It is very difficult for me to write objectively about The Winter’s Tale. The play is just too dear to me. The latest Stratford production is the fifth or sixth I have seen, the second I’ve seen here, and most of them have been deeply flawed at best. But if the final theatrical coup, the coming-to-life of the statue of Hermione, does not bring tears to your eyes even in the most lamely acted production, well, I don’t know why you go to the theatre. I have, moreover, a strong spiritual kinship with Leontes, painful though that is to admit. I understand what it is to cling to madness as if it were the raft of sanity tossed on life’s swirling sea. I understand his rages; I understand his repentance. I cannot understand someone who does not cry at the promise of forgiveness for the unforgivable – a human forgiveness, not a divine – that the play holds out.
Not yet curdled in this milky mind of mine is a lengthy essay on The Winter’s Tale and the book of Hosea, and I am tempted to lay out an outline of that essay as part of this review. But the outline would probably wind up being several thousand words or it wouldn’t make any sense, and really I need resources I don’t have at my ready disposal here in Canada. And besides, you’d never get to the production.
So let me content myself with offering a few thoughts on the play, and on its principal character, before diving into something resembling a conventional review.
The Winter’s Tale offers us a psychological event as a situation, from which all else springs, without giving us nearly any ground for that event. Inasmuch as we are really given no reasons why Leontes goes mad with jealousy, merely that he does, it’s more of a fairy tale than a conventional psychological drama – “once upon a time the king went mad.” And yet, because the event itself is an internal, psychological event, and we continue to follow the king – this isn’t a story about how the poor princess reacted to her mad father, and went on a quest to find the cure for his madness – we cannot escape psychology. The play doesn’t tell us why; it just tells us that he goes mad. But we need to know why. We will supply the reasons, one way or another.
The conventional solution, in playing the drama, is to have some kind of jealousy already in the background, and then some kind of action by the queen that appears to justify some suspicion, which Leontes exaggerates wildly, and we’re off to the races. The problem with this is that to the extent that it works, it justifies Leontes – and he has no real justification, must have none, for the drama to work. And to the extent that it doesn’t work, that we see he’s wildly overreacting, well, then what was the point of doing it in the first place? It certainly doesn’t answer our question.
The first thing we learn about the king and his friend is their incredible closeness – or, rather, the intense memory of their incredible closeness. Camillo says: “They were trained together in their childhoods; and/ there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,/ which cannot choose but branch now.” They are rooted together, but were forced, by maturity, to branch. Camillo is Leontes’s chief counselor, and so we may take this to be the Leontean view of the matter: in their age of innocence, they were united, but now they have fallen from that state.
Does Polixenes agree? In a fashion – but not really. Here’s the dialogue between Hermione and Polixenes, in the second scene in the play, immediately after she has “convinced” him to stay and not to leave the next day by saying she will make him a prisoner if he does not consent to stay.
Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
Was not my lord
The verier wag o’ the two?
We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
By this we gather
You have tripp’d since.
O my most sacred lady!
Temptations have since then been born to’s; for
In those unfledged days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had then not cross’d the eyes
Of my young play-fellow.
Grace to boot!
Of this make no conclusion, lest you say
Your queen and I are devils: yet go on;
The offences we have made you do we’ll answer,
If you first sinn’d with us and that with us
You did continue fault and that you slipp’d not
With any but with us.
In the current Stratford production, Leontes returns to overhear the last four lines of this last speech by Hermione, and clearly one could understand their being misconstrued (the interpretation, “tell me you haven’t been unfaithful with anyone but with me” is as plausible as the true interpretation, “your queen and I will accept the charge of being the instruments of your fall from childhood grace into the pleasures and burdens of adulthood, provided you swear that you’ve never been tempted by any other women”). But look at the dialogue before that.
Polixenes agrees with Camillo that, in his youth, he and Leontes lived in a kind of prelapsarian innocence. But then Hermione chimes in: “was not my lord/ the verier wag o’ the two?” I’m assuming she’s talking about her lord – Leontes – rather than the lord she’s addressing, and if so it’s an important psychological clue. If I’m not mistaken, she’s teasingly calling either her husband or her husband’s best friend – or both of them – for having been romantically involved as youths. I take it as teasing, as does Polixenes, but the point is that she sees that the bond was something beyond boyhood comradeship. She’s seen the way Leontes looks at his best boyhood friend, and she’s amused by it, but still moved to tease.
