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 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.