The Bardathon: 31 – The Winter’s Tale

To present a vision that goes beyond tragedy, one must first of all pass through the tragic. And this we do with a vengeance in the first half of The Winter’s Tale. Here, the tragic momentum generated seems unstoppable, as it sweeps everything in its path. Reading it, I found those frightening lines of Yeats going around my head: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Of course, Shakespeare has been here before. The basic motif is a familiar one from many of his other works: a man mistakenly believes his wife to be unfaithful, and in his jealousy wreaks havoc. The most famous example of this motif is, of course, Othello, but we had seen it also in Much Ado About Nothing and in Cymbeline (in both of which tragedy is narrowly averted, though suffering isn’t); and we had seen it also in a comic mode in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Why Shakespeare should repeatedly be drawn to this particular motif is anyone’s guess. But leaving aside idle biographical speculation, the tragic power unleashed by this motif in the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale recalls Othello in its intensity.

The differences, though, are remarkable. The most obvious is that Leontes is Iago to his own Othello: he walks of his own volition into evil and madness – he does not need to be led. And this naturally raises the question of why he does so; but, very disturbingly, there is no answer. Indeed, there isn’t even anything that may, perhaps, lead us to an answer. Any intelligent reading of Othello would look deeply into the possible motivation of Iago, or into his mental state, to try to understand why he so carefully plants that seed of evil in Othello; and it would look also at Othello, and try to understand just what it is that is in him that allows that seed to blossom so terribly in his soul. We may not arrive at a full and complete answer, but we are invited to search all the same. But there is no such invitation in The Winter’s Tale: the evil in Leontes irrupts so suddenly and so mysteriously, that we are given no point from which even to begin an investigation into its nature. It just is. Later, the evil disappears with equal suddenness, but not before the blood-dimmed tide has been loosed, and the ceremony of innocence drowned. And the characters, like the audience, are left unable even to ask “Why?”

Shakespeare had investigated the various different aspects of nature of evil in several of his earlier plays – Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth – but in many ways, this is the most terrifying, because it is presented here as being even beyond the possibility of human understanding. Leontes’ many speeches, with its jagged and irregular rhythms, are unlike anything I have encountered in Shakespeare’s other plays: they reveal a disjointedness as severe as that of Othello’s mind, but we do not find here any sense of continuity between what Leontes is and what he had been, or what he later becomes once the evil subsides. And it is this very lack of continuity that terrifies. Is our human nature really so very vulnerable to such irrational evil?

The first half of the play culminates in two splendid climactic scenes – first, the great trial scene with its dramatic conclusion, and then, the scene set notoriously on the coast of Bohemia, and featuring even more notoriously the exit pursued by a bear. It is all too easy to make this scene comic, but I think that is a mistake: the scene with the bear should shock and terrify. In King Lear nature had been impersonal, indifferent to human suffering; but here, nature, in the form of the storm and of the murderous bear, seems to vent its fury at what humans do to each other.

But then, in the long fourth act, the tone miraculously changes: we suddenly find ourselves in a world of pastoral comedy – as if we have stepped out the world of Othello and into the world of As You Like It. Of course, Shakespeare had often attempted to blend together diverse elements, but here, there’s no attempt at blending: the diverse elements are simply placed next to each other. (In this, one cannot help but think of the late style of another supreme genius, albeit working in a different medium: the late works of Beethoven similarly juxtapose the most diverse of forms and moods.) And somehow – I am not sure how – it all works. The very fact of it working is in itself a miracle.

But it is in the final act that we encounter the greatest miracles of all – the miracle both inherent in the story, and the miracle of Shakespeare’s artistry. What are we to make of that final scene of forgiveness and reconciliation? What, especially, are we to make of the statue coming to life?

As so often in Shakespeare, the original inspiration comes, I think, from Ovid: this is, on one level, a re-enactment of the story of Pygmalion. But on another level, it is also, I think, a vision of the Resurrection, of the dead rising into a new life. True, Shakespeare does give us a “rational” explanation – that Hermione had remained hidden with Paulina for sixteen years – but Shakespeare knew as well as anyone that the audience prefers to believe the impossible rather than the improbable. Whatever the “rational” explanation offered, what is conveyed is a sense of the miraculous, the transcendental. And one does not, perhaps, need to be religious to be moved by it: this vision of reconciliation beyond death, of forgiveness and of reunion, of the restoration of that which had been lost, dramatises the fulfilment of the most fervently held of human desires. I find it moving beyond words.


Most commentaries on these late plays speak of their relationship to the tragedies, but on reading them this time round, I was struck by the parallels with the earlier comedies. The comedy that comes particularly to mind in relation to this play is Much Ado About Nothing, where, once again, a man  accuses an innocent woman of infidelity and rejects her, thinks her dead, then discovers her innocence, repents, and finds his repentance rewarded by forgiveness and reconciliation. Indeed, the last two acts of Much Ado About Nothing seem almost like The Winter’s Tale in fast motion. However, the earlier play didn’t quite convince because we see too little of Claudio’s atonement (any more would have unbalanced the comic framework), and thus can’t quite believe that Claudio has earned Hero’s forgiveness. Here, however, there is no doubt on that score: Leontes’ awareness of what he has done, and his mental self-lacerations, are almost unbearable to witness. What he has done is indeed horrendous beyond words, but the forgiveness, when it comes so miraculously, is hard won. The play ends not with an exuberant joy, but with a sense of serenity, of radiance. And with the joy there exists also a sadness: Mamilius can never return, and neither can the lost years. Not all losses can be restored, although we may still carry on desiring for a state in which sorrows end.

Another play which this one reminds me of is a work that Shakespeare could not possibly have known about – Sakuntala by Kalidasa, the most renowned drama of Sanskrit literature. Despite being the products of very different cultures, these two masterpieces are, thematically, surprisingly similar. In the final act of Kalidasa’s play, King Dusyanta, distraught at the awareness of what he has lost, makes his way into the land of the dead to become reunited once again with the wife and child whom he had previously failed to recognise. How curious that these two literary giants separated by more than merely physical distance should converge so remarkably in their artistic vision!

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