I went to see The Winter's Tale at People's Light & Theatre last weekend. Believe it or not, this was a first for me. Over the years, I've seen most of Shakespeare's plays, including some (like Troilus and Cressida) which aren't performed very often. Somehow, this one had evaded me.
People's Light & Theatre did as good a job as they could with it. They started with free hot cider and singing and dancing and various mummery outside, culminating in a mock-burning of a winter witch effigy which led the audience into the theater. They gussied up the play with slapstick, face paint, and even an accordion. So, all credit to them for doing what they could.
But, oh God, is that play a mess!
My best guess is that Shakespeare threw it together in a week. It has all the signs.
To begin, Shakespeare stole the plot from a prose romance by Robert Greene (best known for his posthumous pamphlet, A Groat's-Worth of Wit, containing a thinly-disguised slap at Will Himself:
"...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey."and, uncharacteristically, made only minor changes in the plot. The result doesn't make one want to rush out and read Greene's Pandosto. The engine for the plot, King Leontes's conviction that his virtuous wife Hermione is unfaithful, comes out of nowhere. There is no Iago to feed his jealous fantasies, no evidence worth considering, no reason for it to exist. After a great deal of angst, the queen is (apparently) killed, her infant daughter abandoned in a foreign country, and a beloved son abruptly dead, never to be mentioned again.
Arbitrary as the set-up is, the resolution is downright sloppy. Leontes's confrontation with the now-grown daughter he instantly recognizes as the spitting image of his wife (there is no similarity between the actresses, but let that go) and the reconciliation between her fiance, Prince Florizel, and his father who was understandably annoyed at his son planning to secretly marry a seeming peasant is related by servants gossiping to each other. Thus sparing Shakespeare the trouble of writing a scene which he may have felt would be difficult to render convincingly. Then the queen's friend Paulina takes the king and his daughter Perdita to see a statue of Queen Hermione. For no particular reason this causes Leontes to regret his murderous and irrational actions and so -- surprise! -- the statue comes to life, because apparently she wasn't murdered after all but has been hanging around for sixteen years, waiting for a good opportunity to get back together with her husband. Why she would want to and how Paulina arranged this are left unexplained as Shakespeare hurriedly sweeps the players off the state.
I'm guessing it was slung together in a week. It's also possible that Will drank heavily while writing it. If he didn't, the result certainly gave him something to drink about afterwards.
This is, incidentally, the play with the single most famous stage direction in the history of theater: Exeunt, pursued by a bear. That alone made it worthwhile for me.
And as always . . .
I'm going to be on the road again. This time, I'm off to Boskone. If you're there, say hello. I'm always happy to chat.
Above: There I am with a couple of mummers. Lovely ladies. Apparently, I've forgotten how to mug for the camera, though. I'll have to work on that.