“But what talk we of these traitorly rascals” (IV.4.786): from stage to screen.
 verbal abuse in the 1998-1999 RSC adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

Par Stéphanie Mercier
Publication en ligne le 04 juillet 2012


In this play and film review I have intentionally avoided nearly any textual or literary analysis of the play in order to concentrate on its performance. In other words, my starting point is that of an actor/director’s premise, according to which Shakespeare should be spoken and not read. In a paper designed to explore the demonstration of verbal violence, the major part of the discussion is concerned with the first three acts of the play, as this is where language is most destructive. Any article on verbal abuse in The Winter’s Tale, however would not be complete without examining its comic resurgence in Act IV as well as the silent struggle of Act V, Scene 3. To conclude my analysis the issue of filming theatre will be looked at, especially the question of whether the two media are antagonistic or not.

Texte intégral

1As a student I had the great privilege of seeing the 1984 RSC production of Richard III, in which Sir Antony Sher, as the malformed Richard, was dubbed « the bottled spider1». On the dust jacket of the actor’s own account of how he carried off his interpretation of the crutches-brandishing arachnidan usurper, we are informed that preparation for the part included, « watching interviews with psychopaths, reading about mass murders, and speaking with doctors and physically-challenged individuals2 ». In fact, there is no historical account to substantiate the monarch’s misshapenness and this Ricardian myth of a physical infirmity as a mirror to immorality can be attributed to the writings of Sir Thomas More:

Little of stature, ill featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder far higher than the right, hard favoured of visage […] he was close and secret, a deep dissembler, lowly of countenance, arrogant of heart, outwardly companionable where he inwardly hated, not hesitating to kiss whom he thought to kill3.

2Making violence visible was thus the basis of Sher’s portrayal of Richard III.


Antony Sher as Richard III

Joe Cocks Studio Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

3The actor’s interpretation of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale4 fourteen years later involved the equally difficult task of showing the poison, or as Leontes himself puts it: « I have drunk, and seen the spider » (II.1.45). Indeed, there is no physical deformity to underline the king’s jealous pathology so the challenge that any actor playing the part must rise to is to make audiences look at violence which is not shown. Violence is thus made visible with words, something which is fitting in a play so deeply concerned with hearsay, or tale telling, and which features imagined adultery, fantasies about children being burnt to death and at least three off-stage deaths. Brutality is invisible yet perceptible at one and the same time there is no on stage eye gouging, bloody sword fighting or stabbing but cruelty is nonetheless omnipresent throughout the action and remains so despite the play having an ostentatiously happy ending. This paper will examine how violence is made visible in this particular production of the play, notably in regard to the screening of abuse in both the staging of the play and in its film version. To decipher this dual vision, I will start by an examination of Gregory Doran’s exhibition of domestic violence. This, before moving on to look at how the production shows that exile and forced family reunion cannot serve as an escape from persecution. Finally, the question of whether Robin Lough’s filming of theatre can be said to be doing it violence will be analysed.   

« Is whispering nothing? » (I.2.282)

4Gregory Doran explains the difficulties of staging the 1611 play which is one of Shakespeare’s last and one which is commonly known to be problematic. This is mainly because the play is an experiment with form – it is neither tragedy nor comedy but a combination of both. Hence the main challenge to any director attempting to pull together its tragi-comic-romantic elements5 is to try to find a specific time and space for the plot, « Shakespeare seems to have given the director and designer various problems to overcome in terms of time and place in this play6. »  For Robert Jones (the set and costume designer) the question of the visuals for the play was important to create a harmonious temporal-spatial structure without being literal. Hence the set remains identical throughout the action – a long gallery without windows but many entrances:

Robert Jones designed five pairs of sliding panels. Set for Act I, the panels narrowed in perspective to an upstage focal point – a ceremonial entrance – and provided four sets of parallel entrances from the wings7.

5The set is also a room with no ceiling (a silk canopy serves as such and doubles as the skyline in the comedy) and thus has a surrealist appearance whilst at the same time possessing the realism of a modern context8. In other words it is firmly anchored in history, « eastern European monarchy before the First World War9. » (Leontes’ queen, Hermione, states, « The emperor of Russia was my father » (III.2.117), whilst at the same time being remote and timeless10.

6At the start of the dramatic action, the stage recalls the initial domestic setting of the Sicilian court. Despite the potentially happy framework of a father-mother-son family unit, however, the Sicilian household is pointedly shown as something enclosed, claustrophobic and sterile11. The sound designer’s directions also add to the pronounced oddness, especially in the use of whispering over a loud speaker to provide the opening to the play:

As the house lights dimmed waves of whispers seemed to emanate from courtiers and servant hidden behind the tunnel of walls or entering for the first act. A few decipherable phrases: ‘Is whispering nothing?’ (I.2.282), [and] ‘Too hot, too hot!’ (107) identified the source as Leontes’ feverish brain12.

