“A sad tale’s best for winter.”

Shakespeare’s late romance, The Winter’s Tale, is full of contrivances and plot holes, including perhaps the most famous stage direction in history, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” yet it remains among my favorites. The title itself is a mystery. The only plausible reference in the text is young Mamillius’s offhand comment, “A sad tale’s best for winter,” even though the play ends in an unexpected reconciliation. So it is that I associate the play with Christmas, as so much of the Christmas story, as in the stories of our lives, finds joy in sad and difficult terrain: long, hard journeys; no room at the inn; Herod’s jealous rage; the flight to Egypt.

At the heart of the Christmas tragicomedy is an unimaginable and unmerited act of forgiveness and mercy. So, too, is the climactic scene of The Winter’s Tale, in which Leontes, still grieving the death of his wife, Hermione, fifteen years after he publicly condemned her in a fit of unjust rage and jealousy, discovers that things were – and are – not as he thought. Hermione, having somehow been saved by the faithful Paulina, is presented to Leontes as a statue carved to look as if she were alive. Like so much of the play, there’s a lot here that strains credulity, yet it’s the one scene in all Shakespeare I can’t get through without choking up, especially when Leontes finally reaches out to touch Hermione’s “statue” and discovers it to be warm. Here’s an abridged version of the scene as rehearsed in John Barton’s delightful 1980s BBC series, Acting Shakespeare, with a pre-Captain Picard Patrick Stewart as Leontes.   

Image: Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Breughel the Elder, 1565.

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