Why This Play?:
Shakespeare in the Park! One of my favorite times of year, and I am so pleased that SF Shakespeare Festival decided to go the slightly untraditional route with this random romance. I took my daughter for the second year. As I’ve been working on this project for the past year, my kids have definitely picked up some things along the way. They play a warped version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the 3 year old insists on being Bottom because he thinks the name is funny). They recognize the Bard’s various portraits thanks to my paraphernalia. My oldest enjoys the Bruce Coville illustrated Shakespeare tales for children, and she’s memorized various lines. All of this makes my little literary heart go pitter-patter. But then I feel a jolt of guilt – are my children only into this because they’re trying to please me?
There are so many aspects of The Winter’s Tale that receive rightful attention: themes of faith, the passage of time, and fear and jealousy being blinding emotions. Upon this reading I was really taken with Mamillius, and Leontes’s shaky self-assurance that his small son is his very image. I was also struck by Polixenes and his need to bend Florizel to his will. Perdita, the adopted child, is caught in limbo – perceived to be too good for her foster family but unknowing of her true familial duty. These poor kids have a lot of expectations laid on their shoulders. In this story, parents attempt to redeem themselves through their children…which made wonder: do I do the same with mine?
So What Happens?:
King Leontes governs the kingdom of Sicilia, and he’s been having a wonderful few months showing it off to his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. In fact, he wishes the good times would never end! But Polixenes insists he has to return to his own kingdom and family, and he won’t be dissuaded. Leontes enlists his gracious (and very pregnant) queen, Hermione, to convince their guest to stay longer. She teasingly gives a royal order for Polixenes to stay another week, and he relents. This casts an incredibly quick and dark cloud over Leontes. He’s wondering why his friend refused him but gave in so easily to his wife. I mean, the last time she was that charmingly convincing was when she told Leontes she’d love him forever…
Hermione takes Polixenes’s hand to go chat for a bit in a corner, and Leontes is bitten by the green-eyed monster (to borrow from earlier Shakespeare works!). Their young son, Mamillius, comes in and tries to play with his father, but Leontes is too busy shooting daggers for eyes at his friend and wife. Everything they do in their innocent conversation convinces him of treachery. Later on, Leontes confides his suspicions to his buddy Camillo. Oh, and would Camillo mind doing him a solid and poisoning Polixenes? Camillo is pretty dubious at the notion of the queen’s “infidelity” – he says he’ll off Polixenes if the king forgives Hermione. But when he’s left alone with Polixenes, Camillo feels pretty badly. Polixenes wants to know why Leontes is acting so strangely, and Camillo spills his guts about the plot and the king’s suspicions. Polixenes is appalled and proclaims his innocence. Camillo comes up with a hasty plan to sneak Polixenes out of Sicilia so he can return safely to Bohemia, on the condition that Camillo goes along to serve him. Neither of them stops to consider what this plan will mean for the equally innocent Hermione.
Mamillius teases some of Hermione’s ladies in waiting, then requests that his mother cuddle up with him for a bit. He wants to tell her a story: “A sad tale’s best for winter.” While they are cozy together, Leontes bursts in with the fresh knowledge that Polixenes and Camillo have run off. This action confirms his suspicions, and he flies into a rage. He drags Mamillius from Hermione, ordering servants to keep the boy from her entirely. The queen wonders if this is a joke, and Leontes heatedly accuses her of an affair with Polixenes. She denies it, and gently attests that he will be sorry when he learns the truth (important to note that Hermione speaks with integrity here, not in any sort of accusatory manner). Leontes orders her imprisoned, and she takes some ladies to assist her with her pregnancy. A few lords, including one named Antigonus, try to convince him to be rational, and Leontes reveals that he’s sent messengers to ask the Delphic oracle about accusation to see if it’s true.
