The cause of thunder

What is the cause of thunder?
– From “King Lear”, III, iv

It’s a recurring theme in the plays of Shakespeare: a man is overcome by jealousy, and falsely suspects his wife or his betrothed of infidelity. I suppose one may speculate why Shakespeare kept returning to this theme, but such speculation is pointless: more interesting is what he did with this theme. It occurs quite spectacularly, of course, in Othello; and it occurs also in Much Ado About Nothing, where it pulls what had till that point been a sparkling comedy into a tragic direction; and in The Merry Wives of Windsor, this same motif crops up in an unambiguously comic mode. And it crops up in two of his very late plays – Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. In the former, the threatened catastrophe is averted at the end, but in The Winter’s Tale, the catastrophe cannot be avoided: the worst that can happen does happen. But where, in a conventional tragic drama, this worst is the promised end, or an image of that horror, the drama of The Winter’s Tale continues beyond this point: it journeys beyond the tragic, and presents a vision of penitence, of atonement, and finally, of reconciliation. It presents, indeed, a vision of the Resurrection itself. We are, of course, given the option of believing that Hermione had not really died, and that her survival had been kept a secret, but so unlikely is this explanation that we are more prepared to believe the impossible rather than the improbable: at the end of this play, Hermione is brought, like Alcestis, from the grave. It is a dramatisation of our most deeply held desires: reconciliation with those we have lost, forgiveness for all the wrongs we have done each other.

But before the reconciliation, we must face the tragedy, and the tragedy, when it occurs, leaves behind utter devastation, and the utmost desolation. All innocence, all tenderness, all that we like to think of as “human”, is swept aside as if by a whirlwind. Where does such immense force of evil come from? What, as Lear had asked, is the cause of thunder? This issue raises its head many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays: Why is Iago evil? What makes Othello commit such a horrendously evil act? How does evil make its way into the souls of Macbeth and of Lady Macbeth? There is no easy answer to these questions, but they  must nonetheless be raised in any intelligent consideration of these works. However, in The Winter’s Tale, even raising these questions seems pointless. It’s not that the answers are difficult and complex: rather, there is no answer. Leontes we first see as a loving husband and father; but then, abruptly, he turns into a raving maniac, convinced that his wife has betrayed him. There is no dramatic preparation for this eruption – no Iago, not even a handkerchief; there’s not the slightest hint of psychological instability that may make Leontes prone to jealousy. It just happens. It just is.

The lack of any ostensible cause of the thunder makes the thunder even more horrific. The evil descends as a sort of illness, a disease. Hermione, Leontes’ wife, even at her lowest, sees it as such, and can even feel compassion for the man who is torturing her:

                 How will this grieve you,
When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that
You thus have publish’d me!

Hermione’s prediction proves correct: once the illness passes, all Leontes has left is a life of grief and guilt – grief because all that had been to him of value is now destroyed, and guilt because, illness or no, it is he who is the destroyer.

This motif of a man overcome by madness and destroying all that is most precious to him had occurred also in a play that Shakespeare is unlikely to have known: Euripides’ Heracles. The structure of Heracles is as unorthodox and as daring as that of The Winter’s Tale. From the opening lines, the drama concerns itself with the fate of Heracles’ family – his wife, his children, his aged father – who, in Heracles’ absence, face being slaughtered by the tyrant Lycus; and the drama appears to be  resolved by the sudden appearance, just in the nick of time, of Heracles himself, who had been thought dead. And so, some two thirds of the way into the play, as Heracles goes off-stage to dispatch the evil Lycus (the violence in Greek drama always taking place away from the audience’s view), it seems that all that remains to see the play through to the end are the final choruses of triumph. But there is a sudden and savage twist that takes the play into an entirely unexpected direction: even as the chorus is rejoicing in anticipation of Heracles’ triumph, and in the deliverance of his innocent family, there appears above the palace Iris, the messenger of the goddess Hera, and the fearsome figure of Madness. As with Leontes’ murderous jealousy, nothing has prepared us for this: it is the seeming arbitrariness of it all that shocks. No reason is given for the appearance of these figures, other than Hera’s hatred for Heracles; and no explanation is given for that hatred. Hera and Iris, for reasons they do not feel necessary to divulge to mere mortals, are determined to infect Heracles with madness. And in his madness, he murders his own family. The family he had gone off-stage to rescue from slaughter, he himself slaughters.

