Some thoughts on a Winter’s Tale….
The key to the Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s apparently sprawling play , set like many others in both the city and the country, seems to be Time. Though Time has only one chorus which speaks of what has happened in the 16 year interim between Acts three and four it gives us a sense that things are turning from the bleak first three acts Into something more hopeful. Time is unstoppable, relentless, kills things off, but it also cauterises and soothes the pain of the past. Considering Chekhov’s sense of the Whole, i wonder whether there isn’t something unifying in this sense of Time for a production.
Before Time’s Chorus, we have an extraordinary scene The clown has seen the death of a man torn to pieces by a bear, and watched a ship sink in a terrible storm. His Father, the Old Shepherd, has found an abandoned baby ….’Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn,’ he tells his son. This beautiful scene, indeed this very line, seems to be the pivot on which the play might balance.
When we examine the play we realise that both the first and the fourth act begin with a person wishing to leave where they are and go home to meet their greater responsibility and continue their lives. Their Time is up. They know this and are trying to leave but somehow they are prevented by the need of someone close to them, who is selfish or unwilling to let go and let Time move on. Ironically the person trying to leave in act one and return to his kingdom, Polixenes, is the same man holding back Camillo from returning home in Act 4. Because the situation is not exactly parallel we tend to overlook it, but it is incredibly important. It suggests a skeleton on which to build.
The fourth act is very long indeed, and there is no way we can attempt to create the kind of impact it was meant to have ( whatever that might BE exactly) because we live in a different context, with a completely different understanding of the rural idyll such as is presented in the play. How much the pastoral world is presented as a pastiche is sometimes hard to gauge but idealised it most certainly is in all the plays in which it is explored. Perhaps it is my imagination, but in The Winter’s Tale the idyll seems satirised in some way. But what exact polarity does this world of shepherds and shepherdesses exude, with the other extreme of the polarity being the court of Leontes? Of course there are some obvious choices….. But what might that polarity be?
Interestingly , this play explores the feeling of guilt for terrible inappropriate action. Though this is not unique in Shakespeare’s plays, it seems to be a theme he seemed more concerned with in later years, and is something that I feel myself so human and worthy of exploration as i get older myself. The play gives a lot of stage time to the sense of regret and how hard it is to accept what you have done, when Leontes is becalmed and left to deal with his pain.
Another key scene for me is the reconciliation between Perdita and Leontes, which we only hear about from the excited ( and to me quite hysterical ) trio of lords who observe what happens when the past is pieced together. It is interesting Shakespeare did not choose to present this scene, as if he was not interested in the immediate realistic response to this reconciliation, but the overall euphoric effect. This is borne out by the beautiful but strange ending. In the Footsbarn production of 1998 which came here to Galway, there was a wonderful moment when the family was left laughing with joy at the end of the play. It was incredibly moving.
Of course there is no Mamilius nor Antigonus to step into the light to laugh with them.They are dead.