Subscribe to Bitch—an award-winning, 80 page feminist magazine. Image Map

Stage Left: "What Did I Clearly Say?": Transgression and Punishment in INTO THE WOODS

Stephen Sondheim's 1988 musical, Into the Woods, was based on fairy tales (mostly Grimm, with the exception of Jack and the Beanstalk [English] and an original story about a baker and his wife, designed to tie together the disparate plot threads). And like many fairy tales, at least in the retellings we recognize today, a very strong theme of the musical is morality—actions that are right and actions that are wrong; rewards for the former and punishment for the latter. What's interesting, though, and what I want to look at today, is what kinds of actions are punished and, in particular, how. List time. Please note there will be spoilers for the musical throughout the rest of this post.

The Baker's Father:
Transgression: Stealing beans from the Witch's garden.
Punishment: Sterility for himself and his son the Baker; removal of his daughter into the custody of the Witch; death of his wife (all of which happens before the show actually begins).

The Witch:
Transgression: Allowing the beans to be stolen.
Punishment: Old age and loss of beauty.

Rapunzel:
Transgression: Disobedience; interaction with the outside world.
Punishment: Exile to the desert with the twins she has borne. Insanity.

Rapunzel's Prince:
Transgression: Entering Rapunzel's tower.
Punishment: Blinding.

Cinderella's Stepsisters:
Transgression: Cruelty; wanting to marry the prince.
Punishment: Blindness and mobility impairment (they each cut off a portion of one foot. They walk with canes for the remainder of the show).

Jack's Mother:
Transgression: Protecting her son from the Giantess.
Punishment: Death at the hands of the Prince's Stewart.

The Baker's Wife:
Transgression: Deceit, infidelity.
Punishment: Death at the hand (well, foot) of the Giantess.

Jack:
Transgression: Repeated theft, murder.
Punishment: Just kidding, Jack gets away scot-free.

--

This is, as you can see, an extensive list. What I'm interested in is looking at it and seeing what patterns can be extracted. And the patterns that exist are, well, troubling from a social-justice perspective.

Firstly, notice the disproportionate number of women who receive narrative retribution. By my count, there are six (two presented as something of a unit), as opposed to two men. In general in popular culture, women seem to have a lower threshold for what constitutes an "unacceptable act." Notice how the Witch is punished for letting someone steal her beans, or the Baker's Wife for infidelity—while her partner in the act, Cinderella's Prince, escapes unscathed. And Jack, who arguably commits more heinous acts than anyone in the show (he, the Wolf, and the Steward are the only characters* seen to kill people) receives no retribution for anything he has done at all, where his Mother is killed just for protecting him.

Secondly, and possibly even more obviously, there is the recurring theme of disability—and, in particular, blindness—as punishment for wrongdoing. There is a long cultural history of blinding as punishment, and its uncritical reproduction always raises red flags for me. The sisters' blindness is even explicitly tied to blindness-as-a-metaphor, another harmful trope, with the lines "we were blind/then we went into the woods and now we're really blind." Beyond blindness (which also is inflicted on Rapunzel's Prince, though later cured, presumably because he is not "really" "immoral"), Rapunzel develops a cartoonish sort of hysterical insanity as direct fallout from her disobeying her "mother," and the Witch's return to youth and beauty midway through the narrative comes with a corresponding loss of her magical power, an event that can certainly be viewed as disabling.

I see nothing wrong with narratives where characters' actions have repercussions. In fact, I'd argue that it's become an essential element of fairy tales as we now understand them—the genre as presented today always seems to have very strong moralistic framing. The problem is with who is punished, and why. Where conventionally immoral actions are frequently praised in male characters such as Jack, they are punished in women. And punishments very frequently seem to involve consigning the offender to becoming part of a marginalized group, whether by giving them a disability, aging them, or (in one of the most memorable and strangest elements of a different show, Finian's Rainbow) turning them into someone of a different race. And I think that, even as we enjoy these narratives, it's important to interrogate why they are structured the way they are.

