I have mentioned Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale before, a play that used to obsess me. This week I was thinking about it again. Particularly, I thought about it during an NPR broadcast about the resurrection of Grand Central Station. When I lived in New York City for a few fleeting years back in the early ‘80s, Grand Central was a bit of hellhole. Like 42nd Street, which was full of peep shows, and Bryant Park, which was affectionately known as “Needle Park,” Grand Central was then yet another old midtown institution that had fallen on hard times.
Today Grand Central is breathtakingly beautiful. It has been renovated to recapture its lost grandeur—starting with the epic cerulean blue painting of the constellations that adorns the main interior dome; and many new features have been added—like high-end retail shops, classy restaurants, a local artisans market, and other bits of opulence.
The resurrection depicted in The Winter’s Tale is a bit more like what has happened down in Galveston, Texas, a place I recently visited. Galveston is no longer the trashy wasteland of my childhood. Some of its truly grand spaces from the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been restored. Carnival and other cruise lines are now making regular use of its harbor. And many of the Victorian houses—among the biggest and grandest collection of such in the United States—have been brought back from the brink. But if you drive down the old boulevard, Broadway, that divides the island in two, among the few spectacular domestic palaces from Galveston’s initial glory days, one finds mostly fried chicken joints, pawn shops, auto part stores, and signs of urban blight. In other words, Galveston has fought back quite a bit; but the toll taken by Time is still palpable, irreversible.
The moral of Galveston and The Winter’s Tale should, I think, be the moral of any lawsuit. Even if you “win,” you do not really undo or make up for what has been lost. A court’s judgment cannot bring back lost time; money damages never compensate for the dead or missing body parts or even broken business relationships. Time does not really heal all most of the time. Time usually comes out ahead. In The Winter’s Tale “Time,” literally, skips on stage and announces that sixteen years have passed; then a dark tragedy, which had seemed to culminate in the senseless deaths of the Queen, her young son, her new-born daughter, and one of the King’s most loyal servants—all because of the King’s irrational jealousy—suddenly turns into a pastoral comedy. Then the climax of the comedy is the quasi-resurrection of the Queen as a statute that seems to come to life and the revelation that the sixteen-year-old “Perdita” is the King and Queen’s long-lost infant daughter, now all grown up. But no one mentions the dead son. The King had been deceived into thinking that the Queen was dead; and the daughter had survived without anyone realizing it—miraculously spared when a shepherd rescued her abandoned little self during a terrible storm. This is great news—that Perdita and Hermione live! But no one mentions the boy, the dead son. I don’t think Shakespeare, however, meant for us to forget about him. After all, he is the one who speaks the line that gives the play its name—in the last moment when we see him alive in this adorable little scene with his mother, Hermione, before she is sent off to prison by her own husband:
. . . . Come, sir, now
I am for you again: pray you, sit by us,
And tell 's a tale.
Merry or sad shall't be?
As merry as you will.
A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
Let's have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down: come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you're powerful at it.
There was a man--
Nay, come, sit down; then on.
Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly;
Yond crickets shall not hear it.
Come on, then,
And give't me in mine ear.
Alas, Mamillius’s effort to tell his story is interrupted by black-booted guards. They tear his mother away from him; he then dies of a broken heart. Sixteen years later, spring comes again—Mamillius’s mother and the sister he never had a chance to know are restored to their rightful place. But in the spring, with all its exuberant promise, one has to find a way to remember little Mamillius, who is truly gone for good. Spring masks Time’s brutality. Time, like the law, can only do so much to ease the pain associated with real loss—even when “justice” seems to prevail.