In 1807, Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, published "Tales from Shakespeare," the stories of 20 of the plays told in a simple way for children. In their preface, they say: "... it is the writers' wish that the true Plays of Shakespeare may prove to them in older years - enrichers of the fancy, strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity: for of examples, teaching these virtues, his pages are full."
"The Winter's Tale," playing at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival through this weekend, serves as a lively example of several virtues, especially patience. Written late in Shakespeare's life, it's a rich and complex play, full of choices and their consequences.
The mature Shakespeare abandons pure comedy or tragedy here (though "Winter's Tale" is usually listed among his "comedies"). In TV-speak, the play might be called a "dramedy."
Today, we often see TV shows or films in which a comic situation slowly darkens, spinning out of control into something serious or even terrifying. Here, Shakespeare works in the opposite direction. The first half of the play shows King Leontes reaping the result of his unbridled jealousy: cut off from his best friend from childhood, his wife and only son dead, and his infant daughter assumed to be so. When he comes to his senses, he seems destined to live a life consumed by regret.
But the latter half abruptly switches time (16 years later), locale, and mood. The daughter has survived in a pastoral land. She falls in love (with a prince, of course). Peasants dance. The antics of a comic thief and magician remind us that life brings amazement and laughter.
Most important, a final scene back at the king's court sets most, but not all, things right. Time has passed, and all cannot be as it was. But his beautiful queen, who has been in hiding, not dead, returns (in dramatic fashion). His daughter and his old friend are restored to him, too. Reformation has led to restitution. What the king thought was lost was not.
At Williamstown, one of the country's preeminent professional summer theaters, Kate Burton (to be seen this fall on Broadway in "Hedda Gabler") shines as the good and patient Queen Hermione, wrongly accused by her husband of adultery. She exhibits what 19th-century author Anna Brownell Jameson calls the essence of Hermione: "dignity without pride, love without passion, and tenderness without weakness."
King Leontes has feared time and aging, perhaps setting off his unexplained jealousy. Hermione has used time to clear the fog of emotion and reveal truth.
A good parable for modern baby boomers?
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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor