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Thank you for your patience. It's taking longer to write each of these posts than I anticipated.

And this post is turning out to be longer than I expected, so I've decided to split it in two ...

[Boilerplate Intro]


This truly is my favorite Shakespeare play -- or, at least, it's tied for "favorite" with King Lear. I'd argue it is also the most underrated play in the Shakespeare Canon, going by the imbalance between the play's native merit and its fame (or lack thereof).

Therefore, consider this fair warning: I am going to be spamming you all with this topic. In order to restore the balance, I'm making several shorter posts instead of one massive one, with at least the following posts -- and possibly more, as the mood strikes:

Part One: Synopsis ("Once upon a time...").

[Note: I've corrected a detail of the plot since I first posted this, and I've also added a footnote with Shakespeare's character and place names]

Part Two: Major Themes and Context, with quotes (Conflict between personal conscience and the law, women as the keepers of moral authority, and questioning the limits of an hereditary, theocratic, monarchy).

Part Three: Secondary Themes (The relationship between parents and children, the passage of time, and watching children grow up).

Part Four: Plot and Character Crafting

Part Five: Links to other people's interpretations



Shakespeare is taught in school in the first place because he's held up as an example of High Culture[tm]. He got that reputation during the Restoration (before that, he was popular culture). And this play was, according to Wikipedia, ignored back then. So it's (largely) ignored today. Also, according to literary and pedagogical tradition, Shakespeare's final play was The Tempest, and this was 'only' his second-to-last.

So The Winter's Tale ends up being one of the siblings at a crowded table that can't get a word in edgewise. So this post is me, saying: "C'mon, Guys! You need to listen to this!"



[Note: I didn't realize until after I started this that all of the key scenes I'm talking about take place in the court of the City King (Leontes), in Sicilia. While the next post -- the secondary themes -- will more likely be split evenly between the two kingdoms (The other being Bohemia). But there you go...]

Written at a time when monarchs were believed to be anointed by God, and wives were expected to submit to their husbands' whims as subjects submit to their kings' decrees, The Winter's Tale asks the question:

"But what if the King/Husband is wrong (both objectively and morally), and his Wife, and Subjects are right?" When the Law and your Conscience are telling you to move in opposite directions, which do you follow?

And, from the first act to the last, Shakespeare tells us (in no uncertain terms) to take the second path.




The plot walks on the fence between Tragedy and Comedy. It could fall to either side, and its balance is wonky. Modern audiences are likely to have at least searched the Web for study guides and synopses before buying a ticket, so they can be a bit more complacent about the "happy ever after" than the audience Shakespeare was writing for. And he doesn't let them off the hook, or breathe a sigh of relief, until the final two minutes of a two hour play (more on this when I rave about how Shakespeare crafted the thing).

Leontes, the monarch at the center of the story, ticks all the boxes for "Tragic Hero."

Like Othello, his fatal flaw is his belief, fueled by an unhinged jealousy and (an even more explicit) misogyny, that his wife is an adulteress.

Here's what he says to his own son, who's all of five or six years old, while he's helping to wipe the boy's nose:


Leontes:
[. . .] Art thou my calf?

MAMILLIUS:
Yes, if you will, my lord.

LEONTES:
Thou want'st a rough pash, and the shoots that I have,
To be full like me:—yet they say we are
Almost as like as eggs; women say so,
That will say anything: but were they false
As o'er-dy'd blacks, as wind, as waters,—false
As dice are to be wish'd by one that fixes
No bourn 'twixt his and mine [. . .]

(Act one, scene II)


Unlike Othello, however, there is no scheming Iago to whisper lies in his ear. Every person in his court -- especially his wife -- only wants the best for him. He is surrounded by people who keep trying to tell him the truth, and implore him, over and over, to look at the evidence. But he is so addicted to his own jealousy, he insists that anyone who disagrees with him must be a liar and a traitor (Sound familiar? Now you see why I've been thinking of this play so much since November?). In fact, there is no external foe at all. He is his own enemy.

Here is the reaction of his lord, Camillo, after the king has ordered him to assassinate Polixenes (added emphasis is mine):

CAMILLO:
O miserable lady!—But, for me,
What case stand I in? I must be the poisoner
Of good Polixenes: and my ground to do't
Is the obedience to a master; one
Who, in rebellion with himself
, will have
All that are his so too.—To do this deed,
Promotion follows: if I could find example
Of thousands that had struck anointed kings
And flourish'd after, I'd not do't; but since
Nor brass, nor stone, nor parchment, bears not one,
Let villainy itself forswear't. I must
Forsake the court: to do't, or no, is certain
To me a break-neck. Happy star reign now!
Here comes Bohemia.

