Better pleased with madness

mani Jade Powers and James Udom in Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale," Pearl Theatre, New York, 2015

A favorite short speech from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. A young prince, in love with a lovely, seeming shepherd girl (see photo above), is warned by his father’s right-hand man to take heed, “be advised.” The young man’s response echoes the human response to life in general. I am advised, he says—

by my fancy: if my reason
Will thereto be obedient, I have reason;
If not, my senses, better pleased with madness,
Do bid it welcome.

The most unfortunate thing about the New York Pearl Theatre’s current production of A Winter’s Tale is it seems that not one critic has fully taken on this production, written seriously about it. I have read some workmanlike notices, let’s call them, but precious little analysis. The play may be a glowing example of Shakespearean “unrationalized multiplicity” (a John Meagher phrase), and Michael Sexton’s production might be said to scatter Shakespeare’s rays in its own unrationalized, multiplicitous way, and yet where is the critic to wonder about this? Does it “work” in 2015? Or how does it work?

If ambitious theater productions in New York are no longer being reviewed ambitiously, there is little hope for theater in New York.

If (thanks, say, to the Internet’s creative destruction of newspapers and of living-wage-paying jobs for serious critics) ambitious theater productions in New York are no longer being reviewed ambitiously, there is little hope for theater in New York, once one of the world’s great theater capitals.[1] Directors, actors, writers, etc., need to be questioned, challenged, encouraged, pushed by critics who share with them high hopes for what theater can be. This is also to say that, even though most of the money is in Broadway theater, musicals in particular, these productions are likely getting all the attention they need because their highest hope is to make money. It is the off-Broadway plays (currently timidly reviewed) and the off-off-Broadway plays (often not reviewed at all) that need the best critics.

This space—Zeteo is Looking and Listening—is not a space for reviews, and I will not seek to review the Pearl’s Winter’s Tale, but, multiplicitous in my own way, I will: pose a few more questions that I wish a reviewer had taken on; quote at greater length from professor Meagher, who was one of the great Shakespeare scholars; and then quote from one of the wonderful speeches of Shakespeare’s play.

Are we to suppose that the social roles we all play rob us of our capacities to feel or to fully express our feelings?

Coming to the questions. One can read in modern Shakespeare scholarship about the challenges of A Winter’s Tale, how it strains credibility, doesn’t make the kind of emotional sense we moderns would have a play make. And it is easy enough to emerge from the Pearl Theatre’s current production saying, Boy that was an uneven production. While Steven Cuiffo and Adam Green shone in the comic parts, some of the actors did not fill their roles fully. And, Boy the director and costume designer made some odd choices. Why were the actors made to look like twenty-first century high school teachers and college students? (Was this echoing the Elevator Repair Service’s much-praised Gatsby, in which the actors played office workers reading and re-enacting the novel?) And why my flickering feeling that Jolly Abraham and Peter Francis James, the actors playing King Leontes and Queen Hermione, were under the influence of how Barack and Michele appear on TV? Was it a lesson in royalty or government, how under control their voices remained, how Hermione even smiled at times, while madness was destroying her and his love, imprisoning Hermione, killing their beloved son, and abandoning their new-born daughter? Are we to suppose that social prominence or responsibility robs us—or that the social roles we all play rob us—of our capacities to feel or to fully express our feelings? (Yes, true, I would say.)

As the house lights went up, I mumbled something to my son (and play-going companion) about how the production had been a bit of a head-scratcher, but “What a great play!” That is to say that there is not only something quite right about A Winter’s Tale (and certainly many scholars and critics have noted that over the years), but also that there was something right about the Pearl’s at times odd production.

I went looking (via the Internet) for a critic who would help me think about what these “right things” were. Finding none, . . . I have written this post.


From the perspective of Meagher’s quintessential Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made, “uneven” and “odd” are perfectly appropriate words to attach to Shakespeare’s plays, and rediscovering the plays may require us to embrace unevenness and oddness, or similar qualities. Or let me put this another way: Having seen the 2015 production of A Winter’s Tale by Michael Sexton (who is Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Society in New York), and having seen the 2013 Classic Stage Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Tea Alagić, I am wondering if we are indeed beginning to embrace the unevenness and oddness (or similar qualities) of the plays. And since we are at the beginning of a process, it feels, momentarily, a little uncomfortable.

