Warning: Contains potential Spoilers from Shakespeare, A Christmas Carol, Pride & Prejudice, and Game of Thrones
It’s summer; it’s time for Shakespeare. There’s Shakespeare in the park, Shakespeare in your local theaters, and plenty at your local library. Go watch some! (although you have my permission to skip over Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, and Australopithecus.) The library will surely have an excellent version A Midsummer Night’s Dream. How can you beat Titania in love with Bottom who has been transformed into a donkey… “methought I was enamoured of an ass….”?
Our favorite tales – the ones that resonate with our modern sensibilities – are stories of reconciliation and redemption. I recently watched an excellent version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale under the stars that showed the power of people seeking and receiving true forgiveness stands at the heart of our most beloved stories.
We learned in school that Shakespeare wrote Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. For years, the way I remembered the comedies and tragedies were by the ending – people dead? Tragedy. Wedding? Comedy. Unless there’s “King” in the title, then it’s a History. Now, please note it was people who came after the playwright who created the categories. Shakespeare wrote whatever the hell he* wanted, then later on people grouped and interpreted and analyzed them ad nauseum. Many of the tragedies have funny elements and many of the comedies have very dark themes.
*For purposes here, I don’t really care whether the William married to Anne, son of a glovemaker and raised in Stratford on Avon, is the person who actually wrote the plays. Let’s skip hours of argument, and just call the guy or guys/gals who wrote these plays “Shakespeare.”
There are four latter “comedies” – Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale –that start out with dramatic and tragic elements and then turn lighter. Good characters are wrongly accused, mistakenly spurned at the beginning; there are storms and shipwrecks; characters wander for years and children turn to adults before the troublemaker learns to reflect on his mistakes and recover what was lost. The local SF Shakespeare Company’s Winter’s Tale starts with the blistering jealousy of King Leontes then turns to a bucolic musical with farce to spare.
This play has the oddest and perhaps most famous Shakespearean stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear. When I first saw the play years ago, the bear scene seemed out of place coming after the king imprisons his wife, disowns his daughter, destroys his kingdom – it was incongruous. It was ridiculous. I didn’t like it.
I have been taught the error of my ways by Peter Saccio, a Shakespeare professor from Dartmouth, who points out that that the bear changes the play from tragedy into comedy. True, the bear rips one of our good guys limb from limb (goringly described by a shepherd’s son in PG-13 detail). But the bear’s entrance is silly. Shakespeare must have done this on purpose. Even if – as scholars have suggested – the bear was included because in 1611 there was a famous circus bear in London, a live tame bear in chains would have appeared goofy to the adults. And 99.9% of the versions of this play would not use a live bear – a human would lumber on in a bear suit or, as with the 2016 version, a giant puppet would rise on stage. Complete with “RAAAAARRRR” sounds; not scary unless you’re under six years old.
That bear is a light switch that flips The Winter’s Tale from the nearly uncomfortable (shall I say unBearable?… No!) level of tension from the king’s jealous acts into lightheartedness and silliness. It says, this play is now about something else.
That something else allows the payoff, when suffering Leontes gets down on his knees and looks his loved ones in the eye, grieving for his mistreatment of them and desperately thankful that they are still alive for him to say so.
I immediately thought of two of my favorite characters who undergo such redemptions: of Scrooge and Mr. Darcy. Scrooge spends the first half of A Christmas Carol barking at his nephew, his clerk, and beggars on the street. As we travel through his life and investigate the causes, the challenges he faced as a child don’t seem to justify the coldness that has settled on his heart. As his greed and nastiness intensifies through the history we see, he is faced with harsher and harsher penalties until the Ghost of Christmas Future confronts him with the worst of possible realities. When he wakes to hear bells ringing, he is transformed. The scenes that follow are not just joyous but hilarious. And the uglier and nastier the Scrooge acted before, the funnier it becomes when he starts dancing around the room. The topper is when he looks Cratchit – whom he has tormented for years – in the eye and gives him a raise and a promise to be Tiny Tim’s benefactor.
Similarly, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett’s story succeeds through their changes. Both Pride AND Prejudice which must be overcome through their transformation. In fact, the plot segment where Darcy asks Elizabeth to marry him “just because” he wants her to – because he is infatuated and can’t help himself – is critical to the power of the story. I can think of very few stories where we cheer when the woman receives a proposal and turns down the man she loves –it ups the ante big time. A happy ending isn’t enough. The ending needs an intelligent character whose behavior produced negative consequences to reach self-awareness and then say so, looking the other in the eye. The Power of Jane Austen’s story is that both reach this conclusion and confess to each other. Which is why Pride and Prejudice has been put on film and stage far more than any other Austen novel.
I now wonder if Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones is on such a path, although if he is, the redemption would have to be very convincing. His throwing young Bran Stark off a roof is the “Go” sign that launches the battle over the seven kingdoms. Alhough later he does rescue his brother from unfair imprisonment and help fan favorite Brienne of Tarth, he was the one who set the soldiers on Eddard Stark in the first place, leading to the imbalance of power. Even in Season Six, he is still battling the Tullys and Martells to maintain the Lannister hold on the kingdom. The plot line isn’t giving away whether he is a changed man. If he does transform, I would need to see him pretty conclusively sacrifice himself for Bran specifically, and look him in the eye to beg forgiveness with his last breath.
I have no idea if the gnomish author, George R.R. Martin, is going that way. Maybe the remaining Starks will join the Mother of Dragons and just ride herd over all the sorry Lannisters. I know that Cersei is not redeemable; Shakespeare would probably have her commit suicide, drinking an overdose of milk of the poppy with a majestic death soliloquy cursing her father and bemoaning the fates.
But if Jaime does turn round, if he does achieve the Shakespearean level of character transformation through redemption, we might just look back at the one crucial scene. You know, the one where he rescues Brienne from – what else – a bear! And know that’s when the switch was flipped.