Title: The Winter’s Tale
Author: William Shakespeare
Date Added: August 24, 2014
Date Started: August 14, 2017
Date Finished: September 11, 2017
Reading Duration: 28 days
Genre: Drama, Tragedy, Comedy/Romance Classic
One of Shakespeare’s later plays, best described as a tragic-comedy, the play falls into two distinct parts. In the first Leontes is thrown into a jealous rage by his suspicions of his wife Hermione and his best-friend, and imprisons her and orders that her new born daughter be left to perish. The second half is a pastoral comedy with the “lost” daughter Perdita having been rescued by shepherds and now in love with a young prince. The play ends with former lovers and friends reunited after the apparently miraculous resurrection of Hermione.
The cover I used above is not the cover of the version I read, but since that one is boring (it’s just the play’s title and the Bard’s name on white a green. Oh hell…
The Winter’s Tale has a tragic/dramatic beginning and a comedic end, comedy, in cases like this, meaning there’s a happily resolved romance, as opposed to his more famous Romeo and Juliet, which while possessing a romantic element (if you want to call it that…), is generally classified a tragedy. I’m unsure how comedy and romance became conflated, but in examining The Seven Basic Plots, that is how it’s described.
Hero and Heroine are destined to get together, but a dark force is preventing them from doing so; the story conspires to make the dark force repent, and suddenly the Hero and Heroine are free to get together. This is part of a cascade of effects that shows everyone for who they really are, and allows two or more other relationships to correctly form.
The premise of the first half revolves around Leontes, King of Sicilia, convinced his wife Hermione (yep, Shakespeare used it before Rowling) is not only cheating on him with his friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, but also cuckolded Leo with him as he starts doubting his son Mamillius is his own. This is all because Hermione was able to convince Poli to stay one more week when the Sicilian king was planning on leaving the next day, and nothing Leontes could say would convince him otherwise. Unbeknownst to Leo, though, Hermione essentially threatened Polixenes with imprisonment if he didn’t heed her request, so it was really a matter of the king not pushing the request until it was a demand.
This spirals into a cascade of nonsense where Leontes literally asks his son if he’s his, attempts to push his wife into the arms of her supposed lover, which read similarly to an episode of American Dad! “Choosy Wives Choose Smith,” (Season 4 Ep. 4) where Stan tries so hard to prove that Francine would’ve picked her ex-fiance Travis instead of him (if circumstances had permitted it) that he fakes his own death to see if they end up together.
The Bard’s play is only marginally less ridiculous than this. Leontes is so convinced that Hermione is untrue, he ignores his man Camillo’s reasoning to the contrary and is annoyed with him for not just agreeing with his misconceptions. He charges Cam to poison Polixenes, which the servant agrees to so long as Leo takes Hermione back with no harm no foul. Then Cam, not being as unreasonable and unrelenting as the king he serves, tells Poli of Leo’s treachery. This gives the King of Sicilia the chance to flee Bohemia (with brave Camillo in tow), which is conveniently easy, since he’d originally planned to leave that night. Leontes even summons the Oracle of Delphi to prove the charges against his wife, but the jealous king doesn’t even believe that source.
Examining the first part of this play, it’s clear the Bard is showing how your perceptions and emotions can leave you to a foregone conclusion regardless of what the evidence shows. It’s like Shakespeare was making a statement about cognitive dissonance long before such a concept inundated internet discourse (and indeed long before the internet itself) and how dangerous it can be especially in the minds of those in power. Leontes’ suspicions were aroused due to Hermione’s ability to convince Polixenes to stay when he himself could not, but Leo didn’t know the coercive methods his wife used. There’s also a statement about knowing the entire story, collecting all of the evidence before any judgment is made. This eventually led him to order his man Camillo to kill Poli with poison, but the man was torn on the issue and instead warned the King of Sicilia about it, enabling them to flee Bohemia together. Of course this only increased Leontes’ suspicion to paranoia as he then thought Camillo was always Polixenes’ man and had been part of the conspiracy to cuckold him all along. Conclusion: Mamillius isn’t his son because Hermione has been sleeping with his best friend Polixenes for years. Classic. You could easily craft a modern version of this story (hell…I’ve been thinking about how to do so since reading the play) and most audiences wouldn’t suspect it was the Bard’s work.
