The Shakespeare Project: The Winter’s Tale

Do people really think that Hermione is literally brought back to life in Act V? Reading it, it was obvious to me that Hermione had been alive, living in secret. Paulina keeps the statue in secret and visited it twice a day; she discourages Leontes from touching it; the statue is of an aged Hermione. I knew what it was a ruse (in fact, I suspected it from her off-screen death in Act III). But apparently, there is some controversy over this point.

(Of course, Mamillius remains dead. In that respect, the Winter’s Tale reminds me of the biblical story of Job. All ends in happiness when Job gets a new family. But I often wondered about his first family, whose destruction and death seems little more than a plot point in the story of Job’s life. The death of Mamillius is swept under the carpet, a side note to the redemption of Leontes.)

The Winter’s Tale is another problem play, possibly better defined as a romance. It does seem a bit schizophrenic at times, with Leontes delivering biting lines in Act I and an epic peak of tragedy in Act III. But Acts IV and V proceed to dance on the edge of tragedy while turning to comedy with the minor characters and a love story between the two major ones. This contrast is embodied by Autolycus, whose singing and joking create a very different mood, often in the midst of high drama and touching love-play.

One nettlesome aspect is that the finale and all the big revelations and plot twists happen off stage. I really am confused as to why Shakespeare did this so often — e.g., moving the funniest parts of Taming of the Shrew offstage. Perhaps this is a performance vs. reading thing?

One of the constant themes that comes up in Shakespeare is the contrast between the nobility and the commoners. It is the nobility who become so obsessed with honor and status that they drive people to despair, suicide and ruin. It is their petty squabbles and jealousies which drive the plays’ conflicts. And it is the commoners who, more often than not, save the day with common sense. The Winter’s Tale embodies this well. Leontes is one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve encountered in a comedy — vindictive, jealous, arrogant and unheeding. Polixnes throw away whatever good will we might have born him by flying into a vindictive rage over his son’s marriage plans and almost brings about a second tragedy. You can contrast that against the simple shepherd who saves Perdita, matches her with the Florizel and brings about the final resolution.

Up Next: I’ll go ahead and throw in Pericles even though Shakespeare only wrote half of it.