The Winter’s Tale
By Dennis Abrams
The title may seem all too appropriate given the weather we’ve been having for the last week, but to call something a “winter’s tale” was actually Jacobean slang for something fanciful and unreal – a story to be told around the fire. And the tale told by the play itself has sometimes been called that, too, but at least it first, it seems to promise little in the way of light-hearted entertainment. It tells the story of a king whose jealousy is so strong, and yet groundless, that it loses him not only his wife but his young son and his baby daughter. In this The Winter’s Tale closely resembles Shakespeare’s other classic tale of jealousy Othello, and for over half its length it seems to be (if this seems possible) an even bleaker remake. That it, until the mystical appearance of Time (himself personified on stage) and the shift to a mysterious new location, one where a cure for the play’s romantic ills gradually reveals itself. Shakespeare’s source, a novella by his long-dead theatrical rival Robert Greene, entitled Pandosto: or, The Triumph of Time, suggests that time has a way of healing even the most violent of fractures, and therefore the tale doesn’t inevitably have to end in disaster; and so, after an improbable sequence of events, the play delivers a powerful, almost mystical resolution. And the play’s final scene, which still has the power to astonish audiences and readers alike, is famous for a reason, and marks a decisive transformation from tragic winter into the rebirth of spring.
Difficult to pinpoint exactly – a version of the play was performed on May 15, 1611, but it seems likely that much of it had been written several years earlier.
Shakespeare reworked Robert Greene’s popular tragic novella Pandosto (1588), changing its characters names and modifying the plot. Passing references to other source have been identified, including Puttenham’s Art of English Poesie and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (as always).
The play appears to have been squeezed into the First Folio (1623) at the last minute by the scribe Ralph Crane, and his text forms the basis of all subsequent editions.
From Harold Goddard:
“Like Much Ado About Nothing, What You Will, and As You Like It, the title The Winter’s Tale might seem to be the author’s hint to us to take his play as pure entertainment, like a story told to a group around the fire of a winter’s night.
A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
Says the boy Mamillius. ‘Come on,’ says his mother, taking him up,
and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you’re powerful at it.
There was a man…
Dwelt by a churchyard. I will tell it softly;
Yond crickets shall not hear it.
But the tale is never told, for just then the boy’s father enters and turns from narrative into drama his boy’s tale of sprites and goblins, the first chapter of which he has himself enacted. He, too, is ‘powerful at it,’ and does his best to frighten Hermione. Leontes and his son are alike in the capacity to summon out of nothing things that both are and are not there. All of which goes to show that the title is linked with the theme and characters as well as with the plot.
There are several other allusions to the title in the text. ‘This news which is called true,’ says a Second Gentleman, referring to the recovery of Perdita, ‘is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion.’ ‘Like an old tale still,’ says a Third Gentleman a little later.
That she is living,
cries Paulina of Hermione at the end,
Were it but told you, should be hooted at
Like an old tale.
The reiteration has its purpose. We are more inclined to accept an impossible story if the teller frankly confesses his awareness of the strain to which he is subjecting our credulity.
The Winter’s Tale, unless we take it as such a story, does indeed subject us to this strain if for no other reason than that it is such a heterogeneous mixture, a stranger one than even A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is a fairy tale – it is fact. It is romantic – it is realistic. It is tragic – it is comic. It is Christian – it is pagan. It is harsh and crabbed – it is simple and idyllic. It is this – it is that. It is a welter of anachronisms. Its geography is in spots fantastic. It has not only gods, but a bear, a storm, and a yacht, from the machine. And as for its construction, if it had been expressly written to defy the classic unities, it could hardly have violated them more flagrantly. It plays the old witch with time and space and compactness of action, sprawling from Sicilia to Bohemia-with-a-seacoast, leaping over sixteen years in the middle, and (apparently at least) so dividing the interest that many have called it two plays tied by the slenderest of threads rather than one. Yet, as is usual with Shakespeare, these diversities serve a purpose, and the play has more seriousness, unity, and singleness of effect than is immediately apparent. For like a complex musical composition that strikes us at first as full of discords but that we eventually come to like, The Winter’s Tale has the gift on more intimate acquaintance of insinuating its way into the affections and understandings of many who were originally unsympathetic or even repelled by its heterogeneities. Autolycus expresses it perfectly:
And when I wander here and there,
I then do most go right.
It might be Shakespeare’s ‘apology’ buried just where one might expect Shakespeare to bury it, in a song.”