Antigonus’s wife, Paulina, happens to be Hermione’s closest friend and a badass lady who takes crap from no one, not even a king. She knows the queen is innocent. She visits the prison after Hermione gives birth to a daughter, hoping that she can intervene and set things right. She takes the newborn to Leontes in attempt to soften his heart at the sight of such innocence. Leontes is distraught – Mamillius is very sick. The new baby has the opposite effect Paulina intended; Leontes is more firmly convinced that the child is not his. Brave Paulina denounces the king, saying his views on the queen are tyrannous. Antigonus has been watching the whole ordeal, and Leontes tells him to get his woman in check. Antigonus denies supporting Paulina’s view, but he does agree that the child should be spared. Leontes orders Antigonus to take the baby to a remote place to be left utterly defenseless. As they set off on a journey, messengers (hoping to bring happy news to the king), return with the sealed oracle from Delphus.
Leontes gathers a court and summons Hermione from prison to hear his official accusation of his wife’s adultery. She gives a moving speech about her innocence (as well as proclaiming Camillo’s and Polixenes’s – she’s looking out for the men who left her to fend for herself), claiming she was doing her duty to love Polixenes as the Leontes’s own honored friend – even at his own behest. Leontes can’t believe she won’t admit to her affair and threatens her with death. Hermione strongly asserts that she’s not afraid of death. Her son and baby daughter have been torn from her, she’s lost her husband’s esteem, and her honor has been besmirched. What more does she have to fear or lose? She’s relieved that the oracle is here since it has to prove her truthful innocence.
Bring on the oracle! Leontes orders sealed letter to be open and read. It proclaims that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, that Camillo is a loyal subject, that the baby princess is Leontes’s child, and that Leontes is a tyrant who won’t have an heir until that “which is lost be…found.” Praise Apollo! Hermione and the court are relieved…but Leontes isn’t having it. His jealousy has him so convinced that he declares the oracle is false. A servant hastily enters to reveal horrifying news: prince Mamillius has died. Hermione faints and is led off by her ladies, while Leontes quickly realizes that he’s been wrong all along and that Apollo just might be punishing him for it. Paulina returns and announces that Hermione has died from grief. She rages at the king. Overcome, Leontes is truly repentant. Seeing this, Paulina gives him a break and reins herself in. The king promises to mourn for his lost family all the days of his life.
So what’s up with the princess baby, anyway? Well, she’s just landed on the shores of Bohemia with Antigonus. And there’s a freaky storm on the way. He orders the ship captain to get ready to sail, and he settles the baby on the ground in the forest (along with a box of stuff for her). He has named her Perdita (“little lost one”). He has dreamed that Hermione has also died and that she warned him that he would never see his own wife again. While still convinced that Perdita is Polixenes’s child, he heart breaks to carry out his orders to abandon her. And as he sets off for the ship, A BEAR EMERGES OUT OF NOWHERE AND CHASES HIM OFF. [This is basically the queen mum of all literary non-sequiturs.] An old shepherd wanders the forest, searching for a couple of lost sheep, when he stumbles on Perdita. He wonders over her, when his son Clown arrives in shock over what he’s just witnessed: a ship wrecking in the storm just off the coast (killing all on board), and an old man being eaten by a bear in the forest. They take a moment to mourn those lost souls, then are amazed to find that the baby is accompanied by a box of gold and royal tokens. They opt to adopt the child, and to bury what’s left of Antigonus. This is where part one (the tragedy) gives way to the wholly different part two (the comedy).
Time personified pops in to say hello to the audience/reader. He/she/they inform us that 16 years have passed (the longest acknowledged time gap in a Shakespeare play! This also means the Shepherd is now 83 years old – the oldest Shakespearean character!). Leontes is still in mourning back in Sicilia, as he promised. Over in Bohemia, Perdita has been raised by the Shepherd, and she is currently involved with Florizel – who just happens to be Polixenes’s son and a prince to boot. The scene is set!
