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July 12, 2005

The Stuart vs. Tudor Courts: The Winter's Tale at The Globe

Posted by David Wootton

William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale
directed by John Dove
Shakespeare's Globe, London
in repertory 4th June - 1st October 2005

David Wootton, the University of York's Anniversary Professor of History, finds that the Globe's production of The Winter's Tale deals well with the play's historical allusions.

I saw this production first about a week before the critics' night, and was profoundly unimpressed. I was sitting just to the right of the stage, which meant that key moments which are performed on the inner stage intimate interactions between Hermione and Leontes; the bear; the statue were out of my sight line. But most of all the acting was stiff and awkward. Only Yolanda Vazquez (Hermione) and Colin Hurley (Autolycus) seemed comfortable with their parts Hurley was already superb, and now is even better.

A month later, and sitting in a good seat, the whole production works wonderfully. It is, in fact, a model of what such a production at the Globe should be: as close as we can reasonably hope to get to a performance in Shakespeare's lifetime. According to the programme, there are some cuts to the text, but I must admit I only noticed one of them (the dance of twelve satyrs was missing, alas), and I do know the play quite well, having used it for teaching. It is well staged, though I can't quite see the need for the ridiculous costumes (at least to modern eyes) in which Florizel and Perdita appear at the end.

The play falls roughly into two halves in the first, set in Sicilia, Leontes unfairly accuses his wife Hermione of adultery with Polixenes, king of Bohemia and she is tried for treason after giving birth to a daughter who on Leontes' orders is to be abandoned. Hermione apparently dies, after the news of the death of their son Mamillius. Meanwhile Camillo, a gentleman of Leontes' court, is instructed to kill Polixenes (a task he refuses to perform). In the second half, set in Bohemia, Perdita, raised as a shepherd's daughter (and unbeknownst to her, daughter of Leontes) falls in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes. They flee to Sicilia, where Perdita's identity is revealed (and Hermione restored to life). Florizel, Polixenes' heir, and Perdita, Leontes' heir, are thus set to become king and queen of a united kingdom of Bohemia-Sicilia.

We happen to know the play was frequently performed at court, first under James I and then under Charles I. James had of course become king of a united kingdom of Scotland-England. His mother had been accused of adultery, tried for treason, and killed. Shakespeare took his story from Robert Greene's Pandosto, but reversed Bohemia and Sicilia. It is surely right to see Bohemia, the land of happiness, celebration, comedy, and fairy gold as the England James inherited from Elizabeth; Sicilia, the land of false accusations, of tragedy, death and mourning as the Scotland of his orphaned youth. But one should also see Leontes as a jealous and murderous Tudor king, a Henry VIII or indeed Elizabeth his southern island can only be rescued by an heir arriving from the north. This production, very sensibly, sets the second half in the 1610s, and so the world of the Stuarts, and the first half in the 1590s, and so the world of the Tudors.

I think we have to assume, then, that James I and Charles I would have seen the play as an attack on the Tudors and would have identified with Florizel. They must have felt untouched by the charge of tyranny that is explicitly directed at Leontes. The mockery of courtiers, and of the openness of the court to the baseborn (Perdita's adoptive father and brother, humble shepherds, become in an instant "gentlemen born"), must have seemed to them a gentle and harmless satire. And yet a different audience might well have seen the play as portraying the inherent dangers of monarchy: Leontes simply has too much power, and courts inevitably attract flatterers and thieves.

Any production of the play faces a number of difficulties. There are two set scenes which are profoundly problematic: the bear, who pursues Antigonus in the most famous of all stage directions when Perdita is brought to Bohemia; and the statue of Hermione, which is brought to life at the close of the play. It is hard to produce a lifelike bear, or a statuelike Hermione. There is the need to move back and forth between the tragic world of Sicilia and the comic world of Bohemia, in the end uniting the two into one. In this production, as I think in any production, the second half, dominated by Bohemia, is livelier and more entertaining than the first.

There is also the task of making Leontes credible. His jealous suspicion of Hermione and Polixenes has to blow up out of nowhere and completely overwhelm his reasoning powers. And then, just when he is in the process of exacting his revenge, he learns that the oracle of Apollo (to whom he has sent for confirmation) has declared Hermione to be innocent and him to be a tyrant. In seconds he turns from fury to repentance, rage to grief. This Leontes (Paul Jesson) seemed to me pretty lame the first time I saw him, but rather good the second time. He isn't quite the mad, bad Henry VIII that I think he ought to be, but something close to it.

Like Pericles, another late play, this is a story of disaster and destruction, of lost chances and ruined hopes, but also of restoration and recovery, of a rediscovered daughter and a restored harmony. The happy ending does not undo all the awful things that have happened: sixteen years have gone by, Mamillius and Antigonus are both dead and stay that way. Nor does it redeem human nature: not only is Leontes a tyrant, personally responsible for everything that goes wrong, but we have seen plenty of evidence that Polixenes is a hypocrite, for first he praises mixed marriages amongst plants, and then refuses to allow his son to marry a shepherd girl. But good triumphs over bad, love over jealousy, the hospitality of the shepherds over Leontes' betrayal of his guest. This is a tragedy that has a happy ending.

The bittersweet character of the play renders it open to differing interpretations it can be seen as denouncing tyranny, or praising good government, as taking the side of love against convention, or declaring that love is only permissible when it meets the requirements of the older generation. It requires a performance that constantly shifts gear. And it leaves one at the end with mixed emotions. The result is, I think, that it is almost impossible for any performance to seem entirely satisfactory, for one is always left wondering where the emphasis ought to fall, on disaster or happiness, on destructive jealousy or harmonious love. This production cannot eliminate the inherent puzzle the play leaves us with, and that life of course also leaves us with.

I saw this production the night before the terrorist bombing of London now as I look back what strikes me is the innocence and optimism of the play. The worst destruction, the carnage wrought by the bear, the sinking of a ship with all hands, is wrought by nature, not by man. The world of James I really was a peaceful and happy interlude from which to look back on the Tudor years. Let's hope such an interlude comes to us again.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.


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