From Harold Bloom:
“After the aesthetic self-wounding of Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale surges with Shakespeare’s full power, though changed altogether from any of its earlier displays. I would judge The Winter’s Tale to be Shakespeare’s richest play since Antony and Cleopatra, and prefer it to the more problematic Tempest. Yet The Winter’s Tale has its authentic difficulties, born of its strong originality. I ardently wish that the tradition had not termed Shakespeare’s last plays his ‘romances,’ though nothing can change that nomenclature now. What the idea of ‘romance’ gives with one hand, it takes away with the other, and Shakespeare, as I keep insisting, writ no genre. [MY NOTE: That I buy.] The Taming of the Shrew looks like farce, and yet it isn’t; Falstaff’s ‘histories’ are tragicomedies; and Hamlet, ‘poem unlimited,’ is simply the norm, not the exception, among Shakespeare’s plays. The Winter’s Tale, like Twelfth Night and King Lear, is yet another ‘poem unlimited.’ We cannot come to the end of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, because every time we achieve a new perspective, other fresh vistas appear that evade our expectations.
The Winter’s Tale is a vast pastoral lyric, and it is also a psychological novel, the story of Leontes, an Othello who is own Iago. Most critics also discover in it a mythic celebration of resurrection and renewal, a judgment I find a little unwarranted, though all the material poetica that stimulates such interpretations is there in equivocal profusion. No poet, not even Shakespeare, purges time of its destructiveness, and winter’s tales by their very name render homage to repetition and to change. Wilson Knight, subtly evading his own inveterate transcendentalism, judged the play’s deity to be neither biblical nor classical, but rather what he called ‘Life itself,’ rightly testifying to The Winter’s Tale’s naturalism, marvelous in scope. Realism is a very difficult term to employ in discussions of imaginative literature, but to me The Winter’s Tale is far more realistic than Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy. Dreiser is more the romancer, while Shakespeare is the truest poet of things as they are.”
And from Mark Van Doren:
“’The Winter’s Tale’ tells of grievous divisions between friend and friend (Leontes and Polixenes), king and queen (Leontes and Hermione), father and daughter (Leontes and Perdita); and, after sixteen years, between father and son (Polixenes and Florizel). The ‘wide gap of time’ which goes unchronicled between the third and fourth acts might seem to give us two plays instead of one, but there is only one. It is conceived in contrast, and is dedicated to the task of stating with all the force of which poetry is capable the opposition between age and youth, cruelty and goodness, jealousy and faith. The abstract symbols it employs are winter and spring: winter with its blast of January and storm perpetual, spring with its virgin branches and its daffodils that come before the swallow dares. But its concrete symbols are of course human beings; Leontes and Perdita divide this great poem between them – the one an obsessed husband and ruthless father, the other a faultless daughter, ignorant of her parentage, who grows up in a cottage, not a court, and who restores to the final plays that maiden image which Imogen had for the moment obscured. ‘A sad tale’s best for winter,’ Mamillius tells Hermione, and a series of happy endings does not make this poem gay. Leontes’s half is never lost in Perdita’s, however much its memory is softened. The play is one but its halves are two, and each of them underlines the other.”
And from Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: The Last Phase,
“To pass from Pericles and Cymbeline to The Winter’s Tale is to leave the field of experiment for that of finished achievement. In this play, in fact the symbolic conception of drama that characterizes Shakespeare’s final period attains its first, and possibly its most assured success. The word ‘symbolism’…needs to be used with care. It implies a prolongation of the normal resources of poetry and drama, and in no sense an abstract imposition upon them. The poetic mastery is so evident in this play, the extraordinary range of imagery and superb control of rhythm, is there for all to see, has never been seriously denied; but equally important is the fact that both are consistently used to clarify character and motive, and that poetry and character alike are in turn taken up into a dramatic action perfectly balanced in its several parts. Behind the repeated stress laid on the fact that we are following a fable, a ‘tale’ not subject to the normal laws of probability, lies a consistent desire to make this action, this fable, the instrument for a harmonious reading of human experience. The unreality of The Winter’s Tale is no mere escape, as some have argued, into a world of fancy. The various stages of the ‘fable’ correspond strictly to steps in the integration of a varied range of emotions from which neither tragic discord nor the sense of harmonious fulfillment is excluded. The interplay of character and the sequence of events are alike significant, necessary to the complete impression conveyed by the play; but both are perfectly under the control of a dominant purpose, and their full meaning emerges from the closely-knit development of imagery which underlies them.”
I’m willing to bet that we’re all going to like this one…a lot.
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning, Act One, Part One
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.