Forgiveness is a word like tiger–there’s footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is.
Pity Shakespeare’s late plays. They’re neither histories nor tragedies, they lack the philosophical knottiness of the “problem plays” and they’ve never been as well beloved as the comedies, which have picturesque plots and wily servants. They contain elements of tragedy—terrible misunderstanding, exile, sundering, even (and repeatedly) hints of incest—but things are always resolved. The resolutions are always last-minute, strange, and occasionally unsatisfying, and they always come about by virtue of that elusive act, forgiveness.
The Winter’s Tale is no different. King Leontes of Sicilia is plagued by irrational and consuming jealousy; he thinks his pregnant wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes of Bohemia. He tries to kill Polixenes (who flees), arrests Hermione (who remains dignified and steadfast under interrogation), and has the baby girl, once it’s born, abandoned on a far-off shore by the husband of one of Hermione’s women, Paulina. Cosmic vengeance is swift: Leontes’ only son, little Mamilius, dies, and Hermione collapses, apparently dead of grief, at the news. In almost a single stroke, the king has lost his love, his heir, his future, and his best friend. Sixteen years later, the baby—called Perdita, rescued by some rural nobodies—is falling in love at a party with a young man named Florizel, who is the catalyst for her discovery of her past…
Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first entry in the new Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which contemporary novelists attempt to rewrite Shakespeare plays. (Others lined up include Anne Tyler to reinterpret The Taming of the Shrew, Howard Jacobson to do The Merchant of Venice, and Gillian Flynn to do Hamlet.) It’s an idea reminiscent of the rewritten Jane Austen novels: Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. Curiously, however, I think Shakespeare is better suited to this retelling idea than Austen. Austen is always of her time; her novels are set in a firmly early-C18 social and cultural milieu. Shakespeare bounced all over the place, making things up (plots, characters, locations) as he went. Austen’s stories don’t really work unless they’re in that Regency setting; the customs and mores of the time are precisely what she’s commenting on, and what provoke her characters to act as they do. Shakespeare’s stories do work in a contemporary setting, I would argue, because what he’s writing about isn’t really the effect of a particular culture on the behavior of humans; what he’s writing about is what humans (think that they) want, and how—within various societies—they go about getting (or not getting) that. Macbeth, for instance, isn’t strictly about medieval Scottish monarchical succession; it’s about acquiring power in an environment that values aggression. You could set it in a boardroom easily.
Likewise, the faintly preposterous mid-European kingdoms of The Winter’s Tale aren’t important to the story in the slightest. It’s basically a second-chance version of Othello, minus the racial tension: what happens when the past won’t stay past? How might a man feel when the family he thought he’d destroyed comes back to life? How might a daughter feel when told that the man who raised her isn’t her father, that her father gave her away? You don’t get all of the nuance of this in the stage play; you get the bare bones of a story that ends with redemption and repentance and miraculous, astonishing forgiveness. Where you can get all of that nuance, of course, is in a novel, the form most uniquely suited to inspiring empathetic identification between real-life reader and fictional character. Which is where The Gap of Time enters this review.
Winterson’s updating is solid: Leontes becomes Leo, the mercurial and charismatic head of a hedge fund; Polixenes is Xeno, his best friend (and former lover) from their boarding school days. Hermione becomes MiMi, an internationally renowned chanteuse, and Paulina becomes Pauline, Leo’s competent, no-bullshit personal assistant. The shepherd and the “clown” of Shakespeare’s play, surrogate family to Perdita, become Shep and Clo, an African-American father and son who run a bar in a barely-fictionalized New Orleans. All of this makes sense, both for a novel set in the present day and for an adaptation of the relationships that drive Shakespeare’s original.
The most interesting thing that Winterson does, I think, is to suggest that Leo may not have been entirely wrong in his jealousy. MiMi and Xeno aren’t having an affair—that’s never in question—but we learn that when Leo wanted to propose, he used Xeno as a go-between, and the two of them—Xeno and MiMi—connected then in a way that was more intimate than pure friendship. Pauline asks Leo: would it be so bad, if they loved each other? They also love you. Leo’s history with Xeno is made more explicit than Shakespeare could have made it: they had sex a few times at boarding school, before Leo caused an accident that nearly killed Xeno and which affected their friendship forever after. Xeno as an adult, meanwhile, is sort-of-probably-mostly-but-not-quite-completely gay; his son, Zel (the Florizel character), is the result of a deliberately planned liaison with a woman. The fluidity of the adults’ sexuality is a clever nod to the ever-present titillation of Tudor staging conventions (boys playing women who kiss men playing men, for instance, or boys playing women who pretend to be boys who then kiss men). It’s also a brilliant explanation of motive. The three members of the older generation—the parents—all want each other, all at the same time. It makes more sense, to me at least, than Leo’s jealousy springing out of nowhere, as it does in The Winter’s Tale. It makes a fascinating contrast to the usual story in the comedies, where young love must overcome elderly conservatism; here, it’s the older people who are more adventurous than their offspring (Perdita and Zel are, to all appearances, firmly cis/hetero/vanilla in their sexual preferences).
Parents and their children are a major concern in Shakespeare’s late plays, something out of which critics have mostly made pretty heavy weather. There’s a curious pattern to The Tempest, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale: the mothers are out of the picture (dead or presumed dead); the fathers lose the daughters; the fathers are, in some way, morally dubious or culpable; the daughters return to the fathers, though not before their relationship is almost rendered morally dubious in and of itself. (In Pericles, the eponymous hero finds his long-lost child in a brothel and nearly makes use of her services. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes fancies Perdita when she turns up at court, before he hears her life story and puts two and two together. In The Tempest, well, it’s not clear what Prospero and Miranda have been doing living in a cave all those years, but…) In all of these plays, too, disasters are brought upon women and children by the actions of men; this is the part where they all look like tragedies. Only the endings redeem, and often those endings seem like they shouldn’t be enough. Winterson gives her characters some good comments on gendered genre trappings:
“I am revising my thesis. It’s the fathers who kill the sons.”
“Who kills the daughters?” said Perdita.
“We all do,” said Xeno. “If the hero doesn’t kill you—call him Hamlet, call him Othello, call him Leontes, Don Giovanni, James Bond—still you’ll be the sacrifice for his soul.”
The inclusion of Leontes in this list is delightfully cheeky; unpacking it, it’s also clear that some of these murderous heroes (Giovanni, Bond) have been chosen because they’re sexually, as well as physically, destructive. And Winterson’s not afraid of pointing out that even fictional women who survive are made to suffer in order to advance the hero’s development: women are collateral damage in the cosmic struggle for a man’s soul.
Putting sixteen years between the beginning of the play (/novel) and its conclusion is the literary equivalent of a montage, only the growth and development doesn’t happen during the intervening time. When we come back to the characters whom we’ve seen at their worst, they haven’t miraculously gotten better; we return to them just as they start to understand that they’ve only been wasting time. Perhaps for this reason, Shakespeare’s late plays are often read through a biographical lens (Prospero’s farewell to magic = Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, anyone?), and they seem to speak in particular to audiences and actors on the far sides of the age spectrum: both the elderly and newly minted adults can see themselves in this plot.
Looking back on a life is an inherently regretful act. We fuck up so much; we could have done better. Even the best of us have mostly failed. In a way, that’s the comfort: no one comes out of their own life as an angel. (The video game Xeno has spent his adult life designing, incidentally, is all about angels; it’s based on a dream famously dreamt by the French poet Gerard de Nerval.) Xeno, again, is the commentator:
“If I could make it unhappen. And then I remember that the choices I made, I made because there was no me to make any other choices. Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.”
It depends not only on that, but on your ability to cope with the choices—free or not—that you’ve already made. “The past”, Winterson writes, “is a grenade that explodes when thrown.” This beautiful novel reinvents a story that comes from far, far back in our collective cultural past—from farther back even than Shakespeare. The endpoint is that of the prodigal son. We will be forgiven, every one of us, but only by each other.