7All in all, stage and sound provide a fitting decor for the violence and anger in the first part of the action.

Boiling hot blood and cigarette burns

8Indeed the almost colourless monochrome world of Sicily, which remains resolutely cold and steely for the first three acts, is an apt counterpart to the king’s words which seem increasingly jarring as the play progresses. Cicely Berry (the production’s voice director) underlines how Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter and other rhythms to create this density of feeling in the text13. The tension is still embryonic in Act I, Scene 2, even if Leontes already stands over Hermione and the Bohemian King Polixenes looms over: « Emily Bruni’s Mamillius, [the Sicilian heir, who is] wheelchair-bound and oblivious to others14». The visual domination is echoed in the verbal joust that follows. Polixenes joins Hermione on the grey chaise (a prominent stage prop along with Mamillius’ wheelchair) and, after having put a gramophone record on, they banter over whether he will stay longer in Sicily:

You put me off with limber vows; but I
Though you would seek t’unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say, ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go – a lady’s ‘verily’’s
As potent as a lord’s. (I.2.45-50)

9Leontes is far less solicitous:

To the audience’s left Hermione assumed with grace her husband’s charge to entertain Polixenes. They [Polixenes and Hermione] settled on a chaise to talk; Polixenes was solicitous; he helped her up to put a record on a gramophone; they danced.  On the right Leontes, having abdicated the uncomfortable role as host (whatever was Archidamus on about: ‘we cannot with such magnificence entertain’ I.1.12) did paperwork at his desk15.

10Leontes rises from his desk to learn that Hermione has persuaded Polixenes to stay in the short space of twenty lines  whereas it had taken him three months to woo her as his wife: « Three crabbed months had soured themselves to death/ Ere I could make thee open thy white hand/ And clap thyself my love. » (I.2.101-104). Antony Sher sees the root of the Leontes’ jealous problem here – Hermione did not want Leontes and this is something that has been festering throughout their marriage. He thus depicts the Sicilian king as sick rather than as a psychopath and has this initial doubt resurface and grow throughout the play16. Indeed, Sher’s research for this part involved consulting experts in mental disorder in an attempt to play Leontes’ onset of destructive jealously in a way audiences could sympathise with. On stage Gregory Doran represents this mental disorder visually as Polixenes and Hermoine dance in the background whilst Leontes’ language jealously pours out at the front of the stage:

Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendships far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me; my heart dances,
But not for joy, not joy. (I.2.107-109)

11Cecily Berry notes that in the passage violence is conveyed via Shakespeare’s use of rhythm. Words seem to be knocking against each other as the playwright experiments with a punctuation that pulses like blood hammering away in an agitated mind. Blood is indeed shown to be running hot because of the violence and the sexuality that regulate the tempo of the lines. So as Hermione and Polixenes dance, Leontes’ mind is dancing in a circular movement which gives the impression of a verbal improvisation rising to a crescendo with his aggressive tone. It is Leontes who finally lifts the needle to silence the gramophone in a theatrical equivalent of a jump cut to the imagined infanticide of Mamillius17. As the king clasps Hermione’s grey silk wrap18 around his fists, and gestures to strangle his own son and heir with it, he stresses every syllable of his wife’s suspected unfaithfulness as he spits out his violent outrage: « Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a forked one! » (I.2.184). Now sweating profusely and having convinced himself of his queen’s and the Bohemian king’s guilt, Leontes has a cigarette lit for him by his servant Camillo whilst his jealous reasoning heightens:

Camillo: I think most understand
Bohemia stays here longer […]
To satisfy your highness and the entreaties
Of our most gracious mistress.

Leontes: Satisfy?
Th’entreaties for your mistress. Satisfy? (I.2.226-231)19

12Shakespeare takes the king’s thoughts full circle (« satisfy » usually has a positive connotation whereas Leontes reaches for a sexual one here) so meaning is subverted and ultimately destroyed. As Leontes wipes the sweat from his forehead and Camillo agrees to poison Polixenes in accordance with his master’s orders, the cigarette is forcefully stubbed out without the king having given a thought to smoke it. Leontes then moves back to his desk to absent-mindedly caress the family portraits there before obsessively arranging the ornaments around the photos. This stage business underlines Sher’s aim in his portrayal of the king: « It was an essential part of Sher’s intention (and achievement) to make destructiveness seem to derive from aberration rather than from evil and thus to make his final forgiveness acceptable20. » Whether we agree with the hypothesis that the king’s mind is already disturbed or think that his jealousy originates in the fact that he is simply barbaric, the theatrical facts are that the incoherence of Leontes’ language will lead to an equally as incomprehensible wrecking of his estate and his state.

