Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Winter's Postamorous Adoration

I had a girlfriend whose favorite Shakespeare was The Winter’s Tale. Now that I've read it and I think about her, I see the play’s about women ruled by the foolish whims of a man who lives too much in his imagination for a short time.

            King Leontes of Sicilia is being visited by his oldest and dearest friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. The King works himself into a jealous frenzy, thinking that his old friend has wooed and impregnated his wife, Hermione. He convinces himself of this over the course of a single scene and orders one of his servants to poison Polixenes. He begins the day in love and ends it out of love. (As Benedick would say: "man is a giddy thing.")

Leontes’ servant, Camillo, cannot bring himself to kill Polixenes and instead confesses the plot. Polixenes takes Camillo in his service and runs to Bohemia. Leontes considers this an affirmation of guilt. He puts Hermione on trial, and has the baby girl (whom he thinks to be Polixenes’ progeny) taken away by another servant to be abandoned in some wild place.

Because of his unfounded, jealous rage, Leontes’ son dies, Hermione dies of grief, and the baby, Perdita, is abandoned by the servant who is then eaten by a bear. Luckily, Perdita is discovered by a shepherd who raises her as his own and then years later she falls in love with the Prince of Bohemia and the two have to escape to Sicilia out of fear of the king’s wrath. In Sicilia, she meets her long lost father Leontes, all things are laid bear and a happy ending is achieved in fulfillment of some prophecy or other.

Of the 35 plays of Shakespeare that I’ve read so far, this is the only one which actually brought tears to my eyes while I was reading it. In the end there is a perfect revelation, which I probably should have seen coming a mile away.

Leontes’ queen, Hermione, who died of grief when her daughter was stolen and her son died is honored in the final moments of the play when they bring out a statue of her. The moment the statue comes out, you know that it’s the real, living Hermione, who has been in hiding these 15 years and not dead at all, but she steps down from the pedestal, upon which she has been cast. The amazed Leontes touches the statue’s arm and exclaims:


O, she’s warm! (5:3)


            Despite his massive vocabulary, Shakespeare can land on a perfect moment and capture it in 3 monosyllables. Leontes' queen returns to him. After his earlier buffoonery, it's more forgiveness than he ever dreamed was possible.

            How many men have cast off love when they had it? Driven away a good woman with accusations of inadequacy, and then, seeing them go… misunderstood themselves.

The girl who loved The Winter’s Tale moved from Minnesota to California to be with me, and she was constant in her love even though I was not. When she left California to return to Minnesota she had convinced herself that I never loved her. I refuted that accusation, but not passionately. The relationship had to end, and it was easier to allow it to end if I didn’t own up to the affections I had squandered. 

Even though it was right and I was relieved when we split up… in the moment when she walked out of the door, my heart broke. Somehow I hadn’t seen that coming.

For weeks, months afterward,  you imagine that she might come back. You might be forgiven, and the small moments of bliss that were once ours would confederate, like matter drawn into a black hole, until we became a burning hot singularity whose only motion can be to explode into a new universe.

            When the King is looking on what he thinks is the statue of Hermione, he feels pain, but wants it to continue:


For this affliction has a taste as sweet

As any cordial comfort. (5:3)


            These are the delicious regrets of failed lovers. The lost queen, was literally put on a pedestal.


Whilst I remember

Her and her virtues, I cannot forget

My blemishes in them, and so still think of

The wrong I did myself, which…

Destroyed the sweet’st companion that e’er man

Bred his hopes out of. (5:1)


I am guilty of the same postamorous worship of every single girl who has come and gone. You can’t reconstitute lost love. The only hope is in new love. And a new love with an old lover demands reformation beyond reasonable expectation. 

But maybe not beyond Shakespearean expectation.

            The Winter’s Tale also has a troublemaking rogue named Autolycus, who steals and cons, and finds himself elevated in the robes of a gentleman. He learns of the plot of the lovers to escape to Sicilia and here is how he reasons what course of action is best suited:


If I thought it were a piece of honesty

To acquaint the king withal, I would not do’t. I hold it

the more knavery to conceal it, and therein am I

constant to my profession. (4:4)


            But his knavish actions play a key role in the reunions and prophetic fulfillment that ornament Act V. The Shepherd who found and raised Perdita is able to disclose her true parentage to her father, Leontes, and the Shepherd and his son are rewarded with gentlemanhood. Upon seeing this, Autolycus promises to amend his life. Does he? I don’t know. I like to believe that he did. There’s hope for the rogue, that in his treachery -- being constant to his profession -- he might stumble into redemption, and forever after find himself in the employ of a more honorable nature.

            Taking stock, I think I’m still who I was, despite efforts to improve, but there’s hope for we -- the men of wandering nature -- that from our errors and the mishmash of broken romances past, we will emerge clean. And come to life like a cold statue, touched, and found to be warm.

Scraping away some winter


  1. I teared up reading this blog post. It's my favorite play, too, and none of my boyfriends ever got that. Thanks for a beautiful meditation on a beautiful play.


  2. The three most chilling lines for me, to this day, is when Titus Andronicus says this line:

    "Ha. Ha. Ha."

    ...that's when you know that the proverbial Armageddon is on its way, and all you can do is watch it happen.

  3. "Ha. Ha. Ha."
    Ooo, that's a good one...