Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Winter's Tale

Johanna Hembry and Calder Johnson in HSU's
The Winter's Tale
Tonight at the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus in Arcata, the HSU Theatre, Film and Dance Department opens its production of The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare. I wrote the stuff about it at HSU Stage, and there's an interview with director Rae Robison there that I also conducted and wrote up.

I'll just add some more personal observations about the play. There's a lot about the play that reflects the changing fashions in theatre after the reign of Elizabeth. The court fashion was for the "masque," as created by Indigo Jones, which were elaborate set-pieces in several senses of the word, since the emphasis was on elaborate sets and visual illusions, often with some act of magic or stage trickery involved. In the popular theatre, there was a fashion for more music, and a kind of forerunner to romantic musical comedy. Both fashions are reflected in this play. The final scene with the "statue"--which had already been done as a set piece--is like a masque but for the popular theatre. And there's more music in this play that probably any other Shakespeare.

The show is also typical of Shakespeare in that it takes advantage of the company's actors and the situation. There's a major character who is a trickster and something of a clown, because he had a very good clown in the company. Some theatres were now completely enclosed, and this play was originally shown at both outdoor and indoor venues. Perhaps that has something to do with it starting indoors at a royal court, but in having many scenes in the middle of the play set outdoors, including the famous sheep-shearing scene.

But this was also the next to last play for which Shakespeare claimed sole authorship. Although The Winter's Tale was based on an existing story (and using it was a nice act of revenge against the popular writer who once called Shakespeare an "upstart crow" and accused him of plagiarism--Shakespeare waited until the fellow was dead to steal this story), it also has a quality of Shakespeare's Greatest Hits: there's the jealousy of Othello and the madness of Lear early in the play, and a lot of As You Like It in the middle, with some star-crossed lovers action as in Romeo and Juliet. This play starts as a tragedy, becomes a comedy and ends up with romance and magic. There's mistaken identity as in many plays and even a shipwreck that presages the play he hadn't written yet, The Tempest.

The story is in some ways the journey of Leontes, the king whose jealous violence starts the action--and the conviction he displays when everyone around him is warning him that he's wrong might seem incredible if we hadn't just lived through the presidency of G.W. Bush. But he and his queen, Hermione, disappear for much of the play, and the really central character becomes Perdita, their daughter who we first meet when she is already a young woman. In some ways she's Rosalind (from As You Like It) without the device of being a woman pretending to be a man and therefore permitted to have strong views. She does have strong views--she's got the skepticism of the "working class" shepherds among whom she was raised, and the grace of innate nobility. She's really the most important and most fascinating character. She may also be the voice closest to the playwright's. She deserves a place among Shakespeare's most important female characters.

The differences and relative merits and the places where the either/or break down of court versus countryside, rich versus poor, nature versus artifice, which are present in much of Shakespeare but with particular strength in As You Like It and The Tempest are major concerns in this play.

The Winter's Tale is not much performed these days (though I saw a very good production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival three seasons ago) but it was a very popular play in the performance repertoire in London during and immediately after Shakespeare's lifetime. But I do get the feeling that Shakespeare was seeing theatrical fashion slipping away from the kind of plays he wanted to do, and though he was more than up to adapting in some pretty daring ways with this play, he was getting ready to retire. But not before he revisited some of the key themes and ongoing concerns of his previous work. I think he probably does this more elaborately in The Winter's Tale, before compressing it all in the magic of The Tempest.

The Winter's Tale is legendary also for one stage direction (Exit, pursued by a bear) and for an extreme example of Shakespeare's often shaky references to geography: in this case he gives a seacoast to the landlocked Bohemia. This has led some to feel that the two nations named in the text, Sicilia and Bohemia, are entirely mythical.

Well, mostly maybe, but not entirely. The names of characters in The Winter's Tale are a kind of mishmash, but several are Greek. Leontes, the king of Sicilia, at one point sends to the oracle at Delphi to request Apollo's wisdom on the matter of his wife's alleged infidelity. In fact, there were Greek colonies on Sicilia at the time of the Athenian democracy. The great dramatist Aeschylus made several trips to Sicily, and wrote and produced plays there. In fact, these Greek allusions also suggest the period the play is meant to be set in: the classical Greek age.

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