King Polixenes and Camillo (now his servant) discuss a possible return to Sicilia. Seems that Camillo is now jonesing to get back to his motherland. Plus he’s heard that Leontes is sorrowful and no longer a raging lunatic, so it should be pretty safe to venture back. Polixenes wishes he would stay – and by the by, has Camillo seen prince Florizel around lately? Camillo says word on the street is that he’s off wooing a common girl. Polixenes wants to put a stop to such un-royal nonsense right away, so they set off to the fields in disguise to go find him. On the roads in the surrounding forest, a peddler named Autolycus is singing about his carefree life (reminding me SO MUCH of “The World Owes Me a Living” from old The Grasshopper & the Ants cartoon). He bumps into Clown, who’s on his way to go buy some supplies for the shearing day feast. Autolycus smoothly picks Clown’s pockets and hears tell of the feast, where he determines he’ll go con over some other poor suckers.
At the feast, Perdita is dressed as the goddess of flowers and is tasked with presiding over the feast as hostess. Her boyfriend Florizel is dressed as a peasant, but Perdita’s family and friends know him as “Doricles” rather than their prince. Perdita does know his true identity, and she is afraid that one day they will be parted for their class differences.
The party commences, and the disguised Polixenes and Camillo show up. Perdita welcomes them with a gift of flowers. She surprises the king with her innate grace and noble good manners. Florizel admires her queenly demeanor (hoping for a future where he can make it so), so Polixenes watches guardedly. The lovers and other partygoers dance. The king watches with the Shepherd, quizzing him about “Doricles’s” love for Perdita. Autolycus ambles into the party with a haul of trinkets to sell. The Clown flirts with a couple of ladies and there’s some fun as they banter over who he’ll present some song sheets from Autolycus’s stash. The merriment grows to such a pitch that Florizel asks the Shepherd to go ahead and marry him to Perdita right then and there. Polixenes jumps in to remind “Doricles” that he should probably inform his father of his marriage. Florizel brushes the matter off as unimportant. Enraged, Polixenes doffs his disguise. He denounces Perdita and her family and threatens to disinherit Florizel if they go through with the marriage. He storms back to the castle, expecting his son to follow soon behind.
Camillo stays behind to comfort the lovers. At first, Camillo tries to convince an unyielding Florizel to make peace with papa. Perdita laments that they knew this could possibly happen. But Florizel determines to renounce his royal duty so they can elope somewhere far away – he’s got a ship at the ready they can use. Camillo perks up at this and devises a quick plan. He convinces the couple to take their boat to Sicilia to appeal to King Leontes. It’s a win-win: the lovers can be married there, and Camillo can finally return to his motherland. The story they devise is that Prince Florizel is going on a peace mission on behalf of his father. Everyone’s on board – literally, as they embark on a ship to head to Bohemia (once they engage in some talk about how they’ll obtain proper clothes and such and exchange garments with Autolycus for travel disguises or some such nonsense). After they leave, the Shepherd and the Clown worry about how they’ll be implicated and blamed for the loss of the prince. Clown convinces his dad to confess to the king that Perdita was a foundling. They set off to the palace with her jewelry birthright when they run into Autolycus. He’s riding high from all the money he’s made at the party. With a silly disguise and some affected pomp, he convinces them that he’s a lord who will act as their noble intermediary with the irate king if they pay him. With that con completed, he runs off to hop on Florizel’s boat.
So now we’re back in Sicilia – let’s check in with Leontes. He’s spent the past 16 years repenting for his sins and mourning his lost family. Dion and Cleomenes tell him that this has gone on long enough; it’s time for him to marry again so he can produce some heirs. Paulina has become Leontes’s most trusted friend over the years. She pipes in to say that no woman will ever hold a candle to Hermione. Leontes agrees and even goes so far as to say that he will never remarry unless Paulina gives the ok. A gentleman brings word that royal visitors from Bohemia have arrived! Leontes gets all in a tizzy (understandably so) at the thought of seeing Polixenes again. But it’s only Florizel, with Perdita in tow, claiming that they are there to make peace on behalf of Bohemia. But wait! There’s more! Further news comes that Polixenes is hot on their tale and has arrived in Sicilia. Leontes quickly figures out that the lovers aren’t exactly married yet. They confess that Polixenes isn’t stoked about the union. They all head off to meet Polixenes head on (he’s brought the Shepherd and Clown with him!).
