‘The Winter’s Tale’ Retold

“The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale Retold” is the book for anyone who has ever seen or read William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and gone WTF.

It’s hard sometimes to make sense of Shakespeare’s language — it can be even harder to make sense of some of Shakespeare’s plots – but Jeannette Winterson’s book is both the cliffnotes you always needed and a wondrous new tale for a new era.

The first of Hogarth’s proposed Shakespeare novelizations to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, “The Gap of Time” has set the bar high for a series that will include such luminaries as Margaret Atwood doing the “The Tempest,” Anne Tyler taking on “The Taming of the Shrew,” Gillian Flynn riffing on “Hamlet” and Jo Nesbo lending his signature touch to “Macbeth.”

I was lucky enough to see Theatre in the Rough’s production of “The Winter’s Tale” last year and while I enjoyed it greatly, there were some parts that left me a bit pensive.

Like why does Leontes suddenly think his wife is having an affair with his best friend and insist on it to the point of destroying his life — and ending the lives of several others? This idea of adultery, which seems to come out of nowhere, launches the entire course of the play but is left, in Shakespeare, almost entirely unexplained.

But in the greater elasticity of prose, Winterson has built a King Leontes whose motives we may not sympathize with but we do understand. She does us a great service in this, making the villain human and adding real tension to the story.

Her prose sparkles and in true Shakespearean fashion, she leaves you with plenty of memorable one liners. Like this one: “A sign of the times. But the times had so many signs that if we read them all we’d die of heartbreak.”

And this, from the trickster Autolycus: “One thing you notice about progress, kid, is that it doesn’t happen to everyone.”

And when Leo is fired from his bank for “reckless losses”: “Everything he did with money was reckless, but no one wanted to fire him for his reckless profits.”

And my personal favorite, on the love of books: “When you’ve finished a book you can put it away and it doesn’t ask to see you again.”

I do have one regret: That in modernizing Shakespeare’s tale, Winterson has done away with the most famous stage directions in history, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Maybe it’s not logical to have a bear on a Caribbean island, maybe people are more likely to be killed in random shootings than in wildlife maulings these days, but still I feel she could have managed it. Long live the bear! Shortly live the messenger!





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