Wednesday 19 May 2010

It is a new world

It is a new world!
In the film Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow opens the door to her maid and tells her, upon hearing that "It is a new day", that it is, in fact, "A new world!" Having just made the beast with two backs with Joseph Fiennes, I don't doubt she had good reason to say so. I have not created said animal with Joe Fiennes, more's the pity, but I can still say, with a great deal of glee, that for me it is still "A new world!" Why, you ask? I have just read a play by Shakespeare, my first Renaissance play in 18+ months, and it was extremely enjoyable because totally void of the remembered pains of grad school. You know what this means? It's not too soon anymore. Bliss. Oh Shakespeare, I've missed you so much!

The play I chose was The Winter's Tale, which is one of my favourites, and it's one of my favourites because it remains in many ways baffling even after repeated re-readings. (I believe I've read it approximately 10 times now.) The two primary areas of bafflement are: 1) Leontes' deadly jealousy of his wife, Hermione, and his best friend, Polixenes; and, 2) the structure - this play begins as a tragedy, turns into a pastoral comedy with the unique stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear", threatens to turn back into a tragedy, and then concludes as a romantic comedy with the marks of grief from the preceding fading but still very present.

Linguistic power, royal power
When I've taught or spoken about this play in the past, I've focused on Leontes' inexplicable and sudden sexual jealousy at the friendship between his wife and friend in terms of linguistic prowess. Specifically, I've noted that while Hermione and Polixenes are fluent and well-versed in the complex social dance that forms the politeness and playfulness of courtly interaction, Leontes is almost functionally illiterate in this regard. He can't distinguish the flirtatiousness that defines courtly banter from an imagined reality involving treasonous adultery and malicious, even murderous, hood-winking.

This leads to Polixenes fleeing for his life, Hermione being tried for treason, their young son dying from the stress of it all, and their new-born daughter Perdita being banished to a far shore to die from exposure or hungry, ravening beasts. I won't tell you the whole plot, for as one of Shakespeare's less read plays, you might actually be able to be surprised by what you find there; I will say that by the play's conclusion, Leontes' hold on courtly language has become fit for a king and order is restored.

Re-reading the play, however, I began to think there was more to Leontes' jealousy than a hyper-paranoid sense of exclusion and therefore social vulnerability. I noted more closely this time how his jealousy of his wife in the first 3 acts is thematically and structurally mirrored in Polixenes' jealousy of his son's attempt to chose his own wife in the final 2 acts. In Polixenes' case, his anger doesn't arise out of an ability to comprehend social rituals surrounding language; rather, it arises out of a profound desire to control his domain, and as he is king and father, his son Florizel is quite clearly in his domain.

This particular lack of control over this particular subject drives the normally pleasant Polixenes to distribute widely and without restraint threats of banishment, torture, and cruel death. It's not that he doesn't understand his son's reasons for choosing the woman he does - he admires her beauty and even admits she appears to be by nature far superior to her nurture - but that he isn't interested in what his son is saying. In this way, he is like Leontes, for royal control is closely tied to the exercise of linguistic control.

The king's prerogative
But there's something deeper going on, and I believe it is this: simply, jealousy (or any other emotional or mental whim that strikes a king) is, without qualification or explanation required, the king's prerogative. Leontes may - and does - pay a very large price for his misplaced suspicions of his wife's fidelity, but that price does not include his crown. Leontes' royal position is never threatened, regardless of how tyrannical he becomes; his line is threatened, certainly, but his position in life is not. Thus, it doesn't matter whether or not we can comprehend where his jealousy comes from, it only matters, really, that Hermione and Polixenes miss the warning signs and don't adapt or respond.

And there are warning signs in Leontes' words, from the very beginning (check out all of Act 1, Scene ii). Thus, not only is the linguistic breakdown here a two-way street and not simply the failure of the king to speak and listen as he should; it's also a failure by Hermione and Polixenes to remember that in Sicilia, it is the Sicilian king's privilege to make things mean what he wants them to mean - just as Polixenes may do, and does, at home in Bohemia.

