The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s most innovative of plays, both in structure and content. Unusually for a play of this period, the story is structured into two distinct sections, with the tragic action of the first three acts giving way to romance in the final two fitting perfectly into the two halves required in modern theatre presentation. The other is the inherent ambiguity of Hermione’s mortality with Shakespeare leaving it up to the reader or theatre company to decide whether Leontes’s wife dies, returns as a ghostly apparition and is then magically recreated via a statue Pygmalian-style at the end or if she lives, is squirrelled away only to return at the end and given the aspect of a statue so as to draw out Leontes understanding of what he lost.
As John Pitcher explains in his introduction to Arden third edition, as is typical with pre-contemporary critical reactions to such things, the general impression was that both of these elements were “failures” on the part of Shakespeare rather than artistic choices. Theories developed suggesting that he rewrote parts of it leading to inconsistencies of tone or mistakes (see also Bohemia having coast), or that someone else had a hand in it, actors or impresarios before its first publication in the Folio or that the great man just didn’t know what he was doing. In reality he was experimenting with form testing classical genre rules in his contemporary drama and leaving the motivations of his characters and explanations for parts of the action deliberately empty to increase audience interest.
The appearance of a bear at mid-point is an especially bizarre inclusion, even if as Pitcher notes it does introduce some much needed panto at one of the play’s darkest moments. It’s not inconceivable a real bear appeared at that point, but the editor suggests that this isn't simply the kind of act of frippery classical playwright Horace grumbled about when his work was disrupted in the middle by the unheralded inclusion of some boxers or bears to keep the less high-brow audience members happy. Shakespeare actually uses the word “bear” plus its derivations, rhymes and synonyms throughout the play to underscore the themes of birth, rebirth and endurance so the appearance of the animal also becomes an on stage visual reference to that.
All of which indicates The Winter’s Tale deserves to be produced more than it is. There are difficulties. The change of setting in the middle brings a whole new collection of characters and set requirements and although some doubling up can be done, it’s rarely done satisfactorily with such unlikely scenarios as the actress playing Hermione doubling up as her daughter Pardita messing up the mechanics of the final scene in which both characters are required on stage. There are plenty of songs, all printed in the appendices here with sheet music, and although they’re easily cuttable (deliberately so according to some critics) the tone of the Bohemian section loses some of its whimsy. There’s a lengthy scene in the middle of the play, Act 4 / Sc 4, which can become rather drawn out if not treated properly.
But as I saw in a rousing production at the RSC in 2009 and as Pitcher convincingly demonstrates with other exmples it can be done and was, even a few years after Shakespeare’s death. Then it was a very commercial play, pastorals being all the rage, which is one of the reasons the playwright challenged himself to write one. It’s only later that it fell out of fashion for many of the reasons already discussed (that bear!) only really finding favour again early in the last century. What the play could do with is an excellent new celluloid version (something Pitcher suggests he’ll discuss the medium then doesn’t – a rare error). Modern film is used to mixing genres, contrasting distant locales, showing lost children growing in an instant and would finally have magical the capacity to bring Hermione’s statue to life.
The Winter's Tale (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series). Edited by John Pitcher. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1903436356. Review copy supplied.