--

*The Giantess is also responsible for several deaths, but her character status is a little more dubious. She is never seen on stage, only heard as a disembodied voice.

Enjoy reading this article? Good news! Our quarterly magazine, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, is packed with 80+ pages of feminist analysis, reviews, illustrations, and more. Subscribe today!

Subscribe to Bitch

Comments

14 comments have been made. Post a comment.

So interesting!

I've loved Into the Woods for years and never really considered this side of it! It's so true that the Princes get away scot-free, but I wonder if it's meant to make a point about the way men behave and get treated in society. I may be stretching, it may not be what Sondheim intended, but just consider it. After all, based on the 1988 DVD I've seen, we're certainly meant to laugh at the Princes. They are selfish, arrogant, and completely unconcerned with the feelings of others. I find myself constantly laughing while rolling my eyes at them.
Jack's escape from punishment is a little more difficult. After all, as an audience we're supposed to ultimately like him, and therefor that means that we can excuse his crimes? I don't know. I know as an audience member purely enjoying the show, I was happy when he killed the Giantess because she was certainly hurting innocent people, and I never really thought much about his thievery. In the song "Your Fault," it's acknowledged that his stealing had definite consequences, though it's jumbled in with all the actions of others that also had consequences.
AND, I just thought of this, it's interesting that the Witch is punished precisely because she wants, and expects, Jack to own up to his crimes. She's operating with the idea that fair is fair: the Giantess is after only him, and he should pay for his crimes to prevent loss of more innocent lives. Yet we are supposed to see HER as heinous for wanting to turn him in.
This is so much to think about! Thanks for this post!

As much as I love Sondheim's

As much as I love Sondheim's writing, I'm disinclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on the matter of the princes. That we're supposed to see them as buffoons, certainly. As broader social commentary? I would like to think so, but as recently as, uh, this Monday, Sondheim was quoted in an interview as saying “I don’t believe shows have anything to say, and as soon as I hear the word relevant, I leave the room”. So I don't really know.

It's certainly true that none of the characters come away clean, really. I admit I cherry-picked the examples that read most obviously to me as being *punishment*, rather than just random bad things happening, and for which I felt this reading was condoned by the narrative.

I wouldn't put too much faith

I wouldn't put too much faith in that one quote. I think it's more an irritated response to a kind of rude question--"what does this now-40-year-old memorial have to say to the iTunes age?"--than a true representation of his philosophy. Most of his shows make strong points.

Very interesting post! I've

Very interesting post! I've always interpreted the plot points above somewhat differently. To me (and from what I glean from Sondheim and Lapine's interviews re: ITW over the years), the musical has two main themes:

1. Children punished for their parents' misdeeds, and
2. The ultimately nebulous nature of good and evil.

In addition to "Children will Listen," the song "No More" seems to highlight these perspectives, with the Narrator condemning the Baker's Father and the Baker for "running away" from their issues to let others suffer. I've always seen "Last Midnight" as continuing this theme (and the second) for the witch. In that song, she chastises Cinderella, Jack, the Baker and Red Riding Hood for being "Liars and theives, like [the Baker's] father," while judging her for being "the witch." I think that Jack and the Baker are "punished" by being left alone at the end to finally face the consequences of their actions...

I've always seen Jack's

I've always seen Jack's punishment as a little more subtle than anyone else's. Other characters have obvious punishments, it's true, but naive Jack's punishment is that he has to now figure out how to live in a world without anyone taking care of him. More than that, Jack has to live with what he's done and all the pain he's caused and hasn't REALLY been punished. Everybody else gets a smackdown, but Jack pays for his crimes with his MOTHER'S life. I've always really felt that the song "No One Is Alone" was meant to reassure Jack, but it didn't work.

But that's theater for you!

(Into The Woods is totally my favorite show. I did "Moments in the Woods" for a recital once.)

