THE WINTER'S TALE

A SAD TALE’S BEST FOR WINTER

Image result for judi dench perdita
Dame Judi Dench as Perdita in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale, 1970.

We concluded the quarter with The Winter’s Tale, which is a strange, unpopular play. I do not mean unpopular in that it is disliked, I mean unpopular in that it is rarely taught, and rarely staged. It finds itself overshadowed by more popular plays, like Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. But I liked The Winter’s Tale, and I think there is so much more to it than the fact that poor Antigonus follows the unintentionally hilarious stage direction [Exit, pursued by a bear.]

The Winter’s Tale is the only play I’ve read so far that has a very dramatic time skip – sixteen years! And although time moves in the play, it did not move as quickly for me, so I found myself having no sympathy for King Leontes.

Remember how merciless I was toward King Lear? I find myself just as merciless toward King Leontes – perhaps even more. His sudden insistence that Hermione is cheating on him with Polixenes is so difficult to explain. But, surprisingly, a small difference that I noted between the folio and quarto versions could help to clarify things.

The copy of the play that I own is the Dover Thrift Edition version. Side note: I do not recommend Dover’s Shakespeare publications. I find the annotations to be very poor, and more confusing than they are useful. I learned this quarter that it is best to stick to the Folger Shakespeare Library, Pelican, and Oxford publications of Shakespeare’s plays. In any case, the Dover edition takes its text directly from the folio. Most modern publications of Shakespeare’s plays are synthesis editions, that combine both quarto and folio texts to improve the experience of the reader. A line that typically goes to Leontes goes to Hermione in the folio:

HERMIONE
‘Tis grace indeed.
Why, lo you now, I have spoke to the purpose twice:
The one for ever earn’d a royal husband;
The other for some while a friend.
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.

KING LEONTES
[Aside.] Too hot, too hot!
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant;
But to be padding palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles,
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort ‘o the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?

It is easy to overlook, but the underlined “To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods,” actually goes to Leontes in the quarto text. In synthesis editions, it remains a line of Leontes’. I honestly do not mind who the line goes to, but if you have the folio text in hand, you might be able to make an argument for Leontes’ jealousy.

Perhaps Leontes has been misinterpreting Hermione and Polixenes’ friendship for a few months now – but he never had any concrete evidence to form an accusation against them. But the line, if given to Hermione, could be a damning one that could result in Leontes’ descent into insane jealousy.

But whatever Leontes’ reason, he’s an over-dramatic, egotistical fool. I do not care for him as a character at all, and I am incredibly happy that Paulina yelled at him for sixteen years straight.

Paulina is by far the best character in this play. She never feels any fear, and only she has the guts to tell Leontes that his actions have ruined them all. What kind of man refuses his newborn daughter? Disregards the oracle’s decree that said that Hermione was true to him, and only really shakes out of his jealous stupor when he his wife and young son both die from grief and shock? And while the other aristocrats handle King Leontes with kid gloves, Paulina lashes out at him and lets him know just what kind of person he is.

The time skip is important to this play, because Shakespeare wouldn’t have had anywhere to go with this tale otherwise. Time is a benevolent power in this play who speaks sweetly of Perdita, now a beautiful shepherdess in Bohemia. And as for Leontes, he still feels the pain that his actions caused sixteen years ago. Good.

When we find ourselves in Bohemia post-time skip, we see that Perdita is a beautiful, pure maiden who has Florizel, Polixenes’ son, desperate to marry her. What are the chances? Well, because this is a Shakespeare play, very high.

We meet Autolycus in Bohemia around this time, and despite the fact that he insists that he’s a terrible con, he’s really just a silly man who “accidentally” finds himself performing a lot of good deeds. I was surprised by his loyalty to Florizel, because it really did sound like he had been fired or banished from the court. But in any case, Autolycus, despite being obsessed with causing trouble, is equally as obsessed with getting back into Florizel’s good graces.

Through a series of hilarious mishaps, Leontes ends up reunited with Perdita. He makes up with Polixenes, and Perdita and Florizel are finally able to marry one another.

The Winter’s Tale begins with Sicilia plunged into winter – but when Perdita returns, it is springtime.

