It's gray and cold and snowy in Michigan, and whatever the Groundhog does tomorrow, it's likely to stay this way til at least the middle of March. The weather puts me in mind of Shakespeare's descriptions of winter.
Seasonal change is a fundamental metaphor in Shakespeare's poetry. He is fond of the coming of spring. Who isn't? "From you I have been absent in the spring," the poet laments in one sonnet. The Winter's Tale, despite its title, is popping with references to budding flowers and greenery, and its longest scene features a springtime sheep-shearing festival. Twelfth Night takes its title from the Eve of Epiphany, in the first week of January, but its characters, too, spend much time frolicking outside, presumably in mild climes and a gentler time of year. Where, then -- outside of a couple of titles -- is winter in Shakespeare?
We can find it here and there. Here's a verse from the song that concludes Love'sLabors Lost: "When icicles hang by the wall, / And Dick the shepherd blows his nail, / And Tom bears logs into the hall, / And milk comes home frozen in pail, / When blood is nipped, and ways be foul / Then nightly sings the staring owl: / Tu-whit, tu-whoo! A merry note, / While greasy Joan doth keel the pot." Those lines would make me shiver if I weren't shivering already.
A pastoral comedy, As You Like It, takes place in the greenwood, but contains lines that acknowledge there is such a thing as winter. Duke Senior, exiled in the forest, speaks of the "churlish chiding of the winter's wind, / Which when it bites and blows upon my body / Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say / 'This is no flattery ....'" The duke is a stoic. He puts mind over matter. He's apparently been out there in the woods a long time. This play is an instance of what we might call "hard pastoral." It's not all little lambs and daisies. The world contains mud and sheep-shit and, it appears, cold weather, against which we must brace ourselves.
What about Hamlet? Part of the problem in this play is that it's really cold out. In fact, that's how the play begins. Francisco, the sentry at Elsinore, says, "'Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart." Then Francisco leaves the stage, and we never see him again. We never know why he is sick at heart. We must conclude it's because it's so friggin' cold.
I get it.
It's clear that in Shakespeare -- as among humans generally -- winter is sad. It's something whose departure is to be celebrated, though you, the celebrant, might be a twisted and murderous villain. "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York," sneers ambitious Richard of Gloucester. On second thought, maybe Richard actually misses the winter of our discontent. He was more comfortable during the time of civil war symbolized by his "winter." But this, after all, is what's wrong with Richard. He's a cold-blooded creature of violence.
In Shakespeare we will look in vain for jolly Dickensian scenes of winter, of Mr. Pickwick skating merrily across a pond, or Bob Cratchit carrying Tiny Tim home from church on his shoulders, to the welcome of a blazing hearth. Were Shakespeare alive today, he'd be living in Florida. His characters tend to party outdoors, and they're not skating, sledding, skiing, or throwing snowballs. They're mostly just sitting around talking, in attitudes that make plain the weather is not a problem. I've mentioned Twelfth Night's mismatch of winter-festivity title and springtime-festivity action. A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place on and about May Day, another strange discrepancy, but in that play both the title and the time in which the play is set suggest warm weather. Titania and her retinue revel in the forest, and Peter Quince and his crew rehearse on the fringes of the woods. Why? Because it's nice out. When wintry climes pop up in these plays, it's usually in metaphor, to describe an undesirable situation. Twelfth Night's Sir Toby warns Sir Andrew he is in the "north" of Olivia's opinion, and will hang there "like ice on a Dutchman's beard" if he doesn't fix matters. "Some run from breaks of ice," says Measure for Measure's Escalus. I would, too (both say that, and run from them). As for winter sports, when people go sledding in Shakespeare, it's to wage war, like Hamlet's "ambitious Norway," who "smote the sledded Polacks on the ice." Winter is also humbling. "Three winters cold / Have from the forests shook three summers' pride," the poet complains in Sonnet 104. "A sad tale's best for winter," Mamillius says in The Winter's Tale. And winter's best for a sad tale.
In fact, the most cheery picture of winter we get in Shakespeare is indeed the final song of Love's Labor's Lost, whose last verse features "birds" who "sit brooding in the snow," while "Marian's nose looks red and raw" and "roasted crabs hiss in the bowl." Marian needs a Kleenex, but at least she has roasted crab-apples in a bowl. And the birds are cold, but they're "brooding": keeping the new life warm in the eggs in their nests. Shakespeare has indeed grasped what winter is: Sad. Humbling. A biting, bone-chilling time of discontent. And also a red-nosed season to eat something sweet and wait for spring to be born, so we can all go outside.
Six more weeks.