On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, Jeanette Winterson explains what we can learn about modern-day relationships from old-school drama.
help her playboy husband, Bassanio, get his friend Antonio off the hook for debts he owes. How does he repay her? By giving away his wedding ring – the one thing she made him swear never to do. And he gives it to the “young lawyer” who turns out to be Portia in disguise.
But it’s not all bad. As Shakespeare got older, he got tired of seeing women screwed up by men. Cordelia, in King Lear, is a daughter who won’t do what her father wants, nor will she wheedle and flatter to get her own way. Shakespeare hates deceit. “Stop that!” says Shakespeare. “It’s beneath you. Be the glory that you are.” When Cordelia is killed at the head of her own army, she’s a role model. Cordelia doesn’t die for a man, but she does die for love in the big sense of the word: love of truth, love of honesty, love of justice. She’s Rosa Parks, who wouldn’t give up that seat on the bus to a white man.
As for Cordelia’s ugly sisters, Goneril and Regan, Shakespeare might as well have put a sticker on their backs saying, “Do not copy.” Treacherous, spiteful, and obsessed with sex and power, these are women who hate other women. We’ve all met them and suffered at their perfectly manicured hands.
In The Winter’s Tale, it’s female power across the generations that prevents the killing spree of rage. The king accuses his wife, Hermione, of sleeping with his best friend’s murder, and throws the newborn baby out onto the streets. Hermione makes her case with such sane dignity that you know the husband is a gun-toting nut job.
But it’s the abandoned baby, Perdita, in whom Shakespeare offers a different model of love. When we meet her again, grown-up, unware of her own story, but courted by a prince who has no idea that she is a princess, Perdita is open-hearted and sincere and unfazed by power or riches. She doesn’t use her beauty or her sexuality to get her own way. She waits to give her heart because she knows her own worth. And how many women can really say that?
Shakespeare’s message is that it’s women who have dignity, patience, and love – and that women need to stick together against the madness. Brush up your Shakespeare, girls. Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Gap Of Time is a reimagining of William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale.