The Winter’s Tale
The Winter’s Tale is indisputably one of the oddest of Shakespeare’s plays. I have always seen it as a kind of foil to Romeo and Juliet, which effectively starts off in a comic mode, and takes a sharp turn for the tragic about halfway through, with the death of Mercutio. This one works the other way around. It begins in bleak, oppressive tragedy, and by the end of the third act things are almost unrelievedly grim and dark. Then, suddenly, whimsically, everything is reversed and the result is a lyrical explosion into what is sometimes labeled as a comedy, but sometimes as a romance.
It’s also one of the plays (like Two Gentlemen of Verona, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Much Ado About Nothing) in which a virtuous and longsuffering woman puts up with an almost inconceivable amount of completely unjustified abuse from her beloved (in this case, her husband). There are those who find this a paradigm for some kind of systemic toleration for abuse (certainly there are no equivalent male characters in Shakespeare who deal with like abuse from their female beloved), but whether it is or not is probably mostly academic. I don’t think the play is at any point a defense of the abuse, at least. Whether a woman in the position of Hermione is a saint or a doormat depends on how you look at these things, and I don’t think you need to take one position or the other to value the play and its brilliant lyricism.
It’s a fascinating play, too, for exploring the extent to which Shakespeare was willing to dispense with Aristotle’s so-called “dramatic unities”. In his Poetics, Aristotle had laid down the principle that plays should be controlled by unity of plot, unity of time, and unity of place. By the unity of plot, he merely meant that the story should be about one thing, rather than many; by unity of time he meant that it should happen “in real time” — without intervening gaps taking place. By unity of place, he meant that the play should take place in a single location. At least some Athenian tragedy is able to measure up to these terms.
This play is not. The Winter’s Tale may exhibit a unity of plot, but it clearly doesn’t preserve any kind of unity of time or place. The second half takes place sixteen years after the first half, and the action bounces from Sicily to Bohemia and back again.