The Winter's Tale is said to be one of Shakespeare's final plays. Perhaps that might explain why it defies categorisation – it is most accurately described as a "tragi-comedy". One could very well imagine a playwright at the height of his powers doing what he does best, writing both high comedy and high tragedy into the very same play. It is a tale of two kingdoms – Sicily and Bohemia – and it is fitting that it is staged by The Bridge Project, a transatlantic partnership spearheaded by three New York and London theatre companies. Director Sam Mendes (of American Beauty fame) has cleverly cast the British actors as Sicilians and the American actors as Bohemians.
The first half of the play is set in Sicilia where a Lear-like tragedy unfolds. Leontes, the King of Sicilia, is a jealous tyrant who throws his wife in jail and casts his infant daughter out of the kingdom, mistakenly believing his wife to be an adulteress and his daughter, a bastard. The dark first half ends, fittingly, with Shakespeare's most famous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear." The Sicilian nobleman Antigonus, who is given the heart-wrenching task of leaving the infant princess the wild deserts of Bohemia, is consumed by a bear.
The contrast between the first and the second half of the play could not be more stark. The first half, set in Sicilia, takes place in the depths of winter. The stage is sparse and dimly lit. Hanging lamps with flickering flames adorn the back wall. All the characters are dressed in dark, sober colours, mostly black. At the beginning of the play, Leontes' young son is asked by his mother the Queen to "tell us a tale". "A sad tale's best for winter," he replies. The dramatic irony could not be more obvious given the impending tragedy that will rip the Sicilian royal family apart. The young prince himself dies of grief soon after his mother is found guilty of adultery. The Queen faints when she receives this news and is taken away. A little later on, Leontes presumes that she too has died.
Fast forward 16 years later and we find ourselves in Bohemia, where Leontes' daughter, Perdita, had been adopted by a shepherd and has now come of age. She has fallen in love with the young prince of Bohemia, whose father had been accused of committing adultery with the Queen of Sicilia, Perdita's mother. The second half of the play takes place in pastoral Bohemia, where sunlight dapples the ground, flowers are in bloom and a sheep-shearing festival is in full swing. Ethan Hawke makes his much touted appearance as the rogue, Autolycus, singing and dancing, pick-pocketing and cheating his way through the crowd. High comedy ensues when some of the young men and women at the festival break out into a bawdy fertility dance. All this is more reminiscent of Shakespeare's light-hearted comedies in which mistaken identities and misunderstandings are eventually cleared up, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Most of the second half is devoted to a series of fortuitous events, which eventually sees Perdita reunited with her parents, the King and Queen of Sicilia. They too are reconciled to each other. Perdita and her beloved, the Prince of Bohemia, are together at last (the King of Bohemia had originally opposed their marriage, thinking that Perdita was one lowly born), and both kings - erstwhile bosom friends - are also reconciled. Leontes' character is fully redeemed - he has spent the last 16 years remorsefully regretting his actions, and is speechless with joy when he gets both his wife and daughter back from the dead. Everything ends happily, and the tragedy of the first half is entirely reversed. The oracle from the first act has been fulfilled - that which was lost has now been found.
The seeming incongruity between the two halves of the play has led some critics to consider The Winter's Tale to be one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." The play itself is not easily categorised with the two halves so starkly contrasted - dark and light, tragedy and comedy, winter and spring. But perhaps these disparate elements of the play actually represent real life more faithfully than either a straightforward tragedy or comedy could? After all, life is never entirely joyful nor entirely tragic, but often a curious mix of both.
Could it not also be said that the joy of the second half is made more acute by the tragedy of the first? After all, if winter had not been so cold, the trees not so bare, would we behold the first dew and the first bloom of spring with the same wonder? In the same way, if our hearts had not been so dark and hardened, would we be so deeply moved by the immense magnitude of God's grace when first his light breaks in?
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.