Friday, February 12, 2016

The Coast of Bohemia

Joseph Wright of Derby, Antigonus in the Storm, 1790-2

On Tuesday we went to see The Winter's Tale at the atmospheric, candlelit Sam Wannamaker Theatre.  I am sure I was not alone in looking forward to seeing how the director dealt with Shakespeare's most famous stage direction: 'Exit, pursued by a bear'.  When it came, this scene played out in near darkness, rightly leaving a lot to the imagination.  This worked well not just because it must be hard to convincingly stage an unexpected bear attack, but because the pursuit takes place on the non-existent desert shoreline of Bohemia.  Perhaps we are not meant to try too hard to picture the surrounding landscape.  Nevertheless, I love the way Joseph Wright has endeavoured to imagine this scene as it might actually have occurred, depicting the rocky beach where Antigonus was pursued and met his grisly end, 'torn to pieces with a bear.'  This painting is in Ontario where it has been shown alongside sound machines traditionally used in 18th century theatre productions, one imitating the wind (canvas passing over wood) and the other rain (beads rotating in a drum.)

Much speculation has gone into Shakespeare's setting for this part of the play.  Some historians have thought he cannot have meant Bohemia and was referring to somewhere else - Apulia, perhaps, or Bithynia.  Others have pointed to the play's source (Robert Green's pastoral Pandosto) which also refers to Bohemia's coast, or have explained it in terms of the political advantage in siting the action in the country of an ally of James I.  But pastoral has never been at all realistic and Shakespeare probably felt as free to imagine 'Bohemia' as his contemporaries would Arcadia.  This is not the only point in the play where reality and fantasy fuse: the actual Renaissance artist Giulio Romano is referred to as sculptor of the statue of Hermione that miraculously comes to life (Giulio was a painter, not a sculptor).  Shakespeare's Bohemia reminds me of another mythical place that I wrote about here before, Kafka's Amerika.  Kafka created a version of that distant continent that was a kind of 'exploded Bohemia'; Shakespeare's coast of Bohemia is similarly a country drawn out of dreams and desires (Kafka on the shore, one might say).

Gelett Burgess, A Map of Bohemia, 1896

In A Time of Gifts the young Patrick Leigh Fermor, walking alone along the Danube near the southern edge of old Bohemia, thinking of The Winter's Tale, dreams up his own theory.  'As I marched downstream, inspiration struck.  'Coast' must originally have meant 'side' or 'edge', not necessarily connected with 'sea' at all!  Perhaps this very path was the Coast of Bohemia - at any rate the Coast of the Forest: near enough!'  Remembering the plot, he imagines a route for Antigonus: sailing from Sicilia to Trieste, overland to Vienna and then up the Danube. 'The ship, running into terrible storms, probably among the Grein whirlpools, founders.  Antigonous, the old courtier, scrambles ashore, - perhaps just under the castle of Werfenstein!' The bear would have emerged from the forest and Act IV's sheep-shearing festivities might have been celebrated in one of the nearby farms.  It is a wonderful moment of creative excitement... followed by crushing disappointment when he arrives at Vienna, checks the play text and realises that Shakespeare's didn't actually use the word coast at all:

SCENE III. Bohemia. A desert country near the sea.  

Later, unable to give up on his speculations, Leigh Fermor has a second moment of jubilation after an afternoon spent in his host's library searching for connections between England and Bohemia.  'The windows of the flat looked down on the whole of Prague.  Towards the end of my search, the pale sun had set among those silver and purplish clouds and at lighting-up time all the lamps of the city had leapt simultaneously to life.'  His host suddenly has an idea and takes down a history book.  It explains that Bohemia did briefly have a coastline, when its territory extended to Dalmatia.  Celebratory drinks are poured in a mood both victorious and valedictory, as the young literary detective is set to leave Prague and head off again on his slow journey to Istanbul.  Years later, writing the book, Leigh Fermor looks back on all this with the knowledge that Shakespeare's comedies always have an imaginary topography...
'Woods and parkland on the Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire borders, that is; flocks and fairs and a palace or two, a mixture of Cockayne- and Cloud-Cuckoo- and fairyland with stage mountains rather taller than the Cotswolds and full of torrents and caves, haunted by bears and washed, if need be, by an ocean teeming with foundering ships and mermaids.'

1 comment:

Huw said...


I went to see this production last night and thought it wonderful. The Sam Wannamaker theatre was atmospheric and the cast excellent: Leontes, Paulina and Autolycus especially.

I didn't find the bear or the coast of Bohemia problematic but did think the statue scene was a little ripe (in the play, not this production). Having read the play the previous week it was interesting to see what the audience laughed at - Paulina's description of herself as a 'turtle', when this meant a turtle dove - and also what they didn't pick up on. Overall so well done though, especially the singing and dancing, which isn't what I expected when I went in!

Thank you for your interesting and well written post. I can imagine PLF cogitating on the Bohemian coast as he walked.