What I love about this play: OMG, Winter’s Tale! This is another one of those plays that tends to reduce me to incoherent squealing: Polixenes talking of those lost days of boyhood innocence, and Leontes losing his sanity in knotty and incoherent language (“Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one”), and Paulina being COMPLETELY AWESOME. (There are not enough capital letters in the world for Paulina.) Also, that poignant moment between Hermione and her little son, which is so quiet and ordinary and makes me wonder if Shakespeare might be drawing on his own childhood memories – for surely, he must have been the sort of child who made up stories.
Hermione: Pray you, sit by us,
And tell ‘s a tale.
Mamillius: Merry or sad shall ’t be?
Hermione: As merry as you will.
Mamillius: A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
Hermione: Let’s have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down: come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you’re powerful at it.
Mamillius: There was a man –
Hermione: Nay, come, sit down; then on.
Mamillius: Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly;
Yon crickets shall not hear it.
The story is never finished, and poor Mamillius – trying to get a grip on the monsters of the world, as kids do, by putting them in a story – is one of the people who actually die in this play. (While WT is, like all of the romances, steeped in fairy-tale logic and bizarrely plotted, this world feels a little more real to me than the one in Pericles or The Tempest. Not all losses will be restored, and wrongdoing and penitence and expiation are all weighty matters. It feels like a story about real, flesh-and-blood people who happen to find themselves in the middle of a lot of Weird Shit involving sudden accesses of jealousy, oracles, and the occasional ursus ex machina.)
I feel much the same way about the Bohemia scenes. Sure, it’s a magical green world where all kinds of unexpected coincidences occur and problems get worked out, but there are also pickpockets and shopping lists and shepherd girls buying ballads about women turned into fish and speculating breathlessly about whether they’re true. It feels real and human. (Also, I adore the way Perdita is all of the heroines of the tragedies rewritten – in almost everything she says or does, there’s an echo of Juliet or Ophelia or Cordelia – although she herself is unconscious of this fact. But we know. Grace and remembrance be to us, the audience.)
And the last scene is so powerful that I don’t think anything I say can do it justice, but I love the way it preserves the sense of wonder and mystery; there are no long explication scenes, like the ones in the earlier comedies, only questions and awe: “Music, awake her; strike! / ‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach; / Strike all that look upon with marvel.”
Favorite memory: This was the first play I ever saw at the Globe, on my first-ever trip to London. Being twenty-one and an English major and attracted to daft theories involving powerful and dangerous women, I spent most of the plane ride home sketching out a theory that Hermione was, in fact, dead for sixteen years and Paulina revived her through not-so-lawful magic. (I think I may have actually argued this in a paper the next semester; fortunately, it was a Women’s Studies class rather than English, so my utter lack of textual evidence didn’t stand out as much as it might.)
Gratuitous DVD plug: Live version by the RSC. So, so good, especially Autolycus.