by Aaron Netsky, OnStage Columnist In my continuing education in the plays of William Shakespeare not assigned to me by high school, college, or Broadway, I decided the winter’s heart would be a good time to read The Winter’s Tale. My only real clue about the content going in was the fact that it is listed with the romances in my “complete Shakespeare” volume. Other than that, I knew I had to forget having seen the recent movie, Winter’s Tale, which is based on a novel by Mark Helprin, and having read the poem A Winter’s Tale, by D. H. Lawrence. I had no positive impressions, because this is one of the majority of Shakespeare’s works that does not get much attention, and so I’ve had no real exposure to it (I could have tried to grab tickets to the Shakespeare in the Park production last summer, but I’m not that much of an early bird).
Part of the lack of attention paid to this play has been attributed to its half-and-half nature. It starts with paranoia, jealousy, and rage right out of Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear, and ends with celebrations and deceptions not unlike those in Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice. Leontes, the King of Sicilia, is unable to persuade his long time friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, to extend his visit, but when Leontes’s queen, Hermione, manages the feat, Leontes wonders why, and his mind hops, skips, and jumps to the worst conclusions. This sets the first half of the plot in motion, and the situation rapidly descends into murderous madness, culminating in a scene of child sacrifice nearly out of The Bible, right down to Shakespeare’s famous bear exit that echoes “2 Kings 2:24.”
Then, the revels begin, as young people fall in love beyond the watchful eye of their parents, and mischievous rogues play tricks on nearly everyone. The shift in tone is not abrupt, and might even be considered pretty modern, especially among Shakespeare’s plays. A storm approaches and a storm departs, and then time itself steps onto the stage to explain that the lapse between acts III and IV actually lasted sixteen years. The strangest part of the play is the scene in which the reuniting and reconciliation of parents and children is discussed by outsiders instead of being played out by the characters themselves. Also, I don’t recall the involvement of actual children in other of Shakespeare’s works, but I’m no expert, and, as mentioned, I haven’t read nearly all of them, mostly the best known.
In my adventures outside of the canon within the canon, I’ve found some fascinating stuff, reminding me again and again that there is always more to any given artist than his most famous works. I have also found that, as with many things, practice makes, well, not perfect, but better. The first Shakespearean play I ever read wasHenry the somethingth, I don’t even remember which one. I was in eighth grade, and when exam time came, I was useless. In the years since, I’ve mostly had classroom discussion to guide me through his plays, but that hasn’t been an option for years now. And yet, I had very little trouble following the action of The Winter’s Tale, despite the lush swirl of language that is Shakespeare’s stock-in-trade, because I’ve been practicing. His work is intimidating, but the only way to read it is to read it (and, if you’re an actor, read it out loud). And reading beyond the five or six plays that have the most cultural cachet will prepare you in the event that someone gets creative in their selection of a Shakespearean play to put on, however you might want to be involved.