In a (seemingly) strange dramatic choice, everyone realizes Perdita’s true identity as lost princess of Sicilia COMPLETELY OFFSTAGE. We hear about it through noblemen relaying the story to other town folk. A secondhand tale of reconciliation, repentance, and forgiveness between two kings, long-lost family members, and a father finally blessing his son’s choice of spouse (you know, now that Perdita’s proven to be acceptable royalty). Turns out, old Shakespeare knew what he was doing – he’s kept this scene off the stage so he can really turn up the drama for what’s to come. The town folk talk about how Paulina revealed that she has a statue of Hermione over at her house. Even pining Leontes wants to see it, as does the daughter who never met her mother.
So now everyone convenes at Paulina’s. She warns them that the statue is utterly life-like before revealing it. Leontes is amazed…especially at the fact that the statue actually looks about 16 years older than his wife did when she died. Paulina has to stop him from trying to kiss it, or Perdita from grabbing his hand. She reminds them that she’s not an evil witch, but that she’s about to perform some sorcery. Paulina commands the statue to decend – and Hermione comes to life!! She instantly embraces an overcome Leontes; all is forgiven. Hermione’s then introduced to her daughter, and she speaks her love and joy. Paulina rejoices in the happily reunited royal family and then remembers her beloved husband, Antigonus. In a way of making amends, Leontes rewards his two most faithful servants, Paulina and Camillo, with each other’s hand in marriage.
Incidentally, I am the kid in this video if I ever saw a Hermione statue come to life.
Check This Out:
Ever wondered what David Tennant has to say about the most famous stage direction of all time? Well, take a listen here!
More Hogarth Shakespeare! The first novel for that imprint was The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson. It’s her modernized take on The Winter’s Tale, and it’s pretty good. I imagine the hardest part of updating the romances is trying to retain the literal magic/wonder of the original play (exactly what the awful Cymbline film of 2014 wrongfully omitted). Winterson’s writing is the vehicle (more than the plot) than retains the magic here, weaving us in and out of different character’s consciousness and through time. The novel as a whole feels very dream-like, and the characters are well-drawn representations. She does a deeper-dive into the Leontes/Polixenes friendship too, which is fascinating. My only quibble is that Pauline’s (Paulina’s update, duh) Judaism is weirdly harped on constantly, to the point of bad jokes and border-line stereotyping.
I took my daughter back to Shakespeare in the Park! San Francisco Shakespeare Festival does a lovely tour around the whole Bay Area all summer long. For any of you in the region, it’s playing through the end of September! My daughter Harper (now 6) accompanied me again this year. She enjoyed it (particularly the bear, the Clown, and the fact that there was a child actor on stage), but not as much as last year’s Romeo & Juliet. I think the duality of the plot was a little hard for her to grasp. But it was a lovely production with real standout performances from the ladies of the cast, plus a fun bear-themed green show to help set the play’s tone for the kids in the audience. Here’s the preview of the show we saw:
I’ve mentioned the No Holds Bard podcast here before, and I’m going to continue to do so! They have a great feature where about once a month they dedicate an episode to one particular play in attempt to prep you as an audience member for that show. It’s called “So You’re Going to See [enter play’s name here]”. There was an excellent one for The Winter’s Tale that I found helpful and entertaining. Even though I listened to it AFTER I saw the show. All episodes on iTunes or here.
Thoughts and Themes:
This play has long fascinated scholars and theatre people, mostly for its absolute duality. It essentially is two plays – the first three acts are a tragedy, the last two completely switch gears to become a pastoral comedy. It’s a hyped-up version of Othello (murderous marital jealousy now made worse in that it’s all in one guy’s head without prompting from a psychopath “best friend”) mashed with the in-the-woods party-time romance of As You Like It. There are so many themes going on in this one: the passage of time, the importance of faith, and forgiveness. There’s a whole thesis paper on resurrection and the healthy vs. harmful qualities of memorials that’s just itching to be written by someone far more learned than me. I’m going to stick with the aspect of the play that most niggled at my brain. Emphasizing the duality of the play, we have the next generation – the original protagonists’ offspring in their own separate-but-not-really story. And I was most moved with how both kings attempt to course-correct their sins through the futures of their children. The poor kids in this play all get tossed around and hurt due to the will of their fathers.
In seeing ourselves in our children, we imagine that their futures will shine brighter than ours. They will be better, kinder, smarter people than what we have become. [Which is ridiculous to think that we as adults are complete – shouldn’t we spend our entire lives trying to become better? I hope that at age 34 I have not stopped evolving!] We just have to make sure that they’re on the right path. But, of course, children grow and they start to want to forge their own path. Parenting is a delicate balancing act of giving kids the tools/lessons/guidance they need to eventually be able to make their own good decisions. But parents have to come to terms with the fact that their kids will make decisions that are not what the parents would choose. You know, because kids aren’t reboots of their parents. Our children are not a tactic for getting a do-over in our own lives.
Yet Leontes kinda seems to think so, from the play’s very beginning. Young Mamillius is next in line for the throne, the male heir every king desires. Leontes dotes on him and plays with the boy. When marital doubt starts to creep in, the one thought that almost soothes Leontes is that at least is son is said to look just like him. He looks in the face of his son and sees his own as it was 23 years ago. As Leontes descends into the madness of supposing his wife’s adultery, he strives to keep his beloved child away from this assumed sin. The future king of Sicilia should not be tainted by his mother’s disgrace, no matter how much the child longs for his mother. Sure this is a punishment to Hermione, but I believe that Leontes himself is so hurt by this (non-existent) betrayal that he also wants to protect his son from it.
As for baby Perdita, Leontes considers her “father” to be a runaway coward and her mother to be an imprisoned strumpet. The child is also doomed to be kept from the sinful mother as well as to be abandoned to fate. Leontes certainly doesn’t think that he did anything wrong, but you better believe he’s going to exorcise those kids of their wicked mother’s influence. He’s gotta set things RIGHT for the next generation, y’all. But this single-minded protection-of-the-kids-at-all-costs mentality completely backfires. His fervent belief and resulting actions causes poor Mamillius to sicken and die while pining away for his mother. Perdita’s abandonment is carried out so quickly that Leontes is unable to reverse it when he realizes he is in the wrong. All is lost for the king, not only due to his jealous need for revenge, but his wholly incorrect manner of protecting his kid(s).
Polixenes is more traditional in his method of controlling a child. Florzel is a grown man and is set to rule Bohemia as king some day. A future king is supposed to marry up. When Florizel rebels by falling for a lowly shepherd girl, Polixenes isn’t having it. Even when he seems to be more yielding than Leontes (in disguise, urging Florizel to check in with his father before marrying), we know that Polixenes would never allow the marriage, whether Florizel had asked his permission or not. He sneakily meets his son’s girlfriend, approves of her nature, but still puts his foot down and insists he knows best. He only succeeds in driving Florizel to another country to live a life of his choosing. Polixenes has a long-ago sin sitting on his shoulders: his abandonment of the innocent Hermione (seriously, how messed up is it that he just leaves her to fend for herself against an obviously dangerous Leontes?). He surely knows Sicilia is without a queen or heir to the throne. Is he keeping a tight rein over Florizel only because of snobbishness/tradition…or because he’s afraid he’ll lose his son?
