There’s a lot of magic in Shakespeare: ghosts in Julius Caesar and Hamlet, witches in Macbeth, elemental spirits and wizards in The Tempest, and fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, just to name some obvious ones. But the magic of The Winter’s Tale—if it even is magic—is of a whole different variety.
When I began writing my novel He Drank, and Saw the Spider, my initial spark of an idea was to drop my hero, Eddie LaCrosse, in place of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. The mystery (the LaCrosse novels are all mysteries) would center around the nature of the oddly regal young shepherd’s daughter.
What I discovered as I re-read the play was that any production (or, in the case of my novel, any adaptation) of this play has to make some serious decisions about just what the hell happens in it. This is no simple love story, or revenge tale. This one is just plain nuts.
For those who haven’t read or seen it (it’s infrequently performed, for reasons that will become clear), the plot begins in Sicilia. King Leontes is convinced that his wife, Hermione, is cheating with his best friend Polixines, the king of Bohemia. Polixenes flees for home, and Leontes puts the very pregnant Hermione on trial. Despite no evidence, and with even the testimony of the Oracle at Delphi telling him he’s wrong, Leontes convicts her. She gives birth in prison, and Leontes orders his newborn daughter abandoned in the woods, so she’ll die without him actually killing her. Yet when the queen also dies, along with his son and heir, Leontes snaps out of his jealous rage, suddenly filled with regret at what he’s done.
And then… gear shift! It’s sixteen years later! A bunch of country folk in Bohemia are having a sheep-shearing festival. (Which includes a guy selling dildos. Yes, those sorts of dildos.) The abandoned baby girl has been raised by a rich sheep farmer and has fallen in love with King Polixines’ son, Florizel (who, despite that goofy-ass name, is a truly good, stand-up guy). In Shakespeare’s longest single scene (it runs about 45 minutes in performance), everything is set for the unwitting princess to return to Sicilia and confront the still-mourning King Leontes, her father.
Got all that?
The first three acts are full-bore Shakespearean tragedy, with dead children, a dead queen, an unrelenting villain (who ultimately totally repents), and that famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Who eats the guy, by the way. And then, wham, we’re in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “rude mechanicals” territory, with goofy yokels and a repurposed Falstaffian royal-attendant-turned-thief who’s suddenly our main character.
And it gets weirder. At the end, Paulina, once the queen’s handmaiden, reveals that she’s commissioned a statue of the queen. Only this “statue” has been carved to resemble what the queen would look like now, if she hadn’t died sixteen years ago. And then the statue comes to life, and Leontes is reunited with both his wife and daughter (no reprieve for his dead son, though). It’s a happy ending… right?
When considering a production of this play, you have to decide: Does the statue really come to life? Or is it all an elaborate trick played by Paulina and the queen, who never really died but has been hiding out for sixteen years?
There’s no obvious answer. It’s not like either option makes any real sense. But the whole play hinges on this choice, more so than even deciding whether or not Hamlet is really mad.
I’ve seen two productions of this play (three, if you count the rather excellent claymation abridgment from the BBC). I’ve read about several others. I even went so far as to contact theatrical directors and actors who had done productions and asked them what they thought. There’s no consensus; it’s such a non-sequitor moment that, no matter how you play it, it never quite fits. If it’s magic, then it’s the only magic in the show, unless you count the entirely unrelated (and offstage) Delphic Oracle. If it’s not, then you’re left with characters behaving in a way that, quite frankly, makes no sense, either in Elizabethan drama or the real world.
And that’s the glorious insanity that makes The Winter’s Tale so fascinating. It never quite comes together, and yet there’s always the sense that, if you just stare at it a little longer, read it one more time, you’ll find that missing key. It’s considered a “problem” play, and if so, it’s a problem like pi: We know it’s there, we know it works, but we can never quite get to the end of it so we can comprehend it all.
Perhaps that, then, is its greatest magic.
Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, Wake of the Bloody Angel, and He Drank, and Saw the Spider), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing).