Written for Rebecca Taichman’s production in the Spring of 2013. We adopted the novel (and to my knowledge unprecedented) concept of a 9-actor production, with almost nonstop doubling. Most remarkable was Mark Harelik’s doubling of Leontes and Autolycus, two antipodal roles which, when combined, comprise the longest role in Shakespeare, surpassing even Hamlet. -DL
Most scholars agree that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, had a core of about nine shareholding actors, with three additional musicians. Doubling roles was an essential fact of life, especially when the theatres were closed for plague, and actors were forced to tour the provinces with smaller ensembles.
Toward the end of his career, however, Shakespeare began to use doubling in a new way. His late plays, more than ever before, stretch the limits of theatrical illusion, and doubling becomes a structural preoccupation rather than a professional necessity. Often called “romances” for their defiance of genre, these plays are defined by oppositions. In them, the comic intermingles with the tragic, nature vies with art for supremacy and life is haunted by the specter of death. In The Winter’s Tale, the play is literally divided into two worlds which mirror each other in ways large and small – the winter court of Sicilia and the springtime pastoral of Bohemia. Almost all of the characters have shadow selves in these other worlds, doppelgängers who suggest underlying symmetries and contradictions.
The theme in these plays is invariably of family and personal ties, the characters forming a constellation of parents and children, husbands and wives. Sometimes two characters will appear to be twin manifestations of the same identity, such as Leontes and Polixenes, the two kings of Sicilia and Bohemia. “They were trained together in their childhoods,” Shakespeare writes, emphasizing the characters’ twinned natures, as well as their deep bond of love. “Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society,” Shakespeare continues, they “shook hands as over a vast, and embraced as it were from the ends of opposed winds” (act 1, scene 1). In other words, though time and the responsibilities of life pull us apart from those we love, we will always feel the deeply human need to connect. It is a theme Shakespeare will return to in this play again and again, the savage breaches that life creates and the ways in which we knit ourselves back together.
At other moments, characters appear to function as negative images of each other. One scholar, Stephen Booth, argues that Shakespeare’s leading actor, Richard Burbage, played two contrasting roles in Cymbeline – the romantic lead Posthumus, as well as the grotesque villain Cloten. Similarly, in The Winter’s Tale the leading role of Leontes is paralleled by the anarchic Bohemian clown Autolycus. Whereas Leontes is possessed by paranoid delusions and searches for the truth, Autolycus possesses a frank view of the world’s realities and is a master of lies. As far as I know, no major company has ever attempted to double the two roles with one actor, making this production unique, perhaps with the exception of Shakespeare’s own.
Of all the characters in The Winter’s Tale, there is only one who cannot be doubled. I speak of course of Hermione, who appears in the play, ironically, in three different forms: as a living human being in Sicilia, as a ghost in Bohemia and as a statue at play’s end. The question of how to understand Hermione’s true essence, of how to distinguish between reality and illusion, is one that has tormented thinkers since the time of Plato. “The poet,” Plato writes, “is thrice removed from the gods and the truth,” just as Hermione’s statue is one level of remove from the truth of her human existence and another from the divine truth of her ghost. Shakespeare asks us to reconcile three impossibilities – that a character can be alive, dead and a work of art at the same time.
And yet, in dramatic practice, this apparent impossibility is really nothing of the sort. This final scene of Shakespearean doubling is in fact a tripling which both echoes and rebuts Plato’s writings. Nowhere else does Shakespeare so forcefully ask us to confront the phantasmal power of the theatre, the manner in which it can bridge that wide, unseen gap between the worlds of art (Hermione’s statue), nature (Hermione as queen) and the divine (Hermione’s ghost). At the end of The Winter’s Tale, Paulina says the statue will not move until all “awake their faith” (act 5, scene 3). She is speaking directly, not only to Leontes and the court of Sicilia onstage, but for those in the audience as well, those living the triple life along with the poet and his creations.
It is a divine synthesis, a dream that is real, the kind of ending too impossible for real life and too real to ever be forgotten.