Ask Philippa: A WINTER’S TALE EDITION

A Winter's Tale

Callie Cullum's show art for A WINTER'S TALE, featuring Omozé Idehenre as Hermione; photo by Jeff Singer.

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. A Winter’s Tale runs September 25–October 20, 2013.

As directed by Patricia McGregor, A Winter’s Tale suggests the overwhelming power of emotion to govern and transform the authority of a king: At the start of the play, it is explosive jealousy that “rules” Leontes, the king of Sicilia; by the end, it’s compassion and sorrow that govern him, by way of the transformative power of his own tears.

Coming right in the middle of King James’ reign over England, Shakespeare wove into this play his profound belief in the truth of monarchy as well as his skeptical knowledge that a king is but a man. The collapse of a king’s authority into blind personal jealousy—resulting in death and even in assumed murder—would have been, to Shakespeare’s audiences, like an apocalypse. For any man, tears have all-too-often been seen as weakness: yet here we have a king whose tears take him to a new strength, a new belief in the power of love, and a knowledge that no man should assume power over others that serves only his own interest.

The “saint-like sorrow” performed in A Winter’s Tale evokes Christian parables of penitence—but these, like the old oral traditions that the title calls on, are in the service of a wondrous theme: that no matter what authority is vested in a king, it takes a village to raise a full-grown human being.

Are you going to see our production of A Winter’s Tale?  Do you have questions or comments about the production’s cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

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20 Responses to Ask Philippa: A WINTER’S TALE EDITION

  1. Nancy Steele says:

    Dear Philippa, I was so glad to run into you today and also so sorry that my note to you via the Cal Shakes front desk did not make it to you – about the student you inpsired so strongly and, more importantly, my query about summer programs. Perhaps you can let me know that you do get this post, and can you let me know about summer programs for next year so that I can inform my students well in advance. Thank you again, and please know that you have a standing invitation to come speak to my students at CPS in any of our Shakespeare classes. By the way, if you can let me know what play you are doing in the fourth slot, this would be most helpful as I work on my syllabus for next year.
    Nancy Steele, grateful CPS teacher

    Dear Philippa Kelly, You are remembered fondly here at The College Preparatory School where you visited my 9th grade class two years ago to speak about Twelfth Night. I thought you would appreciate knowing that I had a conversation today with a current junior who remembered your visit as the highlight of freshman English. She is now, thanks to being inspired by your talk, taking and loving an AP level class called Shakespeare’s Comedies. Her name is Izzy Klein, and she asked me to give you her regards. She was very excited when I told her about your book, The King and I. I’m wondering if there are any summer programs at Cal Shakes that you are teaching in, Philippa, that my students should know about. I have several interested and promising high schoolers who would enjoy and benefit from summer work at the theater. I hope Cal Shakes will enjoy knowing the impact you made when you spoke here and how much my school community appreciates what a great resource Cal Shakes is. Sincerely, Nancy Steele

  2. philippa kelly says:

    Dear Nancy,

    How gorgeous to get this!!! Thank you for finding me out!!! If you send a note to cal shakes again specifically for me at any point, you can always just email it to pkelly@calshakes.org and I’ll get it directly.

    Next year’s season is still a secret – it’s always part of the opening night surprise announcement, and, in fact, I don’t even know what the other three plays will be! So I am eagerly waiting to find out as well. (It’ll all be posted on-line Monday) Our Head of Artistic Learning is the fabulous Clive Worsley, a good friend of mine – please get in touch with him as and when you like, and he knows I am always available to help in any respect. Clive has been with us part-time for years, and recently left the leadership of the Lafayette Town Hall Theater to take up this post. cworsley@calshakes.org)

    Thanks Nancy

  3. Betsy Hansen says:

    Dear Cal Shakes,
    I love your shows – and have subscribed for years. This is the first time that I have written to say that I felt that the mark has been missed in A Winter’s Tale. I found the first half moving and powerful, the beginning of the second whimsical and enchanting, and then I felt that the play turned frenetic and lost it’s punch – even at the end. I found the song and dancing overlong and rather a one man show (Rivera is great, but his part over long), especially since the powerful moment when Leontes learns that Perdita is in fact his daughter and is alive, is told in rap/synopsis form. I felt cheated of experiencing this powerful reunion after all the build up. Could we not cut out some of Bohemia’s festivities and instead experience the impact of this reunion in dramatic form? Furthermore, I feel that the audience never really had a chance to feel Leontes’ deep remorse for his actions which led to the death of his wife and daughter. The ending was strong, but having been moved to tears by a previous version of Winters Tale, I felt a bit flat. I am hopeful that the cast and director will work on these facets so that we really truly feel that Leontes has paid deeply for his terrible acts and then we can all relish together the dramatic revelations of the ending of the play.