How does he look at him? In my mind, he looks at him with admiration and with longing – longing for a youthful self never really superceded, but merely suppressed. Polixenes answers for what happened to him simply: he discovered girls, and that was that. But Leontes has a bit of Pan in him, is still looking for the lost boy he once was, and for his boyhood ideal, Polixenes. You don’t need to think there is an active, erotic dimension to this longing to see that finally seeing again the boy on whom you were emotionally fixated as a pre-adolescent could carbonate your blood.
And then he’s going to leave. And won’t stay when you beg him. But when your wife entreats:
Is he won yet?
He’ll stay my lord.
At my request he would not.
What have the last nine months in Leontes’ house been like? Has Leontes been frolicking happily with Polixenes? Or pressing himself upon the Bohemian king to his increasing discomfort? Or brooding on time, and how what he thought he could recover has proved lost, utterly lost? Or enraged that Polixenes doesn’t seem to see it that way – seems happy to be grown up, to be a man, a husband, a king, and not a “boy eternal”?
What’s Leontes really jealous of? Jealous that his best friend has (he thinks) stolen his wife? Or jealous that his wife has (he thinks) stolen his best friend? Stolen his youth – stolen himself, and left him in his own stead a king of trumpery. For Leontes, though he wears a crown, isn’t much of a king, unable to rule his own ministers, even their wives. He lacks the charisma of natural authority, and so must yield or rage a tyrant. And so he does, when he will no longer be ruled by womanish reason, but must give his boyish anger range.
(Did Hermione know that she married a boy? I think she did – I think that’s the meaning of her little teasing joke. It just never occurred to her what cruelties boys could bring themselves to commit.)
And then, he goes mad, and on with the play.
One of the many reasons the first half of The Winter’s Tale is so terribly difficult in performance is that all of the foregoing – or whatever alternative psychological backstory a given production may prefer – must come out, compressed, in the first five minutes of the play, and must be understood by the audience so that when Leontes goes mad, we see a change. A huge change. We must know that the Leontes we are going to see for the next hour or more, until the oracle reveals the irrefutable truth of his wife’s innocence, is not the man any of the characters onstage knew before. We must know it, must believe it, must feel pity and terror for him, for them, for all. We must, or we will not wish him to be forgiven.
From then on until the trial, Leontes has one note. He knows his wife’s been unfaithful, and he clings to his false truth as if his life depended on it, because it does: he has staked his royal authority on this surmise, and if he surrenders it he knows he will never be his own man again. That he’ll never be his own man this way either doesn’t occur to him, and so he clings, ever stronger, as contrary opinion mounts, even to the point where the oracle, for the first time in history speaking with utter clarity, says: she’s innocent – even then, he will not let go his raft until his son is slain.
Who is that son, Mamillus, to him, whom he kills so tenderly – because he does kill him, knows he’s killing him, takes his son’s decline as further evidence of his right opinion even as he kills him. That son whose face he scans, over and over, looking for signs of identity. Is that an unwillingness to believe that he could possibly have generated life, an unwillingness to assume the mantle of adulthood? Or, equally likely, a desperate search for his boyhood self, the only self he truly believes is him – is it here, perhaps, please, somewhere, here? When he kills his son, is he trying to take his place, or trying to kill himself in him? Both, I think – the point is, these are the psychological stakes for poor Leontes, and it does take his son’s literal death to break the spell, to return him to himself. The death of Mamillus may fairly be compared to the murder of Desdemona, but Othello lets us off easy, and does away with himself when he learns the truth of what he’s done. Leontes is the king. He does not have that luxury. Instead, he must find his way back, across sixteen years, to reconciliation and forgiveness in that immortal, final scene.
There’s a great deal going on in Bohemia during and towards the end of those sixteen years, including the emergence of a Polixenes with a far less-interesting but still problematic relationship to his own son, but I’ve dwelt long enough in my own mind. What about the production?