PERDITA
Out, alas!
You’d be so lean, that blasts of January
Would blow you through and through.
Now, my fair’st friend,
I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might
Become your time of day; and yours, and yours,
That wear upon your virgin branches yet
Your maidenheads growing: O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that frighted thou let’st fall
From Dis’s wagon! daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength – a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one! O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!

The Greek myth of Hades and Persephone is my favorite, and I was just tickled to see that a parallel could be formed between Perdita and Persephone. Even before she calls on Persephone, and references Hades’ chariot, it is clear that Perdita has a lot of the ‘beautiful maiden of flowers’ aura that Persephone is often characterized by. You can imagine her tending to flowers, dressed in white with a crown of leaves and petals on her head – and you can imagine Persephone doing the same.

If you aren’t familiar with the myth of Hades and Persephone, I highly recommend reading Homer’s Hymn to Demeter. But, in short: Persephone, goddess of springtime and daughter to Demeter, goddess of the harvest, is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the Underworld. In her grief, Demeter brings winter to the people, destroying all their crops. However, when she is reunited with Persephone, springtime comes. As Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, she finds herself going back and forth between earth and her husband’s realm. And so, the seasons cycle. Demeter’s grief results in the coming of winter, and her happiness at her daughter’s return results its subsequent transition into springtime.

When Perdita is born, it is winter in Sicilia. Misery and ruin stain the kingdom for years, as Leontes suffers from guilt and regret. When Perdita returns, spring has come. She brings joy and promise. She is very much like Persephone in how her presence changes things. I suppose, if we were to further develop this parallel, Leontes is Demeter. But, then, to compare Florizel to Hades would be laughable. So it isn’t an airtight parallel, but the similarities are certainly there.

The Winter’s Tale has the most bizarre ending of any play I have ever read. Everybody gathers at a chapel in Paulina’s house to view a statue of Hermione, which looks a little too life-like.

PAULINA
Either forbear,
Quit presently the chapel, or resolve you
For more amazement. If you can behold it,
I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend
And take you by the hand; but then you’ll think –
Which I protest against – I am assisted
By wicked powers.

KING LEONTES
What you can make her do,
I am content to look on; what to speak,
I am content to hear; for ’tis as easy
To make her speak as move.

PAULINA
It is required
You do awake your faith. Then all stand still;
On: those that think it is unlawful business
I am about, let them depart.

KING LEONTES
Proceed:
No foot shall stir.

PAULINA
Music, awake her; strike!
[Music.]
‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I’ll fill your grave up: stir, nay, come away,
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs:
[HERMIONE comes down.]
Start not; her actions shall be as holy as
You hear my spell is lawful: do not shun her
Until you see her die again; for then
You kill her double. Nay, present your hand:
When she was young you woo’d her; now in age
Is she become the suitor?

What on earth? The impossibility of Hermione being resurrected caused my immune system to collapse, and I caught a cold not too soon after finishing this play. But how does this nonsense fit into a play with almost zero references to the supernatural?

It doesn’t – because this isn’t a resurrection at all. When I was overcoming my cold (thanks, Shakespeare), I began to reason that Hermione hadn’t died at all. She faints in front of Leontes, and we never actually see her body. Now, I have no idea who or what they buried, but it sure as hell wasn’t Hermione. After she faints and is taken to another room, she and Paulina hatch a plan to make Leontes pay for his foolishness. Nothing can shake him out of his jealous rage – so perhaps it is in his best interest if Hermione ‘die.’ After all, he doesn’t deserve her in his current state, so why should she stay?

So Paulina keeps Hermione at her home. This is not difficult to believe, because Paulina’s adoration for Hermione is obvious. As the years pass, Paulina makes sure Leontes knows what he lost. They wait until the prophecy is fulfilled: when Perdita finally returns to them, Hermione returns as well. Leontes now knows that he needs to be better to his Queen, and a ‘happily ever after’ ending doesn’t seem so impossible.

This is all ridiculous, of course, but The Winter’s Tale is a ridiculous play. Leontes is so happy with Hermione’s return that he tells Paulina to marry Camillo which is just…yet another stupid decision on his part. Nothing about Camillo implies that he is worthy of the fierce and intelligent Paulina, but oh well. We know how Shakespeare loves his weddings.

You’ll note, however, that Mamillius actually did die. And nobody really seems to care about him. Poor Mamillius – I’ll remember you fondly.