chapter  5
34 Pages

‘Here’s a sight for thee’: The Claims of Narrative in The Winter’s Tale

What are we to make of a play whose title is The Winter’s Tale? After all, the word tale usually refers to ‘a literary composition cast in narrative form’ (OED, 4). The word can also mean ‘That which one tells; the relation of a series of events; a narrative, statement, information’ (OED, 3a), as well as ‘A mere story, as opposed to a narrative of fact; a fiction; an idle tale; a falsehood’ (OED, 5a). The play’s title, then, raises several questions concerning its status as a dramatic work and its relationship with narrative. In what sense is the play a tale? And, since it calls itself a ‘tale’, how seriously should we take it?1 Like the other works that have formed the focus of this book, The Winter’s Tale explores the rival claims of visual and verbal modes of representation, and, implicitly, the relationship between narrative and drama. For while the play concludes with the dramatic spectacle of Hermione’s statue, many of its significant events – for example, Cleomenes and Dion’s encounter with the oracle; Antigonus’ dream; Antigonus’ death; the sixteen-year gap in the play’s action; and the reunion of Leontes, Polixenes and Perdita – are conspicuous by their absence. We do not see these events, even in the theatre; instead they are described or narrated by one or more of the play’s characters. Perhaps more so than in any play by Shakespeare, we are asked to believe in happenings that are only described to us – what Howard Felperin has called ‘the evidence of things not seen’.2