The most beautiful play

Giovanni Strazza's Veiled Virgin is located in the Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John's, NL.
The Veiled Virgin by Giovanni Strazza, Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

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?

Title page of Richard Greene's Pandosto (public domain)
Title page of Richard Greene’s Pandosto (public domain)

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.”

winterstaleIf 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.

Fanciful map of Bohemia, drawn by Gelett Burgess in 1896 (image public domain)
Fanciful map of Bohemia with a sea coast, drawn by Gelett Burgess in 1896 (image public domain)

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.

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20 thoughts on “The most beautiful play

  1. I did read this play in college, when (callow youth that I was) I was primarily struck by the line “Exit pursued by a bear” — but I would like to read it again now inspired by your wonderful review. I also hope I can see a production of it that brings out its fine qualities.

    1. I’m glad you thought highly of this review, Lory, as I’ve revised it so many times and am still not quite happy with it! But clearly if it has inspired you to revisit the play (whether as text or as live performance) then its job is done. 🙂

  2. What a lovely review, Chris.
    Thanks for this, as I have neither read the text nor seen a production of Winter’s Tale – before today I had no idea what the play was even about! If I see a production coming up nearby in this centenary year, though, I shall be sorely tempted to go and see it. Exit, pursued by a bear 🙂

    1. It is a curious play, Lynn, if you come upon it after, say, Hamlet or Macbeth, Othello or Richard III. But if attuned to late comedies like the The Tempest one can start to enjoy the richness of the characterisation (in contrast to earlier comedies like Twelfth Night for example) within the Once Upon A Time framework.

      Oh for a live production that we can all attend and appreciate Will’s consummate mastery of our emotions! (With or without an attendant menagerie.) Glad you enjoyed this!

      1. Never taken to Twelfth Night, although it seems to be one of his most widely performed comedies. Sounds interesting, though. I shall keep scanning the local theatres. Haven’t been to a Shakespeare production in years and as it’s a very special year for the Bard, I really think I should 🙂

        1. TN is not my favourite either, it feels rather uneven and the pace uncomfortable, added to which the taunting, teasing and bullying that Malvolio suffers is to my mind cruel.

          1. Yes! Malvolio is the big issue for me – yes, he’s a fool I suppose, but there’s no real harm in him. Wonder how the audience received it at the time? Tougher times, though – probably loved it 🙂

  3. This is my favourite Shakespeare. I saw it when I was about 20 with the RSC and Judi Dench playing Hermione, and recently saw a film of the wonderful production by the Branagh company again with Judi Dench as Hermione.

    1. Lucky you to have seen Dench live on stage, Gert, and in this infrequently performed play too! I do hope I’ve done your favourite Shakespeare enough justice in this rather rambling commentary.

  4. A really good review and sources.
    It is a chilling tale, as befits the title. But like winter it emerges into summer, although I have always thought that Leontes deserved a sticky end rather than the ‘statue’ revelation.

    1. Yes, Leontes does seem to have merited a lot more punishment for his false accusations and for being indirectly responsible for the death of his son and (ostensibly) wife, estrangement of his best friend, the ‘exposure’ of an innocent baby in the wilds and a faithful courtier being killed and eaten by a wild animal. Being a miserable king for 16 years doesn’t quite satisfy our need for natural justice and lust for retribution, does it.

      But it is really in the hands of the wronged ones whether they accept his contrition and look for reconciliation; as onlookers maybe it is not up to us to pass judgement as if in a court of law. Perhaps in live performance the audience is just grateful that the warmth of summer follows the chill of winter that you mention.

      1. I like to speculate, however, on how Shakespeare would have handled it if he had decided to let Leontes glimpse the happy-ever-after, but then face the total rejection and ongoing misery he deserves.

  5. Thanks for the review Chris. This book and in-depth analysis of the play is new to me. The Winter’s Tale contains many great lines but it has never been one of my favorite plays. It was always my opinion that Leontes didn’t deserve a “happily ever after” but that doesn’t mean I am right. I am going to look for this book and then give WT a second chance.

    1. I suppose it would depend on the actor playing Leontes whether — despite his paranoia, his almost pathological suspicions and utterly unreasonable actions — the King comes across as sufficiently contrite and deserving of forgiveness or whether we view him as an irredeemable monster who gets let off too lightly. The awful thing is that rulers, especially absolute rulers, have the power to wreak more lasting harm than the ordinary person, and on a greater scale.

      I don’t know it the Nuttall study is generally available (bearing in mind its age) but it is at least a relatively short and slim book. If you have problems obtaining it I’m perfectly happy for you to have mine!

      1. Thanks Chris for the kind offer. I will let you know if I have problems finding a copy.
        Yes, I agree, a good actor who plays a very contrite Leontes could overcome his paranoia, but I guess he would of had to have shown real heartbreak when he throws his own wife in prison.

  6. Christine

    Lovely review, TWT is often overlooked and you make this study sound very interesting, I might pick it up!
    I’m a self-proclaimed Shakespeare enthusiast but I never wrapped my head around this one. It seemed to combine a lot of the things I disliked from other plays, namely the revival/return of the humiliated love interest (Much Ado, anyone?) and the ending with several weddings that don’t really mask the discomfort of the situation (which is a bit reminiscent of Measure for Measure and Midsummer). It would be worthwhile to read a more positive take on the play, so thank you for your review!

    1. This study helped me to overcome some of the discomfort I felt over perceived weaknesses in the play, such as the ones you mention, Christine. The forgiveness thing with Leontes really does form an obstacle for many: can someone responsible for such monstrous actions truly convince one of their subsequent remorse or would they do it again? The happy endings promising wedded bliss are perhaps due to the then fashionable masques, as they do feel a little too predictable and — dare I say it — trite. But then, most of us are suckers for weddings, aren’t we, despite a good many of them ending in divorce in due course!

      1. Christine

        Hmm, the inescapable happy-ending-wedding trope. It works most of the time! I imagine it’s much more fun when seeing the play on stage, what with all the dancing and merriment (though that wasn’t the case with the TWT production I went to a few years ago). If Leontes deserves a second chance, I don’t see why the play shouldn’t! When work eases up, I’ll happily give this study a try.

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