I love Shakespeare. And while his comedies are often great fun – who doesn’t love Midsummer’s Night Dream? – and while his tragedies can take your breath away – Lear and Othello break my heart every time – for some reason I like the history plays best – the machinations in Richard III and the dear Prince Hal in the Henry plays who first plays like a puppy with Falstaff and then turns around and bites him but we can almost forgive him because of his fine speech on Saint Crispen’s Day before the Battle of Agincourt but I can never forgive him entirely because there is something about Falstaff I love too much. I’ve not read all the history plays or all of his other plays for that matter, but from what I have read and even on occasion had the pleasure of seeing acted, the history plays hold top billing for me.
Of Shakespeare’s plays grouped as romances, I have only ever read The Tempest. On Friday I started adding a second to the list, The Winter’s Tale.
It has sadly been so long since I have read Shakespeare that I am a little rusty. The going is slow and I have to keep referring to the footnotes and then re-reading the passage once or twice more. I have to keep reminding myself to not concentrate so hard, to just let it flow and let it sink in. When I can manage it I get caught up both in the story and the beauty of the words and I have fun.
The play begins happily enough but things quickly take a turn. King Leontes of Sicilia is trying to convince his childhood friend, Polixenes, who also happens to be the King of Bohemia, to extend his already long visit for just another two weeks, pretty please? But Polixenes says he must go. So Leontes asks Hermione (Leontes’ wife) to appeal to Polixenes to stay. There follows a bantering conversation between Polixenes and Hermione that ends with Polixenes agreeing to stay for one more week and Leontes convinced that the two are having an affair. Uh-oh. What is it with men in Shakespeare who are so easily convinced their wives are unfaithful?
Since the play is a romance, everything will eventually be worked out in the end but not everyone in the play will make it to the end alive. So in that regard it is one of those hybrid tragi-comdies. I am reading the Signet Classic edition (I love Signet Shakespeares!) and the introduction was very good at giving me background and an idea of what to expect without giving everything away. Those are the best kinds of introductions because while this might be Shakespeare, I still want there to be surprise at what happens. On a first reading, not knowing everything is part of the joy of the text. Knowing what happens is for a re-read when there are other pleasures to be had and where knowing what happens then becomes part of the fun.
Hmm, now I’m wanting to re-read Richard III and the Henry plays and I should probably make it a point to do the whole string of plays in each cycle which would mean I’d get to include some new ones. And as a reward for the Henry plays I can top it off with a viewing of Henry V with Kenneth Branagh as Henry. Branagh does a good Henry and he is easy on the eyes. But I get ahead of myself. I must read The Winter’s Tale first.