December 13, 2023

Filming Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale” on Taylor Swift’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

You know the greatest films of all time were never made…

—Taylor Swift, from folklore

Imagine a world without Taylor Swift, Steve Buscemi, and Jim Jarmusch, all born on this date, December 13, the singer songwriter in 1989, the actor in 1957, the director in 1953. Now imagine a world without The Winter’s Tale, a work that, as Harold Bloom says, “surges with Shakespeare’s full power” and might have been lost had it not been preserved 400 years ago in The First Folio seven years after the poet’s death.

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead 1998), Bloom calls The Winter’s Tale “a poem unlimited” because “we cannot come to the end of Shakespeare’s greatest plays”; there are always new perspectives opening on “fresh vistas.” A “vast pastoral epic” that is “also a psychological novel,” the play begins with the “nothing-have-these-nothings-if-this-be nothing” eruption of sexual jealousy from King Leontes of Sicily that leads to the seacoast of Bohemia, the songs of Autolycus, the romance of Perdita and Florizel, and the immortal stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Dreaming a Film

Right now I’m dreaming a film of The Winter’s Tale starring Swift and Buscemi and directed by Jarmusch, who would delight in “Exit, pursued by a bear” and see beyond the fact that Bohemia had no sea coast to the ambiance of a play of extremes where the audience gets the ending it desires even though the character who makes it possible is eaten by a bear.  It’s said that when the play was first performed at the Globe in 1611, a live bear from the nearby bear pits was in the cast, uncaged at the moment of truth and caged again offstage, assuming nothing went wrong and the actor playing the noble Antigonus was not actually mauled. For less daring productions, the bear was played by an actor in a bear skin.

Jarmusch the Magpie

What makes Jarmusch the director born to oversee a world whose deity is neither biblical nor classical but what critic G. Wilson Knight called “Life itself”? First things first, Jamusch is a magpie like the Bard. As he told a film magazine in 2004: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul.”

The catch is that 10 years ago Jarmusch believed Shakespeare’s authorship of all these “beautiful things” was a laughably improbable conspiracy theory. Yet it’s his vision of himself as a non-believer that convinces me that the director of Stranger Than Paradise (1984) would do wonders with the improbable wonders of The Winter’s Tale, having already sampled the heart of the magpie mystery in his vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), wherein John Hurt plays Christopher Marlowe as a 450-year-old vampire who claims that after faking his death in 1593, he clandestinely composed Shakespeare’s plays. Jarmusch’s anything-that-fuels-your-imagination credo is also at play in, among other films, Down by Law (1986), which features Roberto Benigni as a charming clown with a zest for life who would be at home in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In his version of Shakespeare’s Dream, Jarmusch moves the enchanted forest outside Athens to a rundown Memphis hotel for Mystery Train (1989), where his Oberon is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who oversees a night world of lovers and clowns haunted by the ghost of Elvis Presley.

Being Buscemi

If the real Shakespeare had seen the real Steve Buscemi as the crabby, hapless, everything-happens-to-me Charlie the misbegotten, star-crossed barber in Mystery Train, he’d have cast him on the spot as Bottom, the weaver turned donkey. And magpie Jarmusch must know that no other actor on the planet but this living embodiment of the human comedy could play the part of a hero who flees the scene pursued by a bear. Otherwise Buscemi would make a great Autolycus, the pickpocket ballad singer, if not for the doomy pathos that makes him a better fit for Antigonus, who delivers the infant Perdita safely to the seacoast of Bohemia only to be devoured by that hungry bear. Fans of  Buscemi will flash on the dweeby mobster in the Coen brothers’ Fargo who ends up being fed into a wood chipper by his dour colleague, only to be reborn a few years later as Donny in the Coens’ Big Lebowski, which ends as “Shut-up-Donny’s” remains are blown back into the faces of his bowling partners Walter and The Dude.

