I’ve experienced the high and the low in my Shakespeare reading so far this year. As much as I love 1 Henry IV (see my post from a week ago), I have to work just to get through A Winter’s Tale. First, there’s Leontes, unpleasant and absurd. Where Iago has to work hard to stir up Othello’s jealousy, Leontes becomes suspicious of his wife and insanely jealous of his boyhood friend because of just one innocent conversation. For two more acts, he spurns appeals to both his reason and his sentiment, and then he condemns his newborn daughter (whom he doesn’t believe to be his) to be left to die on a desert beach. His wife swoons, and he thinks she’s dead and doesn’t show any remorse. After all this, his jealousy disappears just as quickly during a scolding by the wife of one of his council members. To top it all off, Shakespeare calls the desert beach country Bohemia. As I said, unpleasant and absurd. Pleasant and absurd, I can take: A Comedy of Errors comes to mind. Unpleasant and plausible also work: consider Macbeth. But Leontes’ shabby treatment of his family is tedious and makes no sense. Fortunately for all concerned, they live in Shakespeare World, so the daughter is rescued and raised by a shepherd and marries the local prince, and the wife returns to her penitent husband after sixteen years. But are we really supposed to buy into the scene where she poses as a statue?
But the rewards of The First Part of Henry IV are worth the price of the existence of A Winter’s Tale. For that matter, Falstaff alone makes the existence of A Winter’s Tale tolerable. Falstaff, who lies clownishly to cover up his cowardice in one scene and then coldly argues against the futility of honor in another. Falstaff, who play-acts the part of Henry IV with a cushion on his head. Then there’s Prince Hal. Where the contradictions within Leontes just make him seem inconsistent, Hal’s contradictions make him deeply human. He hangs out with thieves, but apparently steals only from them – and then only when they’ve stolen from his father. He loves Falstaff but eerily foreshadows his future rejection of the portly knave. He plans to appear dissolute until he ascends to the throne but then fights valiantly for his father in the Percys’ insurrection. Growing up in a shadow makes things complicated enough. Growing up in the shadow of a father who usurped the throne of England makes living a sensible life almost impossible. But then the Hal of Shakespeare also has to grow up in the shadow of his future self, since his audience knows that he will become one of the great heroes of British history. Of course in the hands of the master, he comes out rich and complex and wonderful.
Some people like A Winter’s Tale, and they’re not wrong to like it. Some of the dialog is interesting, especially in scenes involving princess Perdita in Bohemia. And even if I find it hard to believe, the image of the presumed-dead queen posing as a statue is unforgettable. But I have a plan drawn up for my third decade of scheduled reading in the classics, and while 1 Henry IV appears on it twice, A Winter’s Tale doesn’t show up at all.