In a courtly world, where conversation is a sort of elaborate game, there is (to quote David Mitchell) a game beyond the game - and that is, to constantly be deciphering the king's unspoken, badly spoken, barely formed, etc desires and thoughts. To fail to remain attuned to both games at once is dangerous indeed. Now, I'm not saying that Hermione is, because she doesn't notice her husband's vicious paranoia early on, partially to blame for the death of her children; I'm not interested in apportioning blame at all, and I don't think that's what Shakespeare was aiming for here either. Rather, this play, for all its structural confusion - nay, because of and reflected in its structural twists and turns - is a meditation on the difficulty in managing social  relations in the highly stratified but ever-changing world of early 17th-century England. More importantly, I think, it's a meditation on the linguistic conflict between the personal and public, the interior and the social. When kings cannot comprehend their own and their wives' meanings, what hope can others possibly have to do the same?

Blogger's prerogatives
There's so much more I could say here, but this is getting too long already. I love this play, and have more questions than answers still. And for me, having more questions than answers always lead, back in the day, to my best academic work. Whether or not I write more about The Winter's Tale in the coming days will be determined entirely by my mood. If you haven't read this play, though, I highly encourage you to do so. It's good fun and will give you lots to stew over.

The other blogger's prerogative I'm exercising here is that I'm not going to check to see which scholars have said all this already. I'm sure it's all been said, but I'm just going to take pleasure in my impressions without worrying about inserting myself into a formal academic conversation; and maybe this, ultimately, is the best part about it not being "too soon" anymore. :)


Y S Lee said...

Did you see Theatre Kingston's production of WT a few years ago? It was beautifully staged.

And I really enjoyed your meditation on the king's prerogative. I took this path when I taught The Tempest a couple of years ago at RMC: Prospero neglects his duties as ruler in favour of his books, and is usurped as a consequence. On the island, his revenge scheme nearly fails because he once more gets carried away with magic. And yet he's ultimately restored to his "rightful" place.

Heidenkind said...

You do realize it's just a step away from looking to see if anyone's written the same thing before to writing and article about it and publishing, right? I'm just saying....

J.G. said...

Apparently now that the pain of grad school is fading, only the pleasures remain. How nice to just read and enjoy, indeed, from an educated perspective!

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: Nope, definitely not. I don't like reading criticism... :)

Ying & J.G.: I tried to publish your comments but Blogger had a stroke and they disappeared. :(

Kevin said...

Damn, that was a bracing read, your post, that is. A tip of the hat to you, dear C. Have you read Billy Budd? I ask because his linguistic deficiencies manifest as a stupid act of brawn, which land him in the drink. Also, how long did it take you to compose this post? Hours, days? You think sexual jealousy is bad, try linguistic jealousy! I quiver lamely before your output.

Bookphilia said...

Aha! The missing comments have magically appeared.

Ying: No, I've never seen any production of The Winter's Tale, except, of course the BBC version on VHS. It's playing at Stratford this summer but I think I'm too afraid to go see how badly they mangle it...

J.G.: That's the bright side I was thinking of too. :)

Kevin: I honestly cannot recall whether or not I've read Billy Budd, so that amounts effectively to a no. Moby Dick is one of my favourite novels of all time, so I should probably get back to Melville sooner rather than later...

Thanks for the accolades. When I'm really engaged, it doesn't take me long to write something and I felt on fire with this one. Also, I *have* been thinking about this play for 15 years!!! As you may recall, it's the thing that got me moving towards grad school way back in the day...

Stefanie said...

Very interesting thoughts about Leontes' sudden jealously. I read the play for the first time earlier this year and I found it inexplicable. You've posited a thought provoking parallel.

Unknown said...

I really should read more Shakespeare, coming from the same Warwickshire posse and all. Maybe I'll finally get around to reading my copy of 'King Lear' at some point this year.

By the way, I think it's totally unfair that people with PhDs in English Literature are allowed to blog; it makes the rest of us look even more amateur than we are ;)

Bookphilia said...

Stefanie: It *is* a very strange play indeed. Maybe I wouldn't, in the end, recommend it to anyone who hasn't read some of his earlier (and more straightforward, in terms of genre, tragedies and comedies); knowing the tropes of those might make the wonky combination of both in WT easier to follow!

Tony: Oh, King Lear! Have you not read it before? I'm jealous of anyone reading it for the first time; I'm even jealous of my 26 year old self reading it for the first time!