The Winter’s Tale
by John Stoltenberg
William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a play I’d never seen or read or even known a thing about. So the experience of discovering it via The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s smashingly good production (now revived in Free for All) was a thorough delight.
I got lucky in the lottery. I didn’t attend as “press” so I was on holiday as a reviewer. Which left me at liberty to get swept up in the play’s odd but compelling storyline as I imagine groundlings in the Globe once did. Except Sidney Harman Hall has some of the best seating I’ve ever seen: The rake is steep and the seats have high backs so the knees of the patron behind you cannot possibly annoy you.
As I left the theater I was remembering not that I had freeloaded in comfort but that I had been knocked out by the play. Long considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, it’s about three-fifths dark tragedy and about two-fifths rom-com. This oxymoronic hybrid is aptly pegged by Original Director Rebecca Taichman in a program note:
One of Shakespeare’s late romances, The Winter’s Tale is a study in tonal collision—sliding from tragedy to comedy and back again. We careen through the dangerous, moneyed Sicilian court, into the comic Bohemian countryside. The play contains multiple and ever-shifting webs of meaning. As a director, the visual and theatrical challenges are…well…absurdly difficult and wonderfully exciting. You’ve got two tonally opposite worlds that somehow need to make illogical logic together.
Within this anomalous dramatic structure, the play tells a story that seemed to me so prescient, so pertinent to life today, so resonant with current gender contention, that it blew me away.
The Winter’s Tale plays as a perfectly contemporary parable about a retro, sexist, male-chauvinist asshole who, mirabile dictu, is redeemed. That character is Leontes, king of Sicilia, who suspects his near-term pregnant wife, Hermoine, has cuckolded him with Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Leontes flies into a jealous rage that sets the play in motion and results in calamities to his entire paterfamilias. And why? Well, the script makes plain that Leontes has had a bromance with Polixenes since they were boys. So in a contemporary context his jealousy can be viewed as double pronged: Leontes is jealous of Polixenes for getting it on with his wife, and Leontes is jealous of Hermoine for getting it on with Polixenes. Leontes takes all of his controlling possessiveness and repressed homoeroticism out on…guess who?…the woman. The splenetic vengeful misogyny that spews thereafter from Leontes’ mouth is frighteningly familiar and horrifying in its consequences. This is the dark side of The Winter’s Tale and it could barely be bleaker.
I’ll not give away how what happens next happens, but it’s amazing. Over the course of two and a half hours, Leontes atones for his screwups, most of the damage he did is undone, and by the end he has made amends. To top it all off, he and Hermoine (who in truth was never unfaithful to him) are reunited, in a kind of magical way.
Incredibly—against the evidence of all lessons learned by loving women who’ve suffered at the hands of hate-filled men—it works. In this wondrous production now Free for All, Shakespeare imagines for us in art exactly the redemption that life needs far more of.