The Madness of Kings

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Title: The Winter’s Tale

Rating: 3 Stars

In a couple of weeks, I’m off to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m seeing three plays, so I thought that it would be best for me to brush up on the three plays in preparation.

The first that I tackled was The Winter’s Tale. Of the three (the other two being Twelfth Night and Hamlet), this was the one that I was least familiar with.  The Winter’s Tale is known as one of his “Problem” plays, and it’s easy to see why.

It’s basically two plays in one. The first three acts are reminiscent of King Lear. You have a king (Leontes) who apparently is much loved for both his gentleness and fairness. The King of Bohemia (Polixenes), his childhood friend, has been paying him a visit and decides it’s time for him to go home. Leontes cannot persuade Polixenes to stay. Leontes asks his wife, Hermione, to give it a shot. She does, and joyfully, persuades Polixenes to stay a bit longer.

Yay! Good news for everyone, right? Well, no. Leontes instantly becomes convinced that this means that Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes. In short order, he has Hermione arrested. He orders one of his courtiers, Camillo, to murder Polixenes. Instead, Camillo warns Polixenes and they both flee, which further convinces Leontes of the conspiracy. Hermione gives birth to a baby girl. Convinced that it’s illegitimate, Leontes orders her abandoned. Another of his courtiers takes the little infant far away, leaves it, and is immediately eaten by a bear (famous Exit, pursued by a bear stage direction). Hermione apparently dies, Leontes son (and now sole heir) dies, and Leonte, now convinced of his wife’s innocence, is left alone to survey the wreckage of his life. As I said, very Lear-like.

16 years later.  Yes, 16 years later, Act IV commences. The last two acts are basically an entirely different play.

Polixenes’ son (Florizel) has fallen in love with a beautiful shepherd girl (Perdita). The shepherd girl has a father and a brother, both of which are your typical folksy, home-spun, salt of the earth kind of characters. There is a trickster (Autolycus) that is conniving all kinds of schemes to make himself richer and, if possible, inflict misery upon others. Polixenes has caught wind of his son’s love affair and is looking to either quash it or to disown him if he refuses.

As should be clear, Perdita is actually Leontes’ abandoned daughter. A merry series of mix-ups, some of which engineered by Autolycus, inadvertently bring about events that lead to Leontes discovering Perdita, being re-united with his best friend Polixenes, Florizel and Perdita being able to get married, and Autolycus swearing off his hi-jinks to become a better person. And, of course, at the very end, there is Hermione herself, believed dead for 16 years. A statue of her is unveiled that is unbelievably lifelike. In fact, it is so lifelike that it comes to life, is reunited with Leontes, and all live happily ever after.

Where to begin?

This feels like a dark tragedy that midway through decided to go through a Hollywood re-write. Man, I don’t know Bill, this is looking pretty dark, the people want a happy ending.

In a way, this is the reverse of Romeo and Juliet. That starts off as a very traditional romantic comedy until Mercutio, the most lighthearted member of the cast, is killed. It then gets very dark very quickly. Could this be Shakespeare trying to reverse the formula again?

The play seems to imply that Hermione has been alive all of these years, which I guess is slightly more plausible than Hermione coming back to life from a statue. Still, for 16 years, she was waiting for Perdita to show up (and everyone assumes Perdita’s dead, so it’s going to be a very long wait), when Leontes clearly has for the past 16 years been ruing his act of madness. I’m all for dramatic entrances, but seriously? What was she doing for those 16 years? I guess she sure taught Leontes a lesson.

I like how a lot of what I just described is actually basically summed up in the play casually by three guys talking. It’s like Shakespeare was like, oh crap, I’m running out of time, I’ve gotta have a really quick disposition to wrap this up real quick so that I can get to the real closer, the statue coming to life!

And what is it with kings? Does absolute power give way inevitably to absolute madness? The queen literally does exactly what the king asked her to do and it directly leads to her son’s death, her daughter’s abandonment, and 16 years of exile. Do keep in mind that, at the end of the play, the king’s son that wasted away and died of grief, as well as the dude that got eaten by a bear, are still in fact dead, so it’s not exactly a win-win here.

And finally, in a little bit of inside Elizabethan baseball, remember that Shakespeare was always writing with an eye towards Elizabeth I.  Elizabeth is the daughter of Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn could not produce a male heir for Henry VIII, so to get her out of the picture, he had her falsely accused of witchcraft and executed. Do you think that a story of a king falsely accusing his queen of a crime, suffering greatly for it, and then being finally reunited in a chastened manner to the now redeemed queen might be something that Elizabeth could relate to?

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