It’s an age-old struggle for parents. When do you push kids to be autonomous, which decisions do parents continue to make on the children’s behalf? To what extent do we consciously (or subconsciously) groom them in our image? Nowadays, this even comes down to deciding on what (pop) culture to introduce to your child or what after-school activities they should pursue. And my new, weird fear – am I only introducing my own kids to the things that I know and love? Shouldn’t I be trying to explore the world alongside them? Maybe even allow them to try something brand new to us both?
Like most people, I tend to be highly enthusiastic about the things I love, and I get really excited to share when anyone expresses interest. Because my kids are still small (3 and 6), they proudly beam whenever they show that they understand even a smidgeon of the things that make me happy. Kids love to make their parents proud and thrive on the additional attention they receive when a parent is into a shared activity with them. As my kids left babydom, there have been so many things I’ve been excited to do with them. And it’s recently that I realize that I kinda need to back off on that. I’m getting a little oppressive in hoping we can share certain things that meant a lot to me while I was growing up.
My kids have been around Shakespeare on a regular basis for over a year now. They know his face, they know lines of dialogue, and they play games of their own devising with characters they call Puck, Romeo, Falstaff, and Juliet. I mean, they even know that Falstaff is supposed to hide in dirty laundry and be thrown in a river. I’ve now taken my daughter to see two of the Bard’s plays. I always ask her if she wants to go, but I haven’t exactly offered to take her to anything more kid-palatable. Harper, when I asked her about if she liked Shakespeare stuff, or if she tried to be into it because she knows I like it: “Well, I do think it’s pretty interesting stuff. I maybe am not as excited about it as you are, but it’s pretty interesting.”
My little diplomat. It sounds like she’s trying to let me down gently, doesn’t it? It was the “duh” moment of the century when I realized that the biggest draw of seeing Shakespeare in the Park was that it was time she got to spend one-on-one with me.
I’ve recently been spending a lot of my time focused on my son. Because 3.5 is just a very needy, tantrumy time (especially when potty training has been going as long as it has for us). I have had to ask her to wait for time with me too many times. So last weekend I made sure we got some time away just the two of us. I could have used that time for a different Shakespeare in the Park (Macbeth in Half Moon Bay!) but I didn’t. I wanted to see how well I could be lead by her for the day. My listening skills are not the greatest, and I wanted to better exercise them with her. I presented a few choices for our date and let her pick (she chose beach, so we actually ended up in Half Moon Bay, my fave little hippie shore town). I put on music in the car that I knew she would like (Billie Holiday – my kid is really into jazzy tunes). More importantly, I made sure to turn it down when she started talking (rather than just saying “ok” or “sure” when she talks about Super Mario Brothers while I covertly listen to NPR). I did what a human being should actually do – engaged and asked questions.
Harper wants to be a veterinarian. So I suggested an outing geared toward biology. We went to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and explored tide pools. We touched anemones, giggled over hermit crabs, and watched sea lions sunbathe. I asked her questions about the creatures to get her thinking, rather than lecturing at her about the tidbits I already knew. When she wanted to climb large rocks, I joined in. When she asked to sit for a minute longer to stare at the ocean, we did. Instead of trying to coax her into eating at a seafood place, I took us to a place where I knew we could get nachos (her new favorite food). I did not ask her about school (something I often do since we started back up). We talked about potential Halloween costumes and got laughing fits over something so silly, I don’t even remember it.
It was the best afternoon I’d had in weeks.
Of course I’ll continue to keep my kids on a metaphorical leash. They’re young, and their safety is always my top priority. But I definitely don’t need to push as hard or be as tyrannical as the kings in The Winter’s Tale. There will soon come a day when my kids will push back on my beliefs and rules. There will be times where they may even be right to do so. If I can practice listening and (occasionally) letting them take the lead in minor ways now, I think I’ll better be able to handle the real conflict when it comes. So here’s to backing off a bit in order to be a better support system. In some cases, it’s ok to mentor more than dictate.