The Winter’s Tale revisited

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Michael Hayden (Leontes), Michelle O’Neill (Hermione), Emily Gunyou Halaas, Christina Baldwin, Suzanne Warmanen and Ansa Akyea in the Guthrie Theater production of William Shakespeare’s The WINTER’S TALE, directed by Jonathan Munby.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

A while back I posted reviews for Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” which runs at the Guthrie Theater through March 27. The show has been commended for its execution of what is commonly known as one of the Bard’s “problem plays.”

While the critics gave the production high marks, I didn’t see much – if any – critical treatment of “the problem.” That is, in “The Winter’s Tale” we are presented with neither an outright comedy nor a complete tragedy. Instead, we are left unsettled and unsure by what appears to be an overly simplistic ending to a highly complex situation.

The original premise of the play – the terrible acts committed by a jealous husband – are not unfamiliar to Shakespeare fans. In “Othello,” the Moor suffocates his own wife Desdamona, convinced that she has betrayed him. But Othello’s jealousy was fueled and fanned by the evil Iago, and cannot be blamed on Othello alone.

In “The Winter’s Tale,” Leontes is his own worst enemy, and when we meet him he has already convinced himself that his wife Hermione is having an affair with his childhood friend:

Is whispering nothing?

Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?

Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career

Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible

Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?

Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?

Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes

Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,

That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?

Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;

The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;

My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,

If this be nothing.

– Leontes

Leontes, despite all the protestations of his counsels, condemns his pregnant wife to prison where she – we believe – dies, and has her newborn baby girl sent to a far-off land to be abandoned to fate. An entire ship’s crew is killed at sea after carrying out Leontes orders, and his own young son dies for wont of his mother’s care.

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Devon Solwold (Mamillius), Michael Hayden (Leontes), Bill McCallum (Polixenes) and Michelle O’Neill (Hermione) in the Guthrie Theater production of William Shakespeare’s The WINTER’S TALE, directed by Jonathan Munby.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Sounds like a tragedy, doesn’t it? But fast-forward 16 years to the end. The baby girl Perdita survives and thrives, falling in love with the son of Leontes same childhood friend, Polixenes. They, by a twist of fate, end up returning to her home Sicilia, and she is reunited with her father. Leontes has been penitent all this time for his crimes of passion, and is delighted to have found his long-lost daughter.

Here’s where it gets unsettling for me. Paulina, a counsel to Leontes (who lost her own husband due to Leontes’ rage), reveals that she has commissioned a statue of his dead wife Hermione, and would the family care to see it now that it’s complete?

If you can behold it,

I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend

And take you by the hand; but then you’ll think–

Which I protest against–I am assisted

By wicked powers.

…It is required

You do awake your faith. Then all stand still;

On: those that think it is unlawful business

I am about, let them depart.

Music, awake her; strike!

– Paulina

Like magic, Hermione steps down from her pedastal as beautiful as the day Leontes first accused her of disloyalty. She embraces her husband and greets her daughter thus:

…thou shalt hear that I,

Knowing by Paulina that the oracle

Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved

Myself to see the issue.

Soon after the family exits the stage, with all having been put right. Or has it?

Let’s take a look at what’s happened. Leontes has suffered for his sins 16 years, and so he is rewarded for his time with a fresh start with his beloved wife. But does anyone ever really get a fresh start? Can Hermione truly forgive her husband for his actions which led to her son’s death and the separation of her and her daughter? In fact, if she really chose to be “preserved,” who’s to say she didn’t willfully abandon her own son to his death as well – is she not at least in part culpable? (see comments)

I found myself upset with the ending, but not just because of the characters’ actions; I was also disturbed by my own reaction. Leontes did not – to my mind – deserve to be reunited with his wife; too many people’s lives had been lost. But then, who am I to judge?

To my mind “The Winter’s Tale” is a problem play because it leaves us to wrestle with some of our own problems, and to ask some soul-searching questions. Namely, when has a person paid enough for their crimes? When can we stop judging someone for their past mistakes, and instead consider them by their present actions? And what does it take to make us willing to forgive?

“The Winter’s Tale” runs through March 27 at the Guthrie Theater.

  • Jen Vanek

    Wonderful, Marianne! Our family is going to the Shakespeare Classic day at the Guthrie. Thanks for the prompt for an interesting pre-viewing discussion.

  • Carla Steen

    Nice questions, Marianne. But a clarification: Hermione does not wilfully abandon Mamillius. Leontes separates them by jailing Hermione. Word of Mamillius’ death reaches Hermione during her trial, causing her to faint. The choice to “preserve” herself happens AFTER Mamillius’ death.

  • Marianne Combs

    Yikes – good point, Carla! I got the timeline of events mixed up in my memory. Alright so Hermione is completely innocent. I’ll revise accordingly.