American Shakespeare Center
Final thoughts (I think?!?) about seeing Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale last Saturday afternoon at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va.
Okay--the time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Well, a few things, anyway. Specifically--what about the endings of Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter's Tale, endings that require us to accept that a loving woman will forgive a man who (in Much Ado) shamed her at her own wedding (calling her a whore, basically) and (in Winter's Tale) accused her publicly of infidelity with his best friend, condemning her to prison and ordering the death of her newborn, who, he believes, is not his child but his best friend's?
Both women (Hero and Hermione) feign death, but Hermione waits sixteen years to reveal that she is alive.
And, as I said, both women forgive the men. Happy ending.
There are all sorts of ways to look at this. I'll review a couple, then talk about where I come down--and why.
- We must remember: Shakespeare wrote these plays for an audience, a late 16th-, early 17th-century audience. An audience living in a time when males dominated everything. Women were basically a man's property (as were children), so one hard way to look at these endings? Shakespeare was a man; he had very probably strayed (his wife and family were back in Stratford-upon-Avon while he was in London, the most popular playwright of his day). So ... man strays; woman forgives ... does she really have a choice? (Other than suicide or a life of disgrace?) Only a man in a male-dominated culture could write a story like this ... imagine the opposite? A woman behaving in such a fashion ... never happen, right?
- The plays are not tragedies. If they were, Claudio and the King of Sicilia would, like Othello, have committed even more grisly acts than they did--murder, perhaps. Then die themselves. But Shakespeare wanted a brighter ending in these two plays, so dissipating the darkness that reigns for a while in both is the sun of forgiveness.
- But I have another thought, a thought about the vast dimensions of love and forgiveness that appear in his plays, the vast dimensions of the human heart. Yes, the men shame the women in horrifying ways (I'll tell you this: I'm pretty sure--no, positive--I wouldn't be married now if I'd carried on at our wedding the way Claudio did at his!)
- Both men, however, undergo a transformative period of suffering. Claudio, realizing the horror of what he's done, goes regularly to the grave of Hero (who, of course, is not there) and declares his sorrow and regret; he agrees to marry, sight-unseen, a cousin (he will willingly do his duty); he even realizes that he will perhaps have to battle with his friend Benedick, who has blasted him for his actions, who has suggested they will soon be drawing swords. It's not until the final moments of the play that Benedick lets him off the hook.
- Leontes (King of Sicilia) grieves for sixteen years--not just for the death of Hermione (who's not dead, of course) but for the the death of his young son (caused by the King's disrespect for Apollo) and the (supposed) death of his infant daughter, whom he ordered abandoned in the wilderness. We see that he has softened, become more humane. More of a human being.
- And so ... the women, recognizing true transformation, forgive them.
- So, maybe I'm a bit Pollyannaish about all of this. Blame my own experiences with the love of a wonderful woman, if you must. I know, you see, firsthand, about the dimensions of a human heart.
- Shakespeare wrote about love over and over and over again. (Anthony Trollope, by the way, wrote forty-seven novels and said he tried to write one without a love interest in it but had to change his mind part-way through: It just wasn't working.) The Bard saw that there is nothing funnier than love-at-first-sight (Romeo, Claudio, Lucentio, Berowne, and many many others), that there is nothing more moving than a man and a woman recognizing they must be together, nothing more ludicrous than a cuckold (best shown in The Merry Wives of Windsor). And nothing more, well, tragic than love spurned--or disgraced.
- Hawthorne's story "Young Goodman Brown" charts the dark story of a young man who cannot forgive once he discovers that the people in his life are sinners. And do you remember the grim final sentence?
- And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.
- I think Shakespeare knew this long before. No forgiveness, an embittered heart. Forever.
All right ... now here's something you probably didn't expect. We saw The Winter's Tale on Saturday afternoon. On Saturday evening we walked down the street to the little local movie theater and saw Minions!
More about that later this week ...