Tag Archives: the stage

Feminine Magic in The Winter’s Tale

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~ daffodils, that come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty; violets, dim, but sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes ~

The Winter’s Tale was written in 1611 and is one of the last plays, written near the end of Shakespeare’s career. Among his influences for this tale, Ovid’s Metamorphosis would be the most recognizable – from the invocation of gods, goddesses and the Delphian oracle to the spectacularly arbitrary loss-of-life and a transformative ending.

The play begins with King Leontes of Sicilia, who becomes insane with irrational jealousy over his wife, Queen Hermione. The entire court knows their beloved queen to be innocent. This court from the highest lords to the humblest servants, feel the injustice of the king’s accusations, though they can only whisper of his lunacy for fear of angering him further. Queen Hermione grapples with her own powers of speech: she is an eloquent and persuasive speaker, yet this very gift invites profound misfortune. King Leontes resembles other mad kings in Shakespeare: King Lear, for example, a play which also deals with themes of silence vs. speaking, as when Lear implores his daughter, Cordelia, to speak-up in defense of her love for him, but when she does speak, he trusts her even less. These mad kings are riddled with egotism, mistrust, irrationality and rage. Their accusations are outrageously misplaced, and their fears beget more fear, their thoughts mutate and become so clouded that no one else can penetrate the madness.

The queen is accused of treason, adultery and even a plot to murder. Her remarkable equanimity and rationality rely on the known capriciousness of the planets and on the protection of the gods.

… if powers divine

Behold our human actions – as they do-

I doubt not then but innocence shall make

False accusation blush, and tyranny

Tremble at patience. – 3.2.27-31

 

Hermione’s gift for eloquence would surpass any defense attorney, were she awarded one. Not only does she defend her own innocence but also that of Camillo and of King Polixenes. She openly admits to loving Polixenes but only to the extent that would become a queen and host, and furthermore obeyed the very command of Leontes himself. She recalls with superior fluency how Leontes urged her to speak and persuade his friend Polixenes to stay in Sicilia longer. Tongue-tied, our queen? Speak you. (1.2.27), were Leontes’s words. Yet this was the point at which the king became insanely jealous. Lamentably, Hermione’s stunning poise cannot save her from her husband’s twisted law. Not even the proclamation of the Delphian oracle can sway a mad king’s will.

It is the season of winter, and before she is accused, Hermione plays with her son Mamillius, her little prince, and asks him to tell her a tale. He decides to tell her a sad tale.

A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one

Of sprites and goblins. – (2.1.27)

 

The boy’s short lines, these few words, are startling, as they portend the tragedy that strikes his family. Leontes disregards the oracle’s avowal of Hermione’s innocence. It is universally known that any word from the Delphian oracle is a direct communication from the God Apollo, and so the tragedy that strikes Leontes’s son, Mamillius, was not surprising to the realm, but vastly devastating.

Personified Time introduces Act 4 as the Chorus singing its diegesis. As if the shift from extreme heartbreak in winter to the hope of spring, sixteen years later, needs a comforting preamble; Time helps us imagine the baby girl, who was cast away by a raging king, blossoming into a beautiful young woman of sixteen – raised a shepherd’s daughter, in faraway Bohemia. Thus, Hermione’s daughter, Perdita, becomes a gentle shepherdess living in a pastoral environment. The setting is biblical with its rolling hills and flocks of sheep watched after by a benevolent shepherd, Perdita’s rescuer. Such a contrast to the violent world she was born into; and yet, a part of Hermione has been preserved through her daughter. Act 4 is full of spring, festivals, masquerade, disguise and new love. The love story of Florizel, a prince, and Perdita, a princess who is only known as a humble shepardess, contains elevated language, pastoral delight and interminglings of identity. Their dialogue is a mixture of romance, flirtation and noble devotion, as when Florizel praises Perdita at the Sheep Shearing Festival:

*What you do

Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,

I’d have you do it ever…

 

Each your doing,

So singular in each particular,

Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,

That all your acts are queens.

 

Like Proserpina, of the Roman myth, Perdita was violently separated from her mother: Proserpina by abduction and Perdita by banishment, which was thought to be death. Shakespeare seems to group them together when Perdita conjures the spirit of the child-goddess who knew the names of all the flowers in her realm. Similarly, Perdita knows all varieties of flowers by name, as she is the host of the Festival. Many of Shakespeare’s heroines were knowledgeable in flowers and herbs. Ophelia, for instance, could identify herbs, in particular, and could tell their meanings and their magical or medicinal uses. This, however, was one more brand against Ophelia and her sanity. By contrast, with Perdita, her flower-poetry gives her more enchantment.

Handing out rosemary to King Polixenes and Lord Camillo, she says:

For you there’s rosemary and rue… these keep

Seeming and savour all the winter long.

