“The Winters Tale” at the Folger Library Theatre

I knew nothing about “The Winters Tale” until yesterday, other than it was a Shakespeare play, and that I had never seen it performed or read it.  I knew it wasn’t a tragedy.  I knew it wasn’t a history.  But I didn’t know if it was a comedy, or a romance, or what.

Yesterday afternoon, I read a synopsis and a couple of essays on the play.  The synopsis was very easy to follow, but made no sense.  A king gets made when his queen seems to be on friendly terms with another king (the best friend of king #1), and gets so jealous that he banished king #2 back to his home country, while his young son dies (presumably because he is unhappy that his father now seems to hate his mother) and his queen dies (because she is unhappy that her son has died).

Before the queen dies, she gives birth to a girl, and king #1 is sure that king #2 was the father and instructs one of his aides to take the baby to the land of king #2 and leave it exposed to the elements, which he does.  The baby is found by a shepherd and his son.  King #2 has a daughter who meets the baby when she is 16 years old and falls in love with her.

King #2 forbids his son to consort with the daughter (a presumed young shepherdess), so the prince and his girl friend decide to run away back to the land of king #1 to try to make amends between the two kings.

They do, and learn that king #1 has been trying to atone for his sins for the past 16 years, and is happy to reconcile with king #2, who follows his son and son’s girl friend to king #1’s land.  Somehow they figure out that the girl friend is really the daughter of the queen (and in fact of king #1), something that the play skips over, and then it is discovered that a famous sculptor has made a life size statute of the dead queen, and they all go to see the statue which comes to life, and they live happily ever after.

Mixed in with this are a number of court figures, the somewhat hapless shepherd and his son, a itinerent con man and his assistant, and the queen’s best friend.

It isn’t hard to follow this play, but it is very hard to see it as a play.  The first portion of the play (concentrating on jealousy and revenge) is fine in and to itself, but the second portion, with all of the side-bar characters, the skipping of 16 years, the trip back to the home of king #1, the taken-for-granted fact of the young girl’s parentage, and the living statue, is just bewildering.

It is Shakespeare, and the language is Shakespearian, but approachable.  It was very well acted, with special kudos to Washington actor Naomi Jacobson, as the friend (and advocate) of the queen.  The almost three hours pass almost quickly.

But the overall point of it all?  Ah, that’s why it is called one of Shakespeare’s ‘mystery plays’.

One thought on ““The Winters Tale” at the Folger Library Theatre

  1. At the end of the Folger’s production, the young boy in red watches the players exit, and Leontes pauses in the doorway to look back at him. Clearly, this is part of the framing device in the production of the fairy tale story. But because the boy is in the red pajamas, it also reminded me that that while Hermione is alive again and Perdita is restored as the princess of Sicilia, Mamilius (played by the same boy, in red pajames) is still dead. Do you think the production meant to invoke Mamilius at the end? Is that why the king looks back at him, instead of simply following Hermione and Perdita? If so, it’s a note that jars with the overall feeling of redemption at the play’s end.

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