Jacobean England had its own royal catastrophe when, in 1612, the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, died of typhoid at the age of 18. It even had its lost princess when, in the next year, his sister Elizabeth, afterwards known as the Queen of Hearts, married Frederick V, the Elector Palatine, and disappeared into a long and fairly inglorious future. Both events linger on in the shadowy background to Shakespeare’s very late play The Two Noble Kinsmen. This makes it not irrelevant to ask how the dramatist’s career might have looked if he too had succumbed, just as chancily, to typhoid or plague in early January four centuries ago. What would we have lost?

Shakespeare would have died a man of enormous achievement, with all the earlier histories and comedies and most of the tragedies accomplished. Immediately behind were King Lear and Macbeth. Three classical tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, were probably in composition or in rehearsal. Against this context of tragedies Shakespeare may already have had the idea for a new play, a comedy, to be given the dottily pseudo-tragic title, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. A majority verdict now sees the work as not only badly printed but decidedly collaborative, though it strikes me as wholly Shakespearean. But all parties think of it as probably the first of the plays we call now ‘the romances’ – to be followed by Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. For many, the romances stop there – though there are several more plays to come, agreed by most scholars to be at least in part collaborative: Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and a lost work of which we know only the title, Cardenio, and Theobald’s version of it.

Problems and difficulties surround all this late work. The genre name ‘romance’ itself, as a special descriptive category with Shakespearean connotations, only emerges when Coleridge uses it in a note on The Tempest: it took Romanticism to put its romanticness lastingly into the romances. ‘Romance’ in the 16th century meant the great body of popular storytelling that stretched far back through the Middle Ages. In 1589, Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie gives the word its confined contemporary usage when he speaks of such tales as Bevis of Southampton as ‘Stories of old time’, ‘old romances’. In such contexts there is always, at best, a tolerant patronage, an assumption that we have moved beyond this out-of-date stuff.

The dramatic categories known to the age are used in the First Folio of 1623, put together by theatre colleagues and others some seven years after Shakespeare’s death: the book contains, in order, comedies, histories and tragedies. The Tempest is the first of the comedies and The Winter’s Tale the last of them; Cymbeline, King of Britaine closes the Folio as the last of the tragedies; Pericles is not in the First Folio at all, for reasons still debated by scholars. The men behind this Folio – actors, businessmen, compositors – can be assumed to be in different ways able, and many of them had known and worked with Shakespeare. But their task was not easy. The dating and grouping of Shakespeare’s work is even now not perfectly clear or a matter of agreement: there may well be surprises and revisions still ahead of us, even though we feel that we have at least advanced beyond Dryden’s assertion, only a few decades after the Folio, that Pericles must be the author’s first play, because it is so bad. What we haven’t lost, perhaps, is an inevitable interlocking of scholarship with criticism: we conclude because we believe, and we believe what we conclude. Shakespeare’s virtues, his unaffected originality and intelligence, can make dating and categorising hard.

If Shakespeare had died in 1607, there would have been lost a series of plays of extreme distinction and some difficulty. They are hard to talk about as a group for two seemingly opposed reasons. One is that these plays are decidedly a new beginning, although that new beginning is in itself not easy to discuss, being initiated almost certainly by Pericles, still asserted by many to be substantially un-Shakespearean. Yet these problems may be, to another way of looking, merely a sign of strong authorial originality. The second reason sounds – but is not – contradictory. The romances, as we now call them, are in fact developments of a side of the poet’s work native from the beginning.

Shakespeare’s writing is a continuum. What makes it so is in part his loyalty to that aspect of the loose native literary tradition of his time that could itself be called, anachronistically, ‘romantic’ – or, as the next age would have said, ‘romancey’. Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries the more obstreperously intellectual and the more articulately forward-looking were classicists determined to make their country’s literary culture clean up its act. Their motto, like Ezra Pound’s, might have been ‘Make it new.’ Hence Sidney’s attack in A Defence of Poetry on the chaos of mixed forms characterising the pre-Shakespearean drama of his time; hence Ben Jonson’s direct assault on his respected, indeed loved rival’s late work, his ‘Tales, Tempests and such like Drolleries’. These objections now sound tinny. But it is a mistake not to note the plain sense of the classicists’ case, and its power of longevity. It was most famously set down in Samuel Johnson’s stricture on Cymbeline: ‘the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life’. The whole he sums up in the phrase ‘unresisting imbecillity’. Johnson loved Shakespeare, and found some good things in the play; as did Shaw, who said affectionately that Cymbeline made him despise Shakespeare’