13The Sicilian king certainly has a lot to be forgiven for in the next two acts as the verbal violence reaches new abusive heights. Gregory Doran notes that the play is one with an incredible depth and realism, exposing sexual obsession with its acute power of observation21. The result is that language blisters with pain and hurt without there being any need to show tangible physical violence on stage. A good example of this is Act II, Scene 1 where audiences witness the initially happy and heavily pregnant Hermione in her chamber, listening to Mamillius’ wintry ghost story: « There was a man […] dwelt by a churchyard » (II.1.28-30). This is a prelude to the sight of Leontes – magnified as the walls of the set move in – who approaches to stifle their marriage. What is thrown into perspective is a movement from the metaphorical destruction of a family portrait – as represented in the photos of the last act – to a literal devastation as Leontes’ obsession makes a ghost of everything. With his courtiers in attendance, the Sicilian king initially moves to take Hermione in his arms but then has second thoughts and brutally pushes her to the ground. He then moves to almost punch his queen and scorns her entreating arms, outstretched in a gesture of reconciliation. Instead, Leontes accuses Hermoine of infidelity, the strong beats stressing his thoughts as he refuses to believe in his wife and their future life together:

You have mistook, my lady,
Polixenes for Leontes, O thou thing,
Which I’ll not call a creature of thy place
Lest barbarism, making me the precedent,
Should a like language use to all degrees,
And mannerly distinguishment leave out
Betwixt the prince and beggar. I have said
She’s an adulteress […]
A bed-swerver (II.1.81-92)

14As the stage perspective narrows to make Leontes look larger than life in a parallel to his oversized obsession, his destructive jealousy expands to encompass all the potentially guilty women in the play. He orders his wife off to prison, the only concession to her state (Alexandra Gilbreath who played Hermione notes: « the physical pains of imminent childbirth as a result of his brutal treatment were for all to see22 ») being that he allows her to take her maidservants with her: « My women, come, you have leave « (II.2.124). The queen’s plight becomes a metaphor for the: « gender division in the scene. Leontes and his lords enter a ‘female’ world and literally pull it apart23. » Paradoxically, it is because of this cruelty and the unexpectedness of the accusation that Hermione has any strength at all. However, the struggle is passed over to her courtiers as she is physically imprisoned, thereby mirroring the king’s mental imprisonment in his paranoia.

15Estelle Kholer who played Paulina in the production emphasises the courtier’s strength of character which Shakespeare pits against the king’s in an attempt to resolve the destructive urge of the monarch24. In Act II Scene 3, Sher enters the stage as a dishevelled Leontes to show how lack of sleep – « Nor night nor day no rest. » (II.3.1) – has worsened his condition. Dressed in a robe and putting his finger distractedly in his mouth from time to time like a lost infant, the king uses disjointed language in the manner of a child. With his wife imprisoned and his son ailing due to his mother’s absence, the king’s troubled orders are seen to contradict themselves. This is due to Shakespeare’s use of punctuation which reflects the king’s paranoid disturbance and makes it seem that, rather than sympathising with his grieving child, Leontes is in fact more concerned with bitterly contemplating the fact that Polixenes and Camillo have fled Sicily for Bohemia:

Leave me solely; go,
See how he fares […]
Camillo and Polixenes
Laugh at me, make their pastime at my sorrow;
They should not laugh if I could reach them, nor
Shall she, within my power (II.3.17-26)

Sackcloth and ashes

16The now blinkered Leontes’ rancour logically is directed at any woman that comes within his range of vision. In this scene it is Paulina (who has come to present his newborn heir, Perdita in an attempt to reconcile the king with life) who will suffer his ire. Estelle Kohler reminds us how Paulina challenges Leontes in her attempt to convince him of Hermione’s fidelity, stressing her struggle with ten strong beats to a line: «  Good Queen, my lord, good Queen, I say good Queen, (II.3.59)25 », as she invades Leontes’ personal space on stage. However the king will not listen and, pointing an accusing finger at Paulina, he resolves to burn all women at the stake: « Commit them to the fire » (II.2.94).  The baby is left on the ground in a rush cradle when Paulina exits, something which allows the king to recommence his histrionics, menacing to punch the baby or pointing Paulina’s husband Antigonus’ sword at it in a gesture of mock murder. At Antigonus’ entreaty, Leontes’ agrees to banish rather than to burn the baby and, kneeling at its side, the king caresses the newborn child strangely before wiping his sweating hands as if with blood. Sher represents Leontes’ interior struggle visually by falling backwards into a swoon immediately after announcing his plan to consult the oracle and to give his wife a: « Just and open trial » (II.3.204). It seems as if the king’s violent irrational reasoning has reached a verbal and physical peak – just as the play will reach its tragic climax in Act III, Scene 2.

