Archive for the The Winter's Tale Category

Bequeath to Death Your Numbness

Posted in The Winter's Tale with tags , , on 2010/01/28 by mattermind

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.


The Queen of Curds and Cream

Posted in The Winter's Tale with tags , , on 2010/01/28 by mattermind

The Winter’s Tale, Act IV: Scenes 1-4

Scene 4 is a killer. It runs 30 pages in my text and all but knocked me for a loop. Gone went those well-intentioned, afore-mentioned plans to finish before midnight. Gone went all hope of shutting the Shakespeare window off in my head for the night.

I read somewhere that the pastoral nature of the setting has wavered wildly in audiences’s tastes. I confess it had a certain rustic charm to it, and a lovely pre-Romeo romantic streak going on (and on and on). But OMG, Neil Young, it isn’t just rust that never sleeps.

I won’t recount it all here. I couldn’t. I wont! In the name off all that’s humane and decent, and for the love of Cliff’s Notes I’m cutting to the chase — if I can — but I would say this:

It’s now sixteen years later. We learn this from the character of Time himself, who apologizes for this blatant plot contrivance. Shakespeare knows by doing this he is breaking up one of Aristotle’s principle unities. He gets away with it by being so obvious that you have to chortle at the sheer chutzpah.

Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, wonders what keeps distracting his son in yonder fields. He hatches a plan with Camillo, who still dutifully serves him these long years, to get in disguise (oh, no!) and find out what’s what.

Florizel, said King of Bohemia’s son, has unwittingly met and fallen head-over-heels for the King of Sicily’s daughter, Perdita, by fate and/or circumstance. (The young man’s hawk flew far afield, and in fetching it, he found the fetching lass instead.)

Camillo, for his part, would sooner be back in Sicily, for he misses his homeland and wishes to patch things up with the grieving Leontes. But he’s so valuable to Polixenes that the king convinces him to stay (file this away for future reference).

Meanwhile (hsssssssssssss) a lowlife catpurse enters the story. Seems the lowly shepherd made good with the cash that was left with lovely Perdita as a babe, and now his fields are thriving. A fall festival is in the works, but in the midst of the planning, the thief has robbed the shepherd of his cash and swapped duds.

For reasons unknown and taxing, the thief, Autolycus, will play a prominent role in much that follows, seemingly just to gum up the plotworks and expand scenes to the brink of boredom and confusion. But I rant.

At the feast, we feast our eyes upon the goodly maiden, who by all accounts seems beyond her station in life. Thus, the quote you find above: she is the queen of curds and cream — certainly in the heart of young Florizel, who swoons whenever she is nearby.

All is proceeding rather swimingly until (dun dun duh!) the king and Camillo show up in disguise. Why his own son doesn’t recognize him is just one of those things you have to let go. Disguises must have been darn convincing them days, or else audiences had to accept the contrivance as a given. “Suspend your disbelief all ye who enter here.”

Fair enough.

The plot thickens when Florizel speaks of his intentions to marry Perdita no matter what his father thinks. In true Salieri fashion (the man’s been slandered, I know, I know), the father implores his son to reveal to his father (himself) how he feels about the lassie. When the son says no way, Jose… the proverbial manure hits the overmatched fan.

Father goes ballistic. In my notes, I see a circular pattern here: he’s making the same mistake Leontes made sixteen years earlier. Has he not read Hamlet? Does he not know that Horatio is the model for how to behave? ( I jest.)

The kid’s called back to the palace and his actual life, warned that if he persists in this dalliance he shall be disinherited. The daughter is chastised as an enchanting and beguiling wench who had best keep her hatches battoned. And the old man fears the noose. Cue the pumpkin and the fairy godmother and we’re good to go.

But wait, there’s more!

(Groan, sigh, wince.)

The catpurse has infiltrated the affair and swindled the innocent partygoers of their trusting moneypouches. Nary a codpiece is safe from his conniving. You can almost hear him chortle: “There’s a sucker born every minute!”

Which is just about what he says after the party clears on orders of the king. He’s counting his cash, laughing at the gullibility of the masses, when lo and behold, he gets to hear all the plans that are being made “in secret.”

Florizel has determined to jettison his future royalty and elope with the goddess of the prairie. Camillo swears to help him come up with a decent plan, something better than, “We’re setting out, I know not where.” (My words, not Shaky’s. Can you tell?)

