“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.” – Anne Bradstreet
“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.” – Ernst Fischer
Shakespeare wrote some really bizarre stuff in his lifetime, but The Winter’s Tale out-weirds most of the roster.
Like, for one thing, it’s somehow a bleak and snowy winter in the normally sunny-central, Mediterranean island of Sicily. Meanwhile nestled far to the north between Germany and Poland is the unexpected land of sunshine, flowers, and summery-silliness…Bohemia.
Which apparently has a coastline no one knew about…because all maps clearly indicate how unfortunately landlocked the country is.
As if manipulated geography and climate zones weren’t enough, a statue comes to life, a man is eaten by a bear, and a people rise from the dead.
What in the world is going on here?
In the vernacular, a “winter’s tale” is an absurd story of enchantment and faraway places told to fight off cold and dark days of snow and ice. A fairy tale. So in calling his play by such a title, Shakespeare was signaling to all of us that this was a story not to be taken seriously in details; but the greater themes of the story aim at something larger, and act to stave off the darkness and cold.
“A sad tale’s best for winter” a character says at one point, and that’s exactly where the tale heads at first.
Here’s the story:
The King of Bohemia (Polixenes) is visiting his childhood friend the King of Sicily (Leontes), who is happily married to a woman named Hermione. While he’s had an enjoyable stay, Polixenes decides it’s about time he headed back to Bohemia, and continue his rule there. Leontes begs him to stay longer, but his friend will not hear of it.
Until Hermione begs him to stay as well.
Jealousy: the Green-Eyed Monster
Her request was perfectly innocent and on behalf of her husband, but Leontes becomes suspicious when he sees them hold hands, then paranoid, and before much time passes he’s convinced that his wife is sleeping with his friend.
This may be the understatement of a lifetime, but things quickly go from bad to worse.
Leontes sends a servant to kill his friend, but luckily Polixenes learns of the plot and runs away back to Bohemia.
In a rage, Leontes arrests his wife, tearing her from the arms of their young son, and throws her in prison even though she’s pregnant with another child. The shock of the violence pushes Hermione into labor, and she delivers her child (a girl) in prison.
Leontes, convinced the baby is not his own, commands one of his servants to take the child and abandon her on the coast of Bohemia.
As you can imagine, the royal household is scandalized by the sudden and unwarranted shift in their King’s character, and in an attempt to save their Queen, they persuade Leontes to send messengers to Apollo’s oracle to see if the gods can confirm or deny Hermione’s innocence. He does so, but he also goes ahead with the trial.
Going to Court
The “trial” is a sham in every respect: with no evidence but his own paranoid delusions, the King has no standing for his accusations, and everyone knows it. Hermione stands regal and upright before the court, but in a weakened and pitiful state given her recent delivery. Leontes shows no pity, and her impassioned speech and all others’ cries for mercy fall on deaf ears.
When the messengers from the gods enter with word that Hermione is most certainly innocent, Leontes compounds his madness with blasphemy, crying that he knows his wife is an adulteress, and the gods must be wrong.
It’s at that point that everything falls completely apart.
A servant enters crying that the King’s young son has just died. Hermione collapses and is announced to be dead. And just like that, Leontes’ family is completely gone.
It’s only then, when all his family is lost and he is left all alone, that Leontes realizes what he’s done.
Meanwhile on the coast of Bohemia…
The servant commanded to abandon the royal child is putting down the basket holding Leontes’ and Hermiones’ daughter on the shore, leaving her to the mercy of the elements. It is, understandably, a somber moment.
But that’s quickly undercut by one of the most famous unforeseen events in theatrical history. It’s also Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction:
“Exit, pursued by a bear.”
The servant is chased down and eaten BY A BEAR!
Which leaves the baby all alone until a shepherd discovers her. The only thing he finds on the young girl is a blanket, and a letter saying her name is “Perdita” (or “lost one,” in Italian). He takes her home.
Your Dad Doesn’t Like Your Girlfriend
16 years pass. It’s now a festival of springtime, and Perdita is full-grown and has a fiance, who turns out – conveniently – to be Polixenes’ son.
Unbeknownst to his father, young Florizel has been courting the beautiful, but (seemingly) poor, shepherdess Perdita out in the country and intends to marry her.
In an effort to see what the young prince does when he sneaks off for hours at a time, Polixenes disguises himself in humble garb and attends the celebrations to spy on his son.
But when he discovers that his noble prince of a son wants to marry a poor peasant girl, he loses his temper, reveals himself, and forbids his son from ever seeing her again.
Florizel, however, has absolutely no intention of obeying his father, and decides to run away with Perdita – to Sicily, the kingdom of his father’s childhood friend, who has since repented of his actions long ago and has been begging a visit from them ever since.
The King learns of their plot and follows, as do the shepherd and his son, with the mementos from Perdita’s infancy when she had been abandoned on the coast (including her swaddling clothes and the letter bearing her name).
Family Reunion: Part I
Back in the Sicilian court, Leontes continues his penance for his insane jealousy and criminal actions 16 years previously. Hermione’s former servant Paulina acts as something of a benevolent goad in his side, helpfully reminding him of his faults and calling him to remorse. When Florizel and Perdita suddenly arrive, it doesn’t take Leontes long to realize that the prince and his girlfriend have arrived on less than legitimate terms – which is confirmed with a letter from Polixenes arrives explaining the situation. Soon the rest of the company arrives, and (through the letters and swaddling clothes provided by the shepherd)the truth comes out that Perdita is, in fact, Leontes’ child who had been abandoned and lost in Bohemia. Leontes is overjoyed.
But the greatest moment is still to come.
Art Comes to Life
Paulina brings the King, Perdita, Polixenes, and a few others to the viewing of a statue recently completed to honor the dead Hermione. She unveils the work, and everyone is astonished at the likeness between the work and the lost Queen. Leontes in particular is so struck he bursts into tears and tries to approach, but Paulina calls him back, saying the paint on the piece of art still needs to dry and should not be touched.
“If you can behold it,” Paulina says to those assembled, “I’ll make the statue move indeed.”
At first they can hardly believe the maidservant. Make a statue move? Impossible! But she says:
“It is required you do awake your faith.”
Paulina steps forward. She strikes up music, calls to the statue – and Hermione steps down from the pedestal, and embraces Leontes.
“O, she’s warm!” he cries, and they all enjoy the greatest family reunion ever.
I love so many things about this absurd story.
For one thing, I’ve always loved Greek and Roman mythology, and the parallels with the myth about Persephone are manifold and striking: in the myth, Persephone, the goddess of spring, is abducted from Sicily by the god of death, causing her mother (the goddess of nature) to cover the world in winter until Persephone is returned, and life returns to both the world and her mother.
Perdita, with her collection and garments of flowers, is associated with the goddess of spring pretty literally; and her being abducted from Sicily to be put to death as a child sure sounds like Persephone’s kidnapping by Death. With the loss of her daughter, Hermione dies, only to be returned to life when Perdita returns to Sicily, just like the return of spring in the myth.
The play also represents the one time Shakespeare wrote a fairy tale, complete with Kings and Queens, prince and princess, disguises, magic, and Paulina as something like a fairy godmother.
But most of all, I love the themes of the story: repentance, redemption, resurrection, reunion. It’s about family and faith. About working to correct our mistakes, and how good triumphs in the end. It’s not an easy story to read. Nor is it without it’s darkness and tragedy. But ultimately, this remarkable play illustrates one of the greatest and most meaningful paradoxes of reality:
Spring follows winter. Life follows death. Darkness is not the final say. Good cycles back around to conquer evil.
And that’s the kind of absurdity I can appreciate.