How should we read The Winter’s Tale? When you listen to old-style recordings of Shakespeare you instantly notice how much more formulaic the speech patterns are. I do not mean this as a bad thing. There has clearly been a cultural shift from a style of reading that prioritized the rhythms of the poetic text to a more naturalistic reading that is willing to break these rhythms to accent emotion in the speech. But I liked the old way.
There is nothing right or wrong about this. It is merely a change, just as we have noticed before that Errol Flynn appeared in glorious Technicolor as Robin Hood and Kevin Costner appeared in dirty brown. One reading is not inherently preferable to another. Today there is a wider range of accents. The Queen’s English as it used to be spoken can seem strangled in the throat. Too much emphasis on the rhythms of the text, too much poetry, now seems unnatural to us. We like a gritty sound and a gritty look. “Let’s smudge the form and bring out the character,” directors say.
The question of form is hard to avoid with such a carnaval-esque play as The Winter’s Tale. I accept that Shakespeare does an admirable job of fleshing out the characters but the plot is absurd in naturalistic terms. When reading the play I ask: would it not be better to maintain the formal rhythms and structures and downplay the emotional realism? That would have the effect of drawing our attention to the broader symbolism of the play. It would allow us to see in spring as a festive riot. There would be multiple points of comparison with popular entertainments that still exist in the UK, such as Mummer’s Plays and Hobby Horses.
After all, a naturalistic reading of the text is just another reading. It is not “natural” and I suppose that in thirty years time people will look back on these plays and find it rather forced and quaint how the actors squeeze out a tear and wheeze over the vowels to bring forth emotion. “Do you remember the days when they used to stare bug-eyed when they did Shakespeare?” they might say. “Those were the days, eh?”
Listen to Tara Fitzgerald in this RSC performance:
This is acting under direction that seeks out the emotional springs of speech. What I find most interesting is that the speech works best when she allows the rhythm of the words to flow. Perhaps this is a personal taste. I recognize that I can be a bore in opposing naturalistic over-interpretations of Shakespeare.
There is a deep question here about what reading is, what constitutes a reading and what is licit in a reading. Have a look at a hobby horse in action and tell me if you think that some of the powerful ritual aspects of this visual performance would not give a different character to a reading of the play.