Star Trek fans may be amused to note that the “redshirt“, while made famous by the TV series, was actually invented by Shakespeare. In The Winter’s Tale, a character is sent off to do his commander’s bidding on a foreign shore, and is promptly consumed by the native fauna and never seen again, just like so many disposable crewmen in the science fiction series.
The Winter’s Tale is one of those odd romances Shakespeare wrote at the end of his career, along with Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest. in which characters are flatter and more archetypal, magic and/or the gods play a key role, and there are distinct fairy-taie elements to the story.
In this one, King Leontes accuses his wife Hermione of sleeping with his best friend King Polixenes, and attempts to kill the latter and puts the former on trial. Polixenes escapes with the help of a courtier named Camillo, but poor Queen Hermione dies shortly after giving birth to a girl. Leontes sends Antigonus (our redshirt) to a remote shore to expose the girl child. (The stage direction “Exit, pursued by a beare” describes Anitgonus’s demise, and is probably the most famous stage direction Shakespeare wrote – not that he wrote that many). Instead of dying, the baby is found and raised by a local shepherd.
Fast forward sixteen years and Prince Florizel has fallen in love with the teen-aged girl (now named Perdita) only to discover that his father (Polixenes) won’t have his royal blood mixed with the (supposed) lowly blood of a shepherd. Camillo intervenes again, and sends the two lovers as an emissary to King Leontes, who’s been pining away wanting to be forgiven by his old friend after the Oracle of Delphi told him he was wrong about Hermione. Camillo follows with Polixenes, everyone meets up, the secret identities are exposed to much relief and everyone is happy. In a final deus ex machina, one of Hermione’s ladies-in-waiting shows Leontes a statue commissioned of his former wife; he kisses it, and it comes to life as his unjustly accused queen.
Dramaturgically, the big reunion scene, where Leontes finds out that Perdita is his daughter is very odd because it doesn’t happen in front of the audience. Instead, two courtiers tell us what’s happened while all the other characters are off stage. This violates the “show don’t tell rule”, and is a big no-no in dramatic writing. Presumably Shakespeare did this so he’d have time for the setting up the big statue scene at the end, but it’s a curious quirk.
I should also mention that Exit, Pursued by a Bear, is the title of a very funny play but one of my writing tutors, the lovely and talented Lauren Gunderson.