Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reader's Diary #443- William Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale

I was really enjoying the first part of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale with its emphasis on jealousy. Leontes, King of Sicilia, tries to convince his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to visit a little longer. When Leontes is unsuccessful in his plea, he casually asks his wife Hermione to try. Without much effort, she convinces Polixenes to stay, sparking suspicions from Leontes. Quickly his suspicions deteriorate into a rage, leading Polixenes to flea and Leontes to throw his pregnant wife (whom he now believes to be carrying Polixenes baby) in prison. Meanwhile, practically everyone tries to convince him of his wife's innocence.

Up to this point it's an intense piece of psychodrama. As Shakespeare goes, it's probably one of his more accessible plays, plus it's a theme as relevant today as it was then no matter in what class or country one lives. What made Leontes suddenly snap? Did he always have jealous tendencies but they just now awakened? Was there some festering issue between him and Polixenes that finally came to the fore? The play could have explored this angle but Shakespeare chose not to delve into the past. How low would Leontes sink? It could have been fun, in a morbid sense, to watch his demise. However, his realization that he's erred comes quite early in the play, at which point the play takes a 90 degree turn in a different direction.

The latter half of the play, 16 years later, becomes a love story between Perdita (the daughter of Leontes and Hermione) and Florizel (Polixenes' son). It's not that I couldn't have enjoyed a love story, but I found the earlier jealousy story much more compelling. Plus, I found some of the characters in the second half (particularly Autolycus) quite annoying.

Compared with the other Shakespeare plays that I've read, the first three acts of The Winter's Tale ranks up there with my favourites. However, with the sudden switch in tone and plot, leaving a latter half that was just mediocre, I felt disappointed overall.

(Cross referenced at BiblioShakespeare as my first play read for the Shakespeare Reading Challenge.)


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I wasn't even aware of this play. The first half does seem more compelling.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: He does a few lesser knowns amongst his plays. In this case, I'm not terribly surprised (though I still enjoyed it more than King Lear). Of the more obscure plays of his, my favourite so far is Coriolanus.