So speaks Paulina in the Winter’s Tale. She is about to unveil a statue of Leontes’s wife, Hermione. He is responsible for her death and has been grieving for sixteen years. Within a few moments the statue will appear to come to life, reuniting the pair in a very unfashionable kind of reconciliation. There are textural hints that this is a piece of trickery for Leontes’s benefit, not magic; but the feelings that a good production of the Winter’s Tale can provoke in an audience suggest that something more powerful than an appreciation of good stage-craft or an eccentrically-handled spousal reunion is being experienced.
Depending on who you believe, Shakespeare was getting on a bit when he wrote the Winter’s Tale; he was one of the last playwrights old enough (or geographically placed) to have seen the Coventry mystery plays before their suppression in the 1570s. Hermione’s secular resurrection feels saturated in the mysticism, self-conscious theatricality and promise of redemption that must have infused both the mass and the festival performances of the old faith.
The use of magic and, equally, of unlikely and emotional restitution, often involving the ‘resurrection’ of one presumed dead, are obsessive themes of Shakespeare’s late work.* The ghosts of church ritual won’t die, sure, but nor will the magic itself, or the audience and the artist’s need to assert its power, even its supremacy.
Pier Paolo Passolini said “If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”
My statement might read: “I am an unbeliever who has a need for a belief.” And I find it in our collective ability to create art.
Such a desire for magic, faith, wonder or joy in art is routinely dismissed or exploited. And it always was, not least by the church. As a critical starting point, this is probably correct. To enter a state of wonderment we must often surrender our critical faculties and many of us probably aren’t willing to do that for, say, Cirque de Soleil in Vegas, a mass in St Peter’s square or the revelations of the divine feminine contained in the Da Vinci Code. But I, at least, need art to offer me these moments. And I want to experience them with my critical faculties intact. I want to read a book, watch a play or listen to piece of music that will lift me up in joyful rapturous wonderment without dropping me out at the other end feeling daft, conned or coated in dimming fairy dust.
There is art that offers a kind of personal revelation – the closest thing childless secularists such as myself are allowed to come to the full-on Gnostic soul-shock. It’s there in music, from Spem in Allium to Tears of a Clown; in the visual arts (that’s me in rather rapturous appreciation of a medieval Madonna and Child in the picture above) and in theatre.
But do we find these qualities in literature, where irony, melancholy and the intellect rule, where an accusation of sentimentalist is only beaten by plagiarist as the word any author would least like to see appended to their name, how can that magic, that potential for genuine – not the paltry, mealy, equivocal part-redemptions of so much literary fiction – redemption survive?
I’ve found it in Don Quixote; in the humour of the digressions, in Cervantes’s compassion-cruelty towards Sancho and his master. Everything is Illuminated had a similar effect when I read it; laughing at – and with – the characters, whilst tipping further towards atrocity and disappointment. In a dark, cold way, Nabakov can send chills of wonderment through me; his daredevil mastery of language, the audacity of such wit and beauty being used in such repellent contexts. Yet these are more gasps of amazement at the authors’ skill, wit or sense of beauty and none of these offer hope or redemption. Even Don Quixote’s death, with the old knight’s friends gathered around his bed, left me disappointed as he returns to his senses and renounces his errantry. I would have him die in the arms of a loving if entirely non-existent Dulcinea; the joyful counterweight to Lear, cradling an imagined-breathing yet dead as clay Cordelia.
It’s least present where it’s promised. Life of Pi told me it would make me believe in God. By the last page I didn’t even believe in tigers. Perhaps the joy experienced in literature can only be melancholic, so tinged is most great work with an awareness of what someone described as Shakespeare’s great subject, time. And a novel, rather than a painting, which freezes a moment, thwarting time, or music, which renews when played, or theatre, where the dead resurrect each night and step forward for applause, perhaps a novel, which must tell a story and must end, is of all these art forms both the most modern – thus the least rooted in church ritual – and the least capable of inspiring in us that illusion of magic and redemption. Or am I wrong?
Incidentally, my own entirely subjective and unscholarly theory for this is that – regardless of his relationship with his own daughters, troubled or otherwise – Shakespeare, as a writer rather than a father, somehow went too far, by killing off Cordelia in King Lear. Notoriously unfounded in either Holinshead or the anonymous play that precedes Shakespeare’s effort, Cordelia’s death adds nothing to the story other than to definitively destroy all hope. Nahum Tate certainly thought so; in his popular ‘improved’ version, Cordelia is cut down from the noose and marries Edgar. My feeling is that WS did help to would himself with this cruelty. In the Winter’s Tale, Tempest, Pericles and Cymbeline, daughters are (after much capture by pirates etc) protected, loved and rewarded; they win through, marry-for-love, are proven right, have adventures and always end up hand in hand with daddy. For what it’s worth, I sense atonement.