By Dennis Abrams
Given the recent weather across the United States, it seems oddly appropriate that our next play in Publishing Perspectives’ two and half year long survey of the complete plays of William Shakespeare, The Play’s the Thing, should be the late masterpiece, “The Winter’s Tale.”
But in fact, to call something a “winter’s tale” was actually Jacobean slang for something fanciful and unreal – a story to be told around the fire. And the tale told by the play itself has sometimes been called that, too, but at least it first, it seems to promise little in the way of light-hearted entertainment. It tells the story of a king whose jealousy is so strong, and yet groundless, that it loses him not only his wife but his young son and his baby daughter. But Shakespeare demonstrates that time has a way of healing even the most violent of fractures, that the tale doesn’t have to end in disaster; and so, after an improbable (yet utterly believable) sequence of events, the play delivers a powerful, almost mystical resolution. And the play’s final scene, which still has the power to astonish audiences and readers alike, is famous for a reason: showing the world a decisive transformation from tragic winter into the rebirth of spring.
As the great Shakespeare critic Harold Goddard wrote:
“It is a fairy tale – it is fact. It is romantic – it is realistic. It is tragic – it is comic. It is Christian – it is pagan. It is harsh and crabbed – it is simple and idyllic. It is this – it is that. It is a welter of anachronisms. Its geography is in spots fantastic. It has not only gods, but a bear, a storm, and a yacht, from the machine. And as for its construction, if it had been expressly written to defy the classic unities, it could hardly have violated them more flagrantly. It plays the old witch with time and space and compactness of action, sprawling from Sicilia to Bohemia-with-a-seacoast, leaping over sixteen years in the middle, and (apparently at least) so dividing the interest that many have called it two plays tied by the slenderest of threads rather than one. Yet, as is usual with Shakespeare, these diversities serve a purpose, and the play has more seriousness, unity, and singleness of effect than is immediately apparent. For like a complex musical composition that strikes us at first as full of discords but that we eventually come to like, The Winter’s Tale has the gift on more intimate acquaintance of insinuating its way into the affections and understandings of many who were originally unsympathetic or even repelled by its heterogeneities. Autolycus expresses it perfectly:
And when I wander here and there,
I then do most go right.
The play is a marvel. We hope you’ll join us.
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