The colorful heap that is The Winter's Tale--lifted, incidentally, from an early novel by Robert Greene called Pandosto: The Triumph of Time--isn't unprecedented. Yet its architecture is unlike anything in Shakespeare's oeuvre. What distinguishes it is a dividing of the narrative into halves, as crudely joined as a December morning would be with a July afternoon.
In the first three wintery acts, King Leontes, unhappy that his beloved friend King Polixenes is quitting Sicilia's court to return to Bohemia, asks wife Hermione to change the would-be traveler's mind. When she does, Leontes suspects she prevailed so easily because she and Polixenes are lovers. Within minutes, he banishes Polixenes and causes the pregnant Hermione to give birth prematurely to a daughter, Perdita. Various other defections and deaths (Leontes' son, Mamillius) and banishments (including the infant Perdita) follow. So does Hermione's apparent demise, only minutes after a letter arrives from the oracle exonerating her and condemning Leontes, who then executes another 180-degree shift to repentance.
In the summery final two acts, Perdita--now 16 and being raised by two unprepossessing shepherds--and Florizel--Polixenes's spirited son--have found each other. They plan to wed, but Polixenes won't hear of such a misalliance with a supposed shepherd girl. The lovers decide to flee to Sicilia, where it is revealed that Perdita is Leontes' long-ago banished daughter. The exultant courtiers gather to celebrate her return, and to view a statue of Hermione that, in what is considered one of Shakespeare's greatest coups de theatre, comes to life. At which moment peace and happiness reign once again.
So that's the plot--with the two mismatched parts clearly meant to illustrate death and resurrection. Although Harold Bloom dismisses such an interpretation in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, he's not very persuasive; almost every symbol in the text points either at an end or a new beginning to something. And in his Joseph Papp Public Theater production, Brian Kulick does everything in his considerable power to elaborate on and enhance these major themes. His is a whopping good realization of a problematic, but ultimately moving, play.
What are the problems? Hoo-boy. The major obstacle is Leontes, whose rage seems to come from nowhere. Or, put another way, it comes from the same place where so many of the Bard's tyrants seem to derive their foolhardiness: their thick-headedness. Needless to say, Shakespeare had handled sexual jealousy before in Othello. And taking on the theme again, perhaps he thought that he didn't even need as much as a flimsy handkerchief to trigger self-destructive behavior. But in giving Leontes little or no provocation for carrying-on so, he created a situation audiences would likely resist and, possibly worse, actors would have a devil of a time playing.
Among the myriad minor detractions throughout The Winter's Take is the fact that Hermione is present when the oracle's note is read aloud but then, in the play's final scene, she declares that she'd heard about it second-hand. Although scholars have mooted sundry causes for the discrepancy, the explanation is probably as simple as its being a loose end Shakespeare never got around to clearing up. Another of the tragi-comedy's sticking points is the famous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear." If you're a director, what do you do with that?
Well, in just one example of Kulick's string of inspirations, he turns "Exit, pursued by a bear" into a brilliant symbol. When Leontes is overcome by grief at having lost his wife and son, he falls to the ground, is covered by a bear rug, and remains where he's landed. When in the scene immediately following, Antigonus--who has the unsavory task of taking Perdita away from Sicilia--is menaced by said bear, Leontes merely rises with the rug on his back and charges. Kulick has made literal Leontes's responsibility for Antigonus' frightful end.