Monday, June 25, 2012

Pursued By A Bear

I’ll admit it: my family contributed its share to Pixar’s $67-million haul during Brave’s opening weekend. And I’ll lay it all out there and admit that I LOVED this movie. My daughter, however, was too distraught about the heroine’s mother being turned into an enormous, snaggle-toothed, hook-clawed bear to find the event entertaining in anyway whatsoever.

What struck me most about this breathtaking bit of super-expensive computer animation were not the astonishing visual effects, but the story. The plot centers on a complex and ultimately life-affirming mother-daughter relationship. Such relationships are not just an anomaly in Disney films. They are rare in pop culture (Mamma Mia notwithstanding). Certainly, there is nothing of the sort in Shakespeare. Indeed, after the movie, I tried hard and could not come up with a single example of any mother-daughter relationship that gets meaningful airtime in a Shakespeare play.

Mothers in general are pretty scarce in Will’s plays. We have some nice father-daughter relationships (e.g., Lear-Cordelia, Prospero-Miranda). And there is the decidedly awkward, but vivid, mother-son relationship between Queen Gertrude and Prince Hamlet. And then, uhm, well… There are plenty of wives—including some very appealing ones, as I have discussed before. But mothers of daughters? Not really. Except for

--the chilly one between Lady Capulet and Juliet; and

--the fleeting one in Will’s freakishly experimental A Winter’s Tale.

I have a great affection for that wacky play (about which I wrote a Masters thesis many moons ago). But “wacky” is really quite the understatement. No one ever produces the thing because it is just so damn strange. At the outset, the thoroughly charming Queen Hermione is suddenly accused by her husband, absent any evidence whatsoever, of sleeping with his best friend while she is in the advanced stages of pregnancy with the royal couple’s second child. King Leontes becomes so consumed with his own feverish delusion about her infidelity that he plans to assassinate his best friend and imprison his pregnant wife. The friend is tipped off in time and escapes; but the queen has no such luck. The stress of prison causes her to go into labor prematurely and then lapse into a deadly coma. Meanwhile, the young prince dies, too—broken by the shock of having had his mother ripped from him by his own suddenly maniacal dad. The king then reacts to these developments by declaring that the newborn, a baby girl and his sole surviving family member, must be abandoned in the wilderness and left to die of exposure.

The subordinate charged with doing King Leontes’ bidding—a Sicilian named “Antigonus”—sails to the coast of “Bohemia”—a country that has no coast. As he carries the babe through a raging storm, Antigonus tries to comfort her by telling her about a dream he had the night before wherein her dead mother placed a curse on him for what he is about to do:

. . . thy mother
Appear'd to me last night, for ne'er was dream
So like a waking. ….
And gasping to begin some speech, her eyes
Became two spouts: the fury spent, anon
Did this break-from her: 'Good Antigonus,
Since fate, against thy better disposition,
Hath made thy person for the thrower-out
Of my poor babe, according to thine oath,
Places remote enough are in Bohemia,
There weep and leave it crying; and, for the babe
Is counted lost forever, Perdita,
I prithee, call't. For this ungentle business
Put on thee by my lord, thou ne'er shalt see
Thy wife Paulina more.'

So bizarre. Doesn’t even read like Shakespeare.

Antigonus places Baby Perdita by a craggy rock as the storm picks up. He is then the subject of one of theater’s most famous stage directions. Having left the innocent babe to die as per his king’s directive, he “exits pursued by a bear.” We are thus left with the strong impression that, in accordance with his dream, Antigonus does not endure the confrontation and live to see his own wife (or anything else) again. Immediately thereafter, Perdita is rescued by a kind, illiterate shepherd. The play abruptly turns into a romantic comedy. A character identified as “Time” skips on stage and announces that they are just going to skip ahead sixteen years. And—well, I told you it was wacky.

Maybe there is some profound synchronicity in the fact that Pixar’s Brave and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale both involve meaningful roles for bears. But it cannot be said that A Winter’s Tale depicts a complex mother-daughter relationship as Brave does. A Winter’s Tale only shows a mother-daughter relationship ending before it even begins (until it sort of begins again at play’s end when the mother is resurrected from death once the grown daughter, who did not die after all, is reunited with her chastened father after she has fallen in love with the son of her father’s banished best friend—got all that?).

Okay, it’s time to find some way to connect this to the law.

Historically, the law too has had next-to-nothing to say about mother-daughter relationships. Until relatively recently, what the law had to say about wives and mothers was pretty god-awful and mostly involved shoring up the former as property charged with delivering male children to carry on the father’s line. Eventually, the law came to privilege mothers over fathers in at least one context: fault divorce. Yet, in short order, the default rules continued to evolve such that, in divorce cases involving offspring, joint custody is now the norm in principal if not always in practice.

Could it be that Shakespeare, who was so fond of using the law and legal actions as key literary devices, did not have anything to say about mothers-and-daughters because the law did not touch on such relationships? Those relationships were just not “of interest”—whereas at least mothers, through sons, had some hope of having legal standing?? The absence of legal standing hardly means that such relationships are without significance to those who have been a party to them. Indeed, there are few types of relationships fraught with more complexity. Which is why it really is a delight to see a major motion picture fairytale that takes on one of those relationships. Instead of settling for an evil step-mother working to annihilate the daughter-figure, Brave depicts a loving, if somewhat frustrated, mom wrestling with a daughter’s legitimate—and legitimately painful—rebellion such that they learn to “bear” each other as the daughter prepares to exit childhood. And, perhaps, only by becoming the Mama Bear herself does the daughter begin to learn to forgive the mother--who turned out to be no mythic queen or goddess, but merely, though not simply, human.

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