Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: Sexual Jealousy & the Tonal Shift to End All Tonal Shifts

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to see a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol. I’ve been going to the theatre pretty regularly since 2009, and so far I’ve gone to every Shakespeare play I can when I have been home. My dream is that one day I will have seen them all, and much like my dream to one day travel all 50 U.S states, I can’t wait to discover the unique beauty of each one. I would say Shakespeare is probably my favorite playwright, alongside my man Tennessee Williams. My favorite Shakespeare story is probably Hamlet; I feel like I could watch that play again and again and it wouldn’t get old. I tend to favor the tragedies and histories over the comedies, but that’s just my personal taste, and is reflective of my wider genre choices. When it comes to movies I tend toward dark, character-driven narratives like Killer Joe (2011) and Bone Tomahawk (2015) that explore the disturbing parts of the human psyche that most people would rather leave unexamined. And The Winter’s Tale definitely starts in this vein.

There was something very straightforward about the opening of the play. A couple of months ago I went to see Othello at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, which- like The Winter’s Tale– deals with the theme of sexual jealousy. However, in Othello, there is a careful build up to the manifestation of the titular character’s suspicions; it isn’t until Act Three that the Moorish prince even begins to consider that his lady love Desdemona might be cuckolding him. For the first two acts or so we have seen the couple’s romantic equilibrium. Conversely, The Winter’s Tale begins in disequilibrium; no time is wasted in establishing Leontes’ obsession with his queen’s fidelity. It is presented as an ongoing jealousy, and we as the audience are thrown into the middle of it, watching it fester, and wondering at its conception. In Othello, we see how and where his jealousy is created; everything that happens in the play is a result of Iago’s machinations, the lies he feeds Othello and the other characters. It is Iago that has the most agency in the narrative, and that agency is powered by Iago’s own jealousy towards Cassio for having gained the promotion he believed was rightfully his own.

Having watched the two plays in a relatively close time period, I have to say I find The Winter’s Tale’s treatment of sexual jealousy to be much more compelling. During the intermission of Othello, as I cradled my tub of strawberry ice cream in the warmth of my palms, I remember remarking what a numpty Othello was for having zero faith in his wife and damning her as a slut on the basis of mere rumor. Whereas in The Winter’s Tale, no explanation is given as to how Leontes became so jealous, and that provides a wonderful opportunity for us to examine the subtext and speculate on its origins. It suggests an insecurity of Leontes that is so exemplary of the machismo identity. There was something relatable about that uniquely male brand of jealousy- the fear of sexual inadequacy. Who among us- that is to say, males- has not felt something akin to this at least once or twice in our lives? It is an imperfect quality innate to our experience that can be traced back thousands upon thousands of years down the evolutionary timeline to our primal, animal selves. Perhaps one day a salesman at a convention feels a sudden rush of anxiety at the way his wife touches the bicep of his colleague as they chat away, out of reach. Perhaps a high school sophomore exits gym class to the mess of recess, and through that thicket of his peers, spies his crush laughing emphatically at the jokes of one of the other males. He resents the guy’s ability to make her laugh like that. This kind of jealousy occurs every day in a billion other scenarios- be it over a girl we don’t even know, or a wife we have loved for years. It speaks to our insecurities and our fears, and some of us may be more susceptible to such anxiety. This, in my opinion, is what makes Leontes a fascinating character. He may be a misogynist and a fool, but there is something so compelling, so human, about his raw and unbridled jealousy. Modern readers, I am sure, will agree that what is revealed about Leontes, King of Sicilia, is not so much his innate hatred of women as it is own symptoms of anxiety. For him, he can’t ignore what his mind chooses to see. For him, her fidelity is an obsession. The whole thing reminded me of a poem written by Hugo Williams called “Blindfold Games”, in which the narrator imagines his former lover and her new boyfriend making love. He is so obsessed with it- the idea of her own, independent, and self-serving sexuality- that he almost craves it, and describes in a very voyeuristic way how “I only have to close my eyes/and he is taking her by the arm/pushing her towards the bedroom”. The director of this particular production of The Winter’s Tale seems to be channeling Williams here. One technique I loved was that, as Leontes was giving his soliloquies about his suspicions, the director had the actors of Hermione and Polixenes remain on stage. He had them remain completely still, and the lighting dimmed over them, and then at certain points in Leontes’ paranoid ramblings, Leontes would go over to them and position them like statues, showing that the positions they took reflected what he imagined them to be doing. At one point during a soliloquy, Leontes positions his wife Hermione on all fours on a bench, and then has Polixenes grab her by the hips and start simulating the doggy style sex position, the faces of the actors remaining completely blank, the back and forth thrusting mechanics of their copulation seeming robotic. This helped establish that it was all in Leontes’ crazy imagination, that we the audience, had no evidence that the characters were actually fucking like rabbits somewhere out of view. In this way, Leontes is choreographing their lovemaking, reinforcing the idea that this may all be his paranoia. I thought this was a really creative technique on the part of the director, and right off the bat the play is established as an intense, psychological drama.

The first half continues much in this fashion. The intensity doesn’t let up for one minute- in fact it might be the single most entertaining first half of a Shakespeare play I have yet witnessed. I swear it had everything. There was the bit where the pregnant lady gets beaten into a premature birth, and the bit right before the intermission where the old dude gets hilariously mauled by a bear in the forests of Bohemia. Although I knew going in that scholars regarded The Winter’s Tale as one of The Bard’s “problem plays”, I didn’t know what exactly that meant, and I went into the play not knowing anything of the plot. I always like to go into a play fresh, and I only read about plays after I have seen them. And so halftime came and it felt like we had to catch our breath. Where the bollocks are they gonna go from here? I thought. I got a lemon sorbet and said to my dad “This is definitely a tragedy”. I actually said that. My prediction for the second half was that years would pass and the exiled daughter of Leontes would return to Sicilia only for the two of them to have filthy baboon sex without realizing they are related, whereupon they’d find out and the play would conclude with Leontes gauging his eyes out and Perdita jumping into a frozen lake with a bowling ball chained to her ankle. How wrong I was!

The tonal shift that occurs in this play has troubled viewers for centuries it seems. The second act is complete, light-hearted and bawdy comedy. It’s actually quite a shocking and sudden transformation from a first half that is nothing short of harrowing. It’s like someone taped over the final hour of Schindler’s List with the last hour of The Hangover. Of course Shakespeare is Shakespeare so the play was still entertaining and the jokes were reliably funny, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the first half much more than the first. We were all in this super-serious mood at that point, and it’s kinda uncomfortable when that is subverted and suddenly you find yourself watching a bunch of merry farmers molesting large-breasted tavern wenches and lighting their own farts. I’m exaggerating of course, and the plot is very much continued and concluded, albeit in a much lighter way. The play cannot be considered a tragedy, as I had initially thought it to be, because its ending is straight out of the Much Ado About Nothing school of rom-coms- where everything gets wrapped up neatly, everyone is married off to the person they are meant to fall in love with, and everyone is reconciled. I don’t mean to make it sound corny- it is still extremely well done, and the director did a superb job of making the final scene actually quite moving. I thought the actors of Leontes and Hermione in particular did wonderful jobs- they must have been absolutely exhausted after the performance. Ultimately, I really enjoyed this experimental Shakespeare story, and found it to be full of interesting talking points.

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About mjvowles2014