The Winter’s Tale tragicomedy 14 March 2012

The Winter’s Tale and
14th March 2012
The most precisely identifiable device [of stage
illusion] appears when the old shepherd says to
the young shepherd, ‘thou met’st with things
dying, I with things new born,’ which is not only a
species of role reversal but a quotation from
Evanthius. His De Tragoedia et Comedia was
commonly cited in sixteenth-century school
editions of Terence and would have been familiar
to every twelve- or thirteen-year old who had
reached the third form of grammar school.
Evanthius was defining tragedy and comedy: ‘in
tragoedia fugienda vita, in comedia cappessanda
We slue 26 Seales, and espied three white
Bears; wee went aboord for Shot and Powder,
and coming to the Ice againe, we found a
shee-Beare and two young ones: Master
Thomas Welden shot and killed her: after shee
was slayne, wee got the young ones, and
brought them home into England, where they
are alive in Paris Garden.
Purchas His Pilgrims, 4 vols., London, 1625, p. 562.
the waking of the statue is notoriously
challenging to direct, not least for the obvious
problem of how an actor ‘plays’ a statue and
how the other actors respond to the moment
of Hermione’s awakening; but also because of
the complex cross-currents between the
characters onstage, and the unexpectedness
and bizarreness of the scenario itself.
‘Whatever else a romance may be (or have been) it
is principally a form of entertainment. It may also
be didactic but this is usually incidental. It is a
European form which has been influenced by
such collections as The Arabian Nights. It is
usually concerned with characters (and thus with
events) who live in a courtly world somewhat
remote from the everyday. This suggests
elements of fantasy, improbability, extravagance
and naïveté. It also suggests elements of love,
adventure, the marvellous and the ‘mythic’. For
the most part the term is used rather loosely to
describe a narrative of heroic or spectacular
achievements, of chivalry, of gallant love, of
deeds of derring-do.’
‘[Comedy] differs from tragedy in its matter, in that
tragedy is tranquil and conducive to wonder at
the beginning, but foul and conducive to horror
at the end or the catastrophe…Comedy, on the
other hand, introduces a situation of adversity,
but ends its matter in prosperity…And, as well,
they differ in their manner of speaking. Tragedy
uses an elevated and sublime style, while comedy
uses an unstudied and low style…’
Dante Alighieri (c. 1319) in Epistle to Can Grande in Comedy:
Developments in Criticism, ed. D J Palmer, (Macmillan
Casebook Series, 1984),p. 31.
A tragicomedy is not so called in respect of
mirth and killing, but in respect that it wants
deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy,
yet brings some near it, which is enough to
make it no comedy.
John Fletcher,
Preface to The Faithful Shepherdess (1608)
‘Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense
either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct
kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which
partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with
endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of
combination; and expressing the course of the world, in
which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the
same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the
mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is
sometimes defeated by the frolic of another; and many
mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without
design…An action which ended happily for the principle
persons, however serious or distressful through its
intermediate incidents, in the [opinion of the age of
Shakespeare] constituted a comedy.’
The Plays of William Shakespeare,
ed. Samuel Johnson (London, 1765)