Afterwards, when the madness leaves him, he knows, as does Leontes, that not only has all that had been most precious to him been destroyed, but that, further, he is himself the destroyer. “Never did I know such sorrow as this; there must be a limit to endurance.” But there is no limit. Not in Euripides’ tragic vision. In the original legend, Heracles killed his family in his madness before he embarks on the labours: the labours, indeed, were intended as an atonement. But Euripides places the slaughter of his family after the labours: there can be no atonement for what has been done.

Shakespeare’s vision, at least by the time he came to write The Winter’s Tale, was a bit different: here, there is atonement, there is reconciliation, and forgiveness. But the reconciliation is very subdued: the tone is not that of ecstatic joy, but of a muted serenity. Mamilius, after all, is still dead; and nothing can bring back those years of separation and of desolation: what has been suffered cannot be unsuffered. Not even with a mystical resurrection can all losses be restored, or sorrows end: nothing can wipe away fully the consequences of our actions. But although the joy is muted and subdued, it is nonetheless there, and it is a thing of wonder.

I am still not sure how best to react to this deeply enigmatic final scene, that seems to express simultaneously both the deepest joy and the deepest sorrow; but I find myself moved more deeply at each re-reading. This ending seems to come from the deepest recess of Shakespeare’s imagination, which has gone beyond the realms of human tragedy into some other world. Even more so than The Tempest, it is this miraculous play that I like to think of as Shakespeare’s last artistic testament. It is a work that, perhaps, we still have not come round to fully understanding.

[The line quoted from Heracles is taken from the translation by John Davie, published by Penguin Classics]

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5 responses to this post.

  1. If I had a bone to pick with Billy Shakespeare
    It would centre on his play A Winter’s Tale,
    Where jealous and possessive paranoia
    Drives poor Leontes to an epic fail.

    Then for sixteen years he lives with guilt and sorrow
    Believing his Hermione died of woe
    And the kid he’d thought born of his mate’s betrayal
    Was put to death — but little does he know …

    So he’s lost a son, he thought he’d killed a daughter —
    As king he can’t have been a great success.
    A decade and a half of bleak depression
    Can leave the finest mind a sorry mess.

    And I always felt, on reaching the dénouement,
    When wifey is revealed, alive, at last,
    That even if I was both pleased and humbled —
    I’d want to massacre the whole damn cast!

    ‘Cause, however bloody ‘noble’ their intentions,
    They’ve stolen times that will not come again;
    Deprived the guy of comforts, not to mention
    Some sixteen years of shagging down the drain.

    Yes, I know it’s just a play, I know it’s different;
    I know the whole damn thing’s a metaphor;
    I know that you’re alive and just don’t love me,
    But that all makes our lost time a bigger bore.

    Well, a mere five years of loneliness I’ve suffered
    Of missing out on all those things we’d planned
    But maybe I just haven’t learned my lesson —
    In ten more years perhaps I’ll understand

    Reply

    • Will would have sympathised: that which is lost
      Cannot be restored – not in full. The cost
      Of our actions we’ll continue to pay
      Even in eternity’s dateless day,
      And that joy that is promised is muted at best,
      And sorrow haunts us still in eternal rest.

      Reply

  2. Posted by z stacker on December 19, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Nor night nor day no rest
    was not one of Billy’s best.
    Many think that in this season
    spririt ranks much more than reason.
    But after Leontes reason fled
    it only showed the need for bed.

    Reply

    • I think the general critical consensus is on your side: even among his late plays, it’s The Tempest that is rated most highly. Personally, I think The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s finest plays, and possibly gets my vote as his most underrated work. But I suppose these late plays will always split opinion!

      Reply

  3. A big up for the general quality of commentary involved 🙂
    I have of course, lowered the bar.

    Reply

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