A Kind of Fear

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:21

ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE 

Autumn 2006 Pericles and The Winter’s Tale 

Programme Notes 

A Kind of Fear 

In his book A Grief Observed C.S.Lewis wrote, ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.’ Grief is indeed a kind of fear. We have lost, not just someone dear to us, but part of the structure of meaning which gives us our sense of being a person, that which we call I, me, myself. Events have shown us that where once there was a presence there is now an absence, and so a significant part of the meanings we have about ourselves and our life no longer fit what is happening. Whenever we make such a discovery we feel very afraid because what we experience is a feeling that our very self is crumbling and disappearing. Time goes by and the process of grieving allows us to construct other ideas about ourselves and our life, but, just as the healing processes of our body leave a scar, so the healing processes of our meaning structure create a scar in the form of a lifelong sadness which no amount of happiness can ever eradicate completely.  

Grief is never simple. In grief we question the actions of ourselves and of others, and we ask the world, ‘Why me?’, that is, ‘Why in the whole scheme of things has this happened?’ To this question there are only three possible answers, ‘It was my fault’, ‘It was someone else’s fault’, ‘It happened by chance’. It takes courage to accept the third answer, for it means that we are helpless to prevent other chance disasters. Most people prefer some form of the belief in the Just World where nothing happens by chance, bad people are inevitably punished, and good people inevitably rewarded. With this belief we can comfort ourselves with, ‘If I’m good nothing bad can happen to me.’  

But bad things do happen to good people. Pericles is a good man and, despite the disasters he suffers, he has the hope that his reward will come when he reclaims his daughter Marina. When told of her death he can no longer believe that he is a man deserving his rewards. He puts on the sackcloth of self-blame and so creates a kind of explanation for the disasters he has suffered that will give some coherence to his meaning structure. However, the idea that he deserves the punishment of his daughter’s death means that he turns against himself, hates himself, and thus become depressed. In the same way children who strive hard to be good are likely to blame themselves for any disaster that strikes their family. They become depressed, and sometimes die. The boy Mamillius

‘Fastened and fixed the shame on’t himself;

 

Threw off his spirit, his appetite, his sleep,

And downright languished.’

In asking the question, ‘Why me?’ a person can choose the alternative, ‘It was someone else’s fault’. In some disasters it clearly is someone else’s fault. Hermione has no doubt about this. She does not let her desire to be good override her sense of justice. At first she is confused by Leontes’ betrayal, ‘You speak a language I understand not’, but she goes on to insist that 

‘The crown and comfort of my life, your favour,

I do give lost, for I do feel it gone,

But know not how it went.’ 

Interpreting a disaster in this realistic way leads not to depression but to anger. Anger will often keep us alive in the direst of circumstances for it gives us strength and the hope of revenge.  

Many people prefer to choose the interpretation, ‘It was someone else’s fault’, despite the complete lack of evidence that this is so. Such a choice leads to paranoia. Leontes’ belief that he has lost Hermione is a fantasy grown out of his long friendship with Polixenes. A friendship between two men is rarely uncompetitive. It seems that when Leontes compares himself with Polixenes he sees himself as the lesser of the two, and from that he assumes that Hermione will inevitably prefer Polixenes to him. He sees her lost to him, and blames Polixenes and Hermione for the disaster which he thinks has befallen him. Paranoia, like depression, is a defence against the fear of being wiped out, annihilated, as a person. While the depressed person can turn everything that happens into evidence of his own wickedness, so the paranoid person can turn everything that happens into evidence of the persecution he is suffering. Hermione is helpless to persuade Leontes otherwise. 

Only when she faints does his pity overwhelm his paranoia and he sees that, ‘I have too much believed my own suspicion.’ But it is too late. Hermione dies. Commentators on The Winter’s Tale often remark on the abruptness of the change from tragedy from comedy, but it could be argued that what binds the two halves together is the presence in the plot of one of our favourite fantasies, that of, ‘They’ll be sorry when I’ve gone.’ Most of us as children have salved our pride (ie, mended our dented meaning structure) by telling ourselves the story of how our family and friends who have belittled and humiliated us will be racked with guilt and grief after our noble and courageous death. The only problem with this fantasy is that we want to be there to see them suffer in just the way Tom Sawyer saw his relatives and friends suffer after his supposed death. Did Paulina spirit the live Hermione away and together they planned the appropriate revenge? Whether Shakespeare had this fantasy in mind or not, it would certainly be an association which many in the audience would make. 

We all know that we can suffer losses for which there can be no recompense and over which we will grieve for the rest of our lives. We know that grief means pain and fear. Pericles, Thaisa and Marina will always mourn the time they lost when they could have been together. Not only will Leontes and Hermione always mourn Mamillius, they will always mourn the unquestioned certainty of the love which they had for each other before Leontes betrayed Hermione. To live with the knowledge of endless grief we need to be told that at least sometimes goodness is rewarded and people live happily ever after. Such stories give us the hope that, even though we mightn’t deserve it, we could be lucky. 

The third edition of Dorothy Rowe’s book Beyond Fear will be published by HarperCollins in March 2007.