|The Winter's Tale in Cleveland|
Last night we saw the Great Lakes Theater Festival's production of The Winter's Tale, a late play in Shakespeare's canon, one that--like the others late in his career--brings together themes and devices he'd long been using. (The production was not their best--but 'twill do. And, oddly, the house was about half empty, a condition that sucked some energy out of the performers, I think.)
And so we get characters in disguise, class distinctions, jealousy, fraternity, loyalty (servants, spouses, friends), conflicts between a father and a son, a vilely false accusation, a seeming death, frisky and willful youth, a character who doesn't know her true identity, sanguinary violence (a bear dines on a character we like), partying, deception, blasphemy, a vindictive, punitive god (Apollo in this case), a stubborn man who just won't listen, and, of course (it's not a tragedy--though one guy becomes bear food, and an innocent child dies), redemption, forgiveness ... Sounds somewhat like life itself, doesn't it?
Until a few years ago, Winter's Tale was on my short list of Plays by Shakespeare I've Not Yet Seen on the Stage. (The only one left on that list for Joyce and me: Richard II. Let me know if there's a production near you!)
And in the summer of 2010, we saw it at the Stratford Festival in Canada--with a marvelous cast (Ben Carlson is one gifted Shakespearean actor).
And now Great Lakes.
A swift summary. Two kings have been friends since youth. King 2 has been visiting King 1 for quite some while and is ready to return to his own kingdom. King 1 tries to dissuade him. No, he must go home. King 1 enlists his wife, Hermione, to try to convince King 2 to stay. She succeeds. And King 1 goes off--jealous. He convinces himself that his (pregnant) wife and his friend have been ... doing it. In fact, he's certain, too, that the child she carries is not his own.
And so he orders his friend killed, but the friend, warned by one of King 1's servants, takes off for home--confirming, of course, King 1's dark (and false) suspicions.
Then hell breaks loose. King 1 publicly accuses his innocent wife of infidelity and imprisons her. When the child is born, he orders it to be abandoned in the wilderness (his first reaction: burn the child in a fire). He sends for word from Apollo's oracle: Has my wife cheated? When the news from the oracle comes, it declares the queen's innocence. Disbelieving, King 1 tears up the news. Apollo freaks, killing King 1's little boy and heir. And Hermione dies as well--or seems to.
Sixteen years pass. The little baby (Perdita) has been found and raised by a shepherd, has fallen in love with King 2's son ...
Eventually, everyone ends up back in King 1's court. Identities are revealed; tears flow. And then ... the magic moment. King 1 is taken to view a statue of his dead wife--SPOILER ALERT: SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS. But, of course, it really is his wife, who has been in hiding, waiting for him to come to his senses. It took awhile.
And again--as he does in Much Ado--Shakespeare charts the vast capacities of the human heart--in this case, for forgiveness. Hermione forgives her husband, forgives him--even as Hero forgives Claudio in Much Ado for a similar outrage. Everyone celebrates. I cry.
Except for Julius Caesar and Macbeth, which I "read" in high school, I read all the other plays (and I have read all of them, most of them multiple times) in the Yale Shakespeare editions, forty little blue volumes, which my parents gave me for Christmas (1965) my senior year in college. (I was not delighted at the time: I'm pretty sure I wanted a car.)
My copy now says on the inside cover that I first read it about twenty years later, in August 1984 (again in August 1989). That makes sense. That was about the time that I was starting to teach Shakespeare to my eighth graders (we read The Taming of the Shrew for a number of years, then, later Much Ado About Nothing--my students loved the Branagh film), and I was charging through Shakespeare, reading it all.
As I look at my underlinings from 1984 and 1989, I'm kind of proud of myself. I marked some of the key lines, even back then when I was, well ... is naive a good word? (Better than ignorant, I'd say.) I love Paulina's line--"It is a heretic that makes the fire, / Not she which burns in it" (2.3).
And, near the end, when the remorseful king sees what he believes is a statue of his dead wife, he cries: "I am asham'd: does not the stone rebuke me / For being more stone than it!" (5.3).
And, of course, my favorite of all stage directions: Exit, pursued by a bear, around which I have drawn a little box and beside which I have stationed an exclamation point (3.3).
And--sick Shakespeare!--has a shepherd say this, not long after the bear-pursuit: "I'll go see if the bear be gone from the gentleman, and how much he hath eaten: they are never curst [disagreeable] but when they are hungry. If there be any of him left, I'll bury it" (3.3).
Now that is writing!