Moments in the Woods

I love MitW so much. I really want to find sheet music for it at some point. As far as Jack...yeah, I can definitely read it the way you are doing. And "No One is Alone" is as much a warning as a reassurance, in a lot of ways. But it's far less explicit than every other punishment in the piece.

Your comment about Jack being

Your comment about Jack being punished with his mother's death reminds me a bit of the manpain article I read recently (which I actually found out about from this very site!) - why does Jack's punishment have to come at the expense (and loss of life) of another (female) character? Her loss becomes his loss, and his pain is so great, even though it was someone else, his mother, who actually bore most of the loss itself. Hmmm.

Mother cannot guide you

This is not just any other female character. This is about mothers. I think the whole show is about mothers, really - bad mothers, good mothers, dead mothers...

I also think that many of the deaths are extremely exaggerated. I'm sorry but how could Sondheim not be making a point by killing the Baker's Wife after the one time she slipped up? He's clearly contrasting her punishment with the Prince's (nonexistent). Whether he wants to admit it or not, he is definitely commenting on female roles in fairy tales (with the witch's punishment as well).

Two more things: you forgot the narrator, who's killed because he doesn't belong. And Cinderella, who is selfish and perpetually unhappy. Her burden is to BE a mother.

Anyway, definitely fun to think/talk about. Thanks!

Into The Woods is not about

Into The Woods is not about mothers-- it's about parents. The point of killing the Baker's Wife is to make the Baker a single father. If the Baker's Wife lives, the Baker does not become a single father as his own father was; he does not abandon his son as his own father did; and the Baker does not remedy his father's actions by returning to his own son, even though the Baker does not believe he is capable of raising his son on his own.

In contrast, the Witch is absolutely convinced that she knows how to raise her child the best way (by keeping her away from all the bad things in the world) and this ultimately leads to her daughter's death.

To me it's pretty clear from the song "Moments in the Woods" that Lapine and Sondheim don't think the Baker's Wife has done something for which she should be punished. After the Prince leaves her, she concludes that while her experience with the Prince was great, she realizes she is happy with the Baker and their child and she decides not to risk that happiness.

Cinderella's Prince, if I remember correctly, gets dumped by Cinderella so he doesn't have the happiest of endings. And I'm not sure where you're getting that Cinderella is perpetually unhappy. Like the other characters in the show, Cinderella sees her wish fulfilled in Act 1 and in Act 2 realizes that getting what you want does not guarantee happiness and that getting what you want without considering the consequences can have disastrous results.

Don't forget...

I think you make excellent points except for one tiny one. In the finale, the two Princes come out with new women: one has Snow White and the other has...? Someone else... a fairy tale character...Sleeping Beauty! That's it. Anyway, it's a brief moment, but they've definitely moved on to new women. Otherwise, I love this conversation about parents, it makes so much sense.
I'm so dorkily excited by this awesome conversation this post has sparked!

Very interesting!

I think Sondheim often puts so many ideas into his shows that there's always a lot to think and talk about but too much to ever fit it all into a single consistent interpretation. There's definitely a lot in Into the woods about punishment and consequences and morality, but does the text actually have a clear opinion about it all in the end?

For example, some of the punishments you mention are consciously inflicted by other characters, and with some of them it's hard to know whether the text supports those decisions or not. (Or, to put it in a more positive way, the text gives you space to interpret and judge those decisions differently.) To me, one of the themes of the show is unfairness and injustice, and so I feel one is often invited to question whether a punishment is fair. I would regard the Baker's father's punishment by the Witch, Rapunzel's punishment by the Witch, and the Witch's punishment by her mother as all being unjust, and I feel like the text supports me in that reading. And that fits with the general positioning of the Witch's family as dysfunctional and abusive (though not unsympathetic).

Similarly the text seems to me to invite us quite strongly to feel that Jack's behaviour towards the giants is unfair and at the same time that the Giantess' reaction is understandable but unfairly harms people who aren't really in the wrong.

