04 January, 2011

A Winter's Tale


While re-working the green mitten's cuff, I listened to a film production of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, keeping my ears perked as always for any mention of handspinning or Renaissance textile production.

Shakespeare plays again on the idea of a distaff as being the woman's counterpart of a man's weapon.  The queen jokes about how she and her women will say good-bye to her brother-in-law, whom the king is trying to compel to stay longer as a guest:
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong;
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We'll thwack him thence with distaffs.
The king, in his bitter jealousy, has something nasty to say about the virtue of flax-wenches, whatever a flax-wench might be.

The shepherd who fosters the lost princess, Perdita, has a few lines during the storm about keeping sheep.  Apparently it's not good for sheep to wander off and browse on ivy by the ocean.  He guesses from the richness of her baby blanket, "a bearing cloth for a squire's/child," that Perdita comes from a wealthy family.  From what is said at the end of the play, I am guessing that this bearing cloth is the same as "the mantle / of Queen Hermione's" recognized by the court as proof of Perdita's identify.  A mantle or loose cloak could be mistaken for a blanket.

If I were really clever, I would say that the mother's mantle falls to the daughter literally and figuratively too, in the same sense that the prophetic office and mantle of Elijah fell to Elisha in the Bible.  At the beginning of the play, the queen is beautifully pregnant and charming, at the height of her influence.  By the time the king tries her for adultery and abandons the infant Perdita, the queen is post-partum and defenseless.  When she is [spoiler alert] revealed alive at the end of the play, her wrinkles get remarks.  Shakespeare contrasts the queen in her age with Perdita in her youth, desirability, and potential for fertility.

The shepherd's grand sheepshearing feast gives the occasion for many characters to meet.

The shepherd's son does some math to calculate how much the shorn wool will sell for:
Let me see: every 'leven wether tods; every tod
yields pound and odd shilling; fifteen hundred
shorn. what comes the wool to?
I have no idea either and am very glad I use a decimal system.  A wether is the sheep version of a steer or gelding or capon.  It is interesting that Shakespeare names wethers as the desirable type of sheep to produce wool for market.  I've probably mentioned before that wethers' wool is reputed to be strong and less prone to breakage from hormone fluctuation and stress because they don't reproduce.

The pedlar, Autolycus, gives Shakespeare the opportunity to say much about cloth, clothing, status inferred from or conferred by clothes, and what customers want.  The pedlar sets out to rob his customers with a pun: "if I / make not this cheat bring out another and the / shearers prove sheep, let me be unrolled."

Camillo puns as well when he compliments Perdita in her shepherdess role: "I should leave grazing, were I of your flock, / and only live by gazing."

Perdita, as she goes from withdrawn to life of the party, blames her change of personality on her special party clothes: "Methinks I play as I have seen them do / In Whitsun pastorals: sure this robe of mine / Does change my disposition."

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