Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born": On Seasons and Genres in The Winter's Tale

I found a flower in the snow
The last play I taught in my Shakespeare class this semester was, appropriately to the season,  The Winter's Tale. A strange play that few of my students had read or seen before, Winter's Tale spends its first three acts as a tragedy and then makes a surprising and bittersweet comeback by the end. The play begins with King Leontes's unfounded jealousy over an imagined relationship between his wife Hermione and best friend Polixenes. This jealousy serves to tear apart his family and friendship and country. His heir dies, his wife dies, and his newborn child, whom he wrongly believes to be illegitimate, is left out in the cold and bear-filled landscape to face the elements. Antigonus, the man sent to leave the baby, receives one of the most famous stage directions in history: Exit, pursued by a Bear. Perhaps Antigonus is punished by nature for abandoning the child, perhaps this is a lesson in conflicting loyalties (loyalty to the king's orders vs. loyalty to personal morality), or perhaps he is a scapegoat figure. In any case, the last we see of Antigonus he is running for his life. Offstage, he dies a terrible death (while the bear, presumably, gets a good meal). Also offstage, a young man observes the violent mauling, while onstage the man's father, a shepherd, finds the baby. And here, at the end of act three, we get the first moment of real hope in the play. The play has been filled with jealousy and despair and death and cold and darkness, but the baby lives. At this time of year, when days are short and temperatures are cold and it feels like spring may never return, a glimmer of hope can mean life. (I never really understood this when I lived in California, but I certainly get it in upstate New York.) To survive winter, we need something to look forward to. A celebration. A winter holiday. A candle or a sprig of holly. And, of course, the shortest day of the year means that each subsequent day will be longer. The play, tied to seasonal change, is rooted in such inevitable cycles. A tragedy or a comedy, the play suggests, is only a matter of where you stop the tale. And this play keeps going into spring.

The shepherd is amazed by his discovery of the helpless child, and his son is horrified by the violence he has witnessed, and their conversation brings despair and hope, death and life, into contact. It is no accident that it is the old man who finds the new life. The pivotal moment of the play is this one of life and death, beginnings and endings. At the same time as father saves a new life, the son can do nothing to stop a life from ending. Hope, it seems, comes at a price.

I won't go into lengthy summary or analysis (though I have much more to say on the play), nor will I give away the ending. Instead, I just want to say a few words about the play in terms of this holiday season. In keeping with my Christmas posts from the past two years (one on Gawain and the Green Knight and another on The Second Shepherd's Play), I want to think here about how The Winter's Tale might help us contemplate this time of year. It's a play in which hope comes just as things seem the most tragic. Death is everywhere and we are sure this must have been mislabeled as comedy or romance. Surely it's a tragedy. In Act 2, the doomed little heir Mamillius explains to his mother that "A sad tale's is best for winter" (II.i.25). And what we get is indeed a seasonally-appropriate sad tale. But then something miraculous happens. A baby is born; a baby lives. Time passes, and it is winter no longer.

One of the many things I love about this play is that it manages to bring together genres in the way that seasons come together, not as separate entities but as parts of a larger, interconnected cycle. Even the play's ending, which allows for resolution, reconciliation, and even joy, is not completely free from the sorrow of the first three acts. Time has passed, bodies once young are now wrinkled. The years cannot be regained anymore than the wrongs can be forgotten. People have died, people have been slandered and exiled. And though some wrongs can be righted, others never can. Leontes regrets and learns and gets some redemption, but none of this erases what he's done. His happy ending is truly happy, but also bittersweet. The characters value their happiness because they know how dearly-bought it is. Likewise, we can always do better and the world can always do better for us, but what we've done and experienced won't just go away. It makes us who we are. The baby grows into a woman, but this doesn't eliminate the fact that her father intended her death. Her name, Perdita, means "the lost one," indicating that if she's found she will nonetheless represent that which has been lost. It is in this lost one, this Perdita, that we find hope, and the hope is real, but that doesn't disconnect it from the circumstances that required hope in the first place. This looking forward as well as backward, this Janus posture fitting to the new year, helps us to see that joy and sorrow are not always distinct, nor do they need to be. As redemption is only possible after a fall, hope only means anything in times of despair. This holiday season, as we move to a new year, let's think on the fact that looking for joy and hope and goodness in the world need not mean that we've forgotten the bad and the sad. Instead, let us try to see the bigger picture, to learn from mistakes and to understand that sometimes our gain comes from another's loss. And as the happiness found at the end of Winter's Tale is more meaningful to the characters in that they've known such sorrow, perhaps we can remember that life has no simple happy endings. Happiness is tangled and complicated, and life very often continues even after marriages or deaths that would make such neat conclusions to comedies or tragedies. And even the times of year we associate with joy can be filled with loss as well. I shine with love for those around me, but I also ache with fresh grief for those I have lost. I know I am warm and safe inside, but others are stuck in the cold. Part of being in the spirit of the season, I think, is in realizing what it means to celebrate light in the middle of the winter. In the spirit of The Winter's Tale, then, I wish for more joy and compassion for you all this holiday season. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

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