    I do so admire all the work the cast and directors put into acting and producing these amazing plays. And I am hopeful that through a few more rehearsals the play will find it’s heart and power, with a little less frivolity. Please feel free to share my thoughts with Ms. McGregor. If this comment is better posted elsewhere, please feel free to forward it on, or let me know to whom I should write.

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Barbara,

      Please don’t feel one bit worried about putting on this site your reservations as well as your pleasures – that is what this site is for. We started it with Happy Days (Beckett) because so many people felt they wanted, or needed, questions to be addressed.

      Now, back to your question about the reunion between Leontes and Perdita – it’s actually told in Shakespeare’s play by report (as with the scene in Lear where Gloucester’s heart ‘burst smilingly’ in his reunion with his beloved son). So we don’t miss out on this in this production where we would have gotten it in an original. But your question raises a very interesting aspect of the play: I think the reason that Shakespeare has Leontes’ and his duaghter’s reunion given by report is that he doesn’t want to take away from the enormity of Leontes’ reunion with his wife, who’s been ‘put on the back burner’ for 16 years! It’s also very interesting to consider the comic note in Shakespeare’s text – he has Leontes reprise Claudio’s position in Much Ado About Nothing. Both characters calamitously doubt their wives’ integrity; both do penance for this; and both, as a punishment, agree to marry whoever is chosen for them. AND then both get, as their ‘punishment’, a REWARD – the very women they cast off! NOW they know how to truly value these women they so cruelly treated. As I write this, it crosses my mind that I really should try to get some Shakespeare conversations going – maybe in the off-season – where we can talk about themes from other plays that are either rehearsed or reprised in the Shakespeare plays we’ve seen this season. Let me know if this would be of any interest, and I can see what I can do.

      The community participation aspect will change from night to night with the nature of the audience engagement. This was part of director Patricia’s mission – to be open to a dialogue with her audiences – in a sense, to make her heart vulnerable – by creating a production that emerges partly out of this engagement. There are all sorts of Triangle Lab events, and RAW TALENT input, around this production. If you want to, pop in one evening and check out the installations. I’ll be there tomorrow and weds, and if you come up and introduce yourself, I’ll be happy to come with you.

  4. Geoff Chandler says:

    Let’s face it: this is not a very good play. CalShakes did the best they could with it.

    • philippa kelly says:

      Geoff, I am sorry you think this. May I take a moment to make a few suggestions (although you don’t have to accept my re-framing and suddenly fall in love with the play, of course!) The play is about the elemental emotions of the human heart. It explodes into jealousy like a racehorse out of a gate, and this jealousy drives King Leontes to his demise.It begins in the depth of winter. I dug up this picture for you – THIS is the bleakness that the first three acts of WT leave us with: http://www.folger.edu/documents/WT%20Layout%20Final.pdf But then it rises, half way through, to the rebirth of spring – Leontes goes through purgatory (a mirroring of Shakespeare’s secret faith in the Catholic state of cleansing from which hearts can be reborn into new life). But besides rebirth and open hearts and all of this, the play has loads of comic notes. If you want to come out and hear more detail about it (and not pay, of course), you may want to pop out at 6.45 tomorrow and wednesday, where I’ll be speaking about its wonders. Just ask for a grounds pass at the box office to hear the talk. Next Sunday dramaturg Cathleen Sheehan will be talking at 6.30 about the process by which she helped the director shape the play – you’re most welcome to come out and hear that. Or I can send you my grove talk by email.

  5. Richard Olsen says:

    I saw the wonderful production of A Winter’s Tale this afternoon; the Talk Back was excellent! Thank you. Three questions come to mind about the text:
    1) My Pelican Shakespeare calls it The Winter’s Tale. How come the production is called A Winter’s Tale?
    2) In IV,iv line 146, Perdita calls Florizel “Doricles.” How come?
    3) One reason that The Winter’s Tale is a problem play, is that it is confusing whether Hermione has been hidden by Paulina for 16 years and she is revealed as a “living” statue or she dies (as Paulina told the tribunal and Hermione’s death is underlined by Leontes plan to view the bodies of both his son and his wife and bury them in one place) and her statue is miraculously brought to life. What do you believe about this confusion?

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Richard,
      I’m so glad you enjoyed the talkback. I’ll address your thoughts 1 by 1.

      1. The play was first registered as ‘A Winter’s Tale’ in 1623. But then editors changed it over the years to ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ Patricia choice ‘A Winter’s Tale’ to reflect the mythological proportions that give it a timelessness and yet also the capacity to speak to this audience, this time, this place.

