04 August 2006
The Gallimaufry Again
Material Shakespeare Class with Dr. Emma Smith
[3 August 2006]
So, I turned in my paper, got comments back, & I'm done!! Off to Stonehenge today, around Oxford tomorrow, Dublin on Sunday, off home on Monday! Meanwhile, here are bits of my revised paper to ponder if you wish; it still needs a little more substatiation and revision....
A Gallimaufry of the Gospel:
Mixed Genre and Biblical Structure in The Winter’s Tale
The structure of The Winter’s Tale bears a remarkable resemblance to the overarching patristic-historical biblical narrative, both generically and topically. However, to an Anglican of Shakespeare’s time, the Bible itself would rarely have been experienced in anything but synchronic, thematic weekly readings chosen from Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospels. Therefore, the linear tragedy-pastoral-comedy development which The Winter’s Tale shares with Christian history must have been mediated to Shakespeare through some means other than Sunday services. And indeed it was. While the exposition of typology was a common feature of preaching—interpreting the Old Testament to prefigure the New—a chronological presentation was more readily found in the Medieval Corpus Christi cycles of mystery plays. Shakespeare’s use of a Roman Catholic theatrical form probably implies a desire for the former unity lost in the great schism of the Church, and explains the apparently deliberate involvement of both Catholic and Protestant elements in the play’s conclusion. Shakespeare draws on this pre-Reformation tradition in shaping the tripartite generic structure of The Winter’s Tale, but eliminates central elements of the mystery cycles and any presentation of Christ Himself. This adaptation of Medieval models frees the play from the sixteenth-century charges leveled against “papist idolatry” and reveals Shakespeare’s aesthetic interest in the dramatic power of biblical history’s trajectory.
The question of genre has obtained in discussions of The Winter’s Tale nearly since its publication. Technical or trivial as such labels may seem, naming the play provides a way of seeing it. At the most basic level, a piece of Renaissance drama is already in two “modern” categories: Play and Poem. A playwright was typically called a poet. This particular poem-play is also, according to its title, a “Tale”—a story of wonder and hyperbole. In addition to asking into what generic category the play falls, scholars should also ask why The Winter’s Tale has been so persistently hard to classify. The answer may lie in the fact that it contains within itself three distinct genres that had been related to one another in the Middle Ages but became detached in the Renaissance.
[Here follows a survey of what scholars have said about the genre of TWT.]
The tripartite generic structure of The Winter’s Tale resembles that of the Christian Bible. The play is not, however, a simple Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative. Rather, its development from tragedy to comedy with a pastoral interlude resembles that of Old Testament episodes and the conclusion of the New Testament, connected by a Shepherd’s Play and mediatory Pauline doctrine. “‘A sad tale’s best for winter,’ says little Mamillius, and so the first half of this play is tragic,” writes Wincor; I agree that the first third of the play is compact tragedy. I read the second section as a pastoral Shepherd’s play and the last as a New Testament-style comedy, climaxing (like Dante’s) in a glorious Apocalypse. Therefore, I propose a new genre for The Winter’s Tale: cycle. According to the OED, a cycle is “A series of poems or prose romances, collected round or relating to a central event or epoch of mythic history and forming a continuous narrative; as the Arthurian cycle.” The Winter’s Tale is a series of poetic dramas, each with its own generic qualities, relating closely enough to the central events of biblical history to partcipate in their universal power, but skirting them with enough circumspection to avoid being thrown off the stage. By the time Shakespeare was an adult, the Protestant authorities had banned mystery plays.
[...here was the body of the paper, going through and comparing each section with its corresponding Mystery play. Then I talk about the fact that Shakespeare left out Jesus, skipping over Nativity, Passion, and Resurrection. Now here's the discussion of the ending. Spoiler warning: This gives away the very startling ending of the play!]
The statue scene is Shakespeare’s “most vivid fesitval Cure….no greater Cures were ever seen before on any stage. Spring has come at last, and the Mock Death has been succeeded by a joyous Resurrection” and several joyous weddings. A greater Cure had been often seen by the older members of his audience, and they would remember the Resurrections of Christ they had seen, year after year, in Corpus Christi plays, before those were banned by Protestant Reformers and replaced with whitewashed churches stripped of icons. The Roman Catholic associations of The Winter’s Tale have been well documented and persuasviely argued, but the lack of a celebration of the Eucharist (a contentious subject), the Second Coming ending, the multiple (and seemingly irreconciblae) Roman Catholic and Protestant references suggest that Shakespeare has something else in mind than doctrinal polemic. He is reaching back behind the split for a pre-Reformation Medieval Christianity, not for its doctrine, but for its structure and its beauty. “The ‘miracle’ of a statue of a blessed lady coming to life …emerges not as an endorsement of the truth-value of Romanism but as a recuperation of the aesthetics involved in Catholic devotional practices.”
What exactly is the Medieval aesthetic Shakespeare “cures” in The Winter’s Tale? First, it is technically impressive, containing “masque-like scenes and stage effects, “ which he employs with great confidence, not fearing the current mood that distrusts the visual. Happé notes this feature of the mystery plays in addition to its narrative efficacy: “Besides this sturctural power, one must also consider the dramatic strength of many of the episodes. One notices particularly the ability to centre a play on a striking episode which has a power visual impact.” Think of the static, striking impact of the last scene, when Paulina pulls aside the curtain to reavel, as we think, a statue of Hermione. Think of the shock when she moves, when she comes down off the pedestal and embraces Leontes. Second, it is the emotional effect of the story’s scope, its depths, and its heights. “The biblical drama of the mystery cycles,” like The Winter’s Tale, picked out certain narrative of operatic despair and ecstasy, thus conjuring “emotional engagment with its patterns of fall and redemption, judgment and salvation….the thelogical pattern is given thereby an emotional emphasis it would not otherwise possess.” Third, “the effect on an audience is analogous to religious expereince: an act of faith is required for the enactment of the seeming miracle…. [which] is closer to the incarnational religious aesthetic I described as the basis of medieval art.” The sublime feelings the audience might feel at the close of the play are similar to those felt in lofty moments of religious ritual. By calling up these associations, Shakespeare availed himself of all the artistic power of the timeless—and universal—Dying God myth. In other words, the Bible, the Corpus Christi cycle, and The Winter’s Tale are dramas that engage the eye, the heart, and the soul. In The Winter’s Tale, one of his last and longest plays, Shakespeare harnessed the dramatic power of the three-fold genre, making a cycle—and a spectacle—of his own.