Posts Tagged ‘Heracles’

Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I seem to have started this year immersed in late Shakespeare. First, there was the cinema broadcast of Kenneth Branagh’s fine production of The Winter’s Tale. And, in a fit of bank-balance-depleting enthusiasm late last year, I bought myself tickets to all three of the late threesome (I hesitate to call it a “trilogy”) of Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, that beautiful little theatre attached to the Globe that attempts to recreate the environment in which these plays would originally have been performed. I reported on their production of Cymbeline a few weeks ago, and, earlier this week, I was back there to see The Winter’s Tale. The Tempest will follow in a couple of weeks’ time.

(The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse are also putting on the late play Pericles, and perhaps I should have gone along to that too: but I refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote more than a few scenes at most of that work; and, further, my bank balance was in a parlous state as it was…)

I find these plays fascinating, but maddeningly, sometimes frustratingly, elusive. Cymbeline has particularly puzzled me. When I first wrote about it in this blog, I presented it as a work in which Shakespeare was setting out in a new direction, but in which he had not quite found his feet; that he was experimenting, though not always successfully. When I read that post again before sitting down to write this, I found myself embarrassed by my presumption. That Shakespeare was moving into a new direction – a direction already foreshadowed, incidentally, by the earlier All’s Well That Ends Well – is undeniable, but the more I read that play, the more certain I am that the old boy knew precisely what he was doing.

The production I saw last month at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse seemed to confirm this: for all the play’s manifold absurdities – none of them, I think, unintentional – Cymbeline, in performance, came across as a cogent and highly satisfactory piece of theatre. As in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare seemed fascinated by the plotlines and the conventions of the fairy tale: this was, in many ways, Shakespeare’s re-writing of the story of Snow White (variations of which, I gather, had been widespread long before the Brothers Grimm included it in their collection). To the fairy story element, Shakespeare added knockabout humour – an element that the production I saw played up to the hilt. Nonetheless, through all this, we seemed transported at points into what I can only describe as another dimension. I am not sure how this happened.

Cymbeline ends – as do, in their different ways, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – in reconciliation and in joy: it seems as if Shakespeare, having depicted in his tragedies the darkest of visions, looked beyond the tragic in his late plays; but what he glimpsed when he looked beyond remains, though wondrous, enigmatic and elusive.

Of the three plays, I tend to find The Winter’s Tale the most approachable. By that I mean this this is the play I think I understand best. This is in no small measure due to the first half of the play returning us with the utmost force back into the world of his earlier tragedies. And yet, there is a difference. When thinking about the earlier tragedies, we must, if our thought is to be more than merely superficial, consider the source and the nature of the evil that is depicted as engulfing humanity; but in The Winter’s Tale, neither the source nor the nature is debatable: they just are – brute facts, beyond analysis, beyond discussion, beyond thought. The evil emerges from nowhere: Leontes is Iago to his own Othello. It wreaks havoc, destroying all in its path: never has Yeats’ famous line “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” seemed more appropriate. And, having destroyed all in its path, it disappears as mysteriously as it had appeared. There’s no point looking for reason here: it’s all beyond reason. And as the first half ends, and we emerges dazed into the interval, what we have witnessed seems to challenge us: after such evil, what reconciliation?

We can never tell whether or not Shakespeare knew Greek. There certainly were scholars of Greek in London – Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson, for a start – and it is not, I think, stretching credulity too far to imagine that Shakespeare, given his literary curiosity and his mastery of language, may well have taken the trouble of learning Greek, and reading its literature. We simply do not know. But, whether by design or by accident, this first half of The Winter’s Tale seems to me to be in many ways a recasting of Euripides’ Heracles: there, too, we see a man in the grips of an irrational madness, and who, beset by delusions, destroys that which is most precious to him – his own family; and, having done this, the sanity cruelly returns, so he has now to live not merely with his loss, but also with his guilt. At this point, Euripides’ play ends, but Shakespeare was determined to pursue the drama further: the end he has in sight seems to look towards another play by Euripides – Alcestis, which finishes, like The Winter’s Tale, with a dead queen brought back from the dead, and with subsequent reconciliation. The question is how to work one’s way to such an ending from the total devastation with which the first half finishes.

Shakespeare’s solution is a curious one, and one that I am not sure I quite understand: he negotiates the path back from tragedy to reconciliation through a pastoral, through song and dance, and through earthy, rustic comedy. Admittedly, the sudden outburst of rage from Polixenes threatens even here to turn the plot back towards the tragic, but that possibility is quickly averted. The knockabout humour continues even into the final act, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Shakespeare rounds off the drama with a scene that is miraculous in all respects: Hermione is miraculously restored to life, and, for reasons which seem to defy analysis, the audience miraculously accepts this. I don’t think I have come across any other scene in any other plays that conveys such a sense of wonder.

I have seen quite a few productions of The Winter’s Tale now, both on stage and on screen, but I don’t think I have seen any that projects, as this production does, the horror of the first half with such unremitting power. As I sat there watching the scenes I thought I already knew, I could almost physically feel a knot in my stomach, tightening. The closing scenes of that first half were particularly affecting: the candles – the entire hall is lit only by candles – all went out, the physical darkness engulfing us an apt metaphor for the spiritual darkness; and Antigonus, charged with abandoning the newborn baby in the wilderness, entered with the helpless child, lit only by a hand-held lantern. Some commentators have suggested that the infamous “Exit, pursued by a bear” should be played for laughs, but this production, quite rightly, doesn’t go for that. Instead, a terrifying bear-like shape moves vaguely in the profound darkness behind Antigonus, and the lantern extinguishes, leaving the entire hall in utter darkness. And then, the audience, still in utter darkness, hears the eerie moans of Antigonus’ mariners perishing in the shipwreck. Nature itself seems to be taking its revenge, indiscriminately, on errant mankind. And I, for one, could not help asking myself: after this, what reconciliation can be possible?

I must admit that the long, pastoral fourth act, with its knockabout comedy, continues to puzzle me. It all works in the theatre, and for many, that is a justification in itself. Perhaps it is I who am at fault for trying to rationalize that which is beyond rational thought.

The joy engendered in the final scene always seems to me a subdued joy: it acknowledges rather than banishes the tragedy. Productions at the Globe Theatre – and in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, its indoor venue – end, as the original productions seemingly did, with an elaborate dance in which the entire cast takes part, but, after the subdued nature of the final scene, I could have wished the dance here to have been less exuberant. Such exuberance as was conveyed seems not to fit with what had gone before: a solemn dance would, I think, have been more appropriate. But if that indeed was a false step, it was the only false step in the entire production. Everything else about it seemed perfect: John Light’s frightening portrayal of the mad Leontes; Rachel Stirling’s passionate Hermione; the compassionate Antigonus of David Yelland; the superbly feisty Paulina of Niamh Cusack (whom I had seen all of thirty years ago playing Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre); the earthiness of the pastoral comedy; and, of course, the splendidly judged direction of Michael Longhurst. I do not think I’ll see a better production of this play. The power and intensity of the first half, especially, will henceforth remain, I suspect, firmly etched in my mind.

Two weeks later, I am back in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to see The Tempest, another late play that I find elusive. Having now seen the other two late plays of this late threesome, expectations are, I admit, very high.

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]