by Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly
“Every single living thing is food to at least one living thing,” says Mokokoma Mokhonoana, reprising Hamlet’s observation that “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”
This—the understanding that in death, the great leveller, we all consume each other— is one of the few things we know for certain about death. Otherwise, we simply know it’s there, somewhere, sometime, an inescapable eclipse. Our whole lives are a rehearsal for death, and stories of hair’s-breadth escapes offer fantasies of cheating it.
Shakespeare structures his plays with death very much in mind—from its threat at the top of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the hilariously-rendered demise of Pyramus and Thisbe that ends the play; to the skeptical reckoning of love against death in Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra; to the image of Macbeth, unflinching in the face of death, split between the butcher he is now and the warrior he was back then; to the futile life-force in Lear’s final words as he searches his daughter’s face for a breath: “Look there! Look there!”
But nowhere does death weave a knottier tapestry than in The Winter’s Tale. The death of a child marks the lowest point of the play’s Sicilia saga: things surely cannot sink lower than to lose your children at your own hands. Leontes’ wife Hermione, facing her wrongful accuser, at least can advocate for herself, and we in the audience can beg for her to move Leontes, or to escape him. But the death of their young child and the abandonment of their baby– there’s no way to transform this, no means of comfort, only the dreadful human sacrifice, the embodiment of youth and innocence in decay. And yet death in this play is also apparent (Hermione) and assumed (Perdita): so that in the final act, what was dead can now live, and at the end of our Winter’s Tale journey we’re given what Stephen Greenblatt has called a miraculous “second chance.”
What is this second chance? In The Winter’s Tale, near the end of his career, Shakespeare invites us to watch Romance miracles that are denied us in all of the preceding tragedies — to watch the fire being quenched, the light re-lumed, the breath stirring in a body long thought dead. To wonder at the miracle of regeneration. And to realize that the greatest miracle of all requires no supernatural assistance — like a drop of water on a dying flower, the miracle of second chances is in the simple act of forgiveness, compassion, the opportunity of saying to another person: “I’m still here for you. I believe in you. But do better. We all can.” It’s not in our stars to do this, but in ourselves.
Dr. Philippa Kelly is the co-adapter and dramaturg on our upcoming production of The Winter’s Tale. Learn more and get tickets here.