Monday, August 8, 2016

THE WINTER'S TALE // Discussion

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not read THE WINTER’S TALE, please be forewarned that I will be discussing much of the plot, including the ending. So if you don’t want the story spoiled for you, do not read this post. 

Rating: Three stars—Good

I initially gave THE WINTER’S TALE four out of five stars, because it’s Shakespeare and I really like Shakespeare. I like the themes he deals with and his sense of humor and the language he uses. And I think I let that blind me a little to the flaws in this particular play. Fortunately, my subconscious was not willing to let me get away with this. So, as I lay awake one night, it suddenly came to me—the reason why I didn’t feel justified in giving THE WINTER’S TALE four stars. 

The Plot. King Polixenes has been staying with his friend, King Leontes, for roughly nine months. At this point in time, King Leontes’ wife, Hermione, is just about nine months pregnant. Unfortunately, Leontes gets it into his head that Hermione is in the family way because she has been having an affair with Polixenes (I’ll have you know, autocorrect keeps changing his name to King Politeness). After coming to this conclusion, Leontes goes into a rage and publicly accuses Hermione of this egregious trespass, despite her claims to innocence and the claims of those vouching for her. When Leontes orders his servant to kill Polixenes, both the servant and Polixenes flee the country. Shortly thereafter, Leontes imprisons Hermione, where she has a baby girl. 

Long story short, despite an oracle declaring Hermione innocent, Leontes remains persuaded that his wife is cheating on him and banishes his newborn daughter. Hermione and her son promptly die, as foretold by the oracle. 

Fast forward about sixteen years to Bohemia (which, contrary to Shakespeare's assertions, does not have a sea coast), where Hermione’s daughter, Perdita, has been raised by a shepherd and his simple son. Perdita falls in love with Florizel, Polixenes’ son, and after a twisty series of events, Perdita finds herself reunited with her father. Then, lo and behold, Paulina, noblewoman and friend of the queen, reveals an uncannily lifelike statue of the dead queen, which turns out to be the actual queen, alive and well. Everyone celebrates, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end. 

The Problems. Now, perhaps you already see where my issues with the story lie. (If you don’t, I’m not judging you, since I didn’t see it right away either.) 

The first part of the play is decent. We see an unreasonable man suffering a fit of jealous rage in which he essentially destroys his family. Cool. What’s not to love about that? I think Shakespeare handles that part really well. We see that Hermione is clearly not at fault (where in THE GAP OF TIME it actually looks like MiMi might have been willing to have an affair—you can read my full, semi-spoilery, one-star review here). Shakespeare shows us how unreasonable Leontes gets without bogging down the story. It’s all good here. 

Now we get to my first issue. Maybe I read the play too quickly, and I just missed it, but there didn’t seem to be a solid explanation for how Hermione and her son die, except that maybe the oracle actually curses them when Leontes disregards it. I’d buy that, I guess. But it still seems like clumsy storytelling. 

And then, of course, we have the second half of the story, which was not my favorite for multiple reasons. 

It is more overtly inappropriate than some of Shakespeare’s plays. More importantly, the cruder elements weren’t necessary for the sake of the story and ended up clashing with the overall tone. (This is my personal opinion, so if you don’t feel the same way, I’d be happy to hear your reasoning.) 

At long last, the king and his daughter are reunited, which would have made for a lovely ending if the story had left off there. Leontes has had almost two decades to regret his jealous anger. Now he has his daughter back, but she is full grown. He has missed out on watching her grow up, and he will always feel the pain of that loss. That is as it should be. I’m not saying this to be vengeful here. I just don’t believe that you can ignore the natural consequences of negative actions, either in fiction or in real life. If you drop a frying pan on someone’s foot, they’re going to suffer, no matter how much you regret dropping the frying pan in the first place. Your regret doesn’t change the natural course of cause and effect, neither does their forgiveness. So I would have been happy with this bittersweet ending. The damage Leontes has done cannot be fully repaired, and the life that should have been is lost, but he and Perdita can still find a new sort of happiness. 

But then we get to the whole part where the queen is suddenly alive and everything is good and happy. This is where I think there is a lie in the story. First of all, I’m not a fan of Hermione coming back to life. It’s too convenient and happy-feely, and it seems to bypass the natural course of events. It makes sense that Perdita would potentially find her father again, because these things happen. But Hermione dies in the first part of the play. To bring her back is to disregard how very serious Leontes’ crime was. Yes, this resurrection is a result of magic (I think), so I’m not denying that she could be brought back, if magic is a part of this story world. It just feels like Shakespeare is cheating here, presenting us with a sudden and easy happy ending. 

My second issue with this set up is that, when the queen comes to life, she acts as though her relationship with Leontes didn’t leave off on a very bad note. Except, excuse me, but everything is still wrong. Leontes’ regret does not change the fact that Hermione and her son died because of his anger, does not change the fact that he abandoned her newborn. I would understand if the queen had just been living separately all this time (as MiMi does in THE GAP OF TIME) and so had had the chance to come to terms with all of this, but from what I gathered, this is not the case. 

I’m not saying that Hermione should withhold forgiveness. I’m just saying that these things take time. Sometimes a lot of time. To have Hermione instantly acting like everything is okay, is to deny the depth to which she has been wronged. And until you admit how desperately you have been hurt by someone, your forgiveness doesn’t really mean anything, because you are offering forgiveness while simultaneously implying there is nothing to forgive. That is a lie. There is so much to forgive. 

When you forgive someone, you are not denying justice. In order for forgiveness to work, justice still needs to be served. When you refuse to forgive someone, you are allowing justice to happen the cold, heartless way, because you are allowing the other person to bear the full weight of what they have done. It is what happens naturally. When you do forgive someone, you bypass the natural course of events and take the full weight of the pain from the wrong that has been done, and you carry it on your own shoulders until it fades away. All this so the other person doesn’t have to suffer. That is why forgiveness hurts, and that is why it's so powerful. It is a different sort of justice. 

The story would have had a stronger ending, I think, if we had seen how much it takes for Hermione to forgive Leontes—if Shakespeare had shown us how expensive forgiveness of this sort is. There would have been a greater sense of justice in the ending. Instead, Shakespeare has treated forgiveness like it is cheap and effortless, and I reject that. 

What about you, my little coffee beans? Have you read THE WINTER’S TALE? Do you like Shakespeare? What is your opinion on forgiveness? What is your opinion on the ending of the play?


  1. *brain explodes because of the depth of this post*

    First and foremost, I dislike (and/or hate) Shakespeare so the play isn't something I'd read, but I loved this review. I loved how you really got to the crux of the play and figured out what was wrong with it (for you, at least), and basically now I'm trying to say something intelligent beyond the fact that I really enjoyed reading this and it was excellent food for thought.

    1. Aww. :D

      *indignant gasp* Just kidding, Shakespeare isn't for everyone. :P But I'm glad you enjoyed the review! :) Your comment made my day. :)

      Thank you for commenting! :)

  2. I haven't read Winter's Tale in years, but this brings up a lot of great points. Good discussion. ^ ^

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed my review. :)

      Thank you for commenting! :)