Winter's Tale part I
by, 09-14-2008 at 02:39 PM (1696 Views)
These two blog entries are a response to the Winter’s Tale discussion going on in the Shakespeare Discussion section of the forums (http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=35848). It set out initially as a very short post, but I found myself becoming quite verbose. I thought that people who have either been following the thread, or have read the play before might be interested in the mini-essay I ended up with, so I decided to post it here for perusal. I've only really had a chance to skim the start of the great discussion everyone’s been having about this play, but I thought I'd respond generally to two questions that have been addressed in the act I thread. One, which was brought up immediately near the beginning of the thread, is the question of the genre of this play, and the other is the question of what to make of Leontes' very rapid descent into jealousy in the first scene. These are two big questions that both casual and scholarly readers of this play have asked for years, and which, like all good questions, have sparked much good though and debate. Here are a few of my own thoughts and reactions to these questions:
A Complete Mess
In certain ways the question of genre and the question of Leontes' character are closely related questions. When I first read this play I didn't have a very high opinion of it. I frankly thought it was a mess. The plot jumped around a lot and made little sense in terms of dramatic structure, and the characters seemed clumsily drawn. The opening with Leontes in particular bothered me because it leaped so abruptly from introducing the character to having him go mad with jealousy. It was impossible to follow the motivations of this character or to see him as the sort of more fully rounded character one would expect from Shakespeare at the top of his game (he had already written Hamlet, Lear...indeed most of what we would call his masterpieces at this point). One thing that makes some of Shakespeare's best plays so incredible is the way he orchestrates the drama with the same sort of accomplished control as a fine composer or conductor. Each piece and each level of the play is intricately coordinated with the whole. Each scene, indeed each line, connects back, echoing, imitating, and responding to the scenes and the lines that come before and come after, so that every part--like the instruments in an orchestra, or the motifs in a piece of music--both functions on its own and functions to form a consonance or dissonance with the other parts that ultimately connects into a fully formed piece. This is not to say that it is a perfectly formed piece. Indeed, part of what gives some of his characters the sense of what we often call being “full” or “rounded” is the things we don’t know about them, the questions we can’t answer about what is going on in the mind of a character like Hamlet. Just the way any good composer knows that he must pay as much to the way he uses silence as the way he deploys his notes, so any good writer—and especially a poet and/or dramatist—knows how to use what isn’t said just as well as he/she knows how to craft what is said. Still, even when there are gaps in what we know about a character or about what is going on in a scene, the things we do know usually all connect up enough in our mind that we have a sense of what is going on in between the lines, or to give us a tantalizing hint that engages our imaginations by giving us just enough of a peek into the workings of the character’s mind to make us wonder where that came from and what more is going on in there. The character of Leontes in the first act of the Winter’s Tale doesn’t work this way at all. We aren’t given a series of hints and insights about this character and his back story with a few gaps that make him intriguing; we’re given a man who seems fine one minute and insanely jealous the next with a gaping hole in our knowledge about either his back story or the way his mind works. As a result the character feels flat, distant, and completely irrational. This, combined with the disjointed wandering of the plot, so unlike the tight structure of many other Shakespeare works, led me to write this one off as a complete mess…at least for awhile.
A Late Experiment
To be honest, I still think Winter’s Tale is a bit of a mess, but not as much of a mess as I did when I first read it. I can also appreciate better why it has these messy qualities, and I’ve found that the best way to think of the play is in terms of it being an experiment. It’s a very late play, written just before The Tempest and possibly in the same year. It also has much in common with all four of the last plays definitely and fully attributed to Shakespeare: Cymbeline, Pericles, Winter’s Tale, and Tempest. (Of the two possible later plays, Two Noble Kinsmen is probably a collaboration with another playwright, and Henry VIII is probably by Shakespeare, but again may have been a collaboration). The first three of this set of four last plays have all been criticized for having unusually disjointed, wandering plot structures and rather uneven, sometimes flat feeling characters. Yet, it seems less likely that Shakespeare simply forgot how to write a good tight play at the end of his career, than that he was intentionally experimenting with a new type of drama. All four of these plays, including The Tempest (which certainly escapes the sort of scathing criticism the others have received) have been notoriously difficult to classify into a given genre. One of the most popular ways to categorize them is as tragi-comedies because of the strange mixture of tragic and comic elements found in the plays. The other most popular genre to assign to these plays has been that of Romance because their wandering plots, built around travel and happenstance, closely resemble the structure of Romance, a genre which includes prose works like Sidney’s Arcadia, or a poetic Epic Romance like Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Both of these categories, in fact, make a lot of sense for Winter’s Tale and help to suggest ways of understanding the type of experimentation Shakespeare is doing in this play. [Continued in next blog entry, "Winter's Tale Part II"]