On the whole, this is a very faithful, traditional production, respectful of the text and without an overarching concept. There’s not very much set, but a great deal of costume. Sicilia is all in dark tones and vaguely subcontinental; Bohemia is a frenzy of color and is set somewhere vaguely between Mongolia and Turkistan (still no seacoast, I’m afraid). This works very nicely at establishing the contrast in moods between the two locales, but makes the Sicilian scenes sometimes dreary rather than anxious, and the shapelessness of the costumes reduces the actors often enough to heads perched on darkly-papered walls. This is taking Leontes’ alienation from his own body a bit too far, I think. Other than that, my only complaint would be that the settings have no actual meaning – this isn’t, in any way, an Indian or Central Asian story, and, thankfully, no attempt is made to turn it into one, but that being the case the whole setting seems like so much random exoticism.
There are only four moments in the play that invite theatrical effects: the reading of the oracle; the appearance of the bear, pursuing Antigonous; the entrance of Father Time to announce the passage of sixteen years; and the awakening of the statue. For the last, most important effect, the magic should all be provided by the actor – no special lighting or other tricks of the trade are indicated. It is, in this production, handled sublimely. The first, this production declined to seize; no celestial thunders or other divine intrusions attend the oracle’s message. Well and good. Father Time is played both winningly and spinningly by Randy Hughson, who is rather subdued as Antigonous, and the contraption that spins him around is an absolute delight – the perfect introduction to the new spirit that will infuse the play when we get to Bohemia. But the bear! This was, without question, the best bear I’ve ever seen – the first one that has actually scared me, that doesn’t look like a man in a bear suit lumbering in from some kiddie show. I’ve been looking for a scary bear for years and I’m so glad to have finally met one.
Leontes overwhelmingly dominates the first half of the play, and I’m afraid I’m of two minds about Ben Carlson’s performance. He’s an actor of exceptional intelligence, and I’ve always thought Leontes was quite an intelligent man, if not a terribly wise or self-aware one. He’s also a very head-y actor, not terribly physical – and, again, I’ve always thought of Leontes as a bit of an awkward sort and an introvert. And Ben has never struck me as the sort of man who projects natural authority – and Leontes can’t seem to get anyone to obey him. Ben made an excellent Hamlet and I’d be very interested to see his Angelo, his Iago, his Malvolio. So I was very excited to see what he did with the role. And, in general, what he did was excellent. I believed him when I saw him mad, that he desperately wanted to surrender to peace and reality but could not yield because he’d lose his self. I listened to him discourse on the nothing that should follow should he yield to reason – “Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;/ The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;/ My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,/ If this be nothing.” – and I thought: yes, that’s it. His impotence in trying to rid his court of Paulina – again, wonderfully, truthfully executed and pathetic comedy – pathetic in the sense of pathos. And in the final scenes of the play, meeting his daughter once again, and, much more so, with the statue, again I believed in this man. Time had past, but the past was still alive, the present not so. In place of his recalled boyhood joy, that so eclipsed his married happiness, now recollection of his madness filled all his consciousness. He had changed utterly, but he had not changed at all.
But two key choices I’m afraid I disagreed with. At the outset, his Leontes is already uneasy. Something has been eating at him these nine months. What is it? I became convinced it was jealousy – before the lines about having “sinn’d with us” he already finds something amiss. Which is entirely plausible as a way into the play – but it muffles that first change. This Leontes was looking for trouble before he ever got onstage – and so, for all we know, this is the man. This jealous tyrant is who he is. I don’t think that’s so, and I feel we need to see it. Here we don’t.
And then, more problematic, at the trial, after the oracle has spoken, after his son has died, Leontes has his “what have I done?” moment, and Carlson rushes through it. There is no moment where we see him come to know what he has done – he rushes past, into confession. Again, it’s not that he’s misread the character, or that I do not believe the lines – but he deprives us of a great and terrible gift of this play, the time to feel, with Leontes, the depth of his own recognition of guilt. That takes time, time that has to play out onstage, on the man’s face, in his voice. Carlson doesn’t want to stay there with him in that moment. I can’t say as I blame him – I don’t like it there either. But that’s where we need to be, and stay, for a while. Leontes, after all, has to stay there for sixteen years.
