The 2012-2013 Season at STC has been one that may throw even climate change believers for a loop. For our midwinter show, we mounted a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And now, as we approach the midsummer solstice, we are doing The Winter’s Tale. In other words, the weather inside the theatre has been as topsy-turvy as the skies over the Potomac. And yet it feels apt, somehow, to pair these two plays at opposite ends of the year. They form a bookend in the canon, offering two different perspectives on the passing of time.
Midsummer, for all its virtuosity, is a young man’s play. Using the misadventures of a middle summer’s night—and the fecund, startling imagery therein—Shakespeare tells a tale about the fantastic appetites and desires of young love. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the play was written during Shakespeare’s “lyric period,” in the first third of his career, alongside such other romantic and poetic masterpieces as Romeo and Juliet and Richard II.
Like those plays, Midsummer has a surprisingly complex relationship to genre. Its tone is comic, but it’s a comedy unlike any that had appeared before in dramatic literature. Its images of Ovidian metamorphosis have the power to terrify as much as amuse, and the play unspools into surprising reflections on the power of madness and nightmare. Part of the play’s magic lies in its ability to imbue older, sadder couples with the transformative powers of young love—in particular, the ambiguous royal couples of Theseus and Hippolyta, who preside over Athens, and their Fairyland doppelgängers, Oberon and Titania.
The Winter’s Tale, on the other hand, is the work of someone older, who has been shaped by life and its myriad triumphs and disappointments. Instead of young love, the theme is family ties. The play’s characters form a constellation of parents and children, husbands and wives. As the play opens, two men of middle age—Leontes and Polixenes—wax nostalgic over their lost youth. Polixenes yearns to return home to see his infant son Florizel, who “makes a July’s day short as December.” When Leontes talks to his own infant son, Mamillius, he seems unnerved to see his younger self in the boy:
Looking on the lines
Of my boy’s face, methoughts I did recoil
Twenty-three years, and saw myself unbreeched…
How like, methought, I then was to this kernel,
This squash, this gentleman. (act 1, scene 2)
Leontes and Polixenes regard the innocence of youth from the perspective of those who have lost it, or, as Polixenes, puts it, have “tripped since” into adulthood. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that The Winter’s Tale was written toward the end of Shakespeare’s career, after he had lost his own son, Hamnet, to death at the tender age of 9. It may be scholarly supposition, but the terrible things that befall Mamillius, Florizel and Perdita in the play seem to bespeak a writer who knows the helpless parent’s pain of losing one’s children. And in Leontes’ relationship with his wife Hermione, Shakespeare paints a terrifying portrait of marital intimacy and betrayal.
If A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a complex relationship to genre, then The Winter’s Tale is practically unclassifiable. The play is often grouped with Shakespeare’s final four plays—along with Pericles, Cymbeline and The Tempest—the so-called “romances.” The term comes to us from Coleridge, who coined it in the first bloom of romanticism for those plays which “arise from their fitness to that faculty of our nature, the imagination… which owes no allegiance to time and place.” And indeed, the play contains joy and sorrow, comedy and tragedy, improbabilities of plot and perfect dramaturgical parallels in a manner that is distinctively Shakespearean. When we suddenly leave the courtly world of Sicilia for the pastoral universe of Bohemia, it feels as if we are entering a world half-remembered in our dreams, a comic universe blooming, like springtime, in the middle of a winter’s tragedy. And when we return to Sicilia, we see one of the most magical and unexpected transformations in the entire Shakespeare canon.
Mamillius seems to evoke the fairy world of Midsummer when he tells Hermione, “A sad tale’s best for winter, I have one of sprites and goblins” (act 2, scene 1). But he is also explaining, obliquely, the title of his own play. Without resorting to the “sprites and goblins” of his dramatic apprenticeship, Shakespeare tells us a tale about the vast panoramic sweep of the human experience, as Leontes puts it, “this wide gap of time.” Just as it is easy to forget the midsummer’s passions in the cold of winter, the first flowers ofspring always come as an unexpected shock after the winter’s snow.
Drew Lichtenberg is the Literary Associate at STC and production dramaturg for The
Winter’s Tale. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale School