In my continued effort to tackle the Shakespeare plays which I did not read in high school or college, I've landed most recently on The Winter's Tale.
Let me say at the start just how much I enjoyed it. This is a play with lots going on: there's commentary on gender relations and power dynamics; there's discussion of inheritance and social class; and more, there's analysis of oaths and promises, and how characters hold themselves to account.
Among these themes, gender dynamics is perhaps most central to the play. King Leontes banishes his wife, Hermione, after accusing her of infidelity. This suspicion is quickly proven false, but the damage has been done: Leontes loses everything -- his wife, his children, his happiness.
The rest of the play focuses on how this beleaguered king might make up for what he's done. Though victimized, women are not exactly victims: they serve instead as counterpoints to Leontes and other male characters. They serve as the voice of reason, as the unexpected source of justice. It is, after all, Hermione's friend and protector, Paulina, who orchestrates the grand reunion at the end of the play (when all, in effect, are forgiven). It is she who has the power to do so.
Men here -- especially Leontes -- are seen as impatient and conniving; they act impulsively, sometimes with disastrous result. Women, meanwhile, represent reason and method, and are mostly void of the emotional quality Shakespearean audiences might have expected. In many ways, gender roles here are inverted.
The Winter's Tale seems one of those Shakespearean plays that straddles the line between tragedy and comedy -- or at least between drama and comedy. Certainly, there are comic aspects to the play, and there's some tomfoolery among tertiary characters that fits the mold. But there are parts of the play -- particularly the first two acts -- which border on tragic, and which speak to darker human impulses.
I found those sections of the play particularly compelling: because while the resolution of the play is fun and satisfying, the road leading there is full of missteps and accusation. It was that route -- that early part of the play -- which shed most light on the human condition and our propensity to act without reason, to accuse without first confirming blame. The result of that tension propels The Winter's Tale.
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