MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Shakespeare in the Summer; the Winter’s Tale

For some folks summertime in New York City means free concerts or picnics in the park or just an excuse to get out of town, but for me, summer in the city means plays by that great Elizabethan, William Shakespeare. And can you blame me, there are so many different Shakespeare productions to enjoy in the summer. This year, no less than 10 companies are performing all around the city, outdoors and for free!

In a defiant gesture to the recent heatwave, today’s blog takes a look at Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Considered one of Shakespeare’s late romances, this work was probably written around 1611 with documented New York performances as early as 1795. There’s a lot going on in this tale of jealousy, oracles, sea voyages, disguises, hucksters, love, and forgiveness, so take a deep breath. Here we go!

Leontes, the King of Sicily, enjoys a happy life. He has a young son named Mamillius and a pregnant and beautiful wife named Hermione, and his best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, has been hanging out with him for the last nine months. Polixenes, aware of his long absence from his own kingdom, makes plans to go home. Leontes insists that he stay, and enlists Hermione to help convince his friend.

1980. Museum of the City of New York. 80.142.2.

Ken Howard. [Norman Snow as Polixenes, Guy Michaels as Mamillius, Brian Murray as Leontes, and Marti Maraden as Hermione.] 1980. Museum of the City of New York. 80.142.2.

Hermione is very persuasive, and Polixenes agrees to extend his stay. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Shakespearean comedy without a love triangle, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Leontes gets jealous – like, crazy jealous. He wonders how his wife could convince his friend to delay his return to Bohemia, but he could not. Is there something going on between them? Is the baby she carries his? Does his young son, Mamillius, even belong to him? Things spiral out of control very fast, and before you know it Leontes orders Polixenes poisoned and Hermione locked up for adultery.

1980. Museum of the City of New York. 81.36.11.

Ken Howard. [Noman Snow as Polixenes, Brian Murray as Leontes, and  Marti Maraden as Hermione.] 1980. Museum of the City of New York. 81.36.11.

Luckily for Polixenes, the man sent to poison him, Camillo, has a good heart. He warns him of Leontes’s intentions, and they both escape to Bohemia. The less lucky Hermione goes into early labor in her prison cell, and delivers a girl that Leontes promptly orders his nobleman Antigonus to abandon in some distant land. He sends messengers to the Oracle of Apollo to justify his actions and puts his wife on trial. Hermione defends her honor.

1946. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.9096.

Vandamm Studio. [The Trial scene from The Winter’s Tale.] 1946. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.9096.

The messengers return with the word of the Oracle: “Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten.”  The Oracle further declares that “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” (Act III, scene ii). In other words, unless the baby is recovered, Leontes’s throne will have no successor. The King proclaims the Oracle a liar and then is  immediately informed of his young son’s death. Hermione swoons, is taken off stage, and declared dead by her friend Paulina. The now repentant Leontes is left bereft of young son, beautiful wife, and best friend.

Vandamm Studio. [Henry Daniell as Leontes.] 1946. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.9098.

Vandamm Studio. [Henry Daniell as Leontes.] 1946. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.9098.

Meanwhile, cut to Bohemia. Antigonus arrives in the country to carry out his mission. Before abandoning the young princess of Sicily, he reads aloud a letter from her mother naming her Perdita. Antigonus leaves the letter, a necklace of Hermione’s, and some gold with the baby and hastily exits (perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: exit, pursued by a bear). A shepherd finds baby Perdita and takes her home with him.

Miss Mary Anderson as "Perdita." ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 39.317.12.

Henry Van der Weyde. Miss Mary Anderson as “Perdita.” ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 39.317.12.

Time passes. The spirit of Time literally walks across the stage and announces 16 years have gone by. The young Perdita is now grown up and in love with Florizel, the son of Polixenes.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Plays, The Winter's Tale, 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 45.202.86.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Plays, The Winter’s Tale, 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 45.202.86.

Though Perdita knows his true identity, Florizel disguises himself as a shepherd so that he may attend a country festival with her. Also at the festival are Polixenes and Camillo, who have come disguised to investigate what has been distracting young Florizel of late.

1946. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.9099.

Vandamm Studio. [Festival scene in The Winter’s Tale.] 1946. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.9099.

During the festival, Perdita and Florizel become betrothed. Florizel’s flagrant disregard of his father’s wishes makes Polixenes angry – crazy angry. He reveals himself and threatens the lives of Florizel, Perdita, and Perdita’s shepherd father.

William Auerbach-Levy. [Richard Waring, Richard Eton, Inga Swenson, and Will Geer in The Winter's Tale.] ca. 1958. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.2336.

William Auerbach-Levy (1889-1964). [Richard Waring, Richard Eton, Inga Swenson, and Will Geer in The Winter’s Tale.] ca. 1958. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.2336.

Of course, the young lovers run away and at Camillo’s suggestion they travel to Sicily. In the court of the grief-stricken Leontes, Florizel pretends to be a messenger from his father. Meanwhile, Polixenes has arrived in Sicily in pursuit of the couple. His presence is announced to Leontes, and the jig is up. Thankfully, Perdita is wearing her mother’s necklace, which Leontes recognizes. Her adoptive father soon arrives on the scene and tells the story of how he found her with the letter and necklace.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Plays, The Winter's Tale. 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 45.202.87A.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Plays, The Winter’s Tale. 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 45.202.87A.

After the happy reunion of father and daughter, Paulina announces that a statue commissioned of Hermione is now ready for view. The party proceeds to Hermione’s tomb. Upon seeing the statue, Leontes marvels at its likeness to his late wife but notes some extra details, “Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing so aged as this seems.” (Act V, scene iii).

Stewart Chaney. [Tomb of Hermione,] 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 71.11.5.

Stewart Chaney. [Tomb of Hermione.] 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 71.11.5.

Lo and behold, the statue awakes, and Hermione is once again living flesh. All is reconciled, and all is forgiven.

Otto Sarony Co. [Viola Allen as Hermione.] ca. 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 45.202.51.

Otto Sarony Co. [Viola Allen as Hermione.] ca. 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 45.202.51.

In Shakespeare’s time, a “winter’s tale” meant an old wive’s tale, a story told to entertain during the long winter evening but not one necessarily set in the winter season. The young prince Mamillius says “A sad tale’s best for winter,” (Act II, scene i). And while the play ends with a happy reunion, for Mamillius, who dies so young, it is a very sad tale indeed.

There are parts of this tale that I’ve left out – the magnificent sass dished out by Hermione’s friend Paulina, the motivations of good Camillo, the delightful schemer Autocylus  – but I do so, dear reader, to entice you to see the play yourself. A free production by New York Classical Theatre is running now through August 14 at Battery Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the National Ballet of Canada presents Christopher Wheeldon’s version of the story at Lincoln Center, July 28-31. Go now!

For other opportunities to see free summer Shakespeare, check out the New York City Parks’ website.

About Morgen Stevens-Garmon

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