I went to sleep last night thinking about Lear, Othello, and Leontes. Not having read Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale before, my brain automatically tried to make sense of Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of that play through Shakespeare’s other plays. Leontes is the prime mover in The Winter’s Tale. His rage and jealousy drives his wife away, destroys his lifelong friendship, and almost ruins his child’s life. He never takes things as far as Othello does, but there are strong similarities. Leontes also made me think of Lear because of his sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness. Leontes can only see the world through his suspicions. Everyone is against him. Lack of proof is proof that his enemies are clever. That’s where the similarities stop. Shakespeare’s later plays are often called problem plays because no one is really sure what to make of them. They don’t have clear resolutions. They just…stop. The characters go on with their lives, but we have no idea what happens after the curtain drops. Leontes, I finally decided last night, is somewhere between Othello and Lear, with the added ingredient of being able to change his behavior (a bit) by the end of the play.
The plot of The Gap of Time closely follows The Winter’s Tale. (Thankfully, Winterson includes a summary of the events of the original play before her novel begins.) The first third and a bit is where most of the dramatic action happens. Leo has suspected that his wife, MiMi, has been having an affair with Xeno, Leo’s best friend. There is no evidence of this, but Leo’s thoughts keep turning over any possible sign that MiMi is unfaithful. He doubts that the child she carries is his. The tension ratchets up until Leo violently confronts MiMi and accuses her of cheating. His attack leads her to give birth early to their daughter, Perdita. MiMi leaves Leo, helped by Leo’s assistant Paulina, but not before Leo has Perdita sent away.
The first gap of time follows. After 17 years, Perdita’s love for Zel—Xeno’s son—leads her to discover who her parents really are. The last half shows the characters circling Leo, pushing him closer to realizing how terrible he has been to the people who love him. Unlike many (most) of Shakespeare’s other stories, characters grow. Winterson makes Leo’s growth more obvious, while still making it clear that the younger generation are going to have to leave their parents’ bad blood behind in order to be happy.
The Gap of Time is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. I love retellings of stories when they’re well done. A retelling can be an opportunity to resolve a story or explore a problem that the original skipped over. The title of Winterson’s retelling comes from the last lines of The Winter’s Tale:
Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand an answer to his part
Perform’d in this wide gap of time since first
We were dissever’d: hastily lead away. (Act V, Scene III)
The phrase “gap of time” is repeated throughout Winterson’s novel, but there is actually very little exploration of what might have happened during the two time jumps in The Winter’s Tale. Rather, Winterson seems more interested in looking at forgiveness. I think Leo’s actions (and Leontes’ actions) are unforgiveable. Clearly, the characters in The Gap of Time are more mature than I am. They seem to understand that the way Leo is is just the way Leo is. They let him know that he’s done wrong, but they recognize how hard it is for Leo to compensate for the worst of his flaws.
If I were Shakespeare, I’d be able to end this review with an exit, pursued by a bear, but that sort of move only works once. Instead, I will end by saying that I really liked the way Winterson handled the story. It is very much a problem story. The audience and readers are left to reconcile the events of the story in a way that makes sense of them. The thing about problem stories is that they are also very human stories. They’re messy and weird and they are, therefore, endlessly fascinating.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 October 2015.