Today’s class on The Winter’s Tale was very much the kind of class that I hoped for when I was an undergraduate thinking, “Maybe I’d like to be an English professor.”
Leontes and Polyxines in “The Winter’s Tale” grew up together, but for no good reason other than it sets the plot in motion, Leontes becomes insanely jealous of his friend’s attention to his wife Hermione. I reminded my students of what I’ve told them before, that Shakespeare was a product of his times and thus wrote within a patriarchal culture that seems very alien to us, but that he frequently depicts patriarchal leaders as victims of their own actions, and in the comedies and romances he carefully orchestrates the drama so that the audience will sympathize with the plight of the characters (typically female, or young, or both) who are victims of the established patriarchy.
Still, my students were puzzled over how to take the suddenness and ferocity of Leontes’s reversal, and how to interpret the patriarchal tone of the defense offered by Antigonus (who offers to sterilize his own daughters — and himself — if he’s wrong about Hermione’s faithfulness). I noted that Paulina gives some stunning speeches — it’s a fantastic part for a woman with a lot of stage presence. While several of Leontes’s nobles try to talk sense into their king, they do so within the framework of the patriarchy; Camillo even pretends to agree to poison Polixenes, then warns him of the plot against him, which gets Polixenes out of trouble, and assures Camillo can escape the wrath of Leontes by attaching himself to the court of Polixenes, but which does not help Hermione. Paulina stands up to Leontes in defense of Hermione, and though she is brilliant and daring, her plan of using the baby to snap Leontes out of his jealous rage does not work out as she had planned.
One of my students was quiet until I called on him, whereupon he shyly offered his theory that Shakespeare was being deliberately over the top along the lines of pro wrestling.
His suggestion — the idea that Shakespeare’s audiences might have enjoyed melodramatic over-the-top setups that provide excuses for staged violence — electrified what was an already lively class.
For further exploration of Shakespeare as an over-the-top writer, I recommended Titus Andronicus, which is noteworthy because during the most violent sections, the characters speak in verse, which is like the rhythmic whispers in the Jason films — a visceral sign to fans of the slasher genre that more of what you came here wanting to see is about to happen.
Next week students have a paper due on Shakespeare in popular culture. I’m hoping my student can expand this observation (which he shared on his blog) into a scholarly argument.
This play is pretty over the top.
I need to read up on the background of this play and why it is so over the top. Like why did Shakespeare decide to just flip the play on its head out of no where.
I’m hoping we get a reason for why Leontes went crazy. In relation to the picture above, this is very much like what they call a “Heel Turn” in Pro Wrestling. That is when a good guy or a “babyface” turns on someone or multiple people and because a bad guy or a “heel” which happens every so often.
Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns grew up through NXT (developmental WWE) together. They took over the WWE in 2012 as they would beat up some of the best wrestlers in the WWE. One night, Seth Rollins turned on his “brothers” and joined “The Authority” who owned and ran the company. What Rollins did was, he sold out. To help himself. —Austin Shaw (Seton Hill undergrad)