Grace and remembrance be to you both… (4.4.74-47)

 

Implying, without really knowing, that someone or something needs to be remembered of winter. To which, Polixenes further implies when he speaks of art and nature – that marrying and mixing nobility with a baser stock would be disgraceful. He may even have called her a bastard. But Perdita then gives the king more flowers:

Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,

Marigold that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping. These are flowers

Of middle summer, and I think they are given

To men of middle age. (4.4.104-108)

 

Thereby putting Polixenes in his place and putting an end to any discussion of people who marry only because of their royal birth or lack thereof. Still, the king’s disapproval of his son’s engagement to Perdita sends the lovers fleeing.

Florizel and Perdita’s sudden appearance in Sicilia could not be more timely. King Leontes, now many years repentant in his guilt and sorrow, is nostalgic enough to be Florizel’s advocate. The king has changed. He is vulnerable and therefore eager for any show of love and forgiveness. He is open to the improbable, as is the reader, having felt all of the grief and suffering of this family. Shakespeare gives Perdita the power to verbalize, in one word, our feelings about Hermione’s unfair fate: “Alas”, is her single utterance, thereby unleashing the collective sorrow entirely.

Queen Hermione has the last word in an improbable reuniting, while her friend and savior, Paulina, has provided the creative force, the feminine direction for this final, spectacular denouement. In one sense, sixteen years would be a long season of transformation, in which Hermione could return as a rare beauty – recreated as a supernatural specimen of nature. Much happiness would bubble-up on the stage as a result; still, the terrible loss of life – and of years and the irreversible damage makes this a real tragedy, though it has been catalogued a tragicomedy.

 

 

 

*(4.135-137…143-146)

 

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The Quandary of Carrie

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Like the gritty, metropolitan angst of a Dickens tale, such as Little Dorrit: the dark, cobbled streets and the beguiling characters of a large city, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie portrays how an unkind and apathetic city can engulf and hide a person under a wave of indifference, but will eventually lift her up to societal success and even stardom. But unlike Dickens, in Drieser, the driving human force becomes self-ambition instead of love.

Carrie’s focus begins with the material – on the train bound for Chicago, when she notices a passenger, the young man, Charles Drouet, who is gorgeously dressed, and this, along with Drouet’s flowing and dazzling conversation, impresses Carrie. Yet she also sees and appreciates the beauty of the landscape rushing by outside – the author keeps a sense of hope tethered in this beauty. There is always some sad nostalgia lingering in Carrie’s face, around her sad, expressive lips.

Dreiser’s genius is in these details, as at the beginning of Carrie’s assent when still a neophyte searching for a job in the big city: As she contemplated the wide windows and imposing signs, she became conscious of being gazed upon and understood for what she was – a wage-seeker. The writer remains consistent in surprising his reader with such precise descriptions of the inner world of his characters. These finer points render the characters captivating, and thus, we care about their lives.

Though beauty and sensitivity persevere in this tale, real love, other than for success, seems disappointingly absent. As the story falls short of depicting any true love, true hatred is also just as absent, apart from that of the ubiquitous hatred in the mean, city streets. Only Drouet hints at feeling any genuine passion when he becomes jealous of Hurstwood and Carrie. Yet, the author implies that Drouet never really intends to marry her. Sadly, instead of love, or even hatred, overall indifference and self-centered gratification are the driving human qualities.

Still, Drouet’s eternal good nature makes him a true protector of Carrie, though he is extremely superficial and lacks the subtlety and sensitivity that Carrie needs; she is far beyond him in the intuitive senses. However, Drouet has introduced Carrie to the theater, and so a small desire to act has secretly blossomed. She loved to modulate her voice after the conventional manner of the distressed heroine, and repeat such pathetic fragments as appealed most to her sympathies.

Hurstwood’s kidnapping of Carrie, as appalling as it is, eventually brings her to New York City. As if destiny had finally provided the means to secure her success. As he stealthily abducts her and leads her onto a train under the darkness of night, Hurstwood is very cordial and sensitive to her comfort. He wants her, but one wonders whether he truly loves her or just the idea of escaping his wife and family to be with someone young and beautiful like Carrie

So earnest an effort was well deserving of a better reward ~ This becomes a mental refrain of Carrie’s from the early days of her job-hunting in Chicago, through most of her relationships, and on up to her great success in New York City. From her beautiful suite at the Astoria, she lingers over this astonishing lack of fulfillment and reward as she gazes out on the city from her window, where below the homeless shiver on their street-corners, while: All about was the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure and exhilaration – the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent upon finding joy in a thousand different ways.

Theodore Dreiser came from the Chicago school of Realism, in which the natural human responses to the environment are stressed, rather than romance. There seems to be a moral message in this story, yet Sister Carrie was deemed immoral and was not published right away upon its completion in 1900. The heroine, Carrie Meeber, was viewed as sexually loose, yet today the sexuality is only implied and is hardly perceptible. Dreiser was also a believer in the notion that art is an imitation of life, rather than life being an imitation of art. This philosophy is apparent in Carrie as she makes a study of human nature and turns it into art on the stage.