My favorite cover song is Jeff Buckley’s cover of John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s original “Hallelujah.” Mainly because Buckley makes the song anew, transforming Cohen’s gruff dirge into a righteous and holy anthem on the pain of love.
Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, does something similar with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Her Shakespearean Fiction renews the play’s fantastical plot while breathing life into his characters.
Vintage’s Hogarth Press announced the Hogarth Shakespeare Series in 2013. With this series, they have commissioned several “acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today,” such as Winterson, Margaret Atwood, and to “re-imagine Shakespeare’s plays for a 21st-century audience” . Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first to be published in the series, most likely, because she was absolutely clear which play she would re-tell: “All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around, and that carry us around,” she has said. “I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years … And I love cover versions.”
Winterson repeatedly refers to this work as a “cover version” and as a “riff” on the play—and the musical metaphors are intrinsic to the novel, as music is a constant presence in the plot as well as in Winterson’s mesmerizing narrative voice.
Like much of her previous work, The Gap of Time contains Winterson’s poetic voice and nuanced manipulation of both time and social conceptions of love. However, with this work she also more deeply examines the power and potential of forgiveness. Early in the novel she admits that, “Human beings don’t know about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a word like tiger—there is footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is” (17). The novel explores the transgressions of characters, the easy fraudulence of human beings, and how we seek forgiveness from others and ourselves. Winterson investigates the relationship between love and time, and for her that connection is forgiveness; “forgiveness and the future are tied together in both directions” (268).
Winterson sets her version of The Winter’s Tale in the seeming present, moving the action of the play from Shakespeare’s imagined kingdom of Sicilia and Bohemia to the financial world of London and the poverty of the American south (one thinks of New Orleans when reading about “New Bohemia,” where the nights are so “hot and heavy” that “your skin is shiny and your shirt is never dry”).
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale centers on King Leontes, who viciously accuses his wife, Hermione, of committing adultery with his best friend, Polixenes. In Winterson’s novel Leontes becomes Leo, a paranoid, violent hedge fund manager, caught up corporate greed and determined to use his money to ensure his status. Hermione is re-imagined as French lounge-singer MiMi, and Polixenes is Xeno, an introverted video game designer whose uncertain sexual orientation creates much of the tension in the novel.
Yet, Gap of Time does more than merely modernize or “retell” Shakespeare’s tale. Winterson offers readers a true Shakespearean-Fiction that goes beyond dramatis personae presented in The Winter’s Tale and introduces us to them anew as fully fleshed, complex, and psychologically driven characters.
These re-visioned characters deserve our attention and elicit our sympathy, despite their flaws and transgressions. For example, Winterson crafts a sexual relationship between Leo and Xeno when they were at school, makes Leo’s raging jealousy far more credible than it is in the original play, thereby creating a more dynamic and sympathetic character out of Shakespeare’s irrational tyrant.
While the characters are updated and moved into the contemporary world, the novel closely follows the play’s plot: Leo accuses MiMi of infidelity. MiMi gives birth to a daughter, Perdita, whom Leo cannot accept as his own, so he banishes the infant to abandonment.
But more than plot, Winterson also follows Shakespeare’s own rhythm: inviting readers into the tumultuous and traumatic lives of Leo, Mimi, and Xeno; then at the climax of danger, whisking them away to warm and sunny New Bohemia to witness a grown Perdita, living a life full of love and happiness (and singing in a girl group, The Separations, which have a “Hillybilly Soul Banjo sound”). These jumps through the “gap of time” are what makes Shakespeare’s play so frustrating to some audiences, but they prove rewarding for Winterson’s readers.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, The Winter’s Tale presents gaps and spaces which readers and actors are forced to fill.
One of the most notable gaps comes in final act of the play it is revealed that Paulina has secretly kept a statue of Hermione—the likeness unmatched to the living woman. In a mystifying theatrical moment, Paulina conjures the statue to “strike all that look upon with marvel” and therefore brings the statue to life to rejoin Leontes and Perdita. This happy ending that declares everyone “precious winners all”—yet we cannot help to ask if it is true: is this new Hermione really a statue come to life? Is she just playing a statue? Has she been in wait throughout the entire plot?
Shakespeare’s play relies upon the suspension of disbelief of his theatrical audience, while Winterson’s fiction asserts a specific interpretation. In so doing, Winterson answers the questions Shakespeare creates for us; she fills in the missing pieces and furnishes readers with a specific interpretation of the actions and behaviors of all the characters.
While some may see Winterson’s novel as “closing the play down”—that is the entire point of Shakespearean-Fiction: to project possible interpretations of plots and provide potential motivations of characters found in Shakespeare’s work.
Winterson plays wonderfully with the challenging text of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in terms of plot, character, and language. The Gap of Time is both a Shakespearean homage and a work that stands beautifully on its own.
 Hogarth Shakespeare series will publish three more novels this year (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death): Howard Jacobson’s The Merchant of Venice in February, Anne Tyler’s The Taming of the Shrew in June and Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest in October. These will be joined by Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear.
THE GAP OF TIME
“The Winter’s Tale” Retold
By Jeanette Winterson
273 pp. Hogarth Shakespeare. $25.