Staging Shakespeare’s the Winter’s Tale as Soap Opera Meta-Narrative

William Shakespeare’s latter period romance The Winter’s Tale is very often treated in a tripartite manner in productions.  This method is in keeping with the fact that the very essence of this most unrealistic of Shakespeare’s plays is in a constant state of flux.  The opening two acts stand in direct contrast with the later scenes that take place in Bohemia. Despite the play’s title, only the first two acts actually take place in the winter and they are presented in a manner that is juxtaposed considerably with the lighthearted and spring-like Acts Three and Four, as well as the revisit to the opening locale in Act Five which has changed following a rebirth of sorts.

Because the scenes in Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale are set in such a direct contrast, it behooves the delineation of the differences to stage the opening two acts oppositionally.  The Bohemian scenes take place outdoors, free from construction.  The best way to differentiate therefore would be to stage the opening scenes indoors, taking full advantage of the enclosed space and creating a sense of claustrophobia.  The characters all feel as if things are pushing down on them.  Leontes is a King who is clearly giving into the paranoia that seems to be a job requisite, seeing the world as as a place filled with enemies desiring to do him harm.  As such Leontes should be staged in such a way that affirms that he has consciously made it difficult for any other character, especially female characters like Paulina to physically approach him.  The other characters are also given to the feeling of encroachment; they can see Leontes slipping into madness, but are powerless to do anything about it.  (That shudder that just went down your spine is a sense of déjà vu.)  Therefore the other characters at this point in The Winter’s Tale should be staged in such a way as to heighten those feelings of impotence. The idea of Leontes standing high above the others on a platform would work quite well in realizing the lack of power of the others, but should be considered only a beginning in the process of theatrically expressing that component of paranoid claustrophobia that is so vital to Leontes character, and to making The Winter’s Tale come off with as little unintended laughter as possible. 

Because, let’s get it out in the open, the climactic scene of The Winter’s Tale is one of most ridiculous things one can ever hope to find in Shakespeare. Taken on a purely literal level, the ideas involved in this scene are ludicrous: that nobody would recognize that the statue of Leonte’s wife who has supposedly been dead for sixteen years is real, that Hermione would allow herself to be imprisoned for sixteen years, and that Leontes would make a vow to a servant to never remarry.  It definitely crosses the line into one of those  soap opera plot devices; like when Tad Martin appeared to be die at the hands of Billy Joe Tuggle on All My Children, only to come back from the grave.  (Frankly, I think they brought the wrong guy back, Tad had already turned from a cad to weiner by that point, whereas Billy Clyde has always been one of the greatest daytime drama characters ever.  But I digress). Treating the whole living statue thing as if it is one of those cheesy soap opera devices may be the best way to deal with staging it.   Treating it directly as realistic opens up the definite potential for expressions of derisive laughter from the audience.  And treating it metaphorically on a level of the power of art to transform an audience raises the specter of failure and more derision.  

Therefore, it seems that the best way to treat the statue scene in The Winter’s Tale is as a postmodern meta-narrative on the suspension of disbelief.  The audience reflects not at all on the other ridiculous aspects of this or any other play.  The idea that a bear chases off a character sounds funny in the stage directions, but it can prove quite effective on the stage.  Equally so is the fact that an audience obediently accepts the idea of witches having a force on the actions of Macbeth.  These things are, in some ways, no more outlandish than Hermione’s living statue, but they are presented contextually in a way that makes them acceptable. By contrast, there is too much that is unacceptable about the climax of The Winter’s Tale to allow it to come off realistically.  The Winter’s Tale sets itself up for taking distinctively different approaches to the shifting tenors of narrative.  It seems easy enough to challenge the audience expectation by presenting this scene in a way familiar to anyone who has ever watched just a single scene of a soap opera.