Camillo though — wouldn’t you know — has designs all his own. (Now is the time to remember what I told you to earlier.) He will rat out the prince’s plans to the king, only so that he himself may be assigned to bring the wanton youngling back. Camillo knows whom he serves… for he serves himself (though it could be argued that he does not know himself. Aha, very clever, Grasshopper!)

Now, if this isn’t confusing enough, the nice, do-good shepherd and his son, called The Clown in my text for some reason, concocts their own scheme for saving their own gooses. That plan? To reveal to the king that the fair maiden is indeed adopted. The ol’ Get Smart we-don’t-know-how-she-got-here-but-she-did. The thinking is this: if she’s not the shepherd’s true daughter, then the king should not take offense at the wandering lust of his son. Therefore, the geese should live to fight (or flight) another day.

Ah, but wait… there’s more. I know, I know. I’m wanting to turn the channel too. But here goes.

Autocylus, that darned thief, just happens to be in the right place at the right time again. Not only did he overhear the prince’s plans (and swap clothes again, thanks Camillo), but now he catches up with the shepherd and clown — just to see if he can work a little more of that swindler’s magic. For some reason, he wants to see that the prince sets off with the hot shepherd girl who really isn’t a shepherd girl. Call it the Romantic in him. But he’s not above manipulating the situation to extract as much gold for himself as he can.

Exhausted? So am I.


Heavy Matters, Heavy Matters!

Posted in The Winter's Tale on 2010/01/27 by mattermind

The Winter’s Tale, Act Three: Scenes 1-3

Paulina steals the play in this act. I’ll get to her in a moment.

But woe unto the pathetic King Leontes, who not only stubbornly persists in accusing his wife of adultery and treason, but who compounds the plight of all by defying the pronouncement of the Delphic Oracle when its judgment reveals the innocence of Queen Hermione.

Could it get any clearer?

OFFICER [Reads]: Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten, and the king shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found.

Any self-respecting Greek should know that you never dare defy the Oracle. And yet, the fit of jealous madness that has come over Leontes leads him to do that very thing:

LEONTES: There is no truth at all i’ th’ oracle. The session shall proceed. This is mere falsehood.

At that moment, everyone within earshot should be screaming, “Run, run for your lives!”

Sure enough, a servant enters to announce that the king’s son — his firstborn heir and prince — is dead.

His mother swoons. She is carried off as the still clueless Leontes starts coming around to his senses. Paulina understands right away what Leontes refuses to grasp:

PAULINA: This news is mortal to the queen. Look down

And see what death is doing.

To which Leontes blithely replies [“It’s just a flesh wound.”]:

LEONTES: Take her hence.

Her heart is but o’ercharged; she will recover.

I have too much believed my own suspicion.

Beseech you, tenderly apply to her

Some remedies for life.

Nope. Too late. For the queen, too, is dead.

If this isn’t a tragedy, it will take some twist in the fourth and fifth acts to make it otherwise. But before I move on to the fate of Antigonus, who carries out the orders of the king (with a twist), I must underscore the remarkable presence of Paulina as she defies her rank, gender and station to basically bitchslap the hapless (and feckless) king:

PAULINA: What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?

What wheels, racks, fires? what flaying? boiling

In leads or oils? what old or newer torture

Must I receive, whose every word deserves

To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny,

Together working with thy jealousies,

Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle

For girls of nine, O think what they have done,

And then run mad indeed, stark mad, for all

Thy bygone fooleries were but spices of it.

That sass, that brazen attitude, that stone-cold angry defiance of the king is one of the best moments in literature that I have ever read. Her speech goes on for half a page more, pure rage that elicits a “back off” from an attending lord no less, but which the king allows because he knows he is getting exactly what he deserves.

If I fault the scene, it’s because the turn of wits in Leontes seems quixotic. He began the play as chum to the King of Bohemia, a boyhood friend, launches off on his heretofore trustworthy wife who has borne him a son and is about to bear a daughter, defies the Greek Oracle only to bring down its infernal wrath… only to recver his wits, say whoopsies, and I suppose I’ll have to pick up the check.

I assume this has to do with Renaissance notions of madness as fits and humours. I can only guess that it must be something “come over” the king that he could not himself explain. Nevertheless, the consequences are real, and keep unfolding.

In the third scene we catch up with the infant daughter being delivered to the pummelled shores of Bohemia. Antigonus has brought her there because Queen Hermione has appeared to him in a vision, letting him know that these are her wishes. He is to drop her off with the given name “Perdita” for lost one. His punishment for having done this service is to lose his life and never again get to see his wife.