But then there are 'punishments' that aren't actually the result of characters choosing to punish other characters but are just bad things that happen to people — but, as you say, they do in a sense function as narrative punishments, especially since we're in the context of fairy tales and it's a well-established feature of European fairy-tales (especially as cleaned up by Victorian re-tellers) that bad things happen to 'bad' people because they supposedly deserve it. So the blinding of Rapunzel's Prince, the literary 'madness' of Rapunzel, and to some extent also the things that happen to the Stepsisters (which are a sort of in between in-story punishments and punishments by the storyteller) are all implicitly endorsed by the text because otherwise they just wouldn't happen. Except that they would because they're a necessary part of Sondheim & Lapine's source material, but then again they could have done more to explicitly not endorse them, but then again...

And of course you still have to sit back at the end of it all and do the body-count, and ask yourself whether the text as a whole is saying 'bad things happen to bad people so don't be bad' or 'bad things happen to everyone and life is unfair'. If it's saying the former, it's problematic on axes of gender, sex-positivity, and so on, as you point out (as well as the problems of the natures of the punishments, especially on axes of disability and age). If it's the latter, that still doesn't entirely let the text off the hook because we're still entitled to ask why life appears to be more unfair to female characters than to male ones, for example.

I think on the whole I agree with you. The Baker's Wife's adultery isn't portrayed as bad in the text, and we're invited to sympathize, but at the same time she does end up dead immediately afterwards in a way that's troubling. I'm sure it wasn't consciously done to 'punish' her, and I think Jo is also right to say that the symmetry of the story demands that the Baker end up a single father so his wife has to go somehow. But it's like the trope of the black / gay best friend who is always very sympathetic and always ends up dead: the presentation of the character says 'it's okay to be black / gay' but the ending says '... as long as you don't live happily ever after'. And conversely the Princes, although we're clearly meant to think they're massive jerks, end up be treated in a way that says, 'Oh, look at those jerks with their misogyny and infidelity, LOL, boys will be boys!' rather than 'Look at those jerks with their misogyny and infidelity, they don't deserve to make it out of this story alive'. And I completely agree with the comments above about trying to say that Jack does get punished by the death of his mother, that Cinderella gets punished (for being 'selfish', what?) by having to raise a child, that the Baker and Jack get punished by their survival: if those are intended by the text to be punishments for those characters, that makes the text *more* problematic, not less.

Last little thought: it's interesting that Red Riding Hood hasn't really come up. She's one of the most explicitly and flagrantly transgressive characters in the whole thing, both in the text (straying from the path, being generally selfish and rude and irresponsible) and in the sub-text (since the undertone of her whole sub-plot is the socially unacceptable topic of a child exploring sexuality), and she comes out of it neither really punished nor really okay. Her mother *and* grandmother are dead (which, if it's a punishment for her, is messed up for the same reason that it's messed up to say Jack's mother dies to punish Jack), she has no home, her confidence is badly shaken. How does she fit in? Hard to say. Maybe the point the text is making with her is that children get second chances ('people make mistakes') but have to learn ('children will listen'). After all her transgression, she's the one who voices the question: why is it okay to kill the Giantess? To which nobody has a very good answer.

Wow, that was a long comment...

... sorry!

Small Correction

**Prince's Steward, not Stewart.

I think that in discussing

I think that in discussing this show one has to keep in mind the very clear division between Act 1 and Act 2. In Act 1, the punishments for the most part seem to follow the familiar pattern of fairy tales, but once Act 2 comes around, and especially once the narrator dies, it has always seemed to me that Sondheim intentionally has the plot go off the rails, and then the "punishments" don't seem to be anything more than senseless misfortune and death. It seems to me that this is done in an attempt to criticize the clear cut good/evil dichotomy of a traditional fairy tale, and so even the events of Act 1 have to be read in that light.