17According to Sher, Leontes says hardly anything in the trial scene. Despite the king’s entrance in full regalia to ceremonious music with a servant holding up his ermine lined train, the monarch now seems rather silent or inarticulate. Leontes wears spectacles to read notes and repeats his words in a disjointed fashion as if his jealousy has rendered him incoherent. In contrast to the king’s pomp, Hermione’s appearance is alarming and reflects the textual nature of her fall from grace. Alexandra Gilbreath vividly describes the plight of Hermione and describes the scene as a trial of a woman who has nothing: « After her imprisonment I imagined that Leontes would strip her of all her comforts, her beautiful clothes replaced by a long and filthy sack dress and her beautiful hair hacked off26. » Put another way, Hermione’s distress is due to having her baby taken away from her whilst she was in a squalid prison, and her garments are stained with blood and the milk that she no longer has anyone to give27. Nonetheless, it is Leontes who is depicted as the victim in Doran’s production, even when he screams out accusations at his totally helpless queen from his six-foot-high throne.


Antony Sher as Leontes

MalcolmDavies Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

18Hermione is sequestered in a dock made from railings reminiscent of Traitor’s Gate (where the heads of recently executed prisoners were displayed on spikes) with soldiers on guard behind her, even though she is obviously too frail and exhausted to escape. The trial scene was designed as very formal:

We tried to include the audience as much as possible, pushing the fourth wall behind them and addressing them as if they were themselves witnessing the trial. The previous ‘accusation’ scene (II.1) had been a public one, and so is the trial scene – even more so28.

19The formal structure of Hermione’s three speeches in the scene, the difficult sentence structure (suggesting that the speeches had been prepared but perhaps in a state of pain and anguish which renders them difficult to perform) and the single beat rhythm leading to the central argument: « Since what I am to say must be but that/ Which contradicts my accusation » (II.2.21-22) – all these features demand great acting control29. Self control disappears completely, though, when Hermione learns of Mamillius’ death (III.2.193): « What absolutely pushes her over the edge is the news that her son Mamillius is dead. Without her children she has no reason to live, for what is there left to defend30? » In a sense, Hermione is already a statue, petrified by Leontes’ ranting and false accusations. She logically falls to the ground – a victim of the destructive power of words.

20The officer dressed as a Russian orthodox priest, a red spot centre stage with diamond encrusted Leontes on a pedestal behind, reads the oracle which clears the distraught Hermione of treason and accuses Leontes of what audiences have known from the outset, that in other words: « Leontes is a jealous tyrant » (III.2.131). It is now Paulina who rises over the king31 when he finally comes down from his pedestal and she will push him to the ground as her anger reduces her speech to a whisper:

The casting forth to crows thy baby daughter
To be or none, or little, though a devil
Would have shed water out of fire ere done’t.
Nor is’t directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young prince, […]
But the last – O lords,
When I have said, cry woe! – the Queen, the Queen,
The sweet’st, dears’t creature’s dead, and vengeance for’t
Not dropped down yet (III.2.189-199)

21Estelle Kohler remarks here that Paulina is throwing arrows into Leontes heart32 as her hyperbolic language stabs deeper and deeper. Paulina breaks Leontes with her ruthless jibes and thus satisfies her, and the audience’s, natural lust for revenge. However her character is contradictory as she is both fighting against Leontes’ destructive urges whilst at the same time wanting to help. In this production, she joins him on the floor where he has fallen in utter confusion and then, in a conciliatory gesture, embraces him as his sobs of anger turn to tears of repentance: « Once a day I’ll visit/ The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there/ Shall be my recreation. » (III.2.236-238). Sher purposely pronounced the word re-creation33 to emphasise what the king is now intending to do – all in all, the first step to facing up to the havoc he has wreaked around him.

« I’ll have thy beauty scratched by briars » (IV.4.423)

« [Exit pursued by a bear] » (III.3.56)

22The play’s removal to the seacoast of Bohemia does not, however, stop the violence. The theatrical execution of what Gregory Doran terms as, « the most famous stage direction in Shakespeare34 » or « [Exit pursued by a bear] » (III.3.56), is probably the best example of this. The silk canopy now serves as an emblematic polar bear, seemingly having been there all the time, to envelop Antigonus. The courtier is prepared for his fate by a nightmarish set of dried ice and thunderclaps, with Hermione’s off-stage voice serving as a reminder of why he is there in the first place. Antigonus’ dream and his demise thus provide a continuity of violence from one time and space to another:

Good Antigonus,
Since fate, against thy better disposition,
Hath made thy person for the thrower-out
Of my poor babe, according to thine oath,
Places remote enough are in Bohemia;
There weep and leave I crying; and for the babe is counted lost forever, Perdita
I prithee call’t. (III.3.26-32)35

23The topos of the bear is also a theatrical conceit to transform tragedy to comedy, and thus Antigonus’ death (engulfed rather than pursued by a bear, in this instance) will be, « clowned up only thirty lines later36. » However, even after the sixteen year fairy-tale slumber in Act IV, Scene 1 and the following scene, in which Polixenes is seen tending to his orchids37, sexual violence is still present, although it is now contained in myth and the language of flowers by Shakespeare. Perdita, as Flora, is the symbolic reincarnation of Proserpina38 in Act IV, Scene 4. She is not only a personified reminder of past violence but also a hope for future renewal. Indeed, her flower distribution will put the now ageing Bohemian king firmly back in his place: « Shepherdess–/ A fair one are you – well you fit our ages/ With flowers of winter. » (IV.4.77-78). Symbolic flower arrangements are complemented with a bestiary in the « dance of twelve satyrs39» where if sexuality is contained it is nonetheless explicit – including strategically placed erect carrots and horned helmets – to hint at the future regeneration which is personified by the younger characters on stage40.

