The Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare: the funny bits

No, it’s not Exit pursued by a bear, which may be the most well-known funny bit in all of Shakespeare; nor is it the setting of 3.iii, Bohemia, The sea-coast, which I’ll get to in a moment.

It belongs to Autolycus, the last and happiest of Shakespeare’s rogues:

Autolycus [Aside] Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance: let me pocket up my pedlar’s excrement. [Takes off his false beard]

The plays after Lear have been full of surprises, the first of which was that I knew next to nothing about any of them. Back in January, when I started this project, I’d read seven or eight of the plays, but but leaving aside the histories, I could have given one-line summaries of almost all of the rest, from The Comedy of Errors (“Some guys look the same as each other, hijinks ensue”) to Lear (“A king divides his kingdom between his three daughters, it doesn’t end well”).

But all I knew about Coriolanus was that it was about Romans, and that the lines with which Joyce closes the debate on Hamlet in Ulysses – ‘Laud we the gods / And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils / From our bless’d altars’ – were taken from it. (I was wrong: they are from Cymbeline.) All I knew about Cymbeline was that it was about Ancient Britons. I had no idea that Timon of Athens or Henry VIII existed at all.

And all I knew about The Winter’s Tale was that it had a character named Perdita, and something about a lady, or a statue of a lady, coming to life.

So I was surprised to find that Coriolanus and Cymbeline are both rather good, and that Timon, while not a total success, is a fascinating attempt to dramatise Cynicism, in the classical sense of that word.

And I was even more surprised to find that The Winter’s Tale is very touching and beautiful. Anyone staging it should be encouraged to edit Autolycus’ description of his false beard, to stop it spoiling Act 4, which is a pastoral so lovely that it makes you see why rich folk got into dressing up as shepherds and swains in the first place. It’s like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but richer and with darker shadows. The winter’s tale itself, in 2.i, is too good to spoil by paraphrase.

And of course part of it takes place on the sea-coast of Bohemia, which is not far from Cloudcuckooland, and can be seen, on a clear day, from the summits of the Big Rock-Candy Mountains.

I’ve steered clear of amateur lit-crit in these pieces, but in reading Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale in succession, it seemed to me that Shakespeare is trying to create a genre that will include everything – tragedy, comedy, warfare, theft, jealousy, big set-pieces, dance, masques, magic, loss and redemption. And he gets nearer to success with each play.

It makes sense that the 20th century – boringly obsessed with individualism and with individualism’s nightmare, the fear of being absorbed into a faceless mob – should have placed emphasis on the tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth. (Not Coriolanus, mind: the Roman general is far too powerful and proud to be a 20th century boy.)

I get the feeling that in the late plays, Shakspeare is working out concepts that matter more to him, and to his audience, than a bloke going the big whinge. Critics and readers never enjoy the feeling that an author is paying insufficient attention to their obsessions, and will neglect the works in which this happens. I mean, how selfish can you get?

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