Saturday, March 21, 2015

"If this be magic, let it be an art as lawful as eating"

Today I saw BYU's production of Shakespeare's The Winter Tale.

I was unsure of what to expect--it's a hard play to produce, and I was worried that it wouldn't be what I was hoping for. Of course no production will be exactly how I imagine it should be. But BYU did an excellent job. There were things I had forgotten--like how long and complex the play is. And how terribly funny the character of Autolycus is (because he is both--terrible and funny). And how much I love the character of Paulina.

I left the play this evening basking in that after-theater glow, fresh tears on my face.

Because Winter's Tale always makes me cry.

The Winter's Tale is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Most people haven't heard of it. And if they have/if they have seen it, they have usually one of two reactions. They either love it or are really confused by it.

I fall into the camp that absolutely loves it.

In fact, I don't think I've met anyone who loves it as much as I do.

Once I explain the plot to people (or once they see the play after I give it a glowing recommendation), they often look at me sheepishly, as though they feel bad that they don't like it as much as I do. It's like giving someone my favorite Ukrainian treat (halva), and then they don't have the heart to tell me that they thought it was, well, kind of weird.

I don't blame people for thinking the plot strange. Because it is a very complex plot. And honestly, it is kind of weird. It doesn't fit nicely into either the comedy or tragedy. It's more of a tragi-comedy . . . one of Shakespeare's romances, if we want to get all scholarly. The first and second halves of the play seem completely different from each other. There is an element of magic realism in the play, not to mention the seeming absurdity of a king who seems to go from reason to madness in a millisecond. And, it has Shakespeare's most bizarre stage cue ("Exit, pursued by a bear").

So, why do I love it so much? What is it about this seemingly crazy play that I love so dearly?

Part of it has to do that it feels like a fairy tale (and you know how much I love fairy tales). Another reason is that it has two of my favorite female characters in Shakespeare--Queen Hermione and Paulina. I love Queen Hermione for her dignity, grace, and quiet confidence. And I love Paulina for her sass, straightforwardness, and courage. Another reason I love this play is because my Shakespeare professor loved this play and so we studied it in-depth. That means that I understand the symbols. And boy, are there so many symbols in this play. And so many themes. Deep themes of forgiveness, grace, renewal, and trust.

These are themes that Shakespeare was reflecting on when he wrote the play toward the end of his life. These are concepts--and realities!--he wanted so badly in his own life. Reconciliation. Mercy. Hope. Miracles.

And they are realities we want in our own lives, too.

Because sometimes . . . sometimes things seem so bleak and hopeless. Sometimes we feel like we have either completely ruined our own lives, or else we are innocently suffering because of the unfair actions and decisions of others. And some time or another, all of us are going to find ourselves in both of those camps.

And so I say we need to hear stories of miracles. Of faith and of wonder. To believe that even in the depths of winter, the promise of spring is still there. "Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise."

Can I share with you my favorite part of the play? (Like you have a choice. I mean, you do. You always do. But let's be real.)

It is the very last scene. I know, I know. I'm telling the ending before you even know what the play is about. So let's do a recap, shall we?

Basically, Leontes is the king of Sicilia. Hermione is his queen. They are expecting a second child. Polixenes the king of Bohemia. Leontes and Polixenes are best friends. Polixenes is going back to Bohemia, but Leontes doesn't want him to go, so he asks Hermione to entreat him to stay. Hermione does, and Polixenes decides to stay for a little while longer.

And Leontes gets jealous. Terribly jealous. Murderously jealous.

He thinks that Polixenes and Hermione have been going behind his back, and suddenly--out of a foundation of absolutely nothing--believes that Hermione is pregnant with Polixenes's child, not his.

So, he tries to kill Polixenes (who barely escapes back to Bohemia), arrests his innocent wife on charges of adultery and treason, banishes his newborn baby daughter, and refuses to listen to reason or the truth, believing that his skewed perception is the truth. Even when the oracle of Apollo says that Hermione is innocent and Leontes wrong, Leontes refuses to believe it, saying that it is "falsehood."

And when he says that, the floodgates open. Violently.

Immediately, their four-year-old son dies, Hermione dies upon hearing that news, and King Leontes is suddenly awakened to his guilt and that he "believed too much my own suspicion."

He tries to pray to the gods, asking for restitution, but it's too late . . . and Paulina, Queen Hermione's noblewoman, tells him so. She chews him out, in the truest Shakespearean fashion. And even though the king's noblemen tell her to stop tormenting the king so much with her true words, the king realizes that Paulina is right, and he vows to do somehow repent, even if there is no hope for him or the kingdom.

If the play ended there, it would be a tragedy. It would end as a commentary on how our pride, skewed perceptions, and bad decisions harm others. It would be something akin to Othello, and we'd leave the theater wondering if there was any hope for humanity.

But there is still so much left to the play.

16 years pass. Remember that banished baby daughter? Well, her name is Perdita, and she's been found and raised by shepherds on the shores of Bohemia, and grown into a beautiful, graceful girl who has caught the eye of Florizel, Prince of Bohemia, who just so happens to be Polixenes's son (convenient, right? I know.). It's the annual sheep-shearing festival, and Florizel and Perdita (who is the queen of the sheep-shearing festival) are in love. Deeply in love. And Florizel's father knows about it and is not happy that his son is courting a shepherdess. So, king Polixenes breaks up the sheep-shearing festival, forbids his son to marry Perdita, and threatens to kill both Perdita and the old shepherd (her surrogate father).

