In the final scene of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a woman thought dead for 16 years suddenly returns to life. The indomitable laws of tragedy give way to the fluttering hope of a comedy that triumphs over death. Hermione lives; her statue breathes new life.
The moment redeems the suffering of the first three acts, which had culminated in Hermione’s death. Her husband Leontes’s raging fury and wild accusations of adultery had seemed to drive both her and her son to an early grave, and Leontes had given instruction for them to be buried together:
To the dead bodies of my wife and son.
One grave shall be for both.
Meanwhile, across the sea, Leontes’s baby daughter Perdita was being abandoned “in the deserts of Bohemia,” amidst the storms of a raging tempest, and the person instructed to deliver her there was quitting the stage to one of the most famous directions in all of Shakespeare: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Jealous passion, storms, bear chases, death and abandonment. The hopeless misfortune of this sequence of events rivals the great Theban plays of Sophocles in its tragic scope. And it all takes place within the space of three short acts. If Thomas Heywood was right when he claimed that “comedies begin in trouble and end in peace; tragedies begin in calm and end in tempest”, then here at the midway point of The Winter’s Tale a tragic tempest really has engulfed the stage. The characters left alive can see “nothing but despair” ahead.
But this is only half the story. By the end of the play Shakespeare reunites his characters across seemingly impossible gulfs of time and space, defying the laws of logic and causality. She who was lost is found; she who had died returns to life. In the climactic final scene of the play, Perdita returns to her father, reunites him with his long-lost friend Polixenes, and stands beside them both as they gaze upon a marble effigy of the dead Hermione. The sculpture is so finely carved that “life seems warm upon her lip,” as if it had been chiseled by a craftsman who “cut breath” out of stone. Then suddenly, it begins to move. Hermione is “stone no more” as wonder, magic and impossible illusion drag the play back from its tragic abyss.
At this point, the stage bursts with unanswerable questions. Has Hermione been alive the entire time, simply in hiding, or has she truly returned from the dead? Onlookers demand to know the truth: “make it manifest,” Polixenes cries, “where she has lived,/Or how stolen from the dead.” But the fascinating beauty of this moment derives from the fact that it is ultimately undecidable. Here on his stage Shakespeare achieves the superimposition of two possible worlds: one in which Hermione continued to live and one in which she died. Both of these possibilities persist alongside each other, and it is impossible to choose between them. Here tragedy entertains comedy, and magical fantasy exists alongside reality. As Shakespearean critic John Pitcher puts it, in this moment “the facts persist alongside the counterfactuals… Hermione is and isn’t dead.” This is the world — or rather, these are the worlds — of Shakespearean romance.
You either love it or you hate it. And some people really hate it. John Dryden was as scathing in the seventeenth century as some critics have been in the twenty-first. He claimed that the play was “grounded on impossibilities, or at least so meanly written that the comedy neither caused your mirth nor the serious part your concernment,” criticism that would ring true with Huntley Dent, who asked in 2009: “does The Winter’s Tale feel like a masterpiece…? For me the answer is no. Nowhere near Shakespeare’s core genius… The play would work well enough with puppets.” And it is easy to see why it should inspire such animosity. The sheer audacity of that final scene (and the entire play which it rounds off) can seem almost offensive to audiences. They feel exactly like Leontes and Polixenes watching what happens on stage, like they are being “mock’d with art.” How could Shakespeare have written that? It makes no sense. It can’t be real. Hence Dent’s claim: we might as well be watching puppets.
And I couldn’t agree more: “puppets” is exactly right. In fact people as puppets is precisely what is at stake in Shakepseare’s late romances. What is Prospero if not the consummate puppet-master? His “potent art” appears to direct the entire drama of The Tempest, a play which leverages the divide between puppetry and personhood itself. And The Winter’s Tale is no different, except that here the governing symbol is the humanoid statue. The Winter’s Tale is a play about the almost transcendental workings of power, fate, causality and time, and entreats us to reflect on the position of the human in relation to these forces. Who, or what, if anything, is in control? What laws of physics, time and motion can govern this play? What sense of childlike wonder allows us to entertain even the possibility that Hermione could return? In this world where “actions are… dreams” and time can “overthrow law,” where lost daughters may be found and dead wives resurrected, where chance triumphs over the insurmountable barriers of death, distance and despair, we are forced to reassess every one of our preconceived notions about the natures of human agency, will and power.
To do this, we can turn our attention in a completely different direction: towards the modern experience of video gaming. This new and still undertheorized medium provides a prism through which to view the unwieldy world of The Winter’s Tale. It, too, is an experience which blurs the distinction between persons and puppets, inviting players to take control of an avatar and lead it through a particular environment. The video game seems to place the individual human subject — the player — in control of the fate of this avatar whilst simultaneously directing all of the possible outcomes of its variously replayable worlds. It hinges on the blurred distinctions between agency and predestination, between will and fate, power and powerlessness. Moreover, the video game is the mode through which repeated tragedy (death after death at level after level) must, inevitably, give way to a successful ending, an ending which, in the world of the theatre, could only be described as comic. It is the mode which forces players to steer their way through tempests in order to reach the calm resolution beyond the storm. In fact that is exactly how games are constructed: that is how they keep you playing; how they ensure their narrative will conclude. To put us back on Shakespeare’s stage: the video game requires us to believe in the guarantee of “a world ransomed” even as it seems to be “destroyed.” It is by way of death that video games make us continue, encouraging us to keep playing so that we may emerge as “precious winners all.”
This is not to paint a diverse gaming industry with a single Shakespearean brush. Games take many different forms and are played in many different ways. One would be hard pushed, for example, to convince too many gamers of the similarities between Super Mario Bros (1985) and Grand Theft Auto V (2015). In such a wide-ranging and rapidly expanding medium, vast gulfs in generic form, cultural tradition and technological advances would seem to make these games almost incomparable. And yet there is something strangely similar about their latent deep structures, and in the experience of playing through them. To navigate both games, a player must take control of an avatar and persist through tragic ending after tragic ending, failure after failure, whilst still maintaining the certain belief that this will ultimately lead him or her to success. It is strangely perverse. In these and in so many video game worlds, entire hostile environments are constructed in order to precipitate the downfall of the player’s avatar, but belief that tragic experiences will lead to comic resolutions keeps that player coming back for more.
Consider a video game level, or a particular playable section. The vast majority of times you play it, it ends in tragedy. Mario is incapacitated by a wayward Koopa shell. The computer scores in the final seconds of a match. Lara Croft plummets to her death as she falls just short of an angular ledge. These endings are the conclusions of particular narratives. Logical and necessary finales to the events through which we have just played: Lara lies dead before our eyes. Suddenly, though, something happens. The world resets; it insists upon a second chance, and opens up space for, as Pitcher writes, the “illusion most important in romance, which we long to believe… that the dead don’t die.”
Shakespeare opened up this space many times in his plays. His stage is frequently stalked by figures from beyond the grave. From Old Hamlet to Banquo, so many of the great tragedies are littered with ghostly apparitions. But it is not until King Lear, written just before the late romances, that the possibility of redemption from the ashes of death starts to achieve expression. It is in this remorselessly tragic play, as it reaches its devastating climax that, suddenly, the hope of romance is kindled. “The feather stirs”, the glass appears to mist:
Do you see this? Look on her: look, her lips,
Look there, look there! O, O, O, O. [Dies]
These famous lines are Lear’s as he huddles over the lifeless body of his daughter Cordelia. The tantalizing idea that she breathes again is his final thought before he dies. In the context of this play, the moment can only contribute to the relentless tragic storm. Lear perishes, Cordelia does not stir, and overwhelming sorrow settles in. For Lear, the hope he takes from Cordelia’s lips appears as nothing but the last and desperate cravings of a mad king. For Leontes, though, to whom Shakespeare would soon turn, dead lips really do breathe again.
The possible world in which Cordelia is in fact resurrected, however, is the point at which tragedy opens into romance. Call it madness, call it naive or childish, but it is this moment that video games seek to conjure up within us. They require us to believe in the restorative power of that fluttering feather.
It is precisely to such a feather that Jeanette Winterson turns in her recent novelized adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, and from it she weaves the fabric of a fictional video game in order to explore the very concepts I have been trying to parse out from the play. In her version, Winterson casts Polixenes (renamed Xeno) as a fragile and reserved game designer who’s driving desire is to create “something different,” a game that is not just “tattooed white men with buzzcuts beating the shit out of the world in stolen cars.” Not “just” Grand Theft Auto V.
Instead, over the course of his life, Xeno has been developing a game which he names “The Gap of Time” (also the title of Winterson’s novel), taken from the penultimate line of Shakespeare’s play. The game takes the feather as its starting point and makes it the main item which players must collect in order to play and progress. Level 1, Xeno informs us, involves “gathering feathers” that fall from the wings of angels. The feathers are a chance for new life in the post-apocalyptic, fallen world of Paris in which the game takes place. They provide the mortal avatars which the player controls with a chance to protect their city from the angels. As Xeno says, “It means something different here, to be on the side of the Angels.”
