The Birth of Comedy:
a study of The Winter's Tale
and "The Triumph of Time"
...Act III, scene iii takes place on a seashore in a storm, the archetypal setting of dissolution and chaos. The BBC production conveys this by fading into a misty seashore, which is created by not fading in completely. The screen itself dissolves into chaos. We hear the background roar of the ocean and see Antigonus and the Mariner walk out from behind geometric slabs and down onto a sunken plain on which are placed some cairns. The scene fills us with the tragic vision, in which
the mineral world is seen in terms of deserts, rocks and ruins or of sinister geometrical images like the cross. [Frye, Northrop. The Archetypes of Literature. Criticism, the Major Statements. Ed. Charles Kaplan. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986: 514.]
We filmed our production at the seashore on the edge of the continent during a storm. Walking down to the beach through the scrub at six a.m. in a storm gave me a real feel for the mise en scéne of tragedy. Although this was "the Triumph of Time," I couldn't stop thinking of Macbeth (I, i). Setting: a desert heath. Thunder and lightning. In the back of my mind the three witches chanted in unison:
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
Our scene begins as the camera rolls in with a breaking wave to the storm soaked countenances of Antigonus and the mariner. We cut and then see the two again in front of a jagged exposed reef. Rain water drips down Antigonus's nose. Both the sky and the two men "look grimly" as we hear wind howling past them. In the BBC production, the Mariner leaves and the darkly clad Antigonus kneels down and delivers a soliloquy with the babe in his arms. A saturnine string tune tells us that, "the storm begins," on this highly stylized set. In our production, we see Antigonus from behind as he trudges up the beach. He crouches at the bottom of the cliff and speaks of the "spirits of the dead" in his soliloquy. We see an ominous skull scratched on the cliff wall behind him. When we began filming, we found the cliff already marked with several skulls which seemed to work with the tone of scene. I suppose there are faces scratched into cliffs throughout the coast which people look at with indifference. However, when one looks with the optics of tragedy, faces become skulls and death permeates the landscape.
Interestingly the "savage clamor" that Antigonus hears is not the roar of the bear, but the bark of dogs at the hunt. We find out later on these are the clown's dogs that chase the bear into the open and make him attack Antigonus. The bear that functions as a force of justice is goaded into this position by the civilized cruelty of hunting dogs. [Hedrick. "Romance bears, albeit cruel, are on the side of nature and justice, versus the civilized cruelty of human duty."] If I were to re-direct the scene, I would make this clear (I wasn't even aware of it the first time) by perhaps having a few dogs bark before the Shepherd says, "Hark you now, would any but the boiled brains of nineteen and three and twenty hunt in this weather." Antigonus's death is nature's check on an errant civil order. Man hunts down nature; nature hunts down man. Thus, Shakespeare furnishes us with a microcosm of the comedic tragic cycle within the larger tragic-comedic cycle of the play.
The BBC production shows us a stark contrast between the tragic world and the comic world. In the most harrowing moments of the play, we see a shot of a four toothed bear. The bear stands still and makes only one feeble swipe at Antigonus with his right hand/paw. We cut to a still standing Antigonus, then back to bear fangs and a fade out. The mist clears as we fade back in, with the accompaniment of pastoral music, to the comic world of blue skies and a scruffy shepherd in a straw hat who finds the babe. The BBC's sequence seems illogical, for if Antigonus doesn't run, the bear will also eat Perdita. More importantly, it reduces the rich problem of turning from tragedy to comedy by avoiding a substantial bear episode.
Our bear, although in no way authentic, gives us a better glimpse into the common ground of tragedy and comedy. We see our Antigonus run off screen saying, "I am gone forever." As Charles Frey suggests, this is humorous as it suggests an actor's last exit from the stage during the play. We pick up Antigonus again on the other side of the cliff pursued by a bear. The bear tackles Antigonus and we cannot avoid laughing. While filming this sequence, I couldn't look at the scene without crying with laughter one feels in elementary school when some absurdity happens to the principal. The bear attack is the pinnacle of absurdity. Antigonus, a strong and able man is killed, while the frail baby survives. Moreover, he is killed by a bear that has been spooked by the Clown's hunting dogs. In a paradox that Shakespeare would approve of, Joel Graves plays both the Clown who inadvertently sets the bear on Antigonus and the bear that mauls him. The episode contains both the comic and tragic vision of life. Tragically, the bear "mocks" Antigonus. We feel, however, a sense of triumph in that the bear has left Perdita to live. Along with Perdita survives her "fortune" and her "character." In her royal identity, the "mantle of Queen Hermione" and personality, there is a sense that she carries with her not only new life, but the plan for a new generation.
When we fade back in, we move into the comic vision of life. On our screen this is evident from vivid colors of the Shepherd's green socks and verdant ice plant on the hillside. However, unlike the BBC production where the mist clears and the skies turn blue, the world undergoes no physical change. In our production, the showers of the tragic portion turn into comic deluge. Also in our production, the skull etched in the cliff still looms over the baby when the Shepherd finds it. It too is a part of nature. Even the character give evidence of a hostile world. The Shepherd fears the wolf will eat his sheep. He, like Leontes, believes the child to be a bastard and thinks that Perdita's abandonment is the result of "some scape" or "behind door work." The Clown describes a violent sea that swallows ships. But as Frey suggests, it is the attitude, not the world, that changes in the comic vision of life. The Clown hunts for his enjoyment despite the foul weather and describes the storm in the jocular terms of alcohol. The ship is swallowed, "with yeast and froth," as if it were being tossed about in a vat of beer. The sea "flapdragons" the ship as one swallows raisins out of burning brandy. he spirits that were evil to Antigonus make the Shepherd rich. The Shepherd says that the fairies promised him wealth. Despite our initial encounter with it, Bohemia turns out to be a comic world. The attitude of the inhabitants of Bohemia changes their land into a temperate Mediterranean island. The inhabitants of Sicilia in the first three acts, on the other hand, turn their island into a wintry landlocked prison. This seems to be why Shakespeare juxtaposes the real geographies of Sicil(y) and Bohemia; our vision of the world depends on how we represent it.