Decay and Resurrection in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale by Himali Singh Soin

The Bridge Project performs Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at BAM.

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Photo by Joan Marcus.

The belief that we are born with a certain purity of character unmarred by notions of desire or morality still prevails in much of our society, whether in a religious context or otherwise. As the years pass we are burdened by politics, emotion, language, and perception. Thus, is the creation of art—an expression of a society’s discontents, making the unseeable and unsayable visible—known. In no other work of literature than in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is this idea better defined: Art is the result of the cycle of death and renewal within Nature.

Evoking nature, time, and art in the title itself, this roiling and tense drama about birth, death, and rebirth is articulated beautifully by The Bridge Project at BAM. While the play spans 16 years in actual time, and is set in the 1600s, Sam Mendes’s employment of British, Irish, and American actors displaces the play, making it timeless, both in costume and set design as well as in its relevance to a contemporary audience.

Our sense of wonder is aroused as the King of Sicilia is stricken with jealousy and suspicion over the fidelity of his wife, Hermione. Leontes, played fiercely and with haunting dimension by Simon Russell Beale, transforms overnight into a monster, banishing his wife and condemning his newborn daughter to death. And yet we pity him and are thankful to the good Camillo for believing in the truth and saving the lives of both Polixenes, King of Bohemia, whom the king wanted poisoned for betrayal, as well as his own child, who lands in the hands of a kind-hearted shepherd (Richard Easton).

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Richard Easton. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By way of comic interlude in the second half of the play, Autolycus (played by Ethan Hawke), a feisty, charismatic rogue, provides us with Dylan-esque tunes and sly, if sometimes kitschy relief from the turmoils of the main characters. The set (by Anthony Ward), is now adorned with bunches of red, white, and blue balloons, architecturally binding America and Britain together. The projected background of wispy clouds in the horizon, however, are cinematic in a way that we can do without, it is in this imaginary space wherein lies the beauty of theater, there is nothing in the projections of the storms or the tree shaped lighting-gobos that cannot not be imagined.

At this same party, we discover Leontes’s lost daughter, Perdita, who accepts the charming prince of Bohemia’s hand in marriage. When Polixenes refuses to abet his son’s marriage to a shepherd’s daughter, the prince Florizel turns to Leontes for help. Perdita, “an art/ That nature makes,” is discovered to be the king’s daughter, and Paulina, Hermione’s allegiant, produces a statue of Hermione, which by magic comes to life: This is an art/ Which does mend nature, change it rather, but/ The art itself is nature.” Thus Art reverts back to Nature and creates within us feelings of sublime wonder and awe.

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Simon Russell Beale. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There is one particular moment, a single monologue, that truly encapsulates the magic of The Winter’s Tale. Richard Easton’s rendition of Time, a personified character who introduces the passage of 16 years, is simultaneously intelligent design and the playwright’s stage notes. He proclaims that “it is in my power/ To o’erthrow law and in one self-born hour/ To plant and o’erwhelm custom”. And in this same way, Easton brings to this fantastical personification, through tone of inquiry, a simultaneously young and aged character: Time, who we see only once; Time, who we are subliminally aware of always; Time, “mettest with things dying, [and] with things reborn”.

Time appears as an instrument of the play’s art form, as a structural device that both divides and unifies the two ends of the play. Time’s glass, may, in this sense, be a mirror, the two halves of the play reflecting each other. The first half is a plot concealed, all institutions decay, it is winter. In the second half, things are revealed, resurrected, spring has arrived. In employing Time in the form of a chorus, Shakespeare is abiding by a strict Aristotelian artistic tradition, a structural device in Greek plays to break the actor-audience wall. Yet, in not adhering to the unities of Time, Place, and Action, Shakespeare rebels against Art, portraying Time as a kind of disunification or chaos, outside of man-made order: as Art.

At the play’s end, when Hermione is resurrected, Leontes says “the fixture of her eyes has motion in’t, as we are mocked with art”. Hermione is Nature’s greatest work of art in the human realm—“What fine chisel could ever yet cut breath?” She appears in the court as the highest product of both natural and artificial breeding, pure nobility of Nature and the grace of Art merges to create the statue of Hermione, and we must recognize that art and nature are found within each other: “the art itself is nature.”

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