Quoting from Meagher (just to give the flavor, you might say):

[W]e tend either to contrive ways of reading Shakespeare that keep him within the bounds of a central plan to which everything is subordinated, or (more rarely) we acknowledge that he did not stay within those bounds and pardon him for his inconsistencies on the grounds that he wrote in a precritical, presophisticated, pre-Enlightenment time. . . . [O]ur tolerance for, and even our sense of, inconsistency in Shakespeare is . . . as faulty as the Restoration critics’ botherment about the legitimacy of Shakespeare’s distributing a play’s action over an arbitrary amount of space and time according to the needs of the play rather than according to the rules; and . . . our sense of what Shakespeare should be trying to achieve in characterization, thematics, poetic effects, realism, and the overall experience of the audience or reader is misguided and needs serious correction . . . .

Shakespeare’s specific uses of language are to be appreciated as the temporary objectifications of the dramatic moments they express, without prejudice to what may be appropriate a few lines, or scenes, down the way. In language as in other aspects of dramaturgy, his individual artistic decisions are neither legal precedents that he is bound to keep the rest of the play conformed to, nor hints of a unitary vision to which the play will be consciously or unconsciously conformed through what used to be called the alembic of his imagination. They are individual artistic decisions with no necessary or nonprovisional implications, opening new opportunities rather than further restricting potentialities that had been available.


The bulk of this post’s work is done. To close, and with flowers soon to bloom again here in long-icy New York, I will quote from the flowery parts of Perdita’s great flower-laden speech (Act IV, scene iv). In the lore that she and Shakespeare displays we may be reminded both of how far our times are from his or theirs, and of the pleasures that may be found in bathing of an evening, in those times, its language, and its more decentralized, less didactic approach to theater and life. (Meagher writes that in Shakespeare’s time the mentality that created the great London financial markets “was new; and before it came to be, the dominant image that preceded it, the image that tended especially to express that earlier sense of how life works, was the fair, which Meagher describes as “quintessentially various, decentralized, nonrationalized, and disunified”.[2])

To the play at last! Perdita, the child King Leontes ordered abandoned, has been raised by an old shepherd, and now, at an autumn sheep-shearing feast, she is meeting for the first time another king (Polixenes) and his right-hand man Camillo. As they are disguised, she perceives and treats them only as “reverend sirs.” autumn-foliage-collageTaking up some flowers, she, herself the loveliest flower in Shakespeare’s garden, says:

Reverend sirs,
For you there’s rosemary and rue; these keep
Seeming and savour all the winter long:
Grace and remembrance be to you both,
And welcome to our shearing!

. . . the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer’s death, nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest
flowers o’ the season
Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren; and I care not
To get slips of them. . . .

Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age. . . .

I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might
Become your time of day; . . .
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength . . .

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor


Credit & Endnotes

Photo of Perdita (Imani Jade Powers) and Florizel (James Udom) is by Richard Termine, for the Pearl Theatre.

[1] I am not unaware of the dewy-eyedness of my ideas about ambitious theater and ambitious critics. A nice line from the edition of Langston Hughes’s letters that has been recently published: “If you want to die, be disturbed, maladjusted, neurotic, and psychotic, disappointed, and disjointed, just write plays! Go ahead!” (From a letter to James Baldwin, 1953. Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad, David Roessel, and Christa Fratantoro; Knopf, 2015.)

[2] I am intrigued that we now struggle even to define the noun “fair” in its sixteenth-century sense. The definition below is from the Collins online English dictionary, which is the one I rely on. Michael Rundell’s excellent, twenty-first century learner’s dictionary (Macmillan) offers a similar collection.

(1) a travelling entertainment with sideshows, rides, etc, esp one that visits places at the same time each year
(2) a gathering of producers of and dealers in a given class of products to facilitate business ⇒ a book fair
(3) an event including amusements and the sale of goods, esp for a charity; bazaar
(4) a regular assembly at a specific place for the sale of goods, esp livestock

I take an Elizabethan fair to have been all these things and more, at once.

Click for pdf

Better pleased with madness

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: