Winter's Tale Part II
by, 09-14-2008 at 03:47 PM (2836 Views)
[This is a continuation of the previous blog entry, "Winter's Tale" Part I]
On the one hand Shakespeare is definitely interested in a tragic-comedy blend in this plot, and in a way that directly re-uses material from his own straight tragedies and comedies. For example, both WT and its near predecessor Cymbeline begin with plots very much modeled on Othello, but Othello re-written with a happy ending. One way of understanding Leontes’ character is to imagine Shakespeare using this character to think through what Othello would be like without an Iago. How would the dynamics of a jealousy plot work without the voice of temptation there as a foil to show the audience how that jealousy developed? How do you represent jealousy in a character that comes from some place inside that character that the audience cannot witness? How does not having as much knowledge of what is driving and motivating that character change the way the role plays out? The idea of starting with the mistaken and seemingly irrational snap judgment of a character who subsequently learns how wrong he is, is also familiar from the start of [i]King Lear.[\i] Both Lear and Winter’s Tale are clearly interested in the ramifications of having of a powerful king who misjudges the character of those around him. Yet in Winter’s Tale, unlike Othello or Lear the playwright is also interested in how a tragic premise can find a comic ending. How can happiness come from a tragic start with wrongful judgment? How do tragedy and comedy play out in life? Rather than being interested, as he is in plays like Lear and Othello, in showing psychology of how the mind of one man is swayed to error in judgment, and the way this leads his fortunes on a slope from bad to worse, he is instead interested in how things can be recuperated after such an error. The last four plays are certainly not the first time that Shakespeare mixes tragic an comic elements, but they are different from the other plays in the way they are examining the way life continues after a tragic decision has been made. In Winter’s Tale jealousy does have some tragic results, but does not end as a story with death and despair in the way Othello does. Life, instead, goes on as it is wont to do.
So, thinking of this play in terms of a tragic-comedy that is rethinking some of the material of the earlier tragedies is one useful way to approach it. Another is to think of the play in terms of the genre of romance. A Winter’s Tale is based on the prose romance Pandosto, so there is a direct link to the play and to the genre. Romances were very popular across the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the most famous examples of the genre today being the Arthurian romances (of which there were many) detailing the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table. Spenser’s Faerie Queene is probably the most famous romance work (it can also be called, more specifically, an Epic Romance) from one of Shakespeare’s near contemporaries, and The Faerie Queene has also suffered from some of the same criticism that I had of Winter’s Tale when I first read it: that it is disjointed and a bit of a mess in terms of structure. Such criticism has been heaped on Spenser’s work by readers and critics expecting it to behave like an epic in the tradition of the Aeneid or the Illiad. That is, they expect a straight storyline that flows logically from beginning to end and focused on a single hero. Instead, of being failed epics, however, The Faerie Queene and other similar works are better judged as belonging to the genre of romance, which is characterized by a structure that intentionally incorporates multiple story lines woven together in a complicated interconnected fashion that involves abrupt shifts in time and place and follows the adventures of a large cast of characters. Rather than being a deficiency in the structure of the work, the multiple narrative strands and vast scope of settings in varied times and places in a Romance simply create a very different effect in terms of providing a sense of a great moving picture of the world in its complexities as opposed to a more focused picture of the single narrative of an epic hero.
Similarly, rather than thinking of the plot of Winter’s Tale as a failure at providing the sort of tightly structured focus that we see in other plays, it might be better to think of this play in terms of an experiment in utilizing some of the strengths of the romance genre on the stage. The seemingly abrupt shifts in time and place, most noticeable in the division between the pre- and post “exit pursued by bear” portions, can sometimes seem awkward and out of joint, but they also mark an interest in presenting a multiple lines of a story across time and space. Shakespeare had been interested in the problem of presenting a story of large scope in the narrow confines of a stage play for much of his career and since at least the Henry V prologue when, frustrated at his inability to properly present the huge distances and mighty battle scenes of his history, he wrote “Oh for a muse of fire…/A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/ And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!” He seems to have been increasingly interested in the later part of his career in plot lines that involved travel across great distances, especially sea travel around the Mediterranean, and the telling of a story across a long period of time. This can be seen in a play like Antony and Cleopatra, for example, which covers a large chunk of history in a compressed time with a great amount of travel between Rome and Egypt. A and C , however, is still structured more like one of the earlier English History plays in that it gives the illusion of being one compact story arc. There is an attempt to make the transitions in space and time so smooth that they are hardly noticeable. It is starting with Pericles a year or so later that Shakespeare begins to experiment with a romance style structure that purposely brings attention to shifts in time and place in the same way that he does in Winter’s Tale.
Another aspect of the romance genre that crops up in all four of the romance or tragic-comedy plays, is the juxtaposition between the world of the court or civilization, and the world of the rustic and pastoral. Though he made comic use of rustic characters throughout his career, it is in these plays that he most explicitly addresses the world of pastoral romance (which was exceedingly popular among contemporary poets), as well as the attendant issues of class that such plots bring up. The main thrust of the pastoral romance plot—in which usually some member of the nobility is disguised as/ accidently brought up as a shepheard(ess)—is that noble blood will tell. However, it is also a tantalizing space for suggesting questions about matters of class, as many have suggested the so called “grafting” discussion between Perdita and Polixenes does in act 4, scene 4 of WT.
The above are just a few suggestions about how Shakespeare may have been experimenting with the genres of romance and tragi-comedy in this late play. Hope it can be helpful in terms of sparking some thoughts about the way this play and its characters are working. I’ll be happy to answer any questions/respond to any comments posted either here at the blog or on the Winter’s Tale thread.