Sooooo, we're back to the angry kings. Great.

But Florizel won't take no for an answer, so he and Perdita decide to run away--to Sicilia, of all places. The old shepherd finds out, tells king Polixenes, and find the young couple in the court of king Leontes, who has been grieving for the last 16 years . . . since he has lost everyone dear to him, after all. Anyway, there's a lot of misunderstanding and frustration until the old shepherd takes out the letter and locket that were with baby Perdita when he found her--and it's discovered that she is the lost princess. Which is great for many reasons. One, she and Florizel can officially get married without Polixenes freaking out that she isn't a princess. But more importantly, Leontes and his daughter are reunited and the kingdom has an heir again.

Are you still with me? (It's complicated, I know.)

Again, the play could end there. And this time it would be beautiful and bittersweet.

But, there's more. And it all adds up to my favorite scene. The last scene.

It is absolutely transcendent.

It takes place in a chapel, where Paulina unveils a statue to King Leontes and Perdita. The statue is of the dead Queen Hermione. Both Leontes and Perdita are entranced by its likeness to Queen Hermione, and they want to touch it. Paulina stops them from touching it, saying that the paint is not yet dry. Leontes and Perdita continue to look at the statue—it obviously pains Leontes to look at his wife and remember what he did to her, their family, and the kingdom. 

Paulina asks him, “Shall I draw the curtain?” an invitation to close the curtain, to end the torture . . . but also to end the magic. Leontes decides to keep the curtain open, look at the statue of Hermione, and by doing so, shows that this “affliction” is necessary—he is facing up to what he did to Hermione . . . he is facing the past.

As Leontes and Perdita look at the statue, Paulina says that she could make the statue do more—even make it seem as though it could come to life . . . but only if they believe: 

Either forbear,
Quit presently the chapel, or resolve you
For more amazement. If you can behold it,
I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend
And take you by the hand; but then you’ll think—
Which I protest against—I am assisted
By wicked powers.

What you can make her do,
I am content to look on: what to speak,
I am content to hear; for ‘tis as easy
To make her speak as move.

It is required
You do awake your faith. Then all stand still;
On: those that think it is unlawful business
I am about, let them depart.
Music, awake her; strike!
‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I’ll fill your grave up: stir, nay, come away,
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you.

With these words, Hermione comes back to life. She turns from stone into a living woman, and she finds herself in her husband’s arms:

O, she’s warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.

There is so much even in these lines. There is so much I could talk about—the symbolism between Hermione’s “resurrection” and Jarius’ daughter, the line “it is required you do awake your faith,” King Leontes’ exclamation: “O, she’s warm!” There is so much beauty in this scene—a beautiful scene of reconciliation. Of healing. Of a family being reunited. 

Where is the mercy? Where is the grace? It’s right here. 

Some people don’t particularly like this scene. It is too fantastical and they think that Leontes doesn’t deserve this reconciliation.

Guess what?

He doesn’t.

And neither do we.

We don’t really deserve anything. If life was about what we deserved and didn’t deserve, we’d all be a lot worse for wear, I think. Because, in the end, we don’t want what we “deserve.”

We want mercy.

We want redemption.

And we want forgiveness.

I think that’s one reason I love this scene from A Winter’s Tale so much. It seems ridiculous—a statue coming to life (or—perhaps even more ridiculous—a queen deciding to return to her husband and daughter after being so deeply hurt). But, this scene is the epitome of transcendent grace. Grace we don’t deserve. But grace that is possible through divine love. 

I love that Shakespeare lets us decide if Queen Hermione was really a stone statue turned into a living woman, or if Paulina kept her in hiding 16 years, keeping her alive with the hope that one day Perdita would be found and the family and kingdom could be restored. 

This time, I preferred the latter explanation. 

But even as I was walking out of the Pardoe Theater, I heard someone behind me say, 

"I liked how this production made it seem more magical. I don't like the idea of Paulina keeping Queen Hermione in hiding for 16 years. I don't like the deception." 

It made me smile. 

Because it's our choice. We decide what to believe. 

But I think that's why I like the explanation of Hermione being in hiding for 16 years. 

Because it was her choice. 

Her choice to forgive. 

Her choice to heal. 

And her choice to come back. 

"You will burn, and you will burn out; you will be healed and come back again." --Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov. 

And so, watching the family be reconciled, I wept. I cried at this expression of love, grace, and healing. And walking back home, with the true spring all around me and blossoms littering the sidewalk and finding their way into my hair--like a crown of May--I felt the March sunshine touch my heart. 

Winter is over. A "sad tale's best for winter." 

But winter is over. 

And spring is in the air. 

And filling my heart. 

A heart that had turned to stone for a time. To protect herself. 

But now "dear life redeems me."

And it is glorious, beautiful, and a real thing to feel in this terribly false world.  

The reconciliation scene in The Winter's Tale might seem impossible. And maybe, on our own, it is. Because if we are so consumed by our own pity, pain, and pride, then we’ll never look out—reach out—and find that others are reaching toward us. Maybe, it really is required for us to “awaken our faith.” To believe that this can happen. Because if we don’t believe, it never will—our own pride will crush any possibility of hope, any possibility of mercy.

But I choose to believe.

I choose light.

I choose hope. 

And I choose love. 

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