it. I didn’t even know if it was a tragedy or comedy. Now that I’ve seen it, I still don’t know.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: No names or faces I recognized
How’s the cast?
  • It’s a well acted play. Jeremy Kemp as Leontes is excellent, driving himself mad with suspicion and then desperately clawing his way out of it over the course of sixteen years.
How’s the direction by Jane Howell?
  • Our first female director! She uses sets that are even more minimalist and abstract than the BBC Hamlet, which is certainly daring, but only makes a strange play even stranger. No one has ever been able to figure out when and where this play is supposed to be set, but she makes the odd choice to put them all in Jacobean English dress, which certainly can’t be right. Ultimately though, it all sort of works. A bizarre staging of a bizarre play.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Pick a Lane, Man

We’ve just done three plays that were supposed to be comedies but are, for various reasons, not very funny to modern ears. You’re tired of hearing me complain that these plays aren’t funny enough, but sorry, here I go again.

What even is this? The first two acts are pure tragedy, and work very well. Whether the play is set in ancient Greece (as it often seems to be) or Renaissance Sicily and Czechia (which is sometimes stated) or anywhere in between, the story of the imaginary cuckold is evergreen, and makes for a satisfactory little two act tragedy. Then everything goes insane. Father Time comes on stage and teleports us 16 years into the future so that we can have a romance for Leontes’s grown daughter. And suddenly everything is comedic for the remaining three acts!

Some of it is funny, but the tone shift is so utterly bizarre that it just wrecks the play. Is this Shakespeare’s most forced happy ending? Surely the most contrived we’ve seen so far, but I’ve still got a lot of plays to go.

Straying from the Party Line: Show, Don’t Tell

Still, the play kind of works. Why not try a half tragedy / half comedy? By this point he’d written dozens of plays and was seemingly getting bored.

But then Shakespeare engages in the worst writerly malpractice I’ve yet seen him engage in. He flagrantly violates his contract with the audience in a truly shocking way.

Events (which is to say Shakespeare) have contrived to bring Leontes together with his long lost daughter. We see them reunited, but neither knows who the other is. He then finds out that she is pursued by his ex-best friend, who is on his way. What will happen when they have their painful reunion? At what point will Leontes realize that this is his daughter, and what emotions will that tear out of him? That’s the heart of the play, right?

But it all happens off stage! Just when things are getting good, we cut away and meet some random citizens of wherever-the-hell-this-is who chat amongst themselves about what went down, and we never get to see it ourselves. We never get to see the good stuff. In the sixteen plays we’ve done so far, this is Shakespeare’s most bizarre and inexplicable choice. How cruel to the actors to deny them that scene! The whole play has led up to it, but all we get is hearsay.

Can anyone explain this bizarre choice? I’m frankly furious.


Nathaniel said...

One thing I’m really enjoying about this series is that treating Shakespeare as un-sacred forces us to think of him as a real human. He got bored, he made mistakes, he wrote a lot of dang plays pretty quickly. I’d love to know how Winter’s Tale was staged, and received, in his day.

Matt Bird said...

Some suppose that instead of a bear costume they would have used a real bear onstage! Glad you're enjoying the series. Yes, (at least) 37 plays in a 23 year career is a lot of plays.