Thursday, November 13, 2008

A sad tale's best for winter

Just got back from a performance of Winter's Tale. Such a strange play: half Euripidean tragedy, half pastoral farce - the whole thing capped by that terrible, terrible ending, the entire final act making me squirm in my seat.

It's always seemed to me that if you took the first half of Winter's Tale and the second half of Pericles you'd have one genuinely good play. And it wouldn't be hard to do, either - the characters are more or less the same - just a few name changes, a slight tweaking of the plot (maybe the shepherd who finds Perdita - no, Mariana, so much sweeter a name - could sell her to a brothel when she came of age - this is Bohemia after all - where Florizel could find her) and Polixenes your uncle!

Still, even a play as relatively mediocre as the Winter's Tale has its moments. My personal favorite is the two lines in Act III Scene 2 where Leontes, faced with the oracle, proclaims it false and calls for the trial to proceed. It's a genuinely shocking moment, if only because you've been expecting that this is where the scales shall fall from Leontes' eyes, and his sudden outburst offers the possibility that perhaps that won't happen, that perhaps Leontes really shall go on, defying both the gods and dramatic necessity. I may be alone in thinking this, but I've always wished that Shakespeare had carried through on this, had subverted all the laws of Tragedy (which he's going to do anyway, with that sheepish fourth Act) and let the play turn darker and darker, Leontes growing more and more evil, eventually dying (or more likely being killed) without ever seeing the folly of his beliefs. Now that would have been a truly great play.

The other marvellous thing about Winter's Tale is the role of Paulina, easily the most interesting character in the play, and one of Shakespeare's most criminally overlooked heroines. I can't think of another female character in all of Shakespeare's plays who is as independent, as intelligent, or as resolutely asexual. It's fascinating that Shakespeare chooses to make the one person with the strength of character to stand up to Leontes a woman - a woman, moreover, who is her own person, holds her own ground without help from or need of a man, and emerges, by the end, as both the noblest and most sensible person in the play. All of which makes her, as women in Shakespeare go, unique.

There's also, of course, poor Antigonus - he of the 'exit pursued by bear' fame - who I've always felt gets treated most unfairly. All the poor guy is doing is following orders, both from his master and from the spirit of Hermoine, and yet he alone, of all the people in the play, meets a cruel and ignoble death. And what a death! Torn to pieces by a savage bear: "how the bear tore out his shoulder-bone, how he cried to me for the poor gentleman roared and the bear mocked him". And all so Shakespeare can pair up Paulina and Camillo in the final scene (a plot twist I confess I'd completely forgotten). Talk about a raw deal.


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I only remember it for that sublime stage direction. One of the plays most often doubted as Shakespeare, although it is in the First Folio.


Cheshire Cat said...

What? "A Winter's Tale" and "Pericles" are different plays? Shakespeare seems to be operating on the same principle as John Ashbery does when he writes pantoums - "twice as much poem for your effort".

km said...

Where was this? Kimmel center?

Falstaff said...

JAP: Ya, I know. That's what most people remember it for.

cat: They are, believe it or not. Pericles has much nicer names.

km: No, the Annenberg Center - Penn Presents. Not the greatest of performances though. The acting was competent, but the cast in general seemed much better at comedy than at tragedy. Which meant that Leontes and Hermoine both ended up seeming laughable rather than tragic.