« He has a son, who shall be flayed alive » (IV.4.777)

24The peddler Autolycus’ ballads build on the erotic tension that is now present on stage; the rogue sings bawdy songs (accompanied by a strip tease to reveal strass-embedded red y-fronts) whilst he blithely cozens the shearers, « my revenue is the silly cheat » (IV.3.26).


Ian Hughes as Autolycus

MalcolmDavies Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

25By the end of the scene the comedy has taken the pathos out of violence, in that it becomes bearable and can even be wholeheartedly laughed at. Polixenes’ threats to his future daughter-in-law and her surrogate father the shepherd41 are immediately undermined by Autolycus’ ridiculous foolery. This is also because violence becomes totally exaggerated by Ian Hughes, who plays the rogue in the production, as he attempts to dupe the shepherd and his son of the treasure hidden in Perdita’s fardel:

If that shepherd be not in handfast, let him
fly; the curses he shall have, the tortures he shall feel,
will break the back of a man, the heart of a monster. […]
He has a son, who shall be flayed alive, then
‘nointed over with honey, set on the head of a wasps’
nest, then stand still till he be three-quarters and a dram
dead, […]
the sun looking with a southward eye upon
him, where he is to behold him with flies blown to death. (IV.4.776-785)

« Since we were dissevered » (V.3.155)

26Autolocus’ buffoonery makes words resonate in a different manner from previously. His parody shows, and holds off, any ethical response to the horrendous violence he is describing. All that remains for the audience is to revel in the beauty of words – or, in this instance at least, the poetry of statues coming back to life. Thus, after being hidden away for sixteen years by Paulina, Hermione reappears in Act V, Scene 3. Her reappearance follows the onstage account of the offstage reconciliation between Leontes, Polixenes, Florizel and, most importantly, Perdita. Alexandra Gilbreath comments that: « the statue scene was not about the reconciliation of Hermione and Leontes, but the meeting of a mother and daughter42. » This is why Shakespeare adds the conceit of the tale of the father-daughter reunion in Act V, Scene 243 – as a forerunner to both the king, and queen’s, participation in the final recomposed family portrait at the end of the play. Put another way, Hermione’s forgiveness of her husband is made possible, and essential, by her desire to see her daughter.

27When the plot returns to Sicily the play has undergone a colour change – the strong palette of natural and vegetable dyes seems to have made Leontes’ court thaw slightly44. Sher found Leontes’ absence in Act IV useful as it enabled him to reappear differently – he is now seen not just as repentant but also destroyed by the realisation of what he has done45. For Gregory Doran the statue scene magnifies and illuminates a universally profound desire for forgiveness and redemption. Shakespeare is not necessarily saying that this always happens, but that it can happen. This is why, for the director, the play is so life affirming46 and also perhaps why the director chose to use the same railings that were previously employed as a traitor’s dock for the statue in the last scene. By his use of identical stage properties the audience sees that violence has become self inflicted. Leontes is cruelty is done to himself in penitence and Hermione is shown in a martyr-like stance – her head bowed and her hands clasped in the eighty lines needed for Paulina to bring her back to life.


Alexandra Gilbreath as Hermione and Estelle Kohler as Paulina

MalcolmDavies Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

28Instead of traitor’s heads though, candles are placed on the pickets of the railings as the whole set is transformed into a shrine of remembrance. Gilbreath says, « Shakespeare gives Leontes and Hermione no dialogue – how could you possibly put into words what they must be feeling47 ? », I would nonetheless like to add that after all the violence, the unfounded accusations, the loss of a son and the near loss of a daughter (not to mention an unjustified sixteen-year incarceration) Hermione perhaps would rather remain « tongue-tied » (I.2.27), on this particular occasion than say something that she could regret later. Her silence is thus the last word on former wrongdoings and her special grace is her capacity to endure, in other words her « immovable dignity48».

Leading: « us hence » (V.3.152)

Is taking shots at theatre a treasonable offence?

29The final part of this review turns from stage to screen as I examine Robin Lough’s cinematographic treatment of Gregory Doran’s direction, respectively, encourage. The DVD has brought forth mixed responses from viewers since its appearance in 200549, reflecting the possibilities for contrasting interpretations that Shakespeare’s text and Doran’s treatment of the dramatic action itself encourages. Lough’s art is essentially contained in camera choices as the lighting decisions had already been made for him. The camera always shoots at eye-level – that is to say the observer’s eye is completely neutral to the subject being photographed and the audience is given total freedom of interpretation as to events on stage. Nonetheless, Lough’s recording of photographic images for the cinema does affect the way TV spectators interpret what theatre audiences had seen before them. The director’s use of close ups for example is an efficient way of showing subtle facial expression, especially as Leontes’ mind games take hold (I.2), or when Hermione is shown holding her underbelly in nascent labour pains just before her husband sends her off to prison (II.1). The device is also used to emphasise Leontes’ destructive desire, when he puts his hands over his eyes before banishing his daughter (II.3), and the complete desolation of Hermione as she moves out to speak to the audience in the trial scene (III.2).

30In the same way that zooms are employed to create emphasis, dramatic pace is heightened via camera technique. Lough orients the viewers’ eyes to follow the plot using the « 180 degree rule », or the axis of action, for instance when Leontes moves across the stage to turn off the gramophone record (I.2), or when Polixenes and Camillo conspire to flee Sicily and Leontes’ plot to murder the Bohemian king later in the same scene. It is as if the camera pursues Shakespeare’s train of thought, as the theatrical action unfolds and then halts to move from one idea to another. A different technique is used to convey communication – Lough uses two shots, or a medium shot showing two actors or an actor and the audience, to achieve this.  Leontes’ « Sir Smile » speech (II.1.194-205), is a good example of how camera suggests complicity in this way as the audience is shown as a shadowy block in total participation with Leontes’ solitary musings:

Now, while I speak this, holds his wife by th’arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence,
And his pond fished by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour – nay, there’s comfort in’t
Whiles other men have gates, and those gates opened,
As mine, against their will (I.2.191-195)

31In a different fashion, the camera is alternatively focused separately on one character or another to highlight the total incomprehension of the Sicilian court in the wake of Leontes’ delirium. The technique is used increasingly as the plot progresses to emphasise the growing isolation of Leontes on stage – for instance, in (I.2), when Camillo is forced to agree to poison Polixenes, during the refusal of Paulina’s entreaties in the first part of (II.3), or throughout the trial scene as the king’s world falls apart. In contrast to the lack of communication due to the increasing verbal violence, the filming of the final scene is all encompassing. Indeed, the take is almost an extreme long shot (like the crowd scene at the start of the action), to convey the renewed scale, distance and geographic location that corresponds to the tying together of the tragi-comic threads of the play and the romance of its conclusion. In this way, the camera shoots a fitting opening and closing angle for a theatre production – just like a rising and falling curtain at the beginning and the end of a play.

32The transition from stage to screen would thus seem to be anything but a dissevering device. On the contrary, the emphasis on verbal violence is heightened by Lough’s cinematographic technique which complements Doran’s « masterly done » (V.3.65), stage craft. The other advantage of filmed theatre is the possibility of delving back into the different Acts in the manner of an « old tale » (V.2.28), as with a well loved book or play. For instance, to fish out favourite moments: Sir Smile, Paulina’s effrontery:« Away with that audacious lady! Antigonus,/ I charged thee that she should not come about me;/ I knew she would. » (II.3.41-44), and the final reunion between Hermione and her daughter. This dramatization of a sixteen year wait for words to conquer violence is perhaps then the last word on the subject as it so completely sums up the performative power of language, theatre, and in this particular case, cinema.

33To conclude, it can be said that Doran and Lough are anything but « traitorly rascals » as far as making audiences and viewers experience the violence that language provokes in the play. Indeed, their treatment of The Winter’s Tale is very much one which makes us believe in the power of words; first as a nihilistic force which totally demolishes the Sicilian estate and state, and then as a positive counterweight used to combat the destruction and bring forth life from amidst the ruins provoked by the senseless abuse. Fittingly, it is the female, life-giving, characters that assume this affirmative role in the plot and Shakespeare’s use of word stress highlights their proactive unadorned speech in contrast to the increasingly passive ornate rhetoric or disjointed language of their male counterparts. As the Sicilian world falls apart due to linguistic abuse, the structure of the play evolves to include the language of theatre in Bohemia, such as stage directions, music and dance. This new form of communication turns the Tragedy into Comedy and allows audiences to experience violence differently. Put another way, this heightened awareness prepares for the faith needed to wholeheartedly partake in the Romance at the close of the play. Even if Shakespeare still shows characters suffering in silence at the action’s close, this new pain is a required, and symbolic, sign of the capacity for endurance, which is crucial for the harmony of the final recomposed family tableau. In other words, this tenderness is the compromise between self-sacrifice and self-fulfilment ultimately necessary for future « re-creation ».


