Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, July 11, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale starts off like a dark tragedy along the lines of Othello. One of the ill-fated characters says it best: A sad tale's best for winter… And it seems as if we’re settling in for a long, sad winter’s tale; something like the tragedy experienced by Othello. But halfway through the play a character named “Time” steps in and sixteen years have magically flown by. Then the play takes a sharp turn into something more along the lines of Much Ado About Nothing. Strange things start to happen: a queen who has been “dead” these past sixteen years has been memorialized in a statue. And the statue looks so real that it seems, well, like a real woman; just like the real queen. Surprise! Because it is real! It is the queen! The queen hadn’t been dead after all! She was just faking it until the king came back to his senses. This comeback is sort of like the plot line in Much Ado About Nothing where a young woman “returns” to life after her fiancé jilted her and then later came to regret it. So how does the combination of Othello and Much Ado work out? It works well for some readers, not so much for others. If we’re willing to suspend disbelief and enter into a theatrical world of wonders such as Shakespeare portrays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream then the play works just fine. But if we prefer plays that stick closer to reality (think Julius Caesar) then this plot seems contrived and unbelievable. However, Shakespeare always has some pearls of wisdom up his sleeve. Even if we don’t like the play there are always little nuggets of philosophy to mull over. Here are a couple of little nuggets from Winter’s Tale: Two lads that thought there was no more behind But such a day to-morrow as to-day, And to be boy eternal… We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i' the sun, And bleat the one at the other: what we changed Was innocence for innocence; we knew not The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed That any did. When these two lads were young the whole world seemed innocent. They never dreamed of doing anything evil themselves and never dreamed that there were bad people out there who might hurt them. In today’s terms they were sheltered. So what happened to Leontes and Polixenes? They grew up and went on to became kings of Sicily and Bohemia. But we don’t have to become kings or queens to learn that there’s evil in the world. Ordinary people learn soon enough that there are, in fact, bad people out there who are up to no good. They will hurt you. Be wary of them. Here’s another little life lesson from Shakespeare: What's gone and what's past help Should be past grief. We all grow up eventually and have to confront the evils we find around us. Through determination or sheer luck most of us grow up to become adults and take our place in an adult’s world. Not all of us make it. Some fall by the wayside because of disease, accident, war or murder. The rest of us have to keep on going through life as best we know how. We do all we can to help our families and friends along the way. But there comes a point where there’s nothing more that we can do. That’s when we have to let go of the past and move on. Sometimes this is a bitter lesson. Shakespeare captures the human dilemma in a little story: There may be in the cup A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart, And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge Is not infected: but if one present Th' abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides, With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider. Does that mean it’s better for us to “drink and see the spider”? Should we acknowledge the dark side of life or are there some things that it’s just better for us not to know? Perhaps the tough-minded want to know and the tender-minded want to let it go. One thing we should keep in mind: Shakespeare isn’t a philosopher, he writes plays. He wants to entertain us, not make us into little philosophers. If Plato writes a dialogue and it doesn’t enlighten us then Plato has failed as a philosopher. If The Winter’s Tale doesn’t entertain then Shakespeare has failed as a dramatist. But this play has another subtle message: spend your time wisely. Reading Plato and Shakespeare is always time well spent.


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