“As we are mock’d with art…” says Leontes when he stares at the statue of his supposedly dead wife that looks so real in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. But what does it mean, exactly? There are enough academic explanations around this quote in books and online, too, so these lines are nothing more than a thought and not the last word on the matter, but also not necessarily wrong, because I agree to what someone once told me that impressions something or someone leaves have a reason for being so.
In relation to Leontes’ quote, the first thing I asked myself was whether art was mocking him because it was pushing his sensibility to engage with art, or perhaps even testing his faith around supernatural events – Hermione’s questionable resurrection. Had Hermione’s statue not interacted with Perdita after touching Leontes’ hands, I would bring to debate that he had imagined her alive because he felt guilty of what he did to her, desperately looking for redemption. But according to my understanding of the play, Hermione was alive all those years. The time had come for her to forgive Leontes and start a new chapter in her life.
Despite A Winter’s Tale happy ending (not sad, the way one would expect from a random winter tale) when the matter of the fact was that Hermione had only taught Leontes a lesson through her fake death and Perdita, the lost one, had been miraculously found and brought back to her biological family, this play leaves many unanswered questions from different points of view. For instance: How does art/illusionism and reality combine? Or should they combine in the first place?
Back in Shakespeare’s time theatregoers were accustomed to stage illusionism, to meta-theatre, but the puritans were harshly against it like they were against witchcraft, because they called any work of illusionism – for its deceiving nature – the “work of the Satan”, according to Gurr in The Shakespearean Stage. But before the work is criticised as illusion/art, it has to acknowledged as such.
Audiences knew that when watching Henry V, for example, the stage was not the battlefield of Agincourt and thus they accepted to play along, imagining that it was France. They were given the choice to believe it, and they did. When watching The Tempest, The Winter’s Tales, Anthony and Cleopatra and so many other works by Shakespeare or by any playwright at the Globe, Blackfriars or any other theatre back then and today, the audience complies in being mocked with art. And to be mocked with art one doesn’t have only to refer to theatre – as Hermione’s statue reminds us. A visit to any gallery will proof that regardless of a painting or sculpture be realistic or even abstract, it can bring those watching to ask themselves: how is this or that possible? How can only I see an angel amidst colour chaos in an abstract painting, or how can only I feel the soul of a sculpture only by looking at its eyes? Am I crazy? My guess is that all these questions that art patrons ask themselves or when they decide to play along in the game of imagination has a relation with personal beliefs, so that such points of view can have a meaning. Art brings Man back to themselves.
I asked earlier whether art should have a relation to reality and now I understand that it has to. No matter how abstract or unusual, art is the transformation of nature and of people. Even a canvas only painted in white is the transformation of something, having a meaning for something. I could observe it and interpret it as a reminder that anything is possible, when the white canvas is waiting for my action to fill it with colours and forms, but certainly someone else will interpret it differently.
Leontes felt mocked with art probably because he never philosophised on how real art can be, and how the understanding and even meaning of art has to do with how the viewer sees and feels about it. Being so, illusionism is still reality, because although we have to imagine the battlefields of Agincourt, the imagination is real to us, regardless of how real it is portrayed if compared to the real one.