William Shakespeare is regarded-rightly or wrongly-as the greatest English-language dramatist of all time. So complete is Shakespeare’s ascension to the peak overlooking the heap of writers who have followed in his path that most English majors cannot make it through college without having to take a class dedicated exclusively to Willy’s work. In fact, if you are currently a high school student considering the pursuit of an English degree you can almost be guaranteed that by the time you receive your college diploma you will have been required to read Hamlet in at least two or three different classes. Shakespeare is unquestionably a vital figure in the history of literature and his plays are filled with import and meaning. Still, just as Martin Scorsese was capable of making The Color of Money, even Shakespeare was capable of delivering a full-fledged bomb.
It is possible to imagine that an inventive staging of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale could save the play. After all, Mystery Science Theater 3000 proved time and again that when approached from the right perspective even a film as empty of inherent entertainment value as Space Mutiny can be transformed into something worth watching over and over again. Of course, it would be hard to MST-ify a Shakespearean stage production, though that difficulty certainly should not stand in the way of making the attempt.
Saving The Winter’s Tale would almost require something along the lines of an MST3K intervention. The Winter’s Tale doesn’t begin promisingly and heads downhill from there. It begins with two old childhood friends who are now kings of their respective countries enjoying a visit. In less time than it took for John McCain to go from Republican maverick to Bush’s number one Senatorial lackey one of the kings goes from attempting to convince his old friend to extend his visit to trying to have him poisoned and accusing his own wife of carrying the other man’s bastard child. Of course, McCain has a good reason for tossing all credibility to the wind, whereas this guy goes all Othello without even the benefit of an Iago whispering in his ear. Keeping in mind that this is a Shakespearian play and not an episode of All My Children the following events occur: he tosses his wife in prison, tries to get the Oracle at Delphi to confirm his suspicions, he orders his bastard daughter to be abandoned in the wilderness, the king’s son dies causing the queen to swoon, the death of the queen is reported to the king, the abandoned daughter is actually taken to the land of that other king where she is raised as a simple shepherd’s daughter and where the son of that other king falls in love with her. Oh yeah, and the guy who took the daughter to the other country is killed by a bear with perhaps the most infamous stage directions in literary history: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Still with me? At one point Father Time enters to tell us that sixteen years has passed. Obviously, this occurs between the princess being dropped off by her overseer with the unfortunate ursine fate awaiting him. Once she is grown and the romance develops with prince who isn’t aware of her princesshood, that guy’s kingly dad looks disapprovingly upon the idea of a princess-in-law who smells like sheep. Oh, and by the way, the kingdom that the princess is dropped off in is called Bohemia and she arrives there by ship, despite the fact that at that Bohemia was a landlocked country. Of course, many critics have come to Shakespeare’s defense with proof that Bohemia-which was located roughly in the area that is known as the Czech Republic today-at one time did include a bit of coastland off the Adriatic Sea. It is also interesting a king would be consulting the Oracle at Delphi at the same time he employs sculptors clearly working in the Renaissance style.
Fans of Xena: Warrior Princess-a group in which I proudly include myself-will instantly recognize what is inarguably the most interesting character in the entire play. He is a bit of a rogue, more than a bit of a master thief, and possesses at least a partial fragment of gold within that cold, greedy heart of his. The name of this king of thieves? Autolycus, of course.
As bizarre as everything that I have just described is, nothing quite prepares the first time reader for the climax of The Winter’s Tale. And if the idea of Shakespeare-who proves on several occasions that he is quite capable of creating three-dimensional characters overloaded with complex motivations for their actions-resting his entire play upon a king who over the course of just a few lines turns from a laid back genial ruler to a homicidal maniac possessed by demon jealousy isn’t enough to convince you that Shakespeare was apparently writing this thing with a two day deadline approaching, then surely the ending will be enough to make you question whether give a writer a break the next time his stuff isn’t quite up to snuff.
The princess in disguise and the prince of Bohemia flee back to her homeland and in a series of events that can only take place in Shakespeare without being termed soap operatic plot devices, the true identity of the girl is revealed and love rules out. But Shakespeare has one more little trick up his sleeve. Everyone is invited to see a statue of the queen who died as a result of the king’s insane jealousy. The sculpture is remarked lifelike-right down to the fact that for some reason it was sculpted to make it look like what the queen would look like now, sixteen years later, rather than how she looked when she died. Everyone is overcome with emotion and the statue’s caretaker announces that she will make it move. At the sound of music, the statue comes to life and steps down from its pedestal. Lo and behold, but that is not statue, my friends, but rather the real life Queen Hermione. Although the indication is that it was magic that brought the statue back to life, there exists plenty of evidence that the queen never actually died, but has rather been living in near-total isolation for sixteen years.
The point? Simply to cast further illumination on the fact that just because we are constantly being told things are true, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are. We keep being reminded over and over again that Shakespeare is the man; he is the number one genius in literary history; the writer of over thirty masterpieces that absolutely require the utmost respect and obeisance. A wholesale re-evaluation of the genius of Shakespeare isn’t merited simply because he wrote a clunker. We must always remember that nothing is black and white, either/or, absolute. If the measure of a literary genius is that he never wrote a piece of crap, then it’s time to seriously strip down the amount of time that college students spend on Shakespeare. On the other hand, if we can accept that the man being sold to us as the height of literary achievement was capable of writing something that wouldn’t even be accepted on a daytime serial, then maybe we can start moving toward being a little more critical of other information we receive every day.