The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

 The Winter's Tale cover

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare has come in for a lot of criticism over the centuries since it was first published in 1623. The problem seemed to be that it didn’t fall into a distinct category. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, part tragedy, part comedy and part romance. Plus you definitely have to suspend your disbelief at times in the story, otherwise the plot just seems to be far too unlikely.

Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, were great friends in childhood and after many years apart Polixenes visits Leontes in Sicilia. After nine months in Sicilia Polixenes is keen to go home to see his son Prince Florizel, Leontes is reluctant to give him up, but is unable to persuade him to stay on. Not willing to take no for an answer Leontes persuades his wife Queen Hermione to twist Polixenes’s arm – and she succeeds, presumably because Polixenes finds it more difficult to say NO to the heavily pregnant Hermione, and he doesn’t want to seem impolite.

However Leontes is immediately suspicious of this change of mind and decides that his friend and wife must have been having an affair, and that the child that Hermione is carrying isn’t his. Very quickly Leontes’s love for his friend turns to hatred and the man that he had praised to the skies becomes number one enemy and Camillo, a Sicilian lord is ordered to kill Polixenes. But Camillo warns Polixenes and they both sail off to Bohemia.

Furious at this escape Leontes turns his wrath on Hermione and ends up throwing her in prison, where she soon gives birth to a daughter. In an attempt to soften Leontes’s heart Hermione’s friend Pauline takes the baby to the king but it has the opposite effect and he orders Pauline’s husband Lord Antigonus to take the baby away and abandon her in the wilds.

Leontes had sent messengers to the Oracle at Delphos to find out if Hermione had been unfaithful to him, but meanwhile Hermione is put on public trial, during the trial the report from Delphos is read out and it says that Hermione and Polixenes are completely innocent and that Leontes won’t have an heir until his abandoned daughter is found. Leontes refuses to believe any of that, but when news reaches the court that his son and heir Mamillius has died due to the stress at the treatment handed out by his father to his mother Hermione faints. Pauline tells Leontes that Hermione is dead and he’s wracked with grief over the loss of his wife, son and baby daughter.

I would definitely say that this part of the story comes under the category of tragedy. Now for the romance.

While all this has been going on Antigonus has taken the baby to the coast of Bohemia and has given her the name of Perdita which apparently Hermione had asked him to name her in a dream he had. Perdita meaning lost. Perdita is found by a shepherd and his son and as there is a cloth bundle containing gold and jewels with her they realise that the baby comes of noble blood.

Sixteen years pass and King Polixenes’s son Prince Florizel has fallen in love with Perdita of course! They plan to get married without asking for Polixenes’s permission but the King knows what is going on and he and Camillo disguise themselves and go to the feast at which the betrothal will take place. Furious at his son’s subterfuge Polixenes threatens the old shepherd and Perdita with death and orders Florizel never to see Perdita again. The young couple run off and set sail for Sicilia, accompanied by the old shepherd and his son and helped by Camillo who then tells Polixenes where they have gone, hoping that the king will follow them to Sicilia and take Camillo with him.

Meanwhile, in Sicilia Leontes is still in mourning for Hermione. His courtiers have tried to persuade him to re-marry in order to get an heir to the kingdom, but Pauline tells him that no other wife will match up to Hermione. When Prince Florizel and Perdita arrive in Sicilia Leontes is very happy to see them, especially as Florizel claims to be on a diplomatic mission from his father. But very quickly Polixenes and Camillo arrive and it isn’t long before everyone realises that Perdita is actually the long lost daughter of Leontes and Hermione. Leontes is thrilled to have his daughter back and of course the two kings will be happy to have their offspring married to each other. Everyone goes off to Pauline’s country house where there is a newly made statue of Hermione, but while Leontes is weeping at the sight of his dead wife the statue moves – YES – Hermione is alive!

And that’s that. There is romance and some comedy and the real tragedy is the waste of time – the 16 years in which Leontes mourned for a wife he thought to be dead and of course the loss of Mamillius due to his father’s suspicious and jealous mind. As human beings don’t change over the centuries the psychological aspect of this story is one which is repeated often.

There is a certain POTUS who seems to have that problem, when people are doing what he wants them to do they are just wonderful, terrific people, but as soon as the possibilty of a perceived disloyalty is suspected – all hell breaks loose!

The Winter’s Tale isn’t a favourite of mine, but I was glad that I read it in an Oxford World’s Classic edition as it has an interesting introduction and lots of notes.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare – The Classics Club spin 21

The Tempest cover

A wee bit late, but I got my Classics Club spin choice finished. I actually began reading The Tempest ages ago and got half way through it before being distracted by something else, so when I eventually got back to it I started from the beginning again. This is probably the last play that William Shakespeare wrote, way back in 1610-1611.

Prospero was the Duke of Milan but he wasn’t really interested in ruling his kingdom as he was obsessed by honing his skills as a magician. Prospero was happy to allow his younger brother Antonio to take over all the power that he should have had, but in time Antonio decided that he wanted to have his brother’s title too, so he deposed Prospero who managed to escape with his three year old daughter Miranda, helped by his trustworthy servant Gonzalo.

When the play begins twelve years have passed since Prospero and Miranda landed on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean, and Prospero has been practising his magic arts aided by the books he managed to take with him and Ariel who is a spirit, he/she had been held captive on the island by a witch who had lived there earlier along with her son Caliban. Prospero has been able to send a huge storm to blast a ship which has his treacherous brother on board, among many others, including Ferdinand who is the son of the King of Naples who was also on the ship. Ferdinand thinks he is the only survivor of the shipwreck and when he and Miranda meet it’s love at first sight. But when Prospero meets Ferdinand he sets him to work for him, hauling firewood around, that’s not something that the heir to a throne is used to doing.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island some of the other survivors who had been returning from a wedding are plotting to kill King Alonso, but Ariel gets wind of the plot and foils it. There’s a lot of confusion and some drunkeness among the survivors – but what can I say except – All’s well that ends well except that’s another of his plays.

That’s the thing about reading Shakespeare, you keep coming across phrases that have become part of the English language, and often you don’t realise that they were first written by Shakespeare, and of course other writers have borrowed them. The phrase – this rough magic appears a few times to which I say Step forward Mary Stewart. His words have found their way into our psyche whether we realise it or not. I expect we’ve all heard from Act 4 scene 1:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

It’s thought that he was inspired to write this play on hearing of what happened to a fleet of nine ships which set sail for Virginia. The ship the Sea Adventure was separated from the other ships during a storm and washed up near Bermuda, stuck between two rocks. The crew and most of the cargo and fittings managed to get ashore safely, but it was assumed that they had all perished and it was some time before they managed to continue their journey to Virginia.

Shakespeare knew some of the people involved and was able to read an original letter from William Strachey which described the strange experiences of those who had been shipwrecked.

It seems that nothing changes as I know that writers today often get their ideas from things that they see in the news.

Anyway – that’s The Tempest under my belt – so to speak. It’s a great read and I can only imagine how enthralling it must have been for the original audience and will definitely try to watch a modern version of it, but not too modern as I prefer my Shakespeare to come with period costumes and stage sets. I just love Arthur Rackham’s illustrations.

How did you get on with your Classics Club spin book?

The Tempest

The Classics Club Spin # 21 – result

The Tempest cover

The result of the Classics Club Spin number 21 is number 5 and for me that means I’ll be reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s a play which seems to have been in the news a lot over the last year or so for various reasons.

By coincidence I had begun to read it this morning anyway, it isn’t going to take me long so I’ll be reading a few more from my Classics Club list by the 31st of October which is when I’ll have my review of The Tempest on here. Have you already read it and if so, what did you think of it?

Macbeth A True Story by Fiona Watson

I saw this book at my library and as I only knew Macbeth via Shakespeare I thought it would be interesting to find out about the real story. I enjoyed the book but I do have one wee gripe about it and that is that Macbeth doesn’t make an appearance until you are more than half way through the book.

The title of the book is something of a misnomer but I have to admit that it was the title which grabbed my attention. There’s an awful lot of history to read through before you get to Macbeth who reigned from 1040 to 1057. The beginnings of Christianity in Scotland, the Romans, Viking raids and ‘kings’ who murdered each other constantly.

Those so called kings would nowadays be called gangland leaders or warlords, grabbing the top slot by violence and it was only a matter of time before someone else had a go at them.

Macbeth managed to hold onto power for 17 years and was apparently popular but has just about been written out of history because as always, the history is written by the winners and the winners were the Mac Alpins.

Macbeth’s reputation was comprehensively trashed over the centuries and it was a history by Ralph Holinshed of Macbeth which gave Shakespeare the idea for writing his play. So there is no truth in the play at all, but it served its purpose.

Shakespeare had been writing and performing for Elizabeth 1, when the company of actors had been known as The Queen’s Men. On Elizabeth’s death things must have been somewhat disconcerting for them to say the least. They were basically redundant. What was this unknown quantity King James VI (I of England) going to be like? Would he want a company of actors or not?

So Shakespeare set to buttering the King up and wrote Macbeth as the bad guy because King James was descended from the Mac Alpins who had succeeded to the throne after Macbeth. It worked, and it wasn’t long before Shakespeare’s company became The King’s Men.

There were times when ‘ma heid wis fairly birlin’ whilst reading this book, because there were so many kings and murders and strange names, and it seemed a very long time before Macbeth’s story was told, but I did enjoy it.

If you are interested in Shakespeare you might like to read this article In Search of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, which appeared in last Saturday’s Guardian review.

The Birnam Oak, Dunkeld Perthshire

I really like the small town of Dunkeld, there isn’t an awful lot there but all the shops are individual and quirky and the place just has a lovely atmosphere.

There is a scenic old bridge which unfortunately is undergoing some work at the moment so half of it is covered with scaffolding, so no photograph at the moment. However if you cross the bridge from the town and take the Birnam Walk, which is just down the steps at the left hand side of the bridge, and turn to the right at the bottom of them, after about ten minutes you will reach the Birnam Oak.

As you can see, the tree is so old it has been given crutches. It is thought that this is the only remaining tree of the original ancient Birnam Wood which is mentioned in Macbeth.

The bottom three metres is hollow. You can see the gap.

Apparently a company of English players did act at the nearby city of Perth and it is thought that William Shakespeare may have been one of them. It seems plausible to me as something must have given him the idea of writing about Birnam Wood travelling to Dunsinane.

If anything, this sycamore tree looks even older but it is thought to be only about 300 years old. It is wonderfully gnarled, like something out of a scary fairy tale.

Dunkeld is also famous for its links with Beatrix Potter as her family had a holiday home nearby. She got a lot of her ideas from the area and also did some very good paintings of the local flora and fauna which can be seen at the Arts and Conference Centre in nearby Birnam.