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Turning Tragedy into Comedy

April 4, 2016

Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time, 2015

Warning: may contain spoilers, especially if you haven’t seen The Winter’s Tale.

Leo Kaiser wrongly believes that his wife MiMi and his best friend Xeno are having an affair, and that Xeno is the father of her baby, Perdita. Leo tries to kill Xeno, attacks MiMi, kidnaps Perdita, and sends her away so that all trace of her is lost. His jealous rage destroys his family, and he spends the next 16 years hating himself. Can such a story have a happy ending?

Shakespeare thought so – the first half of the The Winter’s Tale is a tragedy and the second half a comedy. And Jeanette Winterson thinks so – in her novel The Gap of Time, a cover version of The Winter’s Tale, the first half is as shocking and heartbreaking as a Shakespearean tragedy, while the second half is just as much fun as one of his comedies.

The Shepherd finds the deserted baby. From Charles Lamb, Tales From Shakespeare

“The Shepherd finds the deserted baby.” Image for The Winter’s Tale in Charles Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare (artist unknown). In Winterson’s tale, set in the present, Shep finds Perdita in a BabyHatch.

The whole book, tragedy and comedy, is a pleasure to read, because Winterson writes so well. She is particularly good at scenes where there are many different characters on her “stage”, such as the big party in the second half. We get to know each character through what they do, what they say, and how they do and say it. There are many laugh out loud moments in the second half: the rogue Autolycus says that the free market makes free will impossible, and is challenged: “Aren’t you a businessman?” He shakes his head. “I’m too honest to be a businessman. I’m a straightforward crook.”

While the focus for both Shakespeare and Winterson is on telling a rollicking tale, they also use the story to contrast two systems of values. Leo represents possessive, ruthless people who are determined remake the world the way they want it, and have the wealth and power to do so. Shep, the man who found and raised Perdita, represents people who value decency and love. When they finally meet after 16 years, Leo’s excuse is, “I didn’t believe Perdita was my child.” Shep replies, “I knew she wasn’t mine, but I loved her.”

When Leo sees the close bond between Shep and Perdita, he looks at “all the years he hadn’t had.” This is the beginning of insight that can overcome that gap of time.

While time can’t unhappen, both Shakespeare and Winterson use this story to explore how it can be unlost. Repentance, forgiveness and understanding can redeem time and turn tragedy into comedy.

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