Sunday, April 10, 2011

Discussion: The Winter's Tale

The play: The Winter's Tale

The plot tweet: Leontes' jealous rage = dead son, "dead" queen, banished daughter, 16 years of remorse. But, as a late romance, it ends with reunion, redemption.

My favorite lines:
For my travel bug:
"And when I wander here and there, I then do most go right."

For one of the most romantic speeches in English literature:
" ... What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I'd have you do it ever. When you sing,
I'd have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so, and for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' th' sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens."


I just want to be honest here: I really struggle with this play. I willingly concede that it is among Shakespeare's best plays, that it has intriguing characters and beautiful poetry, and that it contains several of the best scenes in the entire Shakespeare canon. I just don't like it that much.

Frankly, it bores me, both in text and in performance. (I feel the same way about Julius Caesar and Love's Labour's Lost, since we're being honest.) In the first half of the play, I'm galled by Leontes' ceaseless ranting and Hermione's selflessness. In the second half of the play, the audience already knows how the relationship of Perdita and Florizel is going to wind up, so Autolycus (who gets a lot of praise from scholars for his thematic implications) is to me just an annoying distraction/stall tactic.

This week, however, the reading had an upside: I realized how much I have learned in this year-long reading project. As I read the first scene, I thought, "Oh, good old Shakespeare, here once again he uses relatively minor characters who foreground the play and foreshadow the upcoming crisis." Toward the end, I thought, "Oh, look, a typical Shakespearean 'unscene' where minor characters describe a major event offstage."

When we read Cymbeline last week, I joked that we could play a bingo game of Shakespeare's most over-used plot points when reading the play. I didn't think about it at the time, but now I realize that you need to have read an awful lot of Shakespeare plays before you're able to say to yourself, "Oh, lord, here we go again with the heroine dressed as a boy."

Now, reading The Winter's Tale, I realize that my knowledge of Shakespeare now goes even deeper -- not just to what Shakespeare does but also to how he does it.

When it comes to Shakespeare, I'll never have all the answers. Nobody will. The enduring magic of Shakespeare is that his plays present new questions and new possibilities with every new reading, every new generation and every new production. But, this week, I realized how well equipped we are, now, to question and begin to understand the possibilities of these plays.

In other words, we're getting kinda smart about this stuff, and that's neat.

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