Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Back from the Bard, 3
Joyce and I saw The Winter's Tale at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., last Saturday afternoon ...
Let's admit this right away: The Bard can give us problems--and I'm not talking here now about unfamiliar vocabulary and Elizabethan customs and the like. I'm talking about what happens in his plays. Sometimes, it can, well, require a lot of us.
Like Hamlet's encounter with the pirates. That's a stretch. And (in the comedies) the stunning failure of characters to notice that other characters are pretending to be someone/something else. Like those cross-gender transformations in, oh, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. C'mon now--how dumb do you have to be not to recognize that "Ganymede" in As You Like It is actually the amazing Rosalind!?
Okay. There are those sorts of problems. But there are others that can be deeply disturbing. In my memoir about my teaching career (Schoolboy, 2012--available on your Kindle app from Amazon) I tell briefly about an experience I had teaching Much Ado About Nothing to eighth graders back in the 1990s.
In that wonderful play, the young and mercurial Claudio, convinced (by lies) that the young woman he is about to marry (Hero) is, well, providing services for another man--on the eve of her wedding--he waits until the actual ceremony to confront her, to accuse her of infidelity in front of the assembly, and then to stalk self-righteously out of the wedding-that-is-no-more with his equally huffy buddies. Hero, in the meantime, has fainted with shock at the vileness of the slanders against her.
The word goes out that Hero has died. Claudio later discovers he's been manipulated and deceived. He begs forgiveness from Hero's father, who says he will forgive--if (among other things) Claudio will marry, sight unseen, Hero's cousin. The distraught young man promptly agrees.
At the second wedding, his new bride is heavily veiled and he does not see who it is until the last minute. It's Hero, of course, who has not actually died but has been in hiding until friends rescue her reputation (which they do).
At this moment as we were reading the play aloud in class one day, one of my eighth grade girls cried out, "Why would she take him back!" Indeed. A sizzling little conversation ensued.
In The Winter's Tale (first performed in 1611, more than a dozen years after Much Ado) we have an even more egregious version of that story, as we've seen. The King of Sicilia believes his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful--with his best friend--and that she has conceived a child with that friend. Sicilia condemns her in public, ignores moderating cautionary counsel, sends her to prison, orders the infant to be killed. Only deaths convince him of his error. The death of his son, the death of Hermione. And his daughter is now off, abandoned and dead (he thinks), in Bohemia.
Sixteen years pass between these events and the end of the play. He is reunited with the daughter he thought was dead, and then Paulina, a friend of his long-dead wife, invites him to view a statue of Hermione that she has commissioned. He goes to Paulina's house (with most of the rest of the cast) and sees the statue, initially covered with a drape.
When the covering is removed--TIME FOR A SPOILER ALERT--he sees the amazingly lifelike image before him. He is overwhelmed with regret and grief. And then--after some talking--the statue moves, steps down from its pedestal. It's Hermione, of course, still alive, who's been in seclusion all this time. They embrace. All forgiven.
What?!!?!?! How could she do that? And why?
In the words of my 8th grader, Why would she take him back?
Indeed ... and next time I'll get into that ...
To be continued ...