As in fairy tales, a shepherd comes across the infant child. But at those exact moments, Antigonus is being ripped apart by a bear, and the ship he sailed in on is being swallowed by the sea.

[Note to self: never defy the Delphic Oracle.]

I love one of the lines the shepherd gives:

SHEPHERD: …thou met’st with things dying, I with things new-born.

Here, if anywhere, lies the rub of Greek theology. However cracked and faulty its method, providence provides for the continuation of life. Nobody save Leontes has deserved his fate till now. But all that karmic heaviness is being balanced by the rescuing of the innocent daughter, taken in by the kind shepherd.

Love it, hate it… that’s just the way life goes.

A Sad Tale’s Best for Winter

Posted in The Winter's Tale with tags on 2010/01/26 by mattermind

The Winter’s Tale, Act II: Scenes 1-3

And so it is.

I’m still waiting for the “romance” bit to kick in. It’s been all bad news thus far.

And tragic. Yeesh.

My high school English teacher senior year will be cringing about now. Oh, she’ll be happy I suppose that somebody from our class still gives a rip about Shakespeare. She was also the drama teacher (Hi, Ms. Mouring.), so you can guess how many shiny red apples this blog would replace were I but still pre-college.

But she despised one-word paragraphs. And fragments. And run on sentences that were not only redundant but made the same point over and over and didn’t know when to stop like this one you might say. Forever the Pippy Longstocking.

She was a great English teacher, Ms. Mouring. But thank God she didn’t subject us to The Winter’s Tale. She had a hard enough time reigning in our addled adolescent minds with the lust in Romeo & Juliet and death in T.S. Eliot (I sadly don’t remember much…) and whatever else she tried to teach us in that half-year before we all got sent off to Mr. DuPratt for American Literature.

I remember lots and lots from Mr. DuPratt’s class but shhhhhhhhhhh, I wouldn’t want that to get out.

Meanwhile, back in The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes is clearly off his rocker. Convinced that his fair queen has bedded the King of Bohemia (who conveniently lingered around in court for exactly nine months, remember), he has sent the poor woman off to prison, despite — or because of — the fact that she’s ready to give birth.

Mrs. James would have splashed that last sentence with red ink for sure. She was an awesome English teacher who would have much prefered I consulted my thesaurus before settling on a lame adjective such as awesome to describe her.

I liked her so much I became an aide in my senior year, just so I could absorb as much as possible of her teaching style. (I thought I wanted to be a teacher those days, back before I actually tried it.)

Mrs. James had us read a great book that vindicated (or tried to) the poor, much-maligned Richard III whom we’ll get to at some point if I stop perambulating into the weeds. I didn’t even look that word up, which you can tell because I’m pretty sure I used it wrong.

I’ll try and track that book on Richard III down once we’re there.

Mrs. James was great that way. She treated you like you actually had a mind. Maybe that was because I had the benefit of being in advanced/AP classes back in the day. What did they know back then?

Thank God they didn’t have “curriculum mapping,” exit exams and no-child-left-behind in those dark, draconian days. Bad enough Proposition 13. Not that I wouldn’t have passed the exams (I hope), but the best days that I do remember had little to do with the subject matter and a lot more to do with long, tangential asides when Mr. DuPratt would rave about his favorite writer (Ambrose Bierce) or Mrs. James would waggle her hips and bend her nose like Tabitha from Bewitched and regale us with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ms. Mouring would wrinkle her brow and scowl at us the way the nuns might at Catholic school regarding declining standards of decency. She’d shake her red mop of hair and it was enough to send you straight to confession — and I wasn’t even Catholic.

Yep, the good ol’ days. Oh, oh, The Winter’s Tale. Where was I?

A Tale of Two Cities! Now I remember. That was one of the best reads in Mrs. James’s class. That and that book on Richard III that I’ll track down for you. She didn’t like me much, Mrs. James. And who could blame her? Always getting off the damned subject.

So here’s the queen, giving birth to a gorgeous baby girl in prison because the rotten king thinks she’s a whore. And all the court rush to her side, sorta, save those on the payroll who have to earn a day’s wage (and do not wish to lose their heads).

A lord’s wife, Paulina, decides enough’s enough and attends the queen in prison to find out what’s what and stand up for her girl. Gotta love Paulina. Another of Shakespeare’s great incidental characters. Full of vim and moxie (is that redundant? See what lame-ass student I am?), she concocts a horrible idea to take the precious young infant to the king in hope that the sight of such innocence will change his mind.

What mind? The king has lost his. For when presented with his lovely daughter, he promptly wants it burned up and otherwise gotten rid of. And Paulina as well. Can’t her damned husband shut her up? Antigonus, the husband, has a great comeback line for that:

ANTIGONUS: Hang all the husbands

That cannot do that feat, you’ll leave yourself

Hardly one subject.


But Leontes is a cretin who doesn’t get it. With his whole staff on the verge of mutiny, risking their own lives and livelihoods to defend their queen, he still presumes that he and he alone is in the right:

LEONTES: You’re liars all.

I have a one-world comment in my notes: “Wow!” The man’s got a map, but i’ t’ain’t of the territ’ry.

He orders all of them kicked out. And Paulina, who surely means the best, does an ultra-stupid thing by leaving the helpless baby behind. What is that woman thinking?

It’s great writing, of course. I’m here 400+ years removed in a galaxy far, far away curling my toes and screaming, “Noooooooooooo, don’t leave the baby!” Bad things are sure to happen…

And happen they do.

In a fit of “kindness,” the king consigns his kid to the mythological thing you do with problem babies: put ’em out in the wilderness and let fate and the elements decide. Perhaps a she-wolf will suckle it. Maybe a kind maid will be guided hence. And if so, look out, Mr. King person, because these stories never turn out so good for you.

As if on cue, out the baby goes to meet its probable demise just as the courtiers rush in with the verdict from the Delphic Oracle. (No, not Larry Ellison’s Oracle. Google it from your iPhones, for crying out loud.) I’m still a bit daft on where we are and when, but Mr. Asimov mentioned we’re in Ancient Greece and this should pretty much confirm it. Either that, or Renaissance Europe had pagan tendencies I was not aware of.

See how I did that? I blew it again. I’m sorry Mrs. James. I ended a paragraph with a preposition. Did I learn nothing from your good graces? Well, if it’s any consolation, I knew I was wrong. Actually, I allowed myself the error so I could bring you up again. You really were a great splendiferous English teacher, if I might say so yet again. And sexy as all getout, if my psychotic, overwrought peabrain can time-travel back that far. (The statute of limitations has surely run out on my cooties for saying that, I hope.)

Anywho, the messengers pile in just as the baby is farmed out. Leontes is quite convinced that he will be vindicated at the kangaroo court he has quickly called to session. The queen is summoned. It’s all but a foregone conclusion now.

Or is it?


Gone Fishing

Posted in The Winter's Tale with tags , , , , , on 2010/01/23 by mattermind

The Winter’s Tale, Act 1: Scenes 1-2

No, I don’t mean me, silly. Though I’ll admit, I wasn’t looking forward to this next play. On further review, methinks it may not have been terribly wise to kick off the year of Shakespeare with the Greatest Play Ever Eritten in the History of Humankind.

As they say, it’s all downhill from here.

Yes, clever ones, I’m using football references today in honor of the NFL Conference Championships to be played tomorrow (or today, depending upon when you are reading this. It could also be Monday or perhaps even farther out there still — in the “far unlit unknown” as Neil Peart would say.) But I’d like to believe you and I are a bit nearer in space and time. Makes this whole internet thing a bit cozier, no? What can I say.  It brings out the romantic dopey blogger in me.

Now that I’ve begun the text — and read the first act twice — I’m hooked. We’ll see for how long.

Isaac Asimov called this a romance, so I’m trusting him. It feels a lot like an impending tragedy so far, which may be why in some quarters they call this a “problem play.”

My brother is a scientist — a rocket scientist to be more specific — but aside from being an avid Catholic convert, he’s also a staunch Darwinian. I know, I know, it’s rare, and odd, but it certainly leads to some interesting discussions.

I am reminded of this seemingly extraneous and anecdotal fact because he’s often bringing up the anthropological roots of certain human behavior. I can hear him now pestering me about the higher biological cost to a male of female infidelity than the inverse. A woman obviously always knows that she’s one of the parents. A man can only take his parentage by faith — at least back in the day before DNA testing.

The play starts so deceptively awkward and formal and deathly dull that I almost didn’t want to believe it was Shakespeare. The King of Bohemia is paying a visit to the King of Sicily who wants him to stay a little longer. Blah blah blah.

Wait a second. The King of Bohemia has been on the road for how long? Nine months. Hmm… that’s gotta be our friend Shakespeare at the controls here. So what exactly is going on?

