The Winter’s Tale

Reading The Winter’s Tale this week reinforced my sense that Shakespeare, in his last years as a playwright, was worried about the power of a dramatist to influence people’s passions and make them believe falsehoods. In both The Winter’s Tale (1610-11) and The Tempest (1611-12), this power is seen as political and as morally ambiguous. The issues that concern Shakespeare remain alive today, although now the medium that is most problematic is film rather than live theater.

The Winter’s Tale has a fantastical plot. It’s a fairy-tale, involving an abandoned and miraculously rediscovered princess, a talking statue, and even a bear that appears without warning and devours a significant character. Whereas Shakespeare took most of his plots from purported works of history, this one was obviously a fiction–both because it was unbelievable and because the original authors were recent Englishmen. Only The Tempest belongs as clearly to the category of fiction.

One problem with telling a fictional story in an engaging way is that you thereby make people believe what is not true. This power has often made moralists uncomfortable. According to Plutarch, when the very first tragedies were performed, Solon attended and asked Thespis, the first playwright, “if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people.”

In Shakespeare’s time, Sir Phillip Sidney defended fiction on the ground that it was not the author’s intention to deceive. “The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false.” As author of Astrophel and Stella, Sidney was not a liar because he could count on his readers not to believe the plot. But in the midst of an effective theatrical performance, the audience will suspend disbelief. It is the playwright’s goal to make that happen.

Apart from the moral disadvantage of making people believe in lies, there’s also the practical problem of overcoming their skepticism and making a play “work.” Shakespeare was surely aware of the latter challenge. Throughout The Winter’s Tale, characters are incredulous about what they see. One important scene is not enacted but rather narrated by minor characters, one of whom says, “this news which is called true is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion.” There is even a comic subplot about a trickster, Autolycus, who sells fantastical tales to rustic fools:

    AUTOLYCUS: Here’s another ballad of a fish, that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday the four-score of April, forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this ballad against the hard hearts of maids: it was thought she was a woman and was turned into a cold

    fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her: the ballad is very pitiful and as true.

    DORCAS: Is it true too, think you?

    AUTOLYCUS: Five justices’ hands at it, and witnesses more than my pack will hold.

Shakespeare is aware that his plot is unbelievable, yet he also knows that an audience will be absorbed in his fairy tale. Even today, we care about the characters and hope for a happy ending as long as the curtain is up. That is a power akin to magic.

Some of the events of the play are sheer accidents. But several are contrived by characters who work behind the scenes. Paulina, above all, is an orchestrator of events. It is because of her art (not by magic or coincidence) that Hermione vanishes for 16 years and reappears at a dramatic moment. Paulina is probably responsible, too, for Hermione’s rather disturbing appearance to her husband as a ghost who prophesies his death (III.3.18ff). If Paulina provides lines for the real Hermione to recite to her spouse, then Paulina is a chillingly effective playwright. She is also a cause of Perdita’s banishment, since she brings the baby before the king as a kind of tableau that is supposed to draw his sympathy. That drama fails, but the final tableau that she stages (with the talking statue) is a success, both dramatically and morally.

Paulina is a teller of lies–for instance, she announces falsely that Hermione is dead–but she is also a very blunt teller of truth. For instance, although everyone else uses tactful euphemisms for death and murder, Paulina is starkly literal:

    PAULINA: True, too true, my lord:

    If, one by one, you wedded all the world,

    Or from the all that are took something good,

    To make a perfect woman, she you kill’d

    Would be unparallel’d.

    LEONTES: I think so. Kill’d!

    She I kill’d! I did so: but thou strikest me

    Sorely, to say I did; it is as bitter

    Upon thy tongue as in my thought: now, good now,

    Say so but seldom.

Paulina’s mixing of blunt fact with elaborately staged fiction may be problematic, in Shakespeare’s eyes. Perdita is a straightforwardly good character, and she disdains even carnations because they mix human art with nature (IV.4.82).

Paulina, like Prospero in The Tempest, is a playwright within the play. Both characters are on the side of right or justice. But both are disturbing figures who exploit minor characters, have forceful personalities, and go to elaborate lengths to plan cathartic dramas across long spans of time. I wonder whether Shakespeare considered his own art equally disturbing and wished to be more like the simple and straightforward daughters in these two plays.

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