      2. Florizel/Doricles – Doricles is his pretend name, while he covers up before choosing to reveal himself as a prince.

      3. I think that this play reprises the rather comic note of Much Ado (see my second-to-last post above). L Peter Callender, who plays Leontes, suggests that it is the King who has secreted himself away to do penance, so that Hermione didn’t have to be fed through a hole in a door for 16 years. But it is also playing out the subversively Catholic idea that via repentance comes release and renewal – the second R and R is what is important in this story, not so much the conditions that one needs to achieve it. Or, to put it in another way, it’s the magic that resides in fairytales – the willing suspension of disbelief. I’ll tell you a very interesting thing though. There was a woman called Florence Wyndham, who, after a year of marriage, was thought to be dead and buried in the family vault in 1559. The sexton knew that she had 3 valuable rings on her fingers and thought he would reach in and get them. When he cut her finger to get them off, blood started flowing, and her body moved. He fled, and she got out of the vault and returned to her home in her grave clothes, frightening the household, who thought she was a ghost and wouldn’t let her in. I wonder whether Shakespeare knew about this story?

  6. Tom Rankin says:

    A brilliant production! Patricia McGregor’s deeply thoughtful direction just knocks me out.

    Something that occurred to me while watching the performance: I think the intuitive identification of Florizel and Perdita at the end of The Winter’s Tale is part of the play’s magic. On seeing Florizel for the first time, Leontes says, “Your mother was most true to wedlock, Prince; / For she did print your royal father off” – the very opposite of his emotional rejection on seeing his own daughter for the first time 16 years earlier. And Leontes’s sight identification of Florizel as the true son of Polixenes is paralleled by Hermione’s immediate recognition of Perdita as the daughter she had with Leontes.

    In some other plays, such identification requires factual evidence. For example, in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is identified as Bertram’s wife, and the owner of the ring in Bertram’s possession, through the testimony of several characters — Diana, Parolles and Helena herself — each contributing a piece of the truth. Similarly, in The Winter’s Tale, if factual evidence had been used to “authenticate” Perdita as the child of Hermione and Leontes, it might also have meant putting together the testimony of several characters, each of whom had a piece of the truth. Antigonus, if he had lived, could have confirmed that he left the infant Perdita in the forest along with money for her upkeep. Then the Shepherd could have testified that he found Perdita and the money and raised her as his own. Then Florizel could have testified that this is the same Perdita he has been wooing.

    Instead, Hermione, looking on Perdita for the first time in 16 years, exclaims,
    You gods, look down,
    And from your sacred vials pour your graces
    Upon my daughter’s head!

    This magical recognition, supported by Paulina’s assurances that the oracle “gave hope thou wast in being,” seems to validate Hermione more effectively than the factual proofs of identity offered in other plays

    • philippa kelly says:

      What an interesting comment, Tom! It’s also interesting that the primacy of leontes’ initial jealousy blinds him, so that even though Mamilius has his nose, etc, he cannot believe he is actually his son. This was also a time of no DNA tests, and fear of cuckoldry ran rampant (esp among wealthy men). I love your idea of the impact of Hermione’s instinctual recognition.

  7. Jan Stevens says:

    I and three friends must agree with the comment about Act II–much too confusing. It’s as though cast and directors sat around brainstorming how to jazz it up and all the ideas floated were adopted. That said, the classic “exeunt, pursued by a bear” was well done. Is this really Shakespeare’s only authentic stage direction?
    Love your talks. Where does “dramaturg” come from, anyway? Much too awkward for one so eloquent

  8. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Jan,
    ‘Dramaturg’ comes from the Germans, who invented the term in the 18th century as a curatorial role. Thank you for the lovely comments on my talks. If you feel like popping up there again during the run, you can see four other different speakers give talks, and all will be different. (Just ask for a free grounds pass). Every speaker gives a different take on the production. You can get the schedule from this link: http://www.calshakes.org/v4/visit/pdf/AWT_Grove_Talk_Schedule.pdf

    Hermione’s supposed death is a strange, thing, isn’t it? When I say ‘strange,’ I think it is because death is so imaginatively unfathomable. At the risk of sounding too personal, when my beloved brother John was unexpectedly killed two and a half years ago, my oldest brother Simon and I both shared the thought, ‘It’s only 5 days… surely they can revive him?’ (I mention him here, I guess, because I don’t want him to be gone from my conversation. So please forgive the self-indulgence.) We long for those who’ve been ripped away from us to be restored. Shakespeare grants us a salve for this longing in this magical, mystery fairy tale – not with Mamilius, who cannot be gifted back to his father; who is, in a sense, the awful ‘price’ that Leontes pays forever. But yes, magically, mysteriously, with Hermione. Where has she been all these years? This is for our imaginations to be teased by. And yet Hermione’s ‘resurrection’, and Perdita’s re-emergence, strikes right at the heart of human longing and at human beliefs in restoration.

