Saturday, 20 May 2017

On the BBC's 1981 production of "The Winter's Tale" by William Shakespeare (c.1611)

The Winter's Tale is one of the oddest of all Shakespeare's plays, and in both its tragedy-turned-reconciliation narrative and its odd air of unreality one can detect a certain degree of similarity with Cymbeline; small wonder the two tend to be grouped together. I don't think The Winter's Tale is quite as messy as Cymbeline, but at points it's just as odd -- for four different reasons that I can tell: 

1) the mechanics of the plot depend on a sudden burst of jealousy on the part of Leontes, King of Sicilia, at the opening of the play; in brief, Leontes suspects his wife Hermione of sleeping with Polixenes, his childhood friend and monarch of neighbouring Bohemia (by now she's heavily pregnant, but Polixenes has been staying for nine months). This leads to all sorts of fun phrasings like 'it is a bawdy planet' and Leontes gets to confide his suspicions to the audience conspiratorially, which is rather enjoyable (Morgus from The Caves of Androzani, anyone?), but what doesn't seem to be remarked upon enough is that Leontes' entire motivation for suspecting Hermione of infidelity boils down to the fact that she asks Polixenes to stay on a little longer and he accepts, despite Leontes having tried to urge the same but to no avail. All well and good, except that Hermione only urges Polixenes to stay at Leontes' request, making his sudden fit of jealous pique when Hermione apparently does exactly what he asks and Polixenes does exactly as Leontes was hoping he'd do ... an utterly baffling reaction. More on this anon.

2) there's a huge time jump in the middle of the play. Small fry to Doctor Who enthusiasts such as myself, perhaps, but pretty radical in Shakespeare's day, especially when you take into account the pre-eminence of Aristotelian unities of time, action and place. But no, after Act III we get a sudden and dramatic 'jump forward' of sixteen years, recounted to us by the play's chorus, apparently a personification of Time itself: 'Impute it not a crime/To me or my swift passage, that I slide/O'er sixteen years and leave the growth untried/Of that wide gap'. And nothing of any note seems to happen in those sixteen years - Leontes' lost daughter Perdita grows up in Bohemia, but everything in Sicilia has remained exactly as it was, the king in mourning for his dead wife Hermione and his lost daughter, apparently in a state of grief for sixteen long years. It's an odd one alright.

3) the fourth act, the "pastoral idyll" one, is a bizarre tension-killer. For one of the longest single acts in Shakespeare (I believe it's 1142 lines, compared to the entirety of The Comedy of Errors which comes to 1786), very little happens. It's essentially a sequence of rustic japes, jollying about in the countryside with a set of clownish characters. A far cry from the mechanics of the plot and the tragic developments of Act III. Tonal shift doesn't quite cover it.

4) Hermione's return from the dead, sixteen years after actually dying, when a "statue" of her - apparently so lifelike that you'd think it was Hermione herself - suddenly becomes flesh and blood and steps down off a pedestal and forgives everyone she needs to forgive. And apparently the statue looks exactly the right age for Hermione as if "she liv'd now", which is pretty impressive foresight on behalf of the sculptor, given that there's no way he could possibly have known it would take sixteen years before reconciliation (there wasn't even a prophecy to that effect). Shakespeare has some pretty unusual plot mechanics, but I think this one takes the biscuit.

Let's start with that last one, because it tends to dominate discussion of The Winter's Tale. Clearly, there's a rational answer. It's fairly heavily signposted that no, of course this isn't a statue; it's just Hermione standing very very still, and she was never dead in the first place - Paulina, who "unveils" the statue, is the one who told us all she was dead back in the play's first half, so there's no particular reason to take her word for it, and as we hear from certain gossiping courtiers, Paulina has been busily visiting a certain remote house two or three times a week: a-ha, clearly where she's hidden Hermione away, waiting for the right moment to engineer a reconciliation with her jealous, now mourning, husband. Except that doesn't quite line up: for one thing, Leontes heads off in Act III to see the dead body of his wife and apparently nothing is amiss (maybe she just breathes very lightly? maybe he couldn't bear to look at her too closely, because he felt so guilty?); for another, Hermione's demise follows quick upon the news of Mamilius' (her son), so you'd think that if it were all a cover-up for the sake of a happy ending then it would turn out Mamilius wasn't dead after all either ... but no such revelation comes. The poor little tyke stays dead.

