Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a bizarre, ranging comedy. The play jumps so lightly between slapstick and cruelty that it’s unclear whether it’s a dark farce, a bloody satire exposing the dangers of absolute power, or a moldy amalgam of cuckoldry, class, and misogyny.
The premise has a king baselessly charge his queen with infidelity. He believes she’s slept with his brother, who wisely flees a plot to murder him. Suspected adultery is a common hook for Shakespearean comedy, with misunderstanding harmlessly giving way to reconciliation, but this story doesn’t skip to a happy ending. People die—one lord is famously eaten by a bear—and their quick, brutal ends remain unredeemed, the senseless spinoffs of a king’s jealousy.
While the king eventually claims guilt, he keeps his throne and privilege, with no consequences for his actions. It is clear that he lives by his whim, above laws, his station ensuring his status.
Similarly, his brother rages in his own kingdom, threatening murder and torture, in great detail, to peasants who have unwittingly displeased him. Lovers flee, false identities are discovered, and the play pushes itself to a magical ending. By the final scenes, the medium itself has been strained and exposed. The most momentous events take place offstage; the final scene unfolds as an inside joke, poking fun at the staged setting to work the miracle.
What did Shakespeare intend as he wrote The Winter’s Tale? Is the casual cruelty a nod to cynicism as he reached the end of his career? Was it meant to highlight life’s unevenness, the capriciousness of kings? Would the audience have laughed at the king’s jealousy or his brother’s rage? Would the kings have been viewed as “bad” kings, or would their failings have been standard for the lot? Did the play seek to evoke the sword that dangles above a nation of subjects? Or was it just a bundle of jokes, summing up man’s eternal folly?
It’s a strange, mixed bag, but there seems to be some subversiveness in it, along with a great deal of sadness and resignation. Terrible things happen for no good reason, it tells us. Sure, sometimes all ends well. But more often, in the end, you’re just food for the bears.