Once again, in thrall to Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale at the Folger Theatre

February 27, 2009 at 1:06 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

folger-theatre “I am a feather for each wind that blows.” Thus mourns Leontes, ruler of Sicilia. He has allowed himself to become prey to an overmastering  jealousy, and in so doing,  has destroyed his family. It will take sixteen long years for the damage to be repaired.

Of course, the theme of irrational jealousy puts us in mind at once of Othello. But The Moor was goaded to a savage paranoia by the machinations of the crafty Iago. Leontes’s demons spring solely from his own overheated imagination. As the drama commences, he has asked his wife Hermione to persuade Polyxenes, King of Bohemia, to extend his stay  in their company. Alas, in her efforts to prevail upon their guest, Hermione displays too much warmth for her husband’s liking. The fact that she is great with child only exacerbates Leontes’s suspicions. (Whose child is it?) He will not be reasoned with, even when the formidable Paulina, wife to one of Sicilia’s preeminent lords, brings her considerable powers of persuasion to bear upon him. Paulina pleads for Hermione, whom she loves and knows to be virtuous and true. But Leontes’s rational mind is in eclipse; he will not alter his position.

Daniel Stewart as Leontes and Naomi Jacobson as Paulina

Foreground: Daniel Stewart as Leontes and Naomi Jacobson as Paulina

Once the green-eyed monster is unleashed, there is no stopping its destructive force.

I found myself thinking about jealousy and its causes. Today science can provide a definitive answer as to a child’s parentage. This is, however, a relatively recent development. In Shakespeare’s time, there was only the word of the parties involved to offer any assurance. Once a man began to mistrust a wife or lover, there was no easy corrective to hand. Especially where important families were concerned, questions of lineage were crucial. It is perhaps not hard to see that once suspicion took root, especially in a weak or troubled mind, it might easily grow rampant. Thus it proved for Leontes and his hapless queen.

Florizell (Dan Crane) and Perdita (Laura C. Harris)

Florizell (Dan Crane) and Perdita (Laura C. Harris)

There are echos of other works besides Othello in The Winter’s Tale. The lovers Florizell and Perdita at play in the countryside evoke memories of  characters in As You Like it. A statue come to life recalls the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. At the same time, one also feels the presence of the eternal verities – the obstacles that lovers must overcome; the contrition that must be genuine and heartfelt in order for forgiveness to occur.

After the intermission, we playgoers found ourselves confronted with a scene that contrasted markedly with those that had come before. The stage set erupted in sunflowers; multicolored lanterns descended from above. Clearly this is a place of happiness. Shepherds stroll about, and a fascinating character named Autolycus insinuates himself into the action – he is, in the words of Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber, “the trickster, peddler, cheat, and self-described  ‘snapper- up of unconsidered trifles.'”  In her introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition of the play, Frances E. Dolan observes that  “Autolycus, cavorting and picking pockets amidst the shepherds of pastoral fantasy, is a figure from London street life – from the underworld, not the green world.”

Florizell and Perdita are there, as well, as Florizell’s father Polyxenes, disguised as – you guessed it – yet another shepherd. At one point, Perdita, decked out as Flora goddess of flowers, hands posies round to various characters. One is instantly put in mind of the scene in Hamlet where Ophelia does the same thing, although in a setting pervaded with gloom instead of gaiety.

As I watched the festivities on stage, I thought about life and death in Shakespeare’s England. I read somewhere that many of  the Bard’s fellow playwrights died before reaching the age of forty. Life expectancy was so much less than it is now; you could cut yourself and, if the wound became infected, be dead in a matter of days. And yet the characters onstage were embracing life joyously, even recklessly, perhaps even more so in the knowledge of  how capricious fate could be.

Autolycus displays his wares in a painting by Charles Robert Leslie (1836)

Autolycus displays his wares in a painting by Charles Robert Leslie (1836)

I came to this performance knowing next to nothing about The Winter’s Tale. I did know that it contains what is probably Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” (At the Folger, this was staged with piquant playfulness – and a small stuffed bear!) There is, of course, much more to engage us, such as this chilling passage in which Leontes tries to explain his drastically altered state of mind:

There may be in the cup
A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
Th’ abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk,
and seen the spider.
(Act II Scene 1)

From anguish to sheer joy, as Florizell pours out his love for Perdita:

What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever: when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function: each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deed,
That all your acts are queens.

(Act IV Scene 3)

Perdita, by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1866)

Perdita, by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1866)

Here is Frances E. Dolan’s succinct summation of the action and the effects of The Winter’s Tale:

“In its extremes of emotion felt simultaneously, its jumble of images, its improbabilities, the play feels like a dream. Leontes’ jealousy has the texture of a nightmare, and turns life for Polyxenes and Hermione into a nightmare as well. Nothing is what it seems; the familiar becomes suddenly, terrifyingly strange, yet order is restored as suddenly and surprisingly as it was  disturbed.

That sense of the familiar becoming “terrifyingly strange” reminds me of how many of us felt immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The restoration of order, after a shock of such magnitude, is, of course, what we all desperately craved. And it is that restoration – a positive and gratifying outcome –  which makes The Winter’s Tale technically a comedy rather than a tragedy (although I have seen it referred to variously as a “problem play” and a late romance).

A party of four us saw the play this past Sunday, and on the way home we were marveling – yet again – at the deep knowledge of the vagaries of the human condition bodied forth in these remarkable dramas. As a reviewer of Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World observed, the mystery is not so much that we know so little of Shakespeare’s life some four hundred years ago. The real mystery is that over that same time span and living in such a different world, he knew so much about us.

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Note: In the scenes in Sicilia, several of the male characters are attired in pinstripe suits. In the course of Hermione’s trial, Leontes seeks to verify his obsession with her supposed infidelity by having two of his lords travel to Greece to consult with the oracle at Delphi. Now, the juxtaposition of men in pinstripes and the famed oracle of ancient times was somewhat disconcerting. But then you remember that you are in Shakespeare’s dream world, where all things are possible.

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In this short video, Daniel Steward (Leontes) and Connan Morrissey (Hermione) discuss their respective roles in The Winter’s Tale.

The Winter’s Tale runs through March 8 at the Folger Theatre.

1 Comment

  1. A (mostly) joyous romp: Much Ado About Nothing at the Folger « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] is yet another frequently utilized trope of Shakespeare’s. I was reminded of  The Winter’s Tale, in which the supposedly deceased Hermione, initially appearing  as a life-size statue, is […]

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