A D Nuttall Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale
Studies in English Literature No 26
Edward Arnold 1979 (1966)
I studied The Winter’s Tale at school, and while I didn’t then really appreciate it fully it continued to linger for several decades in my subconscious. I’m not entirely sure why: it may be the hint of Sleeping Beauty in the ‘revival’ of a dead Hermione; it may be memories of the famous stage direction Exit pursued by a Bear that stuck in the brainbox, or the notorious ascription of a coastline to landlocked Bohemia that struck me. Whatever it was, this was a play that I felt I ‘ought’ to read again, though I never seemed to get round to it. I even acquired a secondhand copy of Nuttall’s study of The Winter’s Tale though it only ever served as a talisman — I never even got round to reading that either.
Shakespeare’s impending quatercentenary finally provided the spur I needed for both. Nuttall’s commentary is split into four sections, an introduction followed first by the scenes set in Sicilia (with jealousy and guilt as the main themes), then those set mostly in Bohemia (‘varieties of innocence’ is the note struck here) and finally a conclusion. He begins with a ringing endorsement of the play:
“The Winter’s Tale is the most beautiful play Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a less intelligent play than Hamlet (but not much less intelligent). It is less profound than King Lear (but not much less). It is not (as some readers will have begun to conclude) a pretty play, of ‘merely aesthetic’ appeal. For it is far less elegant than Love’s Labour’s Lost and much more disturbing than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The beauty of The Winter’s Tale does not so much charm the eye as pierce the viscera. It does not divert the spectator; it turns him inside out.”
And so on and so forth, in glorious hyperbole as suited the style of esteemed academics of yesteryear. But is what he asserts true?
Shakespeare took the outline of a 1588 play by Robert Greene called Pandosto: the Triumph of Time — itself retitled Dorastus and Fawnia when revived in 1607 — changing crucial details such as names, settings and ending. In brief the story is this: Leontes King of Sicily wrongfully believes his pregnant wife Hermione has had an affair with his best friend Polixenes King of Bohemia, and becomes insanely and rather publicly jealous. When King Polixenes leaves Sicilia abruptly for his homeland Leontes is convinced his suspicions were true and has Hermione thrown into jail, and orders that the newborn infant daughter be abandoned in a wild place. (That wild place, frequented by bears, is of course to be the sea coast of Bohemia; here the daughter is brought up by rustics with no knowledge of her heritage.) Meanwhile Queen Hermione is reported to have died of a broken heart, having suffered not only the loss of her newborn but also the love of her husband Leontes and the unexpected death of their young son.
Sixteen years later the girl — named Perdita, “the lost girl” — has fallen in love with a young swain called Florizel who, surprise of surprises, is the disguised son of King Polixenes of Bohemia. The couple, discovered by Polixenes, flee to Sicilia where — to cut a long story short — reconciliation is finally effected between the two kings, Leontes having repented of his false suspicions and accusations. Perdita is then revealed to be his long lost daughter. All that is now required is that Leontes is shown a wonderful statue in honour of his dead wife, Hermione, in the house of her faithful friend Paulina. The final revelation is that the likeness is in fact the real queen, who has been secreted away by the redoubtable Paulina for the whole sixteen years while Leontes came to his senses.
Told thusly the plot is pure fairytale, unrealistic and surely unpromising for a modern audience. But Nuttall will reveal that there is more than that beneath its apparent superficiality. Shakespeare’s late Romances are indeed united by a common story-pattern he argues: in them “people joined by some love-relation of blood or marriage are at first separated, usually in a storm, but in the end, beyond all expectation, are brought together again: he that was lost is found, she that was thought to be dead proves warm and living.” He hints that it “evokes … all the fairy tales one ever heard” and that it “suggests what it would be like to watch Spring following upon Winter, as if for the first time.”
With close attention to the text Nuttall also points out the deep psychology the play displays, especially in the imbalance Leontes exhibits because of his pathological jealousy of Hermione’s easy relationship with his best friend Polixenes. Beyond reason, Leontes believes that the innocent actions that he sees are evidence of the opposite; and there is perhaps a double jealousy here, in that he may have retained homoerotic feelings for his childhood playmate Polixenes that match the loving feelings he has for his wedded wife.
