Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

Based on a story by…

If Shakespeare were alive now he would have been obliged to advertise his new play as being based on a story by Robert Greene. He would also have needed Greene’s permission or at least, as Greene died some twenty years before the play was written, that of his heirs. Whether permission would have been forthcoming, given Greene’s feelings about Shakespeare (‘upstart crow’ etc), is doubtful. So we should be glad that Shakespeare had no worries about copyright when he wrote The Winter’s Tale.

He took (borrowed, stole) two things from Greene’s story. First he took the theme of jealousy, which Greene sets out in the first paragraph of Pandosto.

Among all the passions wherewith human minds are perplexed there is none that so galleth with restless despite as that infectious sore of jealousy, for all other griefs are either to be appeased with sensible persuasions, to be cured with wholesome counsel, to be relieved in want, or by tract of time to be worn out – jealousy only excepted, which is so sauced with suspicious doubts and pinching mistrust that whoso seeks by friendly counsel to raze out this hellish passion, it forthwith suspecteth that he giveth this advice to cover his own guiltiness.

He took the theme and the plot, but not much else. He changed all the names. Pandosto became Leontes, Bellaria Hermione, Garinter Mamillius, Franion Camillo, Egistus Polixenes, Fawnia Perdita, Dorastus Florizel. The shepherd who finds the baby and brings her up as his daughter was called Porrus in Greene’s story and had a wife. Shakespeare called him Old Shepherd and gave him a son (Clown) instead of a wife.

More interesting than the new names (though such a wholesale re-naming is curious – was he trying to play down the extent of his debt?) are the new characters. Paulina and Autolycus, both absent in Greene, make Shakespeare’s play, in all but the bare bones of the plot, quite different from the story it was based on.

Autolycus serves an important dramatic purpose: he is a Fool and Fools in Shakespeare’s plays should not be confused with Clowns. Clowns are stupid, Fools are clever. Autolycus takes advantage of other people’s mistakes. He is ‘a snapper-up of unconsider’d trifles’ and ‘for the life to come,’ he says, ‘I sleep out the thought of it’. All he wants is the last laugh and he has it when the newly enriched Old Shepherd and Clown promise to give him a place in their household. ‘Come, follow us,’ says the Clown, ‘we’ll be thy good masters.’

Shakespeare must have learned the importance of comic relief when he stood in the street in his youth watching the old Mystery Plays (or even when he acted in them, as the parts were all taken by local men and boys) and understood that it has two functions: 1) the release of tension at a moment of high drama (before some fool in the audience gets in first), 2) making the drama more real by showing its funny side. Comedy, he understood, does not diminish tragedy, it enhances it.

Paulina goes to the other extreme, making tragedy harder to bear, making the suffering almost insufferable. She loads Leontes down with guilt, shows him no mercy, torments him like a Harpy, makes him say his Hail Marys every day, reminds him of his guilt even in his joy at finding his lost daughter. ‘Sir, my liege,’ she says,

Your eye hath too much youth in’t: not a month
‘Fore your queen died, she was worth more such gazes
Than what you look on now.

While others try to comfort him, tell him he has grieved enough and encourage him to take a new wife, she is unrelenting.

If, one by one, you wedded all the world,
Or from the all that are took something good,
To make a perfect woman, she you kill’d
Would be unparallel’d.

Leontes agrees but begs her to show him some mercy.

                                                                Kill’d!
She I kill’d! I did so: but thou strikest me
Sorely, to say I did; it is as bitter
Upon thy tongue as in my thought: now, good now,
Say so but seldom.

Paulina has no intention of letting him off the hook. When he says that Hermione’s ghost, if she came back to haunt him after a second marriage, ‘would incense me to murder her I married,’ she goes further.

Were I the ghost that walkt, I’ld bid you mark
Her eye and tell me for what dull part in’t
You chose her; then I’ld shriek, that even your ears
Should rift to hear me; and the words that follow’d
Should be, ‘Remember mine.’

If this does not make the hairs stand up on the back of the audience’s necks, nothing will. The echo of Hamlet’s father’s ghost (‘Remember me!’) is surely too plain for Shakespeare not to have meant it. The occasion, re-marriage, is after all the same in both plays.

Paulina does what Prospero will do in Shakespeare’s next play. Both insist on suffering as the way to redemption. Both mix Christian dogma with Delphic oracles and pagan magic. In post-Reformation England, it was safer to set your plays in another country and another time, to let magic stand in for religion, gods for God. The penance that Paulina imposes on Leontes, that Pericles, in the first of Shakespeare’s last plays, imposes on himself, was the kind of penance insisted on by the old church, withdrawal from the world.

The reward for the penitent in some of these last plays is the return of lost daughters, Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, Marina in Pericles. In others it is wives who are raised from the dead, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Imogen in Cymbeline. In The Tempest, Prospero drowns his enemies then saves them. Like Paulina, he insists on suffering as the path to redemption. In his last speech to the audience, he speaks of his need to be 

                         Relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

Paulina, in her last lines, which have something in common with Prospero’s, recalls the death of her husband.

                                                       Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some wither’d bough, and there
My mate, that’s never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost.

Leontes says, ‘O, peace, Paulina!’ A line which could be an expression of sympathy for her plight or, if the actor wants to get a laugh, a way of saying, ‘Oh, Paulina, give me a break!’ Either way, he insists on a happy ending and marries her off to Camillo.

Shakespeare did not take his ending from Greene, who lacked a Paulina and saw no possibility of redemption. The young lovers were married, the old friends were reconciled, but that was as far as it went.

Pandosto, calling to mind how first he betrayed his friend Egistus, how his jealousy was the cause of Bellaria’s death, that contrary to the law of nature he had lusted after his own daughter, moved with these desperate thoughts, he fell in a melancholy fit, and to close up the comedy with a tragical stratagem, he slew himself.

robert greene

Robert Greene (1558-92)

Coming up
The literary case for Britain to stay in the EU
27 April 2016

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