35. The Winter’s Tale
I’ve seen a couple of productions of The Winter’s Tale – most notably Michael Longhurst’s 2016 production at the Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse (starring Rachael Stirling and Niamh Cusack). It is a play best known for the statue of Hermione coming to life and, of course, the most famous stage direction ever given ‘exit pursued by a bear’.
First off, I think this is Shakespeare’s greatest play for dialogue. Leontes, Paulina and Hermione are all phenomenally written. The words leap off the page – I was hardly able to stop myself speaking aloud as I read. Leontes uses some incredible words whilst in his jealous fits, calling his wife Hermione ‘slippery’ and ‘a bed-swerver’. Paulina is so awe-inspiringly gutsy in her defence of Hermione and the way she calls Leontes out for his appalling behaviour. Hermione is eloquence and passionate in her plight. There are all just so well written. The language does so much work for you.
Having said this, it is undoubtedly a strange play! Structurally it is way more broken up than Cymbeline. The Winter’s Tale is essentially two mini plays but together. The first half is a revenge tragedy (though in reality there is nothing to revenge – which is the source of the tragedy!). The second half is a pastoral comedy, in which the separated and disconnected families are reunited (though Mamillius, Leontes and Hermione’s first child, is a notable absence). The two halves separated by sixteen years – in itself, something that pushes the imagination of audience, cast and director.
What is brilliant about the play is that it toys with the fantastical and the earthly. On the one hand, it seems like divine judgement falls on Leontes for his groundless jealousy and dismissal of the oracle. The oracle declares that Hermione is innocent and when Leontes rejects this, Mamillius dies and Hermione seemingly dies as well. BUT, in reality, Mamillius was already sick – as soon as he is parted from his mother he starts to weaken – and Hermione most likely doesn’t die at all, she is just kept out of the way by Paulina until the time is right for her return ‘to life’. I love this play with our idea of miracles and divine intervention. Is it a miracle that Hermione’s statue comes to life at the end? Or has she just been alive for sixteen years and only Paulina knew it? (The latter seems to be the most likely but it is never explicitly stated). Is the oracle correct? What if Hermione was having an affair with Polixenes? It seems not, but there’s nothing to say she wasn’t – though you would hope that Hermione and Polixenes would make damn sure Peridita and Florizel didn’t marry if that was the case! But you never know!
This is what is fantastic about this play. It leaves so many questions open. We assume that Leontes is being unreasonably jealous and question where this jealousy comes from. But maybe it comes from the fact that Hermione and Polixenes actually do get on a little too well! Maybe there is something between them? Who knows! We’re instinctively quick to call out Leontes’ irrational and ridiculous behaviour but we haven’t seen everything and can’t possibly know for certain.
I do find the second half more challenging than the first. Partly because this genre of pastoral comedy is very of its time and doesn’t translate so well to a modern context. Also, the depiction of Perdita as this diamond in the rough type figure, who is so evidently not a more shepherd’s daughter because she is too beautiful and graceful, she must be a princess – feels a little classist and problematic to a modern audience. Act 4 Scene 4 is also insanely long with loads happening in it. It’s certainly the scene I’d be most terrified of if I was directing the play. (That and doing justice to ‘exit pursued by a bear’ !!)
Having said that, I still think it is a magnificent play. It is bold, daring and imaginative. It is a massive challenge but one that I would love to undertake.