Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Tiny Bit of Character

Sometimes, heck, often, Shakespeare blows me away. Take this little moment from The Winter's Tale. The information from the Oracle has just been delivered, and Leontes, "knowing" that he still has a son and heir, has scoffed and called it false. And then a servant comes in:

O sir, I shall be hated to report it!
The prince your son, with mere conceit and fear
Of the queen's speed, is gone.

How! gone!

Is dead.

I've never had to give anyone news that their loved one is dead, though I've had the news delivered to me a couple times. One of those times, because the death was totally unexpected, I didn't "get it" at first, even though the paramedic who was talking was absolutely clear and honest. It was like, for a moment, I wanted to say, no, there's a mistake, and then I realized there wasn't.

I imagine that it's difficult to give the news. I imagine that it's tempting to say someone is "gone" in hopes of making the news less jarring, less harsh.

The servant here has to know that he's going to give Leontes horrible news, and also has to know that Leontes has, for no reason that makes any sense to the other characters in the play, accused his wife of treason. It's not hard to understand that this servant has to be worried, and so, for just an instant, he isn't quite clear, and Leontes doesn't understand. But then the servant clarifies, and Leontes does understand, and once he understands, the world of the play changes.

Shakespeare could have written a perfectly good play with "dead" instead of "gone" in the earlier speech, with Leontes going on with his recognition. No one would have criticized the moment.

But as it is, those moments of hesitance and then of misrecognition or confusion reveal a depth of character for the servant. They also reveal just how profound the world change is for Leontes and everyone else on stage with Mamillius's death.

If I could get, in a whole slew of words, what Shakespeare gets here with a few, I would be one happy being.

1 comment:

  1. Oh God, I know. I have these moments all the time when I think "how? How did he fit so many layers of meaning and life experience into so few words?" It's simply amazing. Sometimes I just want to shout from the rooftops how much I love Shakespeare. I don't suppose that would be very professional of me... :) But have you seen that commercial where the guy starts shouting in public, "I love this woman!! I LOVE this woman!!" and then he asks her to marry him? Yeah, I'd totally be that guy -- but about Shakespeare.