As the game progresses, it becomes a metafictional and intermedial device around which Winterson structures her retelling. Within the video game she constructs a world which can manipulate and reimagine spatial and temporal logic. There are nine levels in total in the game and, “at Level 4 Time becomes a player,” just as he does in Act 4 of Shakespeare’s play. From this point on the player is able to move around in time and disrupt its logic. As Xeno says: “you can deep-freeze an action, an event, a happening and return to it later—because, perhaps, you can make it unhappen. I suppose that’s what I wanted to do; make things unhappen.”
Here, then, Xeno’s game actively thematizes one of the most central constructs within video games and Shakespearean romance, and it does so through the character of time. In Shakespeare’s play, Time appears on stage after the tumult of the first three acts in order to alter the structure and the progress of the play. He asks the audience to allow him, “in the name of Time,/To use [his] wings” and fly over “the wide gap” of time and space. Time in Shakespearean romance, like time in Xeno’s game, has the power to reverse what had seemed irreversible and to usher in a new world. Time provides a second chance; it lets us play again. In this way, “The Gap of Time” video game allows us to play through the process at the heart of the video game experience which I mentioned before: the play-save-fail-repeat-succeed pattern which brings an eventual comic resolution to repeated tragic loss. It makes the very moment at which Mario resets and Lara rises from the dead the focus of its gameplay, forcing us to experience the processes at the heart of both gaming and romance.
In writing about Shakespeare’s play, Winterson has drawn attention to this strange temporal structure on which it hangs, and out of which she crafted her game: “We imagine that the future depends on the past. In The Winter’s Tale the past depends on the future. Time’s arrow shoots both ways until that which was lost is found.” The video game, in contrast to the form of the novel, allows Winterson to unlock this markedly different temporal experience. As a novel presses onwards over page after page, a video game stumbles backwards and forwards, remaking itself again and again. It encapsulates this inverted temporal structure, for whenever somebody fails while playing through a video game, the past is reproduced and altered when they are forced to play again. The past is born from a future moment in the level; it emerges from a future point in the game. And so within Winterson’s book the game opens up a world that counteracts the linear progress of the novel itself, hinting at the profoundly different experience of Shakespearean romance that is captured and dramatized by the act of playing and replaying a video game.
Like video games in contemporary culture, romance has often been a marginalized art form. The Winter’s Tale has had a strange and troubled history, and has been frequently dismissed by critics across the centuries (as the reviews of Dryden and Dent make clear). After a performance in court in 1634, Shakespeare’s play disappeared from theaters for over a century. When it did make a tentative comeback in 1741, it flopped almost immediately. It took major rewritings for it to be accepted on the stage in eighteenth century England, and it was not until the nineteenth century that Shakespeare’s version began to make a comeback. By this stage, though, the attraction of the play was really its spectacle, which allowed theaters to demonstrate new technologies and lavish sets. A reviewer described Charles Kean’s 1856 production, for instance, as taking place in “a sort of classical museum,” and by 1906 Herbert Beerbohm was able to stage a version that featured a full-scale babbling brook and a live donkey at the feast. An unsurprising extravagance really, given that Shakespeare himself had called for a bear. What seems to have been lost, however, in these neoclassical, hyperrealist stagings, is an engagement with the finer metaphysics of Shakespeare’s play. If late nineteenth and early twentieth century directors were able to construct life-size courtrooms for Hermione’s trial in Act 2 and towering churches for her reappearance in Act 5, they failed to really examine the threads that might connect those two spaces. As artistic technologies advanced and new media developed, the modes of understanding which might have ignited Shakespeare’s contemporaries were lost. “An understanding of much of what is going on in Renaissance plays has disappeared along with a comprehension of the codes of romance and a sense of their resonance,” Helen Cooper writes, and that is why Shakespeare’s bear is so notorious and his moving statue so unfathomable.
However, if technologies and modes of thinking seem to progress in a linear fashion, then so too do they turn in circles, and here in the early stages of the twenty-first century, a decidedly new form might provide a key to unlock some of the nuances of a form long past. The experience and structure of video games, and the complex temporalities which they project, suggest that the resonances of romance still occupy our society today. Jeanette Winterson has harnessed them in order to re-energize Shakespearean romance in her novel adaptation, and much like the inverted patternings of time which she identified within the play, here we see how the status of this play’s past itself depends upon the workings of a future written a long time after it. Now, standing in that future, we might be able to see and understand Shakespearean romance in a new light: our gaming present might let us step back into the worlds of romance and replay them across “the gap of time.”
Having moved to the US from England in 2015, Tomas Elliot is currently studying for a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. A self-declared student of everything, he has written on topics in French and English literature and the theories of translation and adaptation.
Image: “Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale, Act V, Scene III” by William Hamilton