Filmography and Bibliography

BRAILOWSKY Yan, The Spider and the Statue: Poisoned Innocence in The Winter’s Tale, Paris, CNED/PUF, 2010.

CAVELL Stanley, « Recounting Gains, Showing Losses: Reading The Winter’s Tale », in Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987; 2003.

DORAN Gregory and LOUGH Robin, The Royal Shakespeare Company 1998/99 production of The Winter’s Tale, (Recorded at the Barbican Theatre), London, Heritage Theatre Ltd, 2005.

MORE Sir Thomas, The History of King Richard III, ed. R.S. Sylvester, Vol. 2 of the Yale Edition, 1963.

SHAKESPEARE William, The Winter’s Tale, Stephen Orgel (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, “Oxford World Classics”, 1996.

SHER Sir Antony, Year of the King, London, Chatto and Windus, 1985.

SMALLWOOD, Robert Leo, Players of Shakespeare 5, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

TATSPAUGH, Patricia Elizabeth, Shakespeare at Stratford: The Winter’s Tale, London, Arden, 2002.


1  Sir Anthony Sher, Year of The King, London, Chatto and Windus, 1985, p. 119.

2 Ibid., Dust jacket.

3  Sir Thomas More, The History of King Richard III, ed. R.S. Sylvester, Vol. 2 of the Yale Edition, 1963, p. 7-8.

4  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Royal Shakespeare Company 1998/99 production of The Winter’s Tale, (Recorded at the Barbican Theatre), London, Heritage Theatre Ltd, 2005.

5  The play is based on Robert Greene’s unilaterally tragic prose novella Pandosto –The Triumph of Time first published in 1588. William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, ed. Stephen Orgel,

6  Robert Leo Smallwood, Players of Shakespeare 5, op. cit., p. 76. According to Alexandra Gilbreath who played Hermione in the production these problems include, « (a) two crowned heads of state, Sicilia and Bohemia, with the power of life and death over their subjects (b) a coastline; (c) the fact that the final jurisdiction in the trial scene is given to Apollo and the oracle at Delphi; (d) Julio Romano, apparently the sculptor of Hermione’s statue, who lived in the sixteenth century; (e) a sheep-shearing feast that seems to take place in Shakespeare’s rural Warwickshire. The list goes on: Shakespeare seems to be defying place and time, mixing gritty realism with mythic resonance ».

7  Patricia Elizabeth Tatspaugh, Shakespeare at Stratford: The Winter’s Tale, London, Arden, 2002, p. 55.  

8  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook, Antony Sher says that the stage is a perspective corridor to mirror the inside of Leontes’ head. It is something that people could approach at various stages of the play. Leontes keeps trying to ground himself in the real world and yet he is spiralling.

9  Robert Leo Smallwood, Players of Shakespeare 5, op. cit., Introduction, p. 7.

10  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook. Doran calls it: « elsewhere/ else when ».

11  Gilbreath notes that this stifling atmosphere was even conveyed by costume which was: « restricting and formal », Robert Leo Smallwood, Players of Shakespeare 5, op. cit., p. 77.

12  Patricia Elizabeth Tatspaugh, Shakespeare at Stratford: The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., p. 55-56.

13  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook, These are Cicely Berry’s comments.

14  Patricia Elizabeth Tatspaugh, Shakespeare at Stratford: The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., p. 56.

15 Ibid., p. 56.

16  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook. Sher’s knowledge came from research into a condition known as « morbid jealousy », an unreasonable paranoid condition which afflicts men, often in their forties, and has them convinced that their partner is being unfaithful to them, something which inevitably leads to violence.

17  Polixenes has been at court for nearly nine months. Stanley Cavell comments on this:  «(For fun I note that it is a speech of nine lines, the last not [yet] complete, and that of Polixenes’ seven speeches before he accedes to the command to stay, all but one are either nine lines or one line long.) » Stanley Cavell, « Recounting Gains, Showing Losses: Reading The Winter’s Tale », in Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987; 2003, p. 209.

18  The wrap becomes a leitmotif in the production. First, it is sniffed by Leontes after Hermione’s departure in (I.2) in an attempt to find an olfactory proof of her infidelity. Then, it is folded up nervously by Polixenes at the end of the same scene as Camillo reveals Leontes’ plot against his « brother’s » life. Finally, it is used to wrap up Perdita’s fardel, which contains the proof of her royal lineage, after the plot is moved to Bohemia.

19 « Satisfy […] mistress i.e. sexually » William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Footnote, p. 108.

20  Robert Leo Smallwood, Players of Shakespeare 5, op. cit., Introduction, p. 7.

21  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook.

22  Robert Leo Smallwood, Players of Shakespeare 5, op. cit., p. 82.

23 Id.

24  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook, Kholer.

