I didn’t think I’d like Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I chose it for my online Great Books Book Club because I thought we should read Shakespeare; it’s winter and I’d never read this. Before beginning the play, I looked at some summaries on YouTube. Both summaries showed the main character, King Leontes.
When I started the play, I was put off by King Leontes’ unhinged ravings. He wrongly assumes that his wife Queen Hermione and his best friend since childhood, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, have had an affair and that Hermione is pregnant with Polixenes’ child. It’s clear that the saintly Hermione and Polixenes have done nothing wrong. Yet Leontes raves and raves. His courtiers try to persuade him to cool down, to see that he’s wrong, but he ignores all reason. Camillo, the King’s confidante, tips off Polixenes telling him that the King is out for his head. They both escape to Bohemia.
Soon Hermione gives birth to a daughter. Paulina, my favorite character, takes the baby to Leontes, hoping that will make him change heart. The plan fails. Leontes decides that Paulina’s husband must take the baby to a desolate land and abandon her.
Obstinate and indignant, Leontes holds a trial for Hermione. Couriers sent to an oracle return and present the trusted the oracle’s pronouncement, which exonerates Hermione. Still Leontes digs in, ignores the “testimony” and sentences Hermione to prison. As a result of his mother’s imprisonment, Leontes beloved son falls ill and dies.
The first three acts of The Winter’s Tale are full of bullheadedness and tragedy. The second acts offers hope and romance.
Leontes is a vexing character surrounded by reasonable and admirable ones. It was hard to believe he never considered that he might have been wrong and it that he remained in power for a generation. The play’s tone changes so much in the last two acts that The Winter’s Tale feels like two plays.
I wound up enjoying the play and understanding or putting up with Leontes since his senseless wrath put all the events in action and showed the goodness of those around him in stark contrast.
I started by reading the first two acts and then watching the 1981 BBC Production. Later I changed to watching while reading. Although this production is old, I enjoyed the performances and got used to the older style sets and lighting.
The end has some far-fetched elements, the word “Tale” in the title serves to let the audience know that it’s not a realistic work.