The turning-point in the play comes with a storm that wrecks the ship that carried Paulina’s husband the unfortunate Antigonus with his charge Perdita to Bohemia: a shepherd’s son, who witnesses it, tells “how the poor souls roared, and the sea mocked them: and how the poor gentleman roared, and the bear mocked him, both roaring louder than the sea or weather …” After Antigonus’ offstage demise there follows that gap of sixteen years; we’re then treated to pastoral joys as we witness the merrymaking at the betrothal of the teenage Perdita and Florizel. Contrasting with the wintry chill of Leontes’ Sicilian court is the spring-like feel of the Bohemian countryside, with its flowery language (in both the literal and metaphorical senses).
There are other contrasts too, such as between Perdita’s modest if sophisticated innocence and the native cunning of the rustic Autolycus who, Nuttall suggests, is “as innocent as a magpie or a kite”. Shakespeare, even if he had small Latin and less Greek, would still have known that one of the roots of Autolycus’ name was a word meaning ‘wolf’, as Autolycus himself knew when he declared himself littered under Mercury and therefore a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. It is because Autolycus greedily snatches a supposed trifle that there is a delay in Perdita being revealed not as any ordinary foundling but as a lost princess in the best fairytale traditions. Breeding will out apparently, if rather controversially: Perdita can’t help her sophisticated innocence any more than Autolycus can help his amoral attitudes and actions.
Nuttall’s concluding chapter neatly ties up some of the threads he displayed in earlier sections. In particular he focuses on the play’s supposed lack of realism. Here Nuttall refers to the Poetics in which Aristotle asserted that the sequence of events in a play should be probable, but then qualified that by saying that “a probable impossibility is to be preferred to an improbable possibility.” But Shakespeare turns this epigram on its head: he “succeeded in giving his wildly improbable story the warmth of actual life; he succeeded in giving it realism.”
If like me your head is reeling with these philosophical niceties then Nuttall makes it clearer: what if we said that we see “that is it very unlikely that this would happen, but, if it did, what would it really be like?” He asks us to imagine a diagram with two axes, Myth as the horizontal axis with the vertical axis a compound of “moral insight, human understanding, wit and idiosyncratic imagination” — in short, everything that interests us as human beings.
Before he came to his late plays, Nuttall proposes, Shakespeare was “an extreme example of the vertically developed playwright,” one who was “a master of language, learned in human depravity and glory”. Having come late to myth, as Nuttall argues, Shakespeare had to somehow combine his ‘vertical’ genius — that is, his insights into human psychology — with the different demands of the horizontal aspect of a mythical tale.
If, then, The Winter’s Tale evokes “all the fairy tales one ever heard” — the wrathful tyrant who suspects all his closest to be against him; the missing princess who falls in love with a prince in disguise; the resurrection of the innocent queen; the reconciliation that signals a ‘happy ever after’ ending — Nuttall proposes (and I willingly agree) that Shakespeare gives the mythic plot true depth, a ‘vertical’ dimension, with a realistic portrayal of human psychology which does indeed turn us “inside out”. Innocents like Prince Mamillius and Antigonus die offstage (and Hermione too, it seems) but not because of the mere dictates of the fairytale plot: Leontes’ irrational beliefs and intemperate actions render these deaths as credible and as inevitable as any of those in Shakespeare’s history plays or tragedies. The ‘miracle’ of Hermione’s statue coming to life is made more believable by Leontes’ natural response, prosaic on paper but potent with poignancy: “O, she’s warm! | If this be magic, let it be an art | Lawful as eating.”
And of course the play itself is wonderful. Commentaries can only aid our understanding — they can never be a substitute for the real thing. Luckily Nuttall’s propositions still have validity fifty years on with the power to enrich our enjoyment of this, one of the poet’s last plays.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1564. The exact date of his birth is not recorded, but it’s most likely to have been April 23rd, as often argued. He was then baptised at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford on April 26th 1564, which was a Wednesday.
As the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust reminds us, “At that time, the Prayer Book instructed parents to ensure their children were baptised no later than the first Sunday after birth. This means that it’s unlikely that Shakespeare was born any earlier than the previous Sunday,” which was 23rd April. “We also know that when he died (on 23 April 1616), Shakespeare was described as being in his fifty-third year (i.e. he was fifty-two). This means that he must have already had his birthday that year – if he was born any later than 23 April then he would still have been fifty-one when he died.”
So, given that three days would be a “reasonable interval” between birth and baptism, Shakespeare’s birthday is most likely to have been April 23rd.