    • Tom Rankin says:

      Philippa, I just loved what you said in your article “Reversals of Fortune” in the Winter’s Tale program: “Anyone who’s ever left a plant for weeks without water, dousing it just in time and, over the hours to follow, seen forlorn leaves begin timidly to swell, can appreciate the miracle at the heart of A Winter’s Tale. It celebrates the tiny bud of life amidst decay, the promise of a future where none seemed possible.”
      A beautiful, poetic statement, which furthered my understanding of this theme in the play.

  9. philippa kelly says:

    Tom, thank you for this lovely comment. It’s an amazing thing, isn’t it, to think of all the life around us – for which we are, in a sense, self-appointed caretakers. To be able to bring a plant back to life again is a small thing – yet emblematic of the way in which our larger and more implausible longings have to be accepted. ‘Patience’ is a Shakespearean word that we have a very different meaning for now. His time celebrated the capacity to endure, to bear afflictions with grace. So when people ask today, ‘Why would Hermione even WANT to wait 16 years for a man such as Leontes?’ it helps perhaps to consider the character of Hermione as a celebration of endurance and grace. Director Patricia Mcgregor mentions ‘grace’ often when talking about this play – I think it’s a beautiful concept. Would that it were easier to remember in our daily lives!

  10. Shelly Osborne says:

    UC Zellerbach production of Midsummer Night’s Dream – I couldn’t find information. Thanks.

  11. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Shelly,

    It will be thrilling to see you at the opening of Midsummer. It was just so lovely spending the weekend with you all—I had a ball. Here is the site for Midusmmer tickets
    https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?theatre=tdps

    Also, if you have any questions or such about any of the shows we saw, please don’t hesitate to email: pkelly@calshakes.org.

  12. Gay Auerbach says:

    Hi Phillippa,
    I can’t believe your generosity in allowing us to chat with you about the plays… my husband is only good for a few minutes before it’s home to “Breaking Bad,” which, come to think of it, resembles in some ways what Leontes does (breaks bad, that is). As I watched Cal Shakes’ wonderfully creative version of A Winter’s Tale, it seemed to me that the reason the king suddenly acted in a way that will destroy his own happiness, his marriage, his reputation, and his comfortable life may be that he has been overtaken by a perverse but compelling desire to “wake up” the gods. Could it be that Leontes is willing to sacrifice everything for a sign that what he does matters, that there is something out there to put the breaks on irrationality, on pure whim? This became more plausible to me when, once Apollo sounded his thunderous sound, striking down Mamilius, Leontes transformed instantly and completely, dropping to the ground in submission, at least in the Cal Shakes version. This reading also seems consistent with the fact that the 16 years of sorrow and repentance seem completely unrealized.

    Oh well, just one of my thoughts about an interesting play… I wish I had seen more of your pre-performance talk, Phillippa. I look forward to reading more of your ideas; I’m enjoying The King and I very much.
    All the best,
    Gay Auerbach

  13. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Gay,
    This is such a lovely comment – and, by the way, I can send you the whole grove talk if you want me to: just email pkelly@calshakes.org

    As for your suggestion about why Leontes breaks the bounds in the way he does: I think you put it in a fascinating way. This was a period in which religious matters were deeply contentious. The Abuses of Players Act meant that plays could not specifically reference particular religions – and yet in this period of uncertainty, the IMPULSE to know more, or to feel the presence of a divinity out there, or to rebuke any suggestion of an unseeing or uncaring God, would have been very strong (indeed, Shakespeare revisited this theme again and again in his plays). Imagine, as you suggest, a king – who, in James’ regency, was clearly and srongly identified as God’s embodiment on earth – calling out to the gods to acknowledge him. This suggests his kingly hubris and also predicates his cataclysmic fall and penitential sixteen-year hiatus. As for why Hermione has to be put on ice for 16 years in order to achieve her husband’s cleansing – well, this also speaks quite a bit about Shakespeare’s times!

    Can you say more about why you feel that ‘the 16 years of sorrow and repentance seem completely unrealized’?

    • Gay Auerbach says:

      What I meant by “unrealized” is that, unlike in Lear, we don’t experience Leontes’ repentance and sorrow (that is, see them on stage), we just hear about them. How much more moving are the agonies of Lear. I agree about Hermione being put “on ice” – but wonder how Shakespeare could have disregarded her experience so completely, since he is deeply empathic of women’s version of events in other plays.

  14. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Gay,
    Good question. In leaving her with this unexplained ‘reaction’, he might actually be building in an intentinal ambiguity that may be inferred as reproach. She really ‘rests her case’ with that amazing speech when she gets out of prison before intermission.

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