- The Arden Shakespeare “The Winter’s Tale” ed. by John Pitcher
It is a truth universally acknowledged that editions take time, some taking (even requiring) more than others. After many rumors of “forthcoming,” it is certainly about time that we have John Pitcher’s The Winter’s Tale. Thoughtful, engaging, meticulously researched and edited, admirably free of typographical and cross-referencing errors (an imperative, since many of the glosses refer the reader back to the extensive 135-page introduction), Pitcher’s edition proves to have been well worth the wait.
The volume’s material heft is perhaps best approached by way of its cover, especially when compared with that of the long-serving Arden2, so ably edited by J. H. P. Pafford in 1963. Taken from the engraving in John Bell’s 1774 Shakespeare, Arden2’s cover showcased the Old Shepherd (pouch of gold in hand) and his son hovering over the abandoned baby Perdita; the narrative-driven illustration is clear, direct, and tightly focused. The eye does not wander. Pitcher’s cover, a blaze of color and visual variety, is evocative and impressionistic. A bit of black at the very top blends into a glimpse of snowflakes and ice pellets before further transforming into a lush palette of yellows, oranges, greens, and touches of periwinkle blue that evoke the flowers and fertile abundance of nature. Peering through the center is the face of a Mona Lisa-like woman, her enigmatic gaze seductively beckoning the onlooker to enter into a space that is fluid, not fixed; interrogative, not declarative. At lower right, a trio of miniature, classically garbed figures depicts a woman engaged in conversation with a man whose face is in shadow, while a second man, more clearly lit, looks back at them. The image points to the triangulated relationship of Leontes, his queen Hermione, and his childhood friend Polixenes established in Act 1, scene 2, and from which all else follows. Prudence cautions us not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case, I would argue, the cover holds the key to an approach that resists easy resolution of the play’s questions, polarities, and contradictions.
Beginning with the query most critics end with—“Did Hermione die?”—Pitcher moves fluidly, in almost free-floating fashion, through a range of relevant but (on the surface) seemingly unconnected headings: death and art, tragedy and romance, childhood, knowledge, pastorals, nature and art, rules and types in drama, wonder, disguising, and time. The approach proves most rewarding in the examination of the play’s generic classification: “a tragedy and a comedy held together at midpoint . . . but so transformed that it was no longer tragedy, where a wronged [End Page 86] queen must die, but had become romance, in which she is able to die and not die (‘Tragedy into romance’)” (1; emphasis added). From Leontes’s irrational jealousy in Act 1 to a different kind of irrationality in Paulina’s chapel in Act 5, a state of “temporary and contrived delirium that Renaissance critics, following Aristotle, called wonder” (69), The Winter’s Tale is “alive with . . . romance impossibilities” (1). Pitcher’s discussion of Hermione’s death as “the final grand illusion that audiences need to believe in, up to the point of un-enchantment in 5.3, when the statue moves” (5) contributes to the current critical fascination with what Adam Max Cohen has called “pseudoresurrection.”1
The dramatic models for the play’s transformative release from tragedy into romance are found, Pitcher contends, in King Lear and in the plays of Euripides, most notably Alcestis (the story of the dead wife restored to her husband) and Iphigenia in Tauris (the play about what happened to the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra after being mysteriously snatched from imminent death on the altar of the goddess Artemis). It’s one thing to acknowledge a relationship with these plays,2 and quite another to foreground them so that they become an extended and illuminating gloss on The Winter...