It is a time of dreariness and decay. I’m speaking of winter, of course. I always think, when thinking of winter, of the opening lines of Richard III. Richard, the king-to-be, is musing upon the ascension to the throne of his brother, Edward IV. He says, in lines that are burned into the deep pathways of our neural networks, “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”
These opening lines of the play are actually quite hopeful. The first word, “now,” looks forward to the “made” in the next line. Shakespeare, in that clever way of his, makes the language fresh by making you pay attention. The “now” is a placeholder for the thought to come. It sets the scenario, grabs us with its immediacy, and lingers there for a moment while we wait for the thought to develop. The thought develops into the idea that “now” is being “made glorious summer” by this son of York. The winter of our discontent is in the past. “Now” is, in fact, a time of glorious summer, a renewal brought about by the reign of Edward IV, son of York.
But the phrase “now is the winter of our discontent” is so powerful that it often gets picked out of context and made to stand alone. When you do that, it seems as if “now” is the winter of our discontent. The winter of our discontent isn’t going anywhere. It is simply the way it is right now.
Sometimes when I hear that line I even hear it as a statement not about “now” but about winter. If you think of it as a winter statement, you can almost replace the word “now” with the word “winter,” i.e., “winter is the winter of our discontent.” I don’t take this as a simple tautology, “winter is winter,” but the equation of winter the season with winter the mood. Winter, the season, is a time of general discontent. Winter, in its dreariness and decay, is the season of wanting things to be otherwise.
And yet, some part of us wants winter, some part of us glories in the winteriness of winter. Some part of me does, anyway. I was raised in the perennially pleasant environs of Los Angeles but moved, at 18 years of age, to New York City, where I’ve been ever since. I did it partly for the weather. I wanted to experience the seasons. I remember telling people that explicitly, even as a young man. I felt that I was going to gain something important in experiencing a genuine cycle of four seasons. I don’t think I knew what I meant by that. But I used to love it when it would rain in Los Angeles. I felt that the city was made suddenly reflective by the rain, that it was being coated in another, deeper layer of what it was by the falling moisture. It made me sad and that pleased me. It was a moment of relief from what I took to be the exhausting project of pretending to be happy all of the time. That is probably an unfair and clichéd accusation against the City of Angels. Still, I felt that way. I loved the rain in Los Angeles and the rain pushed me east. The rain gave me a taste for winter and I went looking for the season of our discontent. I found it, too.
Is there, then, a contentedness in our discontent? There didn’t seem to be any for our eloquent hunchback. The second brilliant thing about Shakespeare’s opening lines for Richard III is that they set up the theme of the whole play. Although, grammatically speaking, it is the case that Richard is claiming that the winter of our discontent is over and that glorious summer has been achieved, he doesn’t really feel that way. In a way, the decontextualized and incorrect interpretation of the first line of the play is the deeper one. Now is the winter of Richard’s discontent. He is not, in fact, happy about his brother’s ascension to the throne. It vexes and tantalizes him. In fact, Richard wants to be king. He will do anything to achieve that desire, driven as he is by the feeling that his malformations of body have made him a wretched and despised figure. His revenge upon the world will be to rule it. He causes his own brother to be murdered. He litters the play with deceit and treachery. He kills and kills to have his way. In the end, pitifully, he would exchange his entire kingdom for a horse, for the chance to flee, for an escape from the discontent that has driven him ever onward into the pit of doom.
Petulant and resentful, Richard lets loose with one of the more pointed explanations of his devilish ways to be found in the literary record. He says:
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
I understand Richard’s hatred of “the idle pleasures of these days.” They do not seem real to him, those idle pleasures. He feels that the idle pleasures of others mock his own suffering. The lingering discontent in all experience makes him crazy with rage. He would rather destroy the possibility of happiness for everyone than simply let things be. His own deformities have given him a glimpse of something intolerable at the heart of all experience, a shadow that lingers at the edge of the light.
Maybe it is death that tortures him, I don’t know. Maybe the discontent that comes to us in winter is in the realization that every moment of joy is but a brief resting point on the greater journey toward oblivion. Or maybe that’s too grand. Maybe the discontent in winter is the discontent about the fleeting quality of the present. Nothing holds still for very long, after all. Nothing that feels good stays good for very long. Even in Los Angeles, the perfect sunny day turns to night; a feeling of contentment is replaced by anxiety somewhere along the line.
If there is a greater contentment to be found, then, it is in the contentment of discontent. It is in the willingness, maybe, to have your winters and to have them in their dreariness and decay, neither surrendering completely to that discontent nor pretending to solve it. The cycle of the seasons is, after all, utterly pointless. It just goes round and round. I do not think any meaning can be found in stepping outside that cycle to explain its purpose from afar. Winter can’t be made glorious, can’t be transformed into endless summer.
I drove on an empty road just south of Albany the other day early in the morning. Moisture had frozen on the barren branches of the trees. My feet were cold and the joints in the upper part of my legs were throbbing painfully. I find that happening sometimes in the winter as I get older. A wind blew up from the Hudson River and the flaky slivers of ice were dislodged from the tops of the trees. The slivers fell to the ground slowly, twirling strings of tinsel glinting in the sun. Sharp daggers of light falling across the blue and the white. I was hungry and my jaw muscles were tensed from a night of grinding my teeth through unremembered dreams. I don’t think I will ever forget the icy tinsel in the morning light during this, the 38th winter of my discontent. • 19 January 2011