So a certain question mark hangs over the "reality" of the play; that much is clear, particularly from the statue ending - and the possibility is entertained that it's magic, but Leontes quickly states that, if so, it's a perfectly permissible magic rather than anything devilish ('if this be magic, let it be an art/Lawful as eating'). But the moment one has questioned this denouement, everything else becomes palpably implausible too -- there's the famous fact that Bohemia doesn't have a coastline, as Shakespeare states; there's the weirdly atemporal, ahistorical quality of the play, in that neither Bohemia nor Sicilia seem anything like either kingdom at any time in their history, culturally or politically or in any other way (why does the king of Bohemia have a Greek name, Polixenes?); there's the aforementioned improbability of Leontes' jealousy, etc., etc.

This unreality is actively embraced in the BBC's 1978 televised version, directed by Jane Howell, which is highly stylised and shot as filmed theatre (unlike Henry VIII in the same series). Bohemia and Sicilia are both eccentric spaces - the former a weirdly artificial countryside, the latter a strange, brightly-lit white void with the occasional whitish tree and imposing courtyard. Everything seems to resolve around much the same set, as a theatre production would. These do not look like real countries at all, but approximations at best, mythical folk memories, representations of representations - as indeed, many have suggested, they were, with critics arguing that Bohemia's seashore is meant to represent the "unreal" nature of the play, and that the rustic scenes in Act IV are part and parcel of Shakespeare's boyhood memories of folklore. The quaintness of Leontes not having changed at all in 16 years is another part of this fairytale tradition - think Narnia, where time moves differently.

Leontes' out-of-nowhere bursts of jealousy are reasonably well-played by Jeremy Kemp in this version, but I think the production missed a trick in not making Leontes more of a figure of fun. By which I do not mean that they should undersell the tragic seriousness of his actions - to do so unravels the whole play. But he should be more easily mockable, because he's essentially a man-child, an overgrown, jealous, possessive boy who wants things to be his and his alone. He should be a bit like Donald Trump: scary but pathetic. The more he's played as strikingly immature, the more convincing his psyche. If he's some sort of noble Othello-like figure, the ludicrous about-turns of his position become hard to reconcile with his apparent grandeur. But the point stands that a certain foppish decadence at the heart of the court is what sets in motion the tragic events of the first three acts, killing innocent young Mamilius.

And yet The Winter's Tale is not a tragedy, of course. It's a story of healing, reconciliation and resurrection, as best represented by the comic laughter of Act IV and the forgiveness of Act V, not to mention Hermione's miraculous return to life. We might think of winter as the bleakest season of the year, and indeed Mamilius says 'A sad tale's best for winter', but what was actually meant by 'a winter's tale' was something more like an old wives' tale - a jolly country jape. Perhaps we might imagine Shakespeare as fusing the two together: beginning with courtly pomp and import, seguing into the jolly gaiety of shepherds and swindlers, and then allowing the mirth of the latter to warm, as it were, the wintry qualities of the former.

That brings me onto my final point, which is that The Winter's Tale is surely the most class-conscious of all Shakespeare's plays. Not so at the beginning, granted, but the second half of the play is bursting with contrasts between commoners and gentry - primarily through the prism of the trickster-clown figure Autolycus, superbly played in this production by Rikki Fulton (who sounds a bit like the Ken Dodd of his day). Autolycus poses as a common-or-garden swindler at one point and a lordly gentleman at another, and Fulton is convincing and amusing as both; King Polixenes and Lord Camillo disguise themselves as elderly villagers to join in the rustic merrymaking; Florizel comes to the court of King Leontes presenting Perdita as the daughter of a Libyan king, only for her to be unmasked as a shepherd's daughter, only for her to be again unmasked as Leontes' daughter, and thus of noble birth. And there are (to modern eyes somewhat problematic) references to rank, blood and breeding throughout - 'the majesty of the/creature in resemblance of the mother, the affection/of nobleness which nature shows above her breeding' is how one lord describes Perdita. Florizel says of her that she is 'as forward of her breeding as/She is i' the rear our birth' (so he's a bit of a pompous ass, as well). The word 'gentleman' recurs in the play on fifty occasions.

