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The middle part

June 15, 2011

Don’t believe the people who say that the two halves of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale don’t fit together. They’re right that there’s a rather jarring transition halfway through from tragedy to comedy, and that the two halves are separated by 20 years, but throughout the tragic part there is a constant sense that the story will not end here, and the comedic part serves primarily to draw together the loose threads left at the end of the tragedy. I’d go so far as to say that the play feels unified–but it’s not the sort of dramatic unity that Aristotle would recognize. So what is it?

One way to describe it is to say that Acts I-III feel like a prologue to Acts IV-V, which themselves feel somewhat like an epilogue. But if the play consisted of only prologue and epilogue, where would be the play itself?

The connection between the two halves reminds me of the connection between the different parts of the Oresteia. Aeschylus gives us three scenes from a lengthy story that each have their own dramatic unity, but together give something else–an epic unity, perhaps? Or a historical one? I can think of arguments for both terms.

Maybe the best term, though, is “serial unity,” since the best description I can give of it makes use of the mathematical distinction between sequences and series. For this sort of unity to occur, each entry has to have its own dramatic unity, has to present a “complete action,” but they have to combine into a new whole–what a series does–rather than just stand in sequence. Should each individual action feel like a “beginning,” “middle,” or “end” of the larger one?

I perhaps shouldn’t find it surprising to find serial unity in Shakespeare, who doesn’t usually stick closely to Aristotelian form. It probably has something to do with a play by Aeschylus usually taking about an hour to perform and a play by Shakespeare usually taking about three hours. But I’ve always thought of the difference as being akin to that between three one-hour episodes of a TV series (Aeschylus) and a single three-hour film (Shakespeare). The Winter’s Tale is rather unusual, even for Shakespeare.

And maybe there is a sense in which it feels disjointed–it’s less like a single play and more like a duology. This might be the source of the discomfort the play induces–unlike in Aeschylus, there’s no middle part to mediate between the tragic prologue and the comedic epilogue. Can duologies ever offer a serial unity as strong as that found in trilogies?

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