25 Ibid., Kohler.

26  Robert Leo Smallwood, Players of Shakespeare 5, op. cit., p. 83.

27  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook, Gilbreath. Note also that « Mamillius » means « teat », so the imagery in this scene is a metonymic representation of both son and daughter.

28  Robert Leo Smallwood, Players of Shakespeare 5, op. cit., p. 83.

29 « As I [Gilbreath] progressed through the scene I found it so hard not to lace every choice with anger, resentment or bitterness – the ways I would react to this situation. »Ibid., p. 84.

30 Ibid., p. 88.

31  Gilbreath puts it this way: « Paulina then takes a grasp of the scene and controls it with remarkable dexterity. If Hermione is dead there is no reason for Leontes to kill her; so in one fell swoop Hermione’s life has been saved, and the long wait begins. »Id.

32  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook, Kholer.

33 « The term may refer to a form of ‘entertainment’, a ‘diversion’, a ‘refreshment’, or ‘pastime’ – if so Leontes’ ‘recreation ‘ is a sombre one given the situation, and the word is chosen is a rhetorical embellishment […] But ‘recreation’ may well as be understood to be synonymous with ‘creating anew’ or ‘restoration’. Given the tenor of what follows, both acceptations re appropriate. The polysemy has not been lost on performers: in the 1998-1999 RSC production, Anthony Sher (Leontes) purposely pronounced the word ‘re-creation’ » Yan Brailowsky, The Spider and the Statue: Poisoned Innocence inThe Winter’s Tale, Paris, CNED/PUF, 2010, p. 157.

34  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook, Doran.

35  Fittingly, « Perdita » means: « little lost one ».

36  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale,op. cit., Footnote, p. 156. Orgel also notes here that, « for Shakespeare’s audience the comedy could certainly have started with the bear’s entrance […] Louise G. Chubb points out that in continental pastoral drama bears are always both comic and tragic, and in fact constitute a topos marking the mixed genre of tragicomedy. ‘The Tragicomic Bear’, Comparative Literature Studies, 9 (1972), 17-30 ».

37  The word Orchid, coming from the Greek « orchis » means testicle, and is thus connected with virility.

38 « The association of the flower catalogue with the rape of Proserpina derives form Ovid. » This is why, « the rape of Proserpina is being evoked in the middle of a sheep-shearing festival. It acknowledges, to begin with, the dangerous aspects of pastoral love […] The mythological association of flowers with rape, indeed, is already implicit in the very persona Florizel (Polixenes’ son) has devised for Perdita. […] Flora, according to Ovid, was at first the simple nymph Chloris, beloved of Zephyrus, the west wind. He pursued her, she fled, but he seized her and raped her, and then to make amends filled the earth with flowers and gave her dominion over them. » Ibid., Introduction, p. 44-45.

39  This comes before Autolycus’ entrance in this production as if to symbolically prepare the audience for the villainy to come.

40  This regeneration is to be understood on both a biological level and a literary one as the play is soon to morph into a Romance.

41  To the shepherd Polixenes proffers: « I am sorry that by hanging thee I can/ But shorten thy life one week » (IV.4.419), and to Perdita the king threatens to, « have thy beauty scratched by briars » (IV.4.422), or, « devise a death as cruel for thee/ As thou art tender to’t » (IV.4.436).

42  Robert Leo Smallwood, Players of Shakespeare 5, op. cit., p. 88.

43 « There have you lost a sight which was/ to be seen, cannot be spoken of. » (V.2.41).

44  Gregory Doran and Robin Lough, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., Casebook, Jones.

45 Ibid., Sher.

46 Ibid., Doran.

47  Robert Leo Smallwood, Players of Shakespeare 5, op. cit., p. 90.

48 Id.

49  Two examples on the Amazon.co.uk website: by Philip Herlihy (London): « This is what Shakespeare should be like. Time stands still with performances like these. » or by Peasmold : « This is a movie of a wonderful stage production, filmed live in the theatre. As such, it lacks the advantages of each medium. The intimacy of a live show is missing, whilst the tricks of the camera and the embellishments to a simple stage set that can be easily achieved on film are similarly absent. […] » http://www.amazon.co.uk/William-Shakespeare-Winters-Complete-Edition/dp/

Pour citer ce document

Par Stéphanie Mercier, «“But what talk we of these traitorly rascals” (IV.4.786): from stage to screen.», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°4 - Saison 2011-2012, L'Oeil du Spectateur, Adaptations filmiques, mis à jour le : 04/07/2012, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=590.

Quelques mots à propos de :  Stéphanie Mercier

Stephanie Mercier est agrégée d’Anglais, en poste dans l’enseignement secondaire. Elle travaille actuellement sur « Le Conte d’hiver,ou l’hégémonie mise en pièces », ou comment cette œuvre shakespearienne semble donner libre cours à la contre-hégémonie pour, en fait, mieux l’endiguer.