“A sad tale’s best for winter.”
With King Lear still in my system, it was hard to find a nook in which to lodge The Winter’s Tale. Then I didn’t think I had anything much to say about it, but something came to me during a church service. First, here’s the sad tale for winter:
Polixenes, king of Bohemia and Leontes, king of Sicilia knew each other as boys and have been close friends all their lives. Polixenes has been visiting in Sicilia for the past nine months and is readying to go home. While watching him and Hermione, the queen of Sicilia, engage in a cheerful and friendly banter, Leontes suddenly becomes consumed with the notion that Polixenes is the father of the child the pregnant Hermione is carrying. Polixenes has been with them for nine months, Hermione’s baby is just about due and, look, here they are enjoying themselves. It all adds up to they’ve been fucking each other.
Leontes orders his servant Camillo to kill Polixenes. Camillo instead warns Polixenes and because now both their lives are in danger, they escape to Bohemia together. Leontes orders a trial for the queen and simultaneously puts in a request for the Oracle at Delphi to rule on his wife’s guilt or innocence. Hermione gives birth to a daughter. Leontes orders the baby who is called Perdita —Lost— to be taken into the wild and abandoned. The fellow who performs this ignominious task has intriguing exit instructions. It says “Exit pursued by a bear.” We learn shortly that he is eaten by said bear.
A shepherd scoops up the baby.
The Oracle’s clear acquittal of Hermione comes in the middle of her trial with a rider that the king will not have an heir if “that which is lost be not found.” This isn’t what the king wants to hear because by now Leontes has made as big a fool of himself as some Popes have. Also like some Popes he digs in his heels, and refuses to admit he’s culpable. When the king and queen’s young son dies of grief and anxiety over the way his father is behaving, Leontes declares that the boy has died of shame over his adulterous mother. Finally Hermione herself collapses and dies.
Time appears onstage and tells us in a long speech that sixteen years have gone by.
I’ll skip over several acts to say that Polixenes’ son, Florizel, falls in love with Perdita, the abandoned daughter of Leontes and the action all ends up back in Sicilia where it began. Leontes is a changed man. Having admitted his terrible mistakes, he has come to terms with his grief. He never expected to be re-united with his old friend Polixenes (which I can now type without checking to see if I’ve spelled it correctly) and certainly never imagined that his daughter was alive. But there everyone is. However the best is yet to come.
I haven’t mentioned my favorite character, Paulina, formerly an attendant to Hermione. A woman of spirit and goodness, she defended Hermione and all but attacked the king for his stupid jealousy. She has protected the memory of Hermione all this time. She’s had a statue made of the former queen and the reunited friends and family gather for the unveiling. It is during this love fest that the statue comes to life and steps down to become part of the healed family.
So I was sitting in church listening to people sharing good things that have happened and hearing the congregation repeat “thanks be to God.” I get impatient with this terminology because I think we could more accurately say “thanks be to us all” because all these good things that have happened to people have happened through the agency of other human beings and with the support of all life. That’s what “God,” a term I don’t use, means to me. All of life in toto.
To keep from snapping my opinion during the service, my mind wandered to The Winter’s Tale. There is apparently controversy worthy of Biblical inerrantists about how to interpret the statue’s descent into her human family. There are those who think that Shakespeare wants us to believe Paulina has secretly been hiding and caring for Hermione for sixteen years, waiting until she is satisfied that the Oracle’s prophecy has been fulfilled. This makes me want to scream: It’s symbolic! Do you understand what that means? This play is a story, a fable, a myth, a winter’s tale to illuminate the stuff of transformation and rebirth.
e.e.cummings’ poem “The Mountains are Dancing” has a line, “when more than was lost has been found” that seems to fit here. Sometimes when we lose something precious we get back something different, something more, something other. Something that gives back to us a part of our life. This was the meaning I took away from the statue and the Oracle.
Leontes’ jealous rage reminded me of Lear’ narcissistic rage when his youngest daughter refuses to fawn all over him. She declares that she loves him as much as due him. You could say of both men what Regan says of Lear: “he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” We often jump to conclusions about what’s out there because we are disassociated from what’s inside us. We experience rebirth within us when we are open to more weightily knowing ourselves, not by contriving something. Hermione comes back to life and ends the play with a quiet magic that I found powerful. I don’t need a scientific explanation of how that happened.
Here are my quotable lines:
*You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely. (I, i)
*Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as today,
And to be boy eternal. (I,ii)
*Will you take eggs for money? (I,ii)
(meaning: “will you be imposed upon?” I really need to start using this phrase)
*. . .bag and baggage (I, ii)
*I may be negligent, foolish and fearful
In every one of these no man is free. (I, ii)
*You never spoke what did become you less than this. . . (I, ii)
*Let us avoid. (I, ii)
(meaning:”Let us depart.” I need to start using this phrase, too)
*A sad tale’s best for winter. (II, i)
*The silence often of pure innocence
Persuades when speaking fails (II, ii)
*What’s gone and what’s past help
Should be past grief. (III, ii)
*Stage direction: Exit pursued by a bear (III, iii)
*I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest: for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting. . . would any of these boiled brains of nineteen and two-and-twenty hunt this weather? (III, iii)
*A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. (IV, iii)