Craig Smillie's Reviews > The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare
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Aug 29, 12


Certainly Shakespeare’s late play “The Winter’s Tale” is not a realistic view of Sicilian or Bohemian society in classical times, nor did Shakespeare ever intend it to be. It is the very artificiality of setting, plot and character relationships which makes it possible for Shakespeare to explore timeless and archetypal human values and which gives the work its lyrical and romantic appeal.

Even a cursory examination of the text makes it clear in how many ways the play strays from reality. The setting for one thing does not fit any known geographical or historical reality. Bohemia is given a sea-coast! The pre-Christian Delphic Oracle happily co-exists with mentions of the betrayal of Christ and talk of Puritans and psalm-singing.
The behaviour of the main protagonist is equally implausible: Leontes’ sudden and ungrounded explosion of jealousy and his equally sudden repentance of it; Paulina’s immediate swing of emotion as she forgives the repentant king; Hermione’s sixteen year “disappearance” and concealment. Clearly Shakespeare’s main intention cannot be to achieve a realistic representation of human behaviour.
The plot, similarly, is filled with “happy coincidences” that are far too hard to swallow as examples of the cause and effect we see in the world around us: Perdita’s chance meeting with Florizel and their subsequent love and marriage; all the disguise, notably of Polixenes and Autolycus, which are never seen through; the end reunion when everyone meets up by chance and are recognised for who they are; the sudden and fortuitous match of Paulina and Camillo; the “coming to life” of a figure which has been convincing as a statue.
If indeed the worth of this play depended upon whether or not the actions and intentions of its characters would stand up to the rigour of examination as a real-life scenario, then it would be a gullible critic indeed who would pronounce “The Winter’s Tale” a success.

But of course “The Winter’s Tale” is not a “slice of life” but a work of the imagination and this is its lasting quality. These “flaws” of unreality contribute to the play’s greatest strengths. The title gives us the first clue to this. It is a “Tale.” Something untrue. An old story of archetypes. And it is a “Winter’s Tale” - probably told around the fireplace to while away a long winter evening. BUt more than this: it is “THE Winter’s Tale” - the play is an allegory of the seasons and a reminder of the circularity of life.
The setting is unreal in time and space: it is foreign, far-off, remote and magical. Bohemia and Sicily are mythical territories - places of the imagination. For Shakespeare’s audience they are like the world of fairy tale or pantomime, a world where strange and wonderful events may take place.
The strange behaviour of the characters can in part be explained by Shakespeare’s desire to fiercely concentrate the action. The emotions of Leontes and Paulina are not in themselves unnatural; their speeches expressing jealousy, repentance and forgiveness are very moving in their realism. What is unnatural is their time-scale. They follow hard on one another. Shakespeare seeks this powerful action, focussing on the heights of passion, rather than naturalistically showing how these emotions have built up over the months and years.
Shakespeare has Leontes listen to, if not accept, the rebuke of a subject and a woman because Paulina, this strong female character, is the voice of sanity in the play. She represents the goodness in the world which will eventually triumph.
“And I beseech you hear me, who professes
Myself your loyal servant, your physician,
Your most obedient counsellor, yet that dares
Less appear so, in comforting your evils.”
However she must suffer too. She suffers Leontes’ anger - she is willing to put herself in that danger - and she loses her husband and is alone for sixteen years.
The most “far-fetched” device in the play, the concealement of Hermione (where was the body?!) is of course the point on which the play turns. No, it is NOT realistic to say that someone miraculously reappears after a sixteen year absence and forgives the evil-doer for sins committed - Paulina herself admits as much:
“That she is living,
Were it but told you, should be hooted at
Like an old tale: but it appears she lives.”
Yet Shakespeare uses Hermione as the supreme symbol of goodness. It is crushed for sixteen years and seems to be gone for good - but it cannot be crushed for ever. Shakespeare is saying that Time heals. A more realistic way of showing this might be to have Leontes meet another woman with whom he could re-find happiness, but Shakespeare’s way is more memorable, more magical and more beautiful. It is the most poignant moment when Hermione steps down from the pedestal. She symbolises that which is restored to the utterly repentant Leontes. Who planned it? It does not matter. At the prosaic level of plot we can tell ourselves that Paulina organised the concealment. But at the symbolic / supernatural level her reappearance is planned by Fate?... by God?... by the Goodness of a benign universe?
And why does Paulina disclose her at this precise moment? Why not before? Again, at the level of plot, Perdita having returned, it is an opportunity to end the play with a glorious family reunion. But more than that, Shakespeare is demonstrating that Leontes has “saved” himself through sixteen years of grief and repentance. It is a hard lesson - that some mistakes take a lifetime to get over - but Leontes is ready now to step out of a melancholy limbo and begin his life again. Paulina’s words are as much relevant to him as they are a command to Hermione when she says
“Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come!
I’ll fill your grave up; stir, nay, come away:
Bequeath to death your numbness; for from him
Dear life redeems you.”

What are we to make of the chance meeting of Florizel and Perdita? Well, of course, they MUST meet up and fall in love. We feel it to be right, in the sense of fairy tale or mythological romance. They represent the new generation bringing redemption and unity between enemies, families, nations. In an even wider sense, they symbolise fresh hope and the new; fertility and and the return of spring after a long, bitter winter. Perdita - the lost one: Florizel - the fresh flowers of spring. As she hands flowers to those who have suffered the long winter of the tale, Polixines, the wronged, embittered friend, and Camillo, the exiled but faithful counsellor, Perdita reminds them of the goodness which will faithfully come around again:
“Reverend sirs,
For you, there’s rosemary, and rue; these keep
Seeming and savour all the winter long.”
If Hermione is Resurrection, then Florizel and Perdita are Re-birth.

And so we come to the climax of the play, so full of unreal features, and yet working wonderfully well on stage: a fulfillment of the major theme that, in time, all things will again be made new; all that is lost will be restored. Leontes finds his daughter. His lost son is replaced by another princely son. His wife is magically restored. Paulina has her husband returned in the shape of Camillo. The friendship between Leontes and Polixenes is healed. Suffering HAS taken place: sixteen years of a person’s life is a long time. What Shakespeare IS realistic and naturalistic about is the devastating effect of suffering and grief, and yet he is ultimately optimistic. This is a play about Grace and Salvation.
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