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Bears, Bohemian Beaches and Bathos. Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale

October 22, 2015


I’ve been rereading a lot of Shakespeare lately in what I might or might not define as my “spare time”.  And rereading The Winter’s Tale for the first time in what may be decades, I found myself nonplussed and hypnotised.

The central dramatic problem of the play is dealing with such an acceleration of insanity at the beginning.  King Leontes of Sicilia has no time whatsoever (in orthodox dramatic terms) to transform from a reasonable human being to a murderously jealous lunatic.  A few minutes of watching his wife being very charming and hospitable to a dinner guest is enough to provoke him.

To make sense of the play I started looking for a decent audio dramatisation and, after wading through a lot of David Essex, I found a 1990s BBC version staring the very special and wonderful Tom Courtney as Leontes.  Courtney communicated the insanity very convincingly, offering a frail, querulous voice, a voice on the brink of cracking – a sustained migraine of monomaniac sado-masochism.  Courtney’s Leontes became a plausible depiction of a man determined to torture himself.  And everyone around him.

The Winter’s Tale strains every classical Aristotelian definition of “probability” and heaps all of its claims to our attention on poetry.  If poetry can make us believe impossible things, then The Winter’s Tale is a very great play.  If it can’t – then it isn’t.

But ah, the poetry of if Iago, the poetry of it…!

We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.

A Winter’s Tale comes with a range of difficult staging choices.  Shakespeare may (or may not) have used a real bear –  since the exploitation of bears was an integral part of London’s entertainment industry at the time.  Ben Jonson famously scoffed at Shakespeare giving Bohemia (modern day Czech republic – roughly) a seacoast – a seacoast that is integral to the story.  Hermione claims to be the daughter of the Emperor of Russia – a title and jurisdiction that had no meaning in the pre-Christian pagan context of the play.   And what’s up with the statue?  Is there actual magic involved?  Has Paulina been taking care of her for sixteen years and then dressed her up like those “living sculptures” you see plying their tedious trade across the metropoli of Europe?

Does Perdita have a rustic accent?  Does her noble birth extend as far as genetically transmitted elocution lessons?  In the BBC radio adaptation, Perdita speaks with a soft north country accent which is exquisitely attractive – a sort of North Yorkshire cousin of the Cadbury’s Caramel bunny.

Acts III and IV offer some of Shakespeare’s most sustained adventuring in the world of nostalgic pastoral.  We’re at a sheep-shearing festival.  We are playing, half seriously (like all the best pastoral) with an ideal of rustic innocence that is as necessary as it is absurd.  We know that the rustic love of Florizel and Perdita is ludicrous (and Perdita with her pastoral upbringing is the realistic one – unlike the court-reared Florizel) – but Shakespeare knows – and we know if we’ve a beating heart within  us – that pastoral whimsy is as urgent and as necessary as it is ludicrous and false – and the falser it is the more necessary it is.

After we’ve skipped about with Florizel and Perdita – then the walking statue is relatively easy to buy into.


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