Friday, June 18, 2010
The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare
While The Winter's Tale hardly does justice to the brilliance of Shakespeare, it still bears the distinction of its playwright. I confess, I am more a fan of the tragedies with their seemingly endless profundities than the comedies which, in their lightheartedness, struck me as being shallow. This particular play combines some of both worlds, with unfortunate events leading to joyful circumstances, all spiced with the usual madcap whirl of disguises, mix-ups, ravishing beauties, lovelorn (and rather silly) boys, whimsical songs, and sadly-the-wiser men.
(Begin spoiling here...)
The plot recalled to mind Sophocles' Oedipus the King, beginning as it does with the tragic blindness and (rather like Chesterton's purely rational madman) small-minded logic of King Leontes of Sicilia. He accuses his pregnant wife Hermione of adultery, the other party being his dear friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. In his rage, he cannot bear even to look at the child when it is born, and condemns it to the Oedipal fate of being cast out in the wilderness to whatever terrors or delights the gods might have for it. Baby Perdita ends up with shepherds (again...), King Leontes' heir dies, and Hermione basically turns into a statue. The oracle at Delphi says Leontes can't expect an heir unless he reclaims his daughter, who has been completely lost. There you have the tragedy.
Comedy turned out to be shades of The Tempest, with lots of disgustingly sweet love language exchanged between Polixenes' son, Florizel (whose name predisposes him to his speech; "flor-" is the Latin root for "flower"), and the shepherdess maiden, Perdita. Of course they're crossed in their love because that makes the plot more interesting, and from that, drama ensues, leading to happily ever after for practically everyone. Not Antigonus though. He got eaten by a bear. But that eventually freed dearest Paulina to marry Camillo, so all's well that ends well.
This play was an interesting stretch for me because I have only ever read one other Shakespeare play without the handy definitions page opposite, but the more I read, the more understandable his English becomes. That's neither here nor there, although I do recommend trying it at least once for the sake of the experience.
In terms of Shakespeare, it's not the first play I would recommend to anyone who hasn't read any of his work. In fact, it's rather far down the list. That being said, it is still miles ahead of the work of most playwrights, so in relative terms, it still ends up near the top. And there's always the satisfaction of knowing that you've read one of his more obscure works, so you can impress people that you meet at dinner parties. If you're the sort of person who goes to those sorts of events and wants to impress that sort of people, of course.