Friday, April 07, 2006

The Winter's Tale and Friday poetry blogging

Last night was the final installment of my Winter's Tale discussion group series at the local library, and, as you'd guess, we talked about Act 5, which is probably my favorite piece of theater. It's hard to imagine the restraint it would take to write 5.2, with all the theatrical promise of the Shepherd's revelation, Perdita and Leontes' reunion, and Polixenes and Leontes' reconciliation, as reported action. But then there's 5.3, which packs such punch.

I'm really glad I applied and got to do this series, because it's been a really neat experience, and it's been just completely different to get to talk about this play with adults. I have to admit, I have no problem saying words like "vagina" and "penis" and "cuckold" in a class of mostly 18-25 or so year olds, but it felt very strange the first day, explaining innuendo and entendre to people of mostly my parents' generation.

I knew it would be okay, though, because after explaining the innuendos implicit in much of Act 1 on the first evening, when we got to the speech where Leontes talks about a wife being "sluiced" by another man (1.2.192, in Orgel's Oxford ed.), they all giggled. When I told them I thought I didn't actually need to explain that one, they laughed out loud. (We most of us really never grow up, do we?)

They gave me a really nice card, too, at the end. I definitly have the warm fuzzies!

So, here's the question of the day: Was Hermione dead, a statue made, and brought to life through some kind of magic? Or was Hermione alive the whole time, hidden by Paulina, and brought to light in this mode? Or something else happened?

(There's another question: can anyone think of a kid who survives a Shakespeare play? I can think of a couple infants--Perdita, Elizabeth, maybe Aaron's son [though not for long]--but kids seem to die in droves.)

My students generally go with the Hermione alive and in hiding for 15 years. The crowd last night were mostly with the alive and in hiding for 15 years idea, too.

Me? I go with the statue all the way.

There's certainly precedent for statues coming to life in the Pygmalion and Gallathea (as she's later called) story, right?

Also, I don't really think Paulina's one to lie, especially in Act 3, about Hermione's death. Leontes goes to view her body and talks about burying her with Mamillius, and I think he would have noticed if her corpse were missing. He says in 5.3 that he saw the body and thought it was dead.

Finally, there's just the magic of it. If she's just been hiding, it's Much Ado rehash, except not so fun or funny.

It seems to me that the romances take supernatural involvement very seriously: in The Winter's Tale, the Oracle's said to be miraculous and shown to be correct; in The Tempest, Prospero's magic is clearly real and potentially dangerous, Sycorax was powerful enough to trap Ariel in the Pine tree, and Ariel's definitely something powerful; in Pericles, the vision part is very magical; and in Cymbeline, Posthumous's dream is for real.

On the other hand, few comedies really take real magic seriously (A Midsummer Night's Dream being the prime exception), and are more likely to play with parlor tricks and hormones. I don't think The Winter's Tale ends with a parlor trick, I guess. I want it to end with something supernatural, special, magical.

The world I live in lacks magic. And I desperately want some magic, someone lost or dead returning.

But then there's Antigonus; Paulina finally learns for sure that her husband's dead, and how he died, and she reminds us of that when she says she'll lament for him until she's lost. If Paulina can do the statue trick with Hermione, why not with Antigonus?

And what's with Leontes' response? I mean, really, does he think Camillo's some sort of consolation prize for her?

I think what's happening there is that Shakespeare is having Leontes tie up lose ends, even if it's sort of inadequate, because as the king, the patriarch and all, he has the power to declare her mourning over, and it's over. Or if it's not, no one can acknowledge that, even Paulina. And we as an audience can go along with it, because it's the end of the play, and we're ready.

Still, Paulina does get to bring up her pain. It's like the return of the repressed, so it's not really completely suppressed, even by Leontes' marriage proposal (and no clue how Camillo feels about it, either).

It also handily returns Paulina to patriarchal control, and if she's really that danged magical, early modern theater audiences, or Shakespeare, might have felt better about that.

In honor of Friday poetry blogging, here's C.S. Lewis's poem on the matter (thanks to my colleague who shared this with me yesterday afternoon):

--C. S. Lewis
How soft it rains, how nourishingly soft and green
Has grown the dark humility of this low house
Where sunrise never enters, where I have not seen
The moon by night nor heard the footfall of a mouse,
Nor looked on any face but yours
Nor changed my posture in my place of rest
For fifteen years--oh how this quiet cures
My pain and sucks the burning from my breast.

It sucked out all the poison of my will and drew
All hot rebellion from me, all desire to break
The silence you commanded me. . . . Nothing to do,
Nothing to fear or wish for, not a choice to make,
Only to be; to hear no more
Cock-crowing duty calling me to rise,
But slowly thus to ripen laid in store
In this dim nursery near your watching eyes.

Pardon, great spirit, whose tall shape like a golden tower
Stands over me or seems upon slow wings to move,
Coloring with life my paleness, with returning power,
By sober ministrations of severest love;
Pardon, that when you brought me here,
Still drowned in bitter passion, drugged with life,
I did not know . . . pardon, I thought you were
Paulina, old Antigonus' young wife.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Does Jessica count as a survivor? ; )

  3. Anonymous9:09 PM

    I'm with you -- it's the statue all the way. This isn't a realistic world, after all, and the theatrical experience turns on our *seeing* the statue come alive. We believe it because we see it: that we're then told that she's "preserved herself to see the issue" isn't enough to derail that power.

    And in some ways we're not really meant to know which is which, since neither is plausible.