Possible endings for The Winter's Tale
The Winter’s Tale is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. It’s not quite a ‘late bloomer’ play but it’s not so far off. Having been stuck in my sick bed, I gave some thought to what the play might look like if the hinge scene where Antigonus abandons the baby Perdita and she is rescued by shepherds, was written differently. Shakespeare is full of dramatic possibility: you often really don’t know which way things might go. Adoption dramas are the closest modern equivalent we have to this play.
Leontes, the king, thinks his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful. She is arrested. In prison, she gives birth to a daughter, Perdita. This makes Leontes mad, who gives orders for the child to be killed. His counsellors are repelled by this idea (he threatens to dash the baby’s brains himself) so he orders one of them to take the child and abandon it in ‘some remote and desert place’. Antigonus is given the nasty job. People make a lot of fuss about the stage direction Exit pursued by a bear, but far more affecting is the one that reads Exit with the child.
Act III becomes a hinge, where the mode shifts from tragedy to comedy. Antigonus leaves the child on a beach, as he was told to do by Hermione in a dream. A bear appears and Antigonus tempts the bear away. It eats him, sparing the baby, which is found, rescued, and raised by a shepherd and his son. To simplify a lot the action jumps forward, the child grows up and goes home to meet her father, Hermione and Leontes are reconciled, and all’s well that end’s well. Apart from for poor old Antigonus…
There are many ways the plot might have developed when the bear appears. Here are some other ways it might have played out.
Antigonus does not see the bear in time and has to watch the child get killed. This makes him less a perpetrator of the king’s crime and more a victim of it. He could tell the king, ending the play on a sour, tragic note, perhaps prompting the death or suicide of Hermione. In this version, jealousy gives way to horrific guilt.
b) Or, overwhelmed by the horror of it, Antigonus might have kept the story to himself. At this point you have a character walking around like a time bomb. He might become resentful of the king and look for revenge, giving him bad advice. Or he might side with a foreign power to bring vengeance on the king. Or he might tell Hermione, leading her to kill the king. Or he might simply go mad without anyone knowing why.
Antigonus leaves the child but thinks it is too cruel to let it die slowly, so he goes back and kills it immediately, the way you might kill an injured animal. He starts off feeling relieved he spared the child a nasty death but ends up tormented. Perhaps he becomes a monk to repent, later coming back to denounce the king or kill him. Perhaps he goes on a killing spree as soon as he returns. Perhaps he takes over as king after revealing what happened but lying about the crucial details. And, in that version, perhaps he thought the child was dead but she wasn’t after all…
Antigonus finds not a bear but a storm. He cannot leave the child to die under such cruel conditions so he looks for shelter. He finds the shepherd’s hut and makes up a story about the baby being his sister’s child. They were travelling, she died in the storm, he need to keep the girl safe. He cannot tell the shepherd who he is and now he has bonded with the baby he cannot go back to the king. He raises her, leading to a ‘Queen over the water’ plot, which might be resolved comically, as the real play is, tragically, or with some sort of battle. There is a Delphic prophecy in the play and in Greek tragedy prophecies often have a double meaning; that device could be used to good effect in this version.
b) There is also the possibility for the girl to be taken to a foreign power and become a symbol of war; if taken to a colony, she might become a Joan of Arc figure.
Antigonus plots with Hermione to save the child. Hermione pretends to faint, is smuggled out of the court, meets Antigonus, and they take the child away. Leontes’ court and kingdom declines, and eventually, in either comic or tragic mode, Hermione and her daughter return to take over.
Antigonus simply takes the child home. His wife (does he have one? He does in this version!) raises the child in secret. He tells the king the girl is dead and that this is an adopted child, or his niece, or a late miracle sent to his wife, or whatever. One day, the girl comes to court without permission, makes friends with Leontes’ other children, and so begins a fairytale. It doesn’t have to end as a fairytale, of course. What if she comes close to getting engaged to her brother and Antigonus is forced to reveal the truth? Or if she shows an aptitude for matters of state and the king takes an interest in her? Dramatic tension can be found in many ways here.
Hermione was having an affair. If Leontes was right, there is now the chance for Antigonus to take the child to her rightful father, a king in another country. That would make Hermione a more defiant character, and would bring some of the power of Anthony and Cleopatra to this play. Depending on the nature of her affair, Hermione might follow her daughter to the other kingdom.
b) If Leontes did dash out the baby’s brains, sending Hermione fleeing to the other king, then this could become a more complex and horrible version of Macbeth. Is legitimate jealousy an under-explored topic for Shakespeare?
In many of these versions the possibility remains for Leontes to renounce his daughter for a second time, or not as in The Clerk’s Tale. Once the grown woman appears, he might be so shocked to be confronted with his guilt, his past, his fears, that he throws her out again, prompting some sort of battle, confrontation, or other manner of sparking his own demise, Lear and Claudia style. In this case, Antigonus is the fool, but one who is less loyal, takes more actions, and is ultimately, perhaps, more dangerous to the king.
I believe this exercise could be repeated for many Shakespeare plays. As John Bayley said, “Behind the swift passage of the plays there is time for a whole lifetime of events.” It would be a good exercise for people studying film and television writing.
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