Shakespeare Geek Facts!
(Because we can’t act footnotes.)
Kentucky Shakespeare 2016 Program Notes from Gregory Maupin, Dramaturg
In the story Shakespeare adapted for The Winter’s Tale (Robert Greene’s Pandosto), the Leontes-like king was from Bohemia & the Polixenes-ish king from Sicilia, the opposite of how it stands in the script. He decided to switch them for some reason that we could get even nerdier here & discuss, but let’s not. Instead let’s just note that the change also resulted in Act III Scene iii, after a ship anchors in the sea off the coast of Bohemia. Modern Bohemia is, as of this April, known as Czechia, formerly the Czech Republic. It shares with Kentucky the conspicuous state of not having a seacoast. At all.
Was Shakespeare just ignorant of/terrible at/unconcerned with details like accurate geography? There is another possibility: there is record in the early 1600s of people making jokes we’ll paraphrase as “he’s so dumb he thinks Bohemia has a coast” – along the lines of our own “I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you” or “did you know ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary?” Referring to the coast of Bohemia may have been a known folk gag like the Jamaican bobsledding team. And there we’ve achieved The Winter’s Tale to Cool Runnings in one degree of separation.
In Act IV, Perdita briefly mentions Proserpina and Dis, better known to us by their Roman names, Persephone and Pluto. It’s only a single sentence in the play, but it’s worth a peek at the myth. It does things to the whole scene. Here’s a short version:
Proserpina was the virgin daughter of Ceres, goddess of harvests. As Proserpina was collecting flowers at a fountain in Sicily, the god Dis saw her and carried her off in his chariot to Hades, Land of the Dead, where he made her his queen. Ceres searched but couldn’t find her, and in angry desperation cursed Sicily’s crops and plants. To appease her, Dis released Proserpina for the spring and summer every year, then took her back to Hades for autumn and winter.
Proserpina became a fertility goddess, something Perdita (a lost daughter from Sicily, a country that certainly seems more than a little cursed at that point in the story) probably doesn’t get the full irony of while she speaks of the types of very symbolically specific, very female and very male flowers Proserpina dropped from Dis’s wagon. This isn’t the place to get all Georgia O’Keefe on you, but stuff is going on. Shakespeare – he really packs these little scripts to bursting.
Speaking of single lines that make a difference: one character, Paulina, refers to herself near the end of the play as an “old turtle,” which seems awfully self-effacing until you realize what she means is the far more recognizably romantic “turtledove” – the same goes for Shakespeare’s narrative poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” as well as the chorus of Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight,” though of course there it’s used in the verb form, “turtledovin’.”
This is how Shakespeare research works: The Winter’s Tale > Cool Runnings > “Dixieland Delight”
(Some of this information gathered from Arden Shakespeare’s 3rd Series of The Winter’s Tale, edited by John Pitcher, 2010.)
The Winter’s Tale
Polixenes, King of Bohemia, has been on a nine-month visit to the court of his childhood friend Leontes, King of Sicilia, and his wife, Queen Hermione.
Groundlessly, Leontes becomes convinced that his heavily pregnant wife has been having an affair with Polixenes.
He tries to persuade his most trusted courtier, Camillo, to poison Polixenes.
Convinced of the queen’s innocence, Camillo warns Polixenes and they depart for Bohemia together.
Another courtier, Antigonus, is ordered to leave Hermione’s newly born daughter on a desert shore.
Leontes tries Hermione for treason; when he denies the truth of the god Apollo’s oracular declaration of her innocence, his son Mamillius dies. He is then told that the queen has also died.
Antigonus leaves the baby girl on the coast of Bohemia, where he is torn to pieces by a bear. An old shepherd and his clownish son find the baby, bring her up as a member of their family and name her Perdita.
16 years later
Perdita is being courted by Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel, who has disguised himself as a shepherd, Doricles.
The roguish pedlar Autolycus tricks the shepherds out of money. Polixenes and Camillo come in disguise to the countryside; when the king denounces his son for courting a low-born shepherdess, Florizel and Perdita flee to Sicilia, with the assistance of Camillo.
Stop reading now if you don’t want to know the end of the story…
The truth comes out
The shepherd and clown follow, bringing tokens that reveal Perdita’s true identity. That which was lost having been found, Paulina, the lady most loyal to Hermione, reveals a statue of the dead queen and tells the assembled company to prepare themselves for a great wonder.