Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age.
The image of Perdita, the lost child of angry Leontes, handing out restorative herbs to the disguised King of Bohemia and Camillo, his expatriate right-hand man, is typical of the play, and indelible. Throughout, redemption in the form of an unspoiled younger generation reaches out promisingly to older, hardened hearts and is rejected, until finally, in Act V, full reconciliation is achieved and harmony restored.
At the same time, time and the change of seasons operate in the background and create a vantage point of compassion even for Leontes, apparently broken by his insane jealousy, and Polixenes, equally overwrought and caught on the precipice of his own irretrievable error.
By some accident I forgot the Wikipedia/Oxford Shakespeare chronology and reversed the order, listening to Cymbeline first and now, The Winter’s Tale. A happy accident, as it happens, because unlike my experience of Cymbeline, whose general wackiness and drawn out, even tedious finale left me with a sense of dissatisfaction, I sit now, after completing The Winter’s Tale, a little lost in my own thoughts. (Interestingly, Shakespeare this time has the discovery and recap take place offstage, related by a group of effete and rather silly courtiers. Clever.)
I’ve been through this play multiple times in the past, and never had a sense of its perfection before. Maybe this is a play you have to age into. It does help to be older, and get a nice long draught of care and responsibility, and actually experience the apparently wayward “narrative” of life events and learn how endurance is often its own reward – and actually disappear occasionally in life’s bonuses of Spring, poetry, and the odd, unpredictable beauty of nature. The desire to make sense of things, carving and twisting and jamming them into your own schema falls away, and like Shakespeare, you accept the flow of time and the folly of finding control outside of a divinity that shapes our ends independently of our efforts.
That sounds not a little sanctimonious, and I can’t seem to rewrite my way out of its preachiness. Maybe that’s a signal that the mystery is beyond words, unless you’re Shakespeare.
And I’m not.
Argo recording is splendid. All the actors are uniquely sensitive to the unique features of Shakespeare’s late style, beautiful but idiosyncratic in a way that can be unexpectedly difficult to present. William Squire’s Leontes, especially, gets to the heart of the verse in a powerful way that allows his sudden fit of jealousy to seem real and without the need for justification or an extensive setup. The warmth and beauty of Margaretta Scott is welcome, and as Florizel and Perdita, Anthony White and undegrad Mary Conroy are full of charm. The double act of Michael Bates and Ian McKellen as Autolycus and the Young Shepherd is particularly memorable, allowing the rogue’s wit to be gradually and neatly undermined by the peasant’s simplicity and honesty. Joan Hart lends to Paulina a softness not usually seen in a part full of needling and haranguing.
The Winter’s Tale with William Squire, Margaretta Scott, Joan Hart, Anthony White, Mary Conroy, Michael Bates and Ian McKellen