The Winter's Tale Dramaturg's Notes

When Folger Theatre announced The Winter’s Tale for the season, patrons approved the play as a fast favorite. It’s one of Shakespeare’s romances, a genre assigned in the 19th century to a set of four later, captivating, and peculiar works. Part tragedy, part comedy, these plays focus on family. They turn on the errors of men old enough to know better, delight us with fantastical elements, engage us with shifts in place and time. And then there are the daughters, so vital to the plays’ beyond-happy endings. In these tales: “A father throws away his daughter. And nothing will ever be right until he gets her back” (Cain, Equivocation).

The ‘righting’ that takes place in The Winter’s Tale is foisted onto the younger generation: a lost daughter must be found or Sicilia’s king and country will be denied a future. That daughter’s discovery is sparked by the fervent heart of a son of Bohemia, one who is nearly lost himself. The royal fathers met in this play are similarly reckless: too willing to toss aside their children, too blind to know virtue when they see it. The kings’ brutality indicates a fear of displacement and a greedy interest in their beloveds’ hearts. Leontes describes the wife he persecutes as “one / Of us too much beloved.”

Director Aaron Posner takes this cue to note those characters who love excessively, hazardously. One danger comes from too-little understanding of love’s demands. Leontes rejects outright the vulnerability that is convoy to love; Polixenes does too, though to lessdire ends. Psychologists tell us that “[l]ove is an admission of… powerlessness; the stability of love… a kind of illusion” (New Yorker, 8/4/13). But kings by nature buck the loss of power; Leontes’ queen suffers profoundly from the imbalance Leontes cobbles out himself. Hermione, strong in innocence, maintains, “mine integrity/being counted falsehood/… shall make/… tyranny tremble.”

Perhaps it is the depth of this injustice—of attaching betrayal to so good a queen—that results in a re-purposing of falsehood in the play’s second half. Deception in Sicilia persists only in Leontes’ dreams, though it proves deadly. In Bohemia, deception is almost a friendly pastime. Deceit shows itself through disguise, petty theft, and play-acting. We see performances by a thief, shepherdess, king, prince, servant, and then by the thief and others once more. More Bohemians appear in disguise than out of it. It is when Perdita is “pranked up” as a goddess that a disguised Prince Florizell makes the astute observation that “all her acts are queens.” Deception enables characters to feel their way toward truth.

The player most devoted to deception is Autolycus, a “snapper up of trifles,” who proclaims herself to be “false of heart.” To her delight Autolycus’ falsehoods are unassailable: “If I had a mind to be honest, I see Fortune would not suffer me; she drops booties in my mouth.” This trickster is the play’s unremitting performer, conning marks with stories, distracting them with song. It is she who contributes most directly to the longed-for assemblage at the play’s end. That victory comes not in spite of her deception, but because of it.

The Winter’s Tale is not the only play in which Shakespeare highlights the value of performance, or offers up truth as an effect of artifice. But in no play is art more closely linked to miracle, or are the bounds between art and nature more carefully trimmed. Back in Leontes’ court, Paulina has been curating an exhibit for almost two decades (in this production). To view the work we are required to “awake [our] faith.” Is the recovered Hermione a work of art or nature? To Leontes it does not matter; even a false Hermione “mock’d with art” feels to him like magic—with senses unsettled, trembling and all.

–Michele Osherow


Photos of The Winter's Tale by Teresa Wood.
Upper Righ: Katie deBuys as Hermione and Michael Tisdale as Leontes.
Lower Left: Drew Drake as Florizell and Daven Ralston as Perdita/
Lower Right: Kimberly Gilbert as Autolycus.