Shakespearing #36 by David Foley
The Winter’s Tale
The second most extraordinary moment in The Winter’s Tale is Act V, Scene ii, the penultimate scene of the play. We’ve just been brought to a place of high, incipient drama. The King of Bohemia has arrived offstage, exposing Florizel’s plan to marry a shepherd’s daughter against his father’s wishes. But the shepherd who knows the secret of Perdita’s birth is also in the wings. In another minute, all will be revealed. And it is. Secondhand. We skip to the next scene, and a trio of gentlemen describes Leontes’ joyful and amazed recovery of his daughter, even though one of them insists we have “lost a sight which was to be seen, not spoken of.”
It’s one of those moments when you feel thrillingly (perhaps deceptively) close to Shakespeare as dramatist. In this play, presumably written just after Cymbeline, Shakespeare foregoes the extended recognition scene. We won’t have character after character come forward and reveal his piece of the tale. Either he wasn’t happy with the way that scene worked in Cymbeline, or he wanted to try something new and daring, or he knew that the major revelation of the play, the resurrection of Hermione, needed to be set apart. One way to do that is psychological. We’re being frustrated, denied the expected release of emotion, and that emotion will be invested where it matters, in the mysterious reappearance of Hermione.
Here, too, we’ll be frustrated. We won’t be told how Leontes was persuaded that Hermione was dead, or how she lived in seclusion all these years, and Hermione’s only speech, seven scant lines, will be addressed to her daughter, not her husband. Joy will be tempered by mystery and sorrow. Irrecoverable time has passed, as Leontes makes clear when, still believing he’s looking at a statue, he says, “Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing/So aged as this seems.” Who Hermione is now, what she has undergone, what has happened to the forceful, charming, loving woman we met earlier in the play, all this is denied us, and it becomes part of the deep redeeming melancholy of the scene. As one of the gentlemen says in the earlier scene, we are not sure if we’ve “heard of a world ransom’d, or one destroyed.”
The most extraordinary moment in The Winter’s Tale is the onset of Leontes’ jealousy. It happens in an instant, with what Leontes himself calls a “tremor cordis,” a tremor of the heart. There’s no Iago to provide an external impetus for it. It’s an “affection,” which the Riverside note defines as “a sudden, unexplained change in mind and body.” This is Shakespeare’s psychology at its most terrifying, our minds at the mercy of our bodies, we at the mercy of our minds, which swerve dangerously out of our control. At the height of his jealousy and rage, Leontes is horrifying. He tells Antigonus to take Hermione’s baby and burn it, or “the bastard brains with these my proper hands/Shall I dash out.” And then just as suddenly it ends, but not before the world’s destroyed. So destroyed that Hermione will fake her death and disappear for sixteen years even as Leontes expresses his determination to “new woo my queen.”
It’s a strange position to put women in, to redeem the broken world. It’s not the only way women appear in Shakespeare. There are ambitious cutthroats, virtuous victims, and venally comic bawds. But it’s surprising how often women oppose a grounded sense of reality to the madness around them. When her own reality is not enough for Leontes, Hermione insists on the reality of the cost.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.