Today, we’re going to read the first one and a half acts of The Winter’s Tale with the kids and, after showing them some vintage illustrations of the play, we’ll ask them to design a few illustrations of their own. [We’ll post the results below when they become available.]
I’ve wanted to read Shakespeare with the kids for some time now. They’ve gone through Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. And, they read a bit of Macbeth at bedtime last summer. So, it was high time we did something together as a family. It was difficult to decide on a play. At first, I thought we might do King Lear, as it was initially peformed at Christmas. I wasn’t so sure about a full-blown tragedy in Advent, though. Then, because of my “seasonal” interest, Twelfth Night came to mind. The “Toby” character in that play, however, may have been taken the wrong way by our resident Tobias. Much Ado about Nothing was also contender, both for its much more flattering portrayal of our lady “Beatrice” and for its love story. However, the main shift or transformation in that play is largely a psychological one, taking place in the heads and hearts of the two lovers. Not that I’m averse to a battle of the wits, but I wasn’t quite sure the kids would be able to translate this as readily as they might into images or illustrations. So, I finally turned to The Winter’s Tale. I’m not sure why it took so long…
The Winter’s Tale offers the best of both worlds: the first three acts present a veritable tragedy, the jealousy and madness of king Leontes, his dependence on a supernatural “oracle” for guidance, and his unjust punishment of his wife, Hermione, and their newborn child, Perdita. The final two acts present comedy and resolution. The former victims of the king’s madness are recovered and reunited: Perdita finds her Florizel; the statue of Hermione comes to life; human virtue [mercy and love] triumphs over vice. When you introduce Shakespeare to kids, you might want to talk about the five act arc or structure of a play and divide it up accordingly in your discussion. Since we’ve only got four weeks to tackle a five act play, however, the two-part structure of The Winter’s Tale makes it easier to divide the five acts into four parts, the tragedy of acts 1-3 [Sundays in Advent 1&2] and the comedy of acts 4-5 [Sundays 3&4]. It’s also appealing because it is a play about seasonal cycles, death and renewal, about looking on the passage from winter to spring as both resurrection and new birth. As the Shepherd claims towards the close of Act III: “Now bless thyself: thou met’st with things dying, I with things new born” (2.2.112-113)
So, for the next four weeks, we’ll be reading The Winter’s Tale to the kids as they read along in their own copies, stopping to explain things along the way. No dumming down the language, no excising difficult concepts or the violence. If it takes an hour, it takes an hour, and if it takes a good half of a day, it takes a good half of a day. Then, we’ll have them illustrate what they consider to be their favourite and the most important scenes. We’ll probably draw a little, too, ourselves….We’re looking forward to it!
The Winter’s Tale Acts I-II.2: A Brief Summary
In Act I, King Leontes of Sicilia is trying to persuade his friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, to visit a little longer with him there in Sicilia. When Leontes asks his [pregnant] wife, Hermione, to convince Polixenes to stay, he listens in on the conversation. Leontes soon becomes obsessed with the notion that Hermione and Polixenes are having an affair. He is so enraged, that he asks his courtier Camillo to poison Leontes, but Camillo won’t do it. Instead, Camillo flees with Polixenes to Bohemia.
In Act II, scenes i and ii, Leontes finds out about Camillo and Polixenes’ flight, and, raging on about treason, accuses his wife of having loved Polixenes. He thinks that the baby she is carrying is not his own but that of his “former” friend. Despite Hermione’s protestations of innocence, he sends her to prison. Leontes then sends messengers to consult the “oracle of Apollo” to confirm his belief in this affair. Meanwhile, Paulina tries to visit Hermione in prison where she is informed that Hermione has given birth to a baby girl. She vows to take the baby to Leontes in order to show him that the child is his.
The Kids’ Illustrations [and ours]
Both of the kids chose the same “quotes” to illustrate.
Polixenes: We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’th’sun. I.ii. 67 AND
Leontes: I have drunk and seen the spider. II. i. 45
Me Leontes: Three crabbed months had soured themselves to death, /Ere I could make thee open thy white hand,
/And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter/”I am yours for ever.’ I.ii. 102-5 AND
Leontes: Why he wears her like a medal, hanging/About his neck. I.ii. 307-8
Blaise Leontes: I am angling now,/Though you perceive me not how I give line./Go to, go to! I.ii.180-182 AND
A Lord: Behind the tuft of pines I met them, never/Saw I men scour so on their way: I eye’d them/Even to their ships. II. i. 34-36.