(Act One, scene II)


Leontes, (and through him, the kingdom of Sicilia) is saved by Lady Paulina, his wife's closest friend and advisor. Basically, she takes this Tragic Figure by the ear, and drags him, kicking and screaming, into a Comedy.

Shakespeare often used women to turn the gears of his comedies and bring about a happy ending (Rosalind, in As You Like It, who takes it upon herself to escape to the forest and find her father, Beatrice, in Much Ado who convinces Benedick that Hero is innocent, etc.).

But Paulina is no sweet young thing who can squeak through a dangerous world by disguising herself as a boy. She's an adult (middle-aged?), married, woman, who, when she hears that the queen Hermione has given birth prematurely, uses her womanhood as the foundation of her authority in advocating for justice:

PAULINA:
I dare be sworn;—
These dangerous unsafe lunes i' the king, beshrew them!
He must be told on't, and he shall: the office
Becomes a woman best; I'll take't upon me;
If I prove honey-mouth'd, let my tongue blister;
And never to my red-look'd anger be
The trumpet any more.—Pray you, Emilia,
Commend my best obedience to the queen;
If she dares trust me with her little babe,
I'll show't the king, and undertake to be
Her advocate to th' loud'st. We do not know
How he may soften at the sight o' the child:
The silence often of pure innocence
Persuades, when speaking fails.

(Act Two, scene II)


(Side note: Hermione, the queen, when she succeeded in persuading Polixenes to stay -- which awoke his jealousy -- did so by drawing on the moral authority of herself and her ladies in waiting)

HERMIONE:
To tell he longs to see his son were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We'll thwack him hence with distaffs. [. . .]

(Act One, scene I)


Unfortunately, when Paulina makes good on her promise, and brings the baby to Leontes for his blessing, he calls her a "mankind witch," and threatens to burn her at the stake:

LEONTES:
I'll have thee burn'd.

PAULINA:
I care not.
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in't. I'll not call you tyrant
But this most cruel usage of your queen,—
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hing'd fancy,—something savours
Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world.

(Act Two, scene III)


She is not able to sway the king, and he threatens to dash the baby's brains out with his own hands. She did manage to sway the lords who are in attendance, however, and they convince him to take a half a step back from the brink.

In order to punish her husband, Antigonus, for failing to control her, and even backing her up in the argument, Leontes orders him to take the baby into the wilderness in some other country, and leave it there without food or shelter. That way, he is not personally responsible for the baby's death -- Fate is. If Antigonus had not sworn an oath to carry out the king's order, he and his wife would be executed (and here, we have the limits of following your conscience: The State often has more instruments of Death than you have means of resistance).

Neither Antigonus, nor the crew of the ship he sailed in, made it home alive.

---

Okay ... I just realized how long this is getting, and I don't want to stray too far from what I've written on the tin. So I'm going to take on the role of "Time, as Chorus," (an inside joke you'll get later), and skip ahead to Act Five (the last act).

Hermione has been (presumed) dead for sixteen years, and in all that time, Leontes has been true to his vow to grieve her and his son, Mamillius, every day, and to not choose another woman to be his queen until Paulina gives her blessing to the match.

But the lords of his court are getting antsy. He needs to beget an heir, they say -- the future of the nation depends on it!

But Paulina makes this argument (emphasis my own):

Paulina:
[. . .]
[To LEONTES.] Care not for issue;
The crown will find an heir: great Alexander
Left his to the worthiest; so his successor
Was like to be the best.

(Act Five, scene I)


So she's (or Shakespeare is) arguing for a meritocracy, here, and she's drawing on the traditions of Ancient Greece for precedent.

Here's the thing: Scholars think this play was written somewhere between 1609 and 1611. Jamestown, Virginia, which is one of the starting points for the histories of both America and the British Empire, was founded in 1607, and I'd bet my last cookie that the viability of differing forms of government was a hot topic of discussion 'round the doors of the Globe theater.

Considering that King James I would probably have seen a performance of this play, is it any wonder that Shakespeare chose the "Fairy Tale" genre in which to frame these issues?

Just Sayin'.

Next Time: Meet the elderly shepherd to adopts the baby and buries Antigonus (you'll meet other people, too.)
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