Clothes, it seems, are a significant indicator of whether one is taken for a gentleman or not: Autolycus, 'a poor fellow', exchanges garments with Florizel, 'a gentleman', and is thereafter taken to be a lord (though he doesn't fully convince: as the shepherd who meets him comments, 'his garments are rich, but he wears/them not handsomely'). Later, the shepherd and his clownish son become gentlemen of Leontes' court, ennobled by their having brought up Perdita, and the swindler Autolycus ends up in thrall to them that were previously his inferiors. In other words, "assumed gentry" that seems a pretence or a sham ends up being subservient to the rustic jokers it tries to overrule. I cannot think of a greater instance of social mobility in all of Shakespeare. Sicilia seems a land of aristocrats, Bohemia a land of peasants (with one feudal monarch at the top); yet Bohemia is the healthy, jovial world which seems to revitalise the staid and decadent tyranny of Sicilia's court, just as a return to nature and the countryside in Cymbeline revives the monarchy. Hardly a Marxist revolution, mind, reviving the monarchy, even if it's fairly unambiguously presented in the play as "the same monarchy, but they're nicer now". 

No, there is no sense yet of an oppressed working class consciousness, but there's the very early seeds of it. Erich Auerbach's magnificent Mimesis, a comparative literature study from 1946, talks at some length of how, from the 16th to 18th centuries in particular, "common man" and "tragic seriousness" of realism seemed incompatible: commoners were only there for jovial interludes rather than anything more earnest or heartfelt or dignified, and this predominantly proves true in Shakespeare too (with Shylock as the interesting but only partial exception). This very notion even gets a nod here - 'if thou beest capable of things serious', Autolycus says to a shepherd when he thinks himself a superior man. There is a basic assumption that weighty matters cannot be understood by the mob, and though Shakespeare doesn't exactly give any of his rustics a "to be or not to be" speech, he does at least go some way to repudiating this notion. This alone makes The Winter's Tale of supreme interest.


  1. This is the production I remember watching in my A-level class an embarrassing number of years (decades) ago! I hated it at the time, but then I was quite new to Shakey and didn't know that every play wasn't like this (can you imagine). Autolycus is perhaps a bit Doctorish, you know, being littered under Mercury and that.

    Have you seen the version from the Animated Shakespeare series? It was very good - the conclusion walked the fine line between the mystical and realist interpretations well.

    1. Cheers for commenting!

      Yeah, I can imagine it not going down too well especially early in one's Shakespeare encounters! I don't think I would have liked this very much at school either. To be honest - and you might have picked this up frCom how little I *really* talked about this production - it wasn't so much this production that interested me (though it's interesting as an historical artefact: the bear is Pat Gorman, the music is Dudley Simpson, and Antigonus is, of course, Cyril 'White Guardian' Luckham), so much as the text itself. I've always been more of a literature student than a drama critic, and this was the first time I'd experienced this play - I'd never read it or seen it before! - so I wanted to talk about some of the things that leaped out of me in terms of how the text works.

      It's funny you say that about Autolycus. It hadn't specifically occurred to me that he's a Doctorish figure (though he is anarchic, and goes between different social spheres, which is pretty Odinic/mercurial/Doctorish) - but I had this incredible sense, the first time he came on screen and flashed a huge toothy grin, of "is that Tom Baker...?!" It wasn't, of course, but Rikki Fulton does remind me of him when he beams.

      And no, I haven't! In fact I don't think I've seen the Animated Shakespeare at all - but now I'm intrigued, I ought to try it out :)

      PS. Great Black Mirror episode rankings on your livejournal, btw.

  2. Thank you! :) Yes, the Animated Tales are all worth a look - a wide variety of animation styles chosen to suit the tone of each story. It's a shame they're only half an hour or so each. There's a DVD boxset with them all in.