The ‘Darkness and Radiance’ of the Tale

The Winter’s Tale

by William Shakespeare, directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, Garrick Theatre, London, October 17, 2015–January 16, 2016
Miranda Raison as Hermione and Kenneth Branagh as Leontes in Branagh’s and Rob Ashford’s production of The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre, London, 2015
Johan Persson
Miranda Raison as Hermione and Kenneth Branagh as Leontes in Branagh’s and Rob Ashford’s production of The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre, London, 2015

Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, the inaugural volume of what Hogarth Press is calling, borrowing the language of recording studios, “cover versions” of Shakespeare’s plays, is a retelling of the late romance The Winter’s Tale, first performed at the Globe and then before King James I at court in 1611. The Winter’s Tale is, famously, a play that begins as tragedy, and transforms itself at the very end of its third act, with the intervention of Time itself, into another play altogether, neither tragedy nor comedy, but a miraculous fusion of both, of meeting simultaneously with “things dying” and “things newborn.” The structure of the play corresponds organically with the plot, resolved through the finding of a lost daughter.

The final act is nothing so simple as a reversal of the previous action; it is as if the fourth act is the child of the previous play, both echoing and changing what has happened before. Franz Schubert, in his manuscript “My Dream,” a kind of embryonic vision of his song cycle Die Winterreise, uncannily describes the effect of this earlier winter’s tale: “Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.”

In the first part of The Winter’s Tale, Leontes, the king of Sicily, after a festive nine-month visit of his beloved boyhood friend, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, is overcome by the conviction that his friend’s and his queen Hermione’s affection for each other, which he himself has encouraged, is evidence that they are lovers, that the child she is carrying is Polixenes’s bastard, and that they are plotting together to overthrow him. He orders a trusted councillor to murder Polixenes, separates Hermione from Mamillius, their son and heir, and imprisons her, awaiting a judgment of her innocence from Apollo’s oracle. Hermione gives birth prematurely to a daughter, whom Leontes orders exposed on the wild shores of Bohemia, against the impassioned advice of Paulina, another trusted courtier.

Although the oracle declares the queen’s unequivocal innocence and warns that the lost daughter must be found to preserve the kingdom, Leontes overrules it. Before the trial can proceed, a messenger announces the death of Mamillius, broken by his father’s incomprehensible and sudden violence toward his mother. Hermione herself falls dead on hearing the news.

In the second part of the play, Polixenes’s son, Florizel, the Bohemian prince, has met and fallen in love with the Sicilian princess, Perdita, brought up as a shepherd’s child, with no knowledge of her heritage. When Polixenes discovers the…

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