The King of Bohemia only decides to hang around a wee bit longer at the coaxing of the queen. All in good fun, this teasing and banter, until suddenly, and seemingly unprovoked, the King of Sicily goes flying off the handle, feeling betrayed by his wife, a cuckold as they say. And, this being Shakespeare, what would be more appropriate then a little poisoned grog to make said problem go away?

Good thing Camillo, his servant, is a little more on the ball. He recognizes that his master has probably lost it, but nevertheless, he’s now in a definite pickle. If he follows orders, he’ll murder a man who he believes is innocent. If he fails to obey, his own head will fall.

Zing — conundrum! And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the makings of good drama.

My favorite lines of the play so far:

LEONTES (KING OF SICILY): There have been,

Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;

And many a man there is, even at this present,

Now while I speak this, holds his wife by th’ arm,

That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence

And his pond fished by his next neighbor, by

Sir Smile, his neighbor…. It is a bawdy planet, that will strike

Where tis predominant…

I was more than a little worried here that Camillo would do the deed straight away, and that the play would dwell on the ramifications of a murder committed for the sake of overblown jealousy. Luckily, this isn’t the case (at least not yet).

Camillo spills the beans to the King of Bohemia, who seems to be a really good guy. He heeds the warning, and promises that he’ll leave tonight and take Camillo with him.

Mr. Asimov tells me in his introduction that this is one of Shakespeare’s last plays that he wrote entirely by himself (if, you know, he actually wrote it. More on that some other time.). It is dated 1611, penultimate only to the likes of The Tempest, which we’re saving till wayyyyyyyy later in the year.

I mention this because the language in this play is the most “natural” of any Shakespeare play I’ve yet read. I can’t put my finger on why this is, exactly, but I sense it in just about every line. I could be reading a contemporary screenplay by a modern master of dialogue such as Shane Black, Zach Helm or Quentin Tarantino.

Linguistically, I love it. The plot has hotted up. I’m still afraid we’re headed for the rocks, though, based on the dubious stature of the play.

But hey, at least we’ve started.

And now…. go J-E-T-S! Revenge is a dish best served cold. (Pipe down, people. Revenge is Shakespearean.)

And now my blog entry has come full circle. If only there were a football-related way of saying that!

Exit, Pursued By a Bear

Posted in The Winter's Tale with tags , , , , on 2010/01/20 by mattermind

I’ve already warned you kids about my reading habits. I’m from the Dead Poet Society school of reading things for yourself, a discipline that was reinforced by my graduate work at St. John’s College in Annapolis (Great Books, No Gym and Where the Great Books Are the Teachers — TM). You can check them out at if you feel inspired… or sentimental.

But now that I’m a blogger, I’m all about trying new things… especially if they can add a little spice to the place. (Note to Keira Knightley: please feel free to submit a photo of yourself in Shakespearean attire. Or sans.)

So in the interest of drumming up material, I did what we all do and hit Wiki for more info.

I’m sorry I did. Not that Wiki is a bad thing, mind. It’s just that sometimes it’s better not to know too much in advance. Except about the bear. Who doesn’t like the bit about the bear?

To wit:

The Winter’s Tale is a play by William Shakespeare, first published in the First Folio in 1623. Although it was listed as a comedy when it first appeared, some modern editors have relabeled the play a romance. Some critics, among them W. W. Lawrence (Lawrence, 9-13), consider it to be one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, because the first three acts are filled with intense psychological drama, while the last two acts are comedic and supply a happy ending.

Nevertheless, the play has occasionally been extremely popular, and enjoyed productions in various forms and adaptations by some of the leading theatre practitioners in Shakespearean performance history, beginning with David Garrick in his adaptation called Florizel and Perdita (first performed in 1754 and published in 1756), and again in the nineteenth century, when the third “pastoral” act was widely popular. In the second half of the twentieth century The Winter’s Tale in its entirety, and drawn largely from the First Folio text, was often performed, with varying degrees of success, for the first time since it was first performed in London in 1611.

The play contains the most famous Shakespearean stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear, describing the death of Antigonus. It is not known whether Shakespeare used a real bear from the London bear-pits, or an actor in bear costume.

Continue reading

Sting of Winter

Posted in The Winter's Tale on 2010/01/20 by mattermind

Who better to introduce the play? Err, winter, anyway. Thanks, Sting!


Posted in The Winter's Tale on 2010/01/20 by mattermind

Just a friendly reminder… that The Winter’s Tale is next!