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Jeanette Winterson: The Gap of Time

This is the first in a series of books which will see Shakespeare’s plays reimagined by some of today’s bestselling and most celebrated writers. The books will be true to the spirit of the original plays, while giving authors an exciting opportunity to do something new. Jeanette Winterson has chosen The Winter’s Tale. I have seen this play twice and I must say it is certainly not my favourite Shakespeare play. In this interview, Winterson states that she was attracted to the play because it features an abandoned baby and she was, herself, abandoned. It also has the advantage of being less well-known and therefore there are likely to fewer complaints about messing around with a famous text. Indeed, for most people, it is famous only for its well-known stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear.

There are two questions to ask initially. Is this a Jeanette Winterson novel, simply using the plot of a Shakespeare play or is it a novelisation of a Shakespeare play, which happens to have been written by Jeanette Winterson? The answer is neither. If I had read, without knowing that Jeanette Winterson had written it, I doubt that I would have guessed that she was the author. I certainly would not have guessed it was a rewriting of The Winter’s Tale as I might have guessed the rewriting of some of the better-known plays.

The book helpfully starts with a summary of the play (which you can also read here). We later learn that the setting is in the UK and the US around 2016-2017. Winterson, in fact, opens the book in Act III in the US (a place called New Bohemia which seems to be New Orleans or something like it) when, in Shakespeare’s version, Antigonus is depositing the baby Perdita on the Bohemian coast (Bohemia, of course, does not have a coast in real life), to be picked up by Shepherd and his son, Clown. In this book, the Shepherd and his son, Clown, are called Shep and Clo. They appear to be African-Americans, with Shep having worked that evening at a piano bar, while Clo picks him up after work. They find Perdita because she has been placed in a Baby Hatch (a medieval contraption where unwanted babies can be deposited at a hospital or charity). She has clearly been put there by a man who has been beaten to death by some thugs (the Exit, pursued by a bear bit), with Shep and Clo arriving too late to save him. He, Antigonus in the play, turns out to be a Mexican gardener, called Tony González.

We move to London where we learn that Leontes is called Leo. He used to be a banker (chosen, as Winterson says, because a banker is an alpha male like a king) but was fired when the risks he took cost the bank some money. After a period of heavy drinking, followed by psychoanalysis, he has set up a hedge fund and is doing very well. His best friend is Xeno (i.e. Shakespeare’s Polixenes) whom Leo believes is having an affair with his wife, MiMi, an actress and singer (who has a Wikipedia entry, which we are given in full). He has a webcam put in her bedroom so he can watch her while he is at work. Xeno is a videogame designer though the original videogame (called The Gap of Time) he is designing seems very conventional. But Leo is insanely jealous and, indeed, Winterson lays this on with Shakespearean sound and fury. He thinks that Xeno and MiMi are having an affair (of course, they are not) and thinks that MiMi is pregnant with Xeno’s baby when, of course, it is Leo’s baby. MiMi is aided by Pauline, who in this book has become a Jewish lesbian partner in the hedge fund.

Back in the USA, we meet Autolycus, a Shakespeare’s loveable rogue, who in this book is a used car dealer (Autos Like Us – get it?) where Zel (Florizel) is working as a mechanic. Meanwhile Perdita has grown up and is running things, particularly her not very bright foster brother, Clo (whom Winterson mocks). Of course, Shakespeare leaves one problem – Hermione (MiMi in this book) dies in the play and is brought to life, which Winterson manages to get round, though Milo, as in Shakespeare, has to pay the price.

Does it work? The short answer is no. Winterson is highly inventive with the play, cleverly changing and updating the characters and the events. However, as she has said, she wants to include some of the back stories and this she does. But Leo’s jealousy, lasting for pages, and the happy home life of Shep, Clo and Perdita do not really add a great deal to Shakespeare. It is not helped by the fact that, while Winterson makes clear why she chose this play – the theme of the abandoned baby – it is not one of Shakespeare’s best. Winterson provides an interesting afterword, in which she says The three possible endings are: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Shakespeare knew all about revenge and tragedy. Towards the end of his working life he became interested in forgiveness—or rather, he became interested again in forgiveness. Unlike many of his plays, this one does have a more or less happy ending and the idea that he became more inclined towards forgiveness in his later life is interesting, though, with the exception of The Tempest, his later plays tend to be less interesting. So, short conclusion – interesting attempt, probably worth reading but certainly not one of Winterson’s – or Shakespeare’s – best.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Hogarth Shakespeare