The description of Shakespeare’s last plays as romances suggests that they contain certain features from a romantic tradition which began with the Roman playwright, Plautus (who in turn borrowed from the Greeks), and flourished throughout the Middle Ages in such tales as Beowulf, The Song of Roland, and the Arthurian legends. In an age dominated by intolerance, strife, refugees, and attempts to reunite communities sundered by political callousness, the themes at the heart of these plays are remarkably relevant today. Characterized by long adventures and wanderings, separations and reunions of family members, and themes of forgiveness and renewal, these plays are sometimes called tragicomedies, suggesting not a thwarting of tragic consequences but an inherent coexistence of tragic and comic rhythms—hubris headed toward a disastrous end merging with comic patterns of rebirth and a new order that are not without a strong skein of pathos, yet filled with all the passion and turbulence of tragedy.
Despite highlighting thematic similarities between the plays, such categorizations tend to be reductive and limiting in scope, for their initial focus on commonalities also deflects attention from what is original in each play. Shakespeare didn’t set out to write plays that fell into neat cubbyholes. His objective was to express his unique vision of the human condition. Of all the metaphors he uses in this quest, none is more fascinating than the theatre itself. The very craft that occupied his life’s work became the central prism of artistic expression, from performances of songs and poems to plays-within-the-play (The Mousetrap in Hamlet), roles-within-the-role (Rosalind, Portia, Viola), and a hundred similes (all the world’s a stage; a poor player that struts his hour upon a stage) that draw parallels between the theatre and life. Many great playwrights use metadrama pointedly, but Shakespeare seems to go beyond this self-referential aspect of dramatic writing. It’s as if he saw little difference between theatre and life; to him they were virtually the same thing. Modern critics argue that art doesn’t reflect life, it reflects itself. With Shakespeare this is utterly true. But in writing for and about the theatre, he writes abundantly about life.
In The Winter’s Tale, the very title signals his intent. From the outset he is patently a raconteur, with all the privileges of dramatic license such a role affords. In The Tempest, he would take this idea further as Prospero appears to create the story in front of our eyes. Some have suggested that Prospero is like a director or regisseur, but, all things considered, playwright seems more appropriate. This tale, however, isn’t just any story; it’s a tale for winter, one with a plaintive tone, such as you would expect to hear huddled round a fire. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” says young Mamillius to Hermione.
The opening scenes waste little time in exposition except to tell us that Polixenes has been visiting his closest friend, Leontes, for nine months (a significant piece of information, for Hermione, Leontes’ wife, is nine months pregnant). Immediately we are plunged into the main action of the play as Leontes is seized by jealousy that descends into a murderous rage. Although a favorite Shakespearean subject, the jealousy in this play is not the smoldering fire we saw in Othello. Here, the storyteller is off and running, spinning his tale in a rush of emotion. We don’t need motivation, though it was there if we looked closely. All of us can recognize the green-eyed monster that rises instantaneously and unbidden from the depths of our insecurities to overwhelm us with its debilitating effects. In a king such rage can have devastating consequences.
As the narrative grows ominous, Leontes spirals out of control and his language loses its stately rhythms, degenerating into sharp outbursts and interjections. If this is not quite the prosaic incoherence of Othello’s fit, it is peppered with insulting asides, explosive phrases, and gross innuendo. The raconteur is now in full flow and, in as much time as it takes to tell, a murder is plotted, a queen publicly accused and humiliated, a child is born, another dies, Apollo’s oracle consulted and declared, the queen is pronounced dead, and a king made to see the error of his ways! Time (even in choric garb) and space are compressed to fit a master storyteller’s master plot.
In several plays, Shakespeare uses a “green world” to solve urban problems—forests in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Portia’s Belmont. There is an Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic at work here. The feminine, Dionysian milieu of creativity often provides solutions for imbroglios encountered in the unbending, masculine, Apollonian world of austerity and the letter of the law. The tug between these complementary forces is also a negotiation toward a balanced lifestyle found at the heart of most cultures—Shiva/Vishnu in Hinduism, Yin/Yang in Chinese philosophy, Eshu/Ifa in Yoruban mythology. From Sicilia, The Winter’s Tale rushes into Bohemia, seeking relief from the insanity of jealousy and tyranny. Before that can happen, however, death lurks in the form of most people’s favorite Shakespearean stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” (my personal favorite is “Enter Ariel, invisible”). In a magical leap over sixteen years, the savagery of the Bohemian seacoast is transformed into a delightful, bucolic town. Now we have clowns, shepherds, shepherdesses, and a floral feast as enchanting as any in literature.
After stamping his genius on tragedies, comedies, and histories, Shakespeare demonstrates his mastery over the pastoral form favored by his contemporaries, Beaumont and Fletcher. Act IV, Scene iv, the magnificent sheep-shearing scene, is one of the longest he ever wrote. A folk festival replete with mythological references and the heady scent of nature, this scene provides the backdrop for two vastly different characters—Perdita and Autolycus—whose presence springs the comic rhythm that will alleviate the pain of Leontes’ folly. Queen of the Festival, arrayed in metaphors of flowers and herbs, and partnered by the aptly named Florizel, Perdita is the personification of “great creating Nature,” recalling the Proserpina myth and its promise of Spring. Autolycus is a full-fledged descendant of Hermes, the prince of thieves. In the tradition of Falstaff, Mercutio, and the tricky slave of Roman comedy, he is a reincarnation of trickster deities (Krishna, Eshu, Legba), and kin to folk heroes (Brer Rabbit, Coyote). His unabashed roguery is the perfect antidote to dispel the lingering pall of Leontes’ tyranny, and his lovely ballads restore harmony to a discordant play, even as a new society is being fashioned through the restoration of Perdita, the lost one.
Of all the theatrical devices Shakespeare employs in this play, none is as breathtaking as the final scene. His story-telling prowess knows it can’t sustain two recognition scenes without detracting from both, so he narrates Perdita’s reunion with her father and saves the magic for the resurrection of Hermione, literally drawing the curtain on a moment brimming with forgiveness, liberation, and renewal. But there is a quiet intensity at the end, for the joy of embracing “that which is lost” cannot expunge the persistent echoes of time and love mislaid. In our fractured world groping toward rapprochement, the message of redemption in The Winter’s Tale is miraculously clear.