These are more than quibbles, but they are less than complaints – it’s a moving performance in total, just one that, I feel, flinched a bit from staring into the true depths. And you have to consider it in combination with his co-star, Yanna McIntosh, who gives us a powerfully conceived Hermione. Hermione has, in some ways, an even harder job than Leontes. Leontes must compress nine months, and years of history before that, into a handful of lines, so that we can see him change when he goes mad. Hermione must compress sixteen years of living death into a single moment of waking. And Ms. McIntosh does it – boy does she do it. I was crying along with Leontes from the moment the statue was unveiled – when he notes the statue is so much older, more wrinkled than Hermione was in life, I saw the same aging, and wept for that as well. And I saw true reconciliation in her eyes when she finally waked, and reached out for her husband. The whole play exists for that moment, and she delivered. And the rest of her performance was equally excellent: Hermione is witty and teasing at the first, casual in her affection for a husband she has come to take for granted – in a good way, but for granted nonetheless – and then, more disappointed than angry at being accused, an excellent choice (she married a boy; she’d inevitably wind up thinking a bit motherly). And then, at the trial, finally knowing that this boy-man she wed has already destroyed her infant daughter and will now destroy her, she’s left with nothing but the determination to a dignified and honorable exit. It’s just masterful.
The rest of the Sicilian cast is generally solid if not inspiring, with the exception of Seanna McKenna as Paulina. Ms. McKenna tears into Paulina’s big early scenes with relish – she could play this part with her eyes closed, I think. But I will quibble with her attitude in the unveiling scene, which I found a bit arch and knowing. (Of course, she does know – it’s her statue – but still. A little respect for the audience.) As for the Bohemians, Dan Chameroy makes a manly and charming Polixenes in the opening scenes, and erupts convincingly into fury at his disobedient son in the latter half of the play, but I’ve always found Polixenes to be a bit of a stock figure, and I didn’t learn anything new about him from this production. Cara Ricketts’s Perdita and Ian Lake’s Florizel I also found a bit bland and flat.
But Bohemia isn’t about the nobly born; it’s about the shepherds. And to a man, they are marvelous. Tom Rooney is a riotous Autolycus, full of tricks and jokes and numerous pockets. But even he is overshadowed by the team of Brian Tree and Mike Shara as the father and son who find and adopt the abandoned Perdita. Shara is never so much fun as when he gets to play an adorable imbecile, and never have I ever wished I were less intelligent than when watching him attempting to juggle Dorcas and Mopsa, the rivals for his love – played by Alana Hawley and Andrea Runge who also seem to be having a great deal of fun. And Brian Tree is simply perfect, losing not a whit of his dignity for his simplicity, losing not a bit of his humorous simplicity for his dignity. I do wonder whether Perdita wouldn’t have been better off staying a shepherd girl, if she got to remain with these two.
Indeed, I wish I could as well. My only consolation was that I leave them to go to that great final scene, the unveiling and awakening of the statue, about which I’ve already rolled out enough superlatives.
And so, one final word, about the play itself. After the statue has come to life, and all have been reconciled, the characters are ready to file offstage to learn what really happened to Hermione lo these sixteen years that she’s been gone, while Paulina prepares to retire to a life of mourning for her lost Antigonous. But Leontes has one final speech:
O, peace, Paulina!
Thou shouldst a husband take by my consent,
As I by thine a wife: this is a match,
And made between’s by vows. Thou hast found mine;
But how, is to be question’d; for I saw her,
As I thought, dead, and have in vain said many
A prayer upon her grave. I’ll not seek far—
For him, I partly know his mind—to find thee
An honourable husband. Come, Camillo,
And take her by the hand, whose worth and honesty
Is richly noted and here justified
By us, a pair of kings. Let’s from this place.
What! look upon my brother: both your pardons,
That e’er I put between your holy looks
My ill suspicion. This is your son-in-law,
And son unto the king, who, heavens directing,
Is troth-plight to your daughter. Good Paulina,
Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand an answer to his part
Perform’d in this wide gap of time since first
We were dissever’d: hastily lead away.
This sudden wedding of the aged Paulina and Camillo is much-needed comic relief, but it’s more than that. It’s the first truly positive, and kingly act that Leontes has done in the entire play. It is also the first time he gives an order and anybody obeys it. It is, in fact, the counterpoint to the awakening of the statue, the moment that proves that Leontes has also become himself again, and has emerged into a new self – mature, adult, kingly. It can go by quickly if you don’t notice it. So look, and listen.