And Jarmusch would have recognized a kindred spirit in Buscemi’s direction of the legendary Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos, a winter’s tale of mob capos Christopher and Paulie and a wounded-bear-Russian commando freezing, starving, and adrift in New Jersey’s vast, haunted wasteland. In my Jarmuschian fantasy of The Winter’s Tale, Buscemi could actually play all the male roles, including King Leontes whose outbursts of jealous lunacy recall Buscemi’s eye-popping rages as the embattled director in Living in Oblivion. But in the end I prefer him as the shepherd Clown victimized by Autolycus, his most daunting task to describe in his reedy voice the Shakespearean black comedy of the offstage storm devouring a ship while the bear is devouring Antigonus, “to see how the bear tore out his shoulder-bone, how he cried to me for help, and said his name was Antigonus, a nobleman. But to make an end of the ship, to see how the sea flap-dragon’d it: but first, how the poor souls roared, and the sea mocked them, and how the poor gentleman roared, and the bear mocked him, both roaring louder than the sea or weather.”

Shakespeare’s Perdita

The glory of this imaginary Winter’s Tale would be TIME’s Person of the Year Taylor Swift. She could sing songs from her pandemic album folklore as Perdita or she could sing in drag as Autolycus, composing her own settings of Shakespeare’s ballads. Whoever, he, they or it Shakespeare may be, Harold Bloom’s Bard sees Perdita as a pastoral poet in “the astonishing fusion of art and nature” accomplished in Act 4, scene 4, where she not only “speaks for Shakespeare” of “daffodils that come before the swallow dares and take the winds of March with beauty” but has “a hardy temperament” that transcends the role of the cast-off, grown-up daughter of crazed King Leontes of Sicily and “prophesies the naturalistic sensibility of John Keats” in this poem for her lover, Florizel, son of the equally crazed Polixenes, King of Bohemia.

Perdita in a Cardigan

During multiple viewings of the video adventure accompanying Taylor Swift’s lovely composition “Cardigan,” I’ve imagined her auditioning for the part of Perdita in Act 4’s Bohemian pastoral, where Florizel describes her face to face in what Harold Bloom calls “the finest tribute any man in Shakespeare makes to his beloved” —

When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever. When you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so; and, for the ord’ring your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance,
I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens

The “Cardigan” video, “so singular in each particular,” crowns the “present deeds” Swift achieved during a devastating pandemic, so that when she sings, the whole world “would have her do it ever” because “all her acts are queens.” When you’re watching the video, the lines on “the wave of the sea” summoned for Perdita’s dancing make a powerful contrast to Swift’s sudden descent from pure pastoral enchantment into a stormy sea, not to dance but to swim for her life and for her music, lost until the surging tempest brings her wave-borne piano close enough to cling to, her face pressed to the keyboard, she bravely singing her refrain “when you are young they assume you know nothing” as she and the piano are swept farther and farther into the dark distance, more and more diminished in size, so small they seem headed for the very mouth of the storm, as if the sea were about to swallow them as the sea swallows the ship off the seacoast of Shakespeare’s Bohemia. The image of a girl in a nightdress clinging with both hands to her musical salvation evokes not only the mission of the singer-songwriter and the plight of the world in the grip of a plague, but the power of the playwright poet’s transcendence of pastoral romance. In Bloom’s words, “Shakespeare writes no genre: extravagance, a wandering beyond limits, is his truest mode. He will not be confined by any convention or by any intellectual enterprise.”

The same terms could apply to Taylor Swift’s ambitions for folklore, which she composed in lockdown, co-writing “Cardigan” with Aaron Dessner and directing the video that begins in the wonderland she enters by lifting the lid of her piano and descending to a moss-covered piano perched atop a waterfall. She’s barefoot and bare-shouldered wearing an old-fashioned nightdress that accords with her reference to “Peter losing Wendy” when she’s struggling in the sea. The profile shots when she’s peering down into the enchanted piano suggest the glowing essence of wonderstruck girlhood, the golden light reflecting back on her face; one reviewer of the video compared her “new look to that of a classic English rose.” In fact, the bonus track, “The Lakes,” refers to Swift’s semi-retirement in England’s Lake District, also mentioned in “Invisible String,” where she imagines a red rose “with no one around to tweet it” when referring to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. As she puts it in her Instagram on the album’s conception: “In isolation, my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness. Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory. I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve. Now it’s up to you to pass them down.”