Though they have what might be termed offside aspects, the three comedies I looked at earlier are enormously jolly, and their happy endings perfectly satisfactory. Very different are the dark comedies, where the happy couplings with which the plays end result from very dark beginnings.
The action of two of these plays springs from what seems perverse jealousy. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes of Sicily suspects his wife of being too close to his old friend, Polixenes the King of Bohemia, and torments her to what he believes is death. He has also packed off to be killed the newborn child he suspects is not his own. The nobleman he assigns for this task does die, being last seen, in the most horrid stage direction in Shakespeare, being pursued by a bear. But the child is found and – being therefore called Perdita – survives to be reunited with her father. At this point it transpires that his abused wife did not in fact die, and what is supposed to be a statue of her comes back to life, after which the perverse king presumably lives happily ever after.
Jealousy of a different sort propels the action of Cymbeline, where the Roman husband of Imogen, the daughter of the British King Cymbeline, has a bet about his wife’s chastity while back in Rome. The villain who cannot seduce Imogen tricks Procopius, who disowns his wife, and there is much suffering before his faith in her is restored and we have a happy ending.
What relieves the darkness of these plays is the joy with which Shakespeare endows the rural simplicity into which the deprived women are driven. Imogen in fleeing the court finds herself in a cave where her brothers who had been stolen away beforehand live a rustic life. They, and Perdita and her foster family in the greenwood, are great fun. Continue reading