Bequeath to Death Your Numbness

The Winter’s Tale, Act V: Scenes 1-3

I think I get it now. I get what makes this one of Shakespeare’s “problematical” plays.

[UPDATE: This is not a problematical play. Shakespeare knows exactly what the hell he is doing. The “inconsistencies” make perfect sense.]

[UPDATE UPDATE: I should just delete this whole post and start again fresh, but I like how it professes the excitement of raw discovery.]

He asks us to swallow an awful lot of contrivance, stretching the limits of our suspensions of disbelief in order to resolve the half-cooked tragedy in a half-baked, frothy romance.

Like any Hugh Grant movie I suppose.

I was prepared for just about anything to happen in the final act, following the marathon third scene from Act IV. But it plays out in the beginning pretty much like you’d expect:

  • Young lovers arrive from Bohemia to find sanctuary
  • All marvel at the ravishing beauty of fair Perdita
  • King Leontes welcomes them in, believes their story until…
  • Treachery! A servant reveals Camillo’s double-agent designs

I must confess that my hair stood on end when I read the following lines:

LEONTES: Your mother was most true to wedlock, prince,

For she did print your royal father off,

Conceiving you.

My note: he’s still not over it! He still can’t get past valuing children as anything but the propogation of his own image and likeness! O vanity!

If you can’t tell, I don’t care much for Leontes. His idiotic fit of jealousy brought this all on himself to begin with. But it wasn’t just him who was affected: the prince died, the princess was banished, Paulina’s husband got mauled by a bear, the passengers on the ship were swallowed by sea.

So okay, he’s mourned a bit. Why wouldn’t he? He defied the Delphic Oracle, for crying out loud. He ought to feel a little sorry.

But even then, Paulina has to remind him that it wouldn’t be such a hot idea to marry again. Thank God Paulina is still around because without her, the whole thing would fall apart. I love the way she pulls him aside to say — uhn uhn, not on my watch, honey.

Leontes essentially has to be repeatedly reminded that the Oracle’s prophesy is still in effect. And, you know, those memories of the dearly departed loved ones.

Though he is a bumbling fool, Leontes, to his credit, knows he needs Paulina around to keep him in line, to do what’s right, to be his consciousness. She chastises Leomenes with a scathing:

PAULINA: You are one of those

Would have him wed again.

Let’s be real here. The kingdom is all a-tizzy that the king has botched the succession. The prince swooned and fell as a young buck and the daughter was sent hither and yon to surely die. The queen is dead, which makes cranking out another Mini-Leontes a tad difficult. And then there’s that damned Delphic prophesy mumbo-jumbo.

Shakespeare has to know that man is a slightly sentimental ass. For when he unknowingly meets his daughter in the guise of Florizel’s wife/fiance, he first asks if the deed has been done. Florizel, rather unfortunately, reveals that the answer is no. Florizel now needs Leontes to intercede on their behalf, to which the roving id answers:

LEONTES: Would he do so, I’d beg your precious mistress,

Which he counts but a trifle.

There’s no stage direction here, but Paulina must stick an elbow into the man’s solar plexus, for she upbraids him with:

PAULINA: Your eye hath too much youth in’t. Not a month

‘Fore your queen died, she was more worth such gazes

Than what you look on now.

You go, girl.

Earlier (I could quote her every line, I swear), Paulina ripped him a new one and also revealed a central them of the play. Sit still awhile and take this marvelous woman in. She’s every bit as worthy as the celebrated Wife of Bath by Chaucer, in my humble opinion.

PAULINA: Were I the ghost that walked, I’d bid you mark

Her eye, and tell me for what dull part in’t

You chose her. Then I’d shriek, that even your ears

Should rift to hear me, and the words that followed

Should be “Remember mine.”

I repeat: Paulina is the heart, the soul, and the moral consciousness of this play.

Shakespeare follows this great scene with an odd architectural choice for Scene 2 that I’m not terribly fond of: he retells the meeting of the long, lost kings and the revelation of Perdita’s noble birth second hand.

[UPDATE: Of course it’s second-hand! Shakespeare foreshortens this scene because he knows it’s one big cliche! He’s tipping his hand and saying, don’t look here — that’s not where the revelation is. Subtext, subtext, subtext!]

It may be a moment that defies description blah blah blah, but it’s Shakespeare’s description we’re talking about here and the decision blows. Like cutting away from a football game in the closing minutes to switch to Heidi. Someone must have gotten a little testy after the marathon third scene from Act IV. “C’mon, Will. Can you speed this thing up a little? It’s not Hamlet, you know….”

If only he’d slashed that third scene gone awry. And eliminated the Autolycus cretin who experiences such an unexpected and unwanted and unwarranted transformation to a “good guy” (oh, please) that it makes me throw up a little. It’s just appearances, people. He, the Clown (why is the son of the shepherd a clown again?) and the thief essentially admit as much. “We’ll swear you’re a good fellow and then you’ll have to live up to it.” Yeah, right.

[UPDATE: No, no, no! I got it wrong! Haven’t I learned yet that Shakespeare puts eveything there for a reason? Autolycus exists in the play for exactly this purpose: to hit dunderheads like me on their noggins to make them doubt the other supposed transformations in this play. They’re not genuine! Shakespeare is saying, OK, you may miss what I’m subtley up to here with Leontes, but surely the blackheart Autolycus will be so obvious that the prank I’m playing makes sense. How Shakespeare must laugh — or weep — till he pees his pants in heaven that audiences miss it.  If, you know, there are pants in heaven.]

The big coronation scene I’m expecting from Star Wars never materializes. Maybe Shakespeare just couldn’t bear to be that formulaic, even when he knows that’s where the plot has to go. So instead he pulls another fast one. I’m tempted to say he’s forcing the issue upon us all, begging the question — just what will it take for you people to pop the bubble of fantasy and realize this is all a crackpot sham?

The best textual evidence for the king’s idiocy comes in the form of the final revelation. Paulina, it turns out, has been harboring Queen Hermione all this time. She of all people knows that Leontes hasn’t changed whatsoever. He’s cried a lot. Probably masturbated a bunch. Professed to miss his wife and repent of the tragedy he brought upon her. But he’d marry again in a heartbeat if she turned her back. And this, I’m sure, she knows.

So there’s this ludicrous recognition scene that the king utterly fails. Shakespeare knows his classical literature, people. It abounds everywhere. So surely he’s aware of the ending of The Odyssey, one of the greatest love scenes of all time.

Telemachos knows that the man who slayed the suitors is his father. But Penelope plays a shrewd hand — she’s waited him out this long, fending off lewd advances while he dallied with Circe and otherwise took his sweet-ass time returning home. She’s not going to let him get off so easy.

So she teases it out, making him prove that he’s her true husband. Telemachos goes off, ripping his mother for not doing the expected thing and leaping into her husband’s/his father’s arms. But Odysseus knows precisely what she’s up to and bids him stand down. “We know things,” he tells his son. Let her. This is fun. This is the woman who was worth leaving a nymph for. This is the woman who is your true wife.

So Paulina gives Leontes an utterly recoculous test: she tells him that she’s had a statue made in Hermione’s likeness, and that all who’ll see it will be amazed by. So of course everyone comes. And sure enough, it’s so lifelike, it breathes. And moves. And cries.

But don’t be fooled here. She cries because her daughter lives, and not for the scumbag husband who can’t tell the difference between her and a supposedly stone likeness. To riff Bono, the guy can’t get past what’s “better than the real thing” to grasp that he’s in the presence of the actual real thing.

No wonder Paulina has kept the secret so long. This reunion is not about Hermione and Leontes getting back together. It’s about Hermione hiding away long enough to see her daughter once again.

More proof? Sure.

Paulina, bless her soul, says she’ll stand aside now and allow happiness to have its due while she tears her hear out over the husband she mourns and misses.

And Leontes’s reply? Come, marry Camillo, what could be better?

He’s a louse, people. A worm. A doof. A brute. A jerk. He doesn’t get true love — and he never will.

Paulina and Hermione will be glad for Perdita and hope that Florizel doesn’t spend too many Friday nights out with the corruptive fathers-in-law that he’s inheriting. Neither one of them recognizes the walls that Florizel was willing to run through to be with the girl. He’s passed true-love’s test.

It just dawned on me, though. Where is the Queen of Bohemia in this story? Why is she never mentioned? Did I miss it? Where did she go?

I get the feeling though that this too underscores Shakespeare’s point. Only men like Florizel see the value of love’s true worth. Not status or station, not rank or condemnation sway him from his heart’s course. The topper for me here is the most romantic line of the play:

FLORIZEL: Dear, look up.

Though Fortune, visible an enemy,

Should chase us with my father, power no jot

Hath she to change our loves.

To see that marriage, Hermione is ready to come out of hiding. And Paulina is willing to reveal. You best believe it takes fulfillment of the Oracle’s prophesy to do so.

And love — as women know it’s meant to be.


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