The name of the play is mentioned once by Mamillius, whispered to his mother Hermione (and presumably her ladies), but we the audience never hear it. Not long after this, the disgraced queen gives birth to a baby girl in prison, but possibly because Leontes is certain the child isn’t is, he charges another servant Antigonus to burn her.
Again not even the Oracle of Delpi, the literal word of God can dissuade him from this folly. At the moment he decries his disbelief in the Oracle, he receives word his son is dead, and it is this that finally breaks jealousy’s hold. Of course by this point both his only son and disgraced wife are dead.
Antigonus plans to “just” expose the child (similar to what would’ve happened to baby Oedipus), and after he leaves her, he’s chased by a bear, which apparently doesn’t eat the child. Later, she’s found by a shepherd (which really convinces me the Bard was borrowing from Sophocles, also considering “Antigonus” sounds like the masculine version of Antigone, Oedipus’, er, “daughter”), named Perdita (a name Disney used in 101 Dalmatians for the mother dog. Creators love borrowing from Shakespeare who was of course a borrower himself), and raised by him along with his son Clown (yes, that’s actually his name). Later, she falls in love with the prince of Sicilia (the son of Polixenes) Florizel who’s been disguising himself as a peasant so that he can meet with her. Unfortunately, his royal father finds out, so disguises himself in order to see she with whom his son has been keeping company. When he finds out she’s (supposedly) a “peasant,” he castigates Florizel for falling in love with a woman he believes is too base for him. Unbeknownst to any of them, Perdita is the daughter of Leontes and his deceased and disgraced queen.
The best character in the entire play, though, is Paulina, one of Hermione’s ladies who gives absolutely no fucks about speaking truth to power. She makes Leontes vow not to remarry unless by her leave, adding “Unless another as like Hermione as is her picture affront his eye,” and I freaking swore this was going to be a true Oedipus Rex parallel (i.e. fucked up) where Leontes was going to meet the daughter he thought was dead, and she’d be a mirror image of his dead wife.
Thank the play gods this doesn’t occur, but rather The Winter’s Tale has a happy ending even if it does come out of left field. There’s a statue of Hermione recently “made” by Paulina with a likeness so perfect Leontes could almost believe it’s her. Well, it’s the King of Bohemia’s lucky day, because it is, and Hermione is apparently a very forgiving woman (more accurately, this was published in the 1600’s) as she takes her asshole husband back with no harm no foul. It’s never explained how Hermione survived all of these years undetected, but I suppose Leontes assumed she perished in jail, and Paulina might have been able to spirit and hide her away, which would explain why she exacted that promise from the king to not wed anyone she wouldn’t approve of. Perdita and Florizel are wed, since she’s surprise royalty, so Polixenes won’t have to suffer a peasant as a daughter-in-law.
The Winter’s Tale starts out as a tragedy, but ends on a comedic note. It does seem as though Shakespeare was using some of the same motifs as in Oedipus Rex (minus the incest) or was, at the very least, making a reference to Sophocles’ famous play. Leontes exemplifies how jealousy can obfuscate even blatant evidence to the contrary. He was the author of his own tragedy, and I think Hermione should’ve run off with Paulina before giving her dickhead husband any more of her time. They could’ve lived with her newly found daughter and her new husband in Sicilia, which would allow that stolen relationship to prosper and shown Leo that you can’t just accuse someone of something with barely circumstantial evidence then throw them in jail without facing any personal consequences. Him being a king shouldn’t matter. Monarchs should be especially accountable for their actions since their poor choices can do more harm than a common man’s.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays have been modernized like Romeo + Juliet and 10 Things I Hate About You, the latter of which is based on The Taming of the Shrew. This one seems just as easily adaptable for the current era with a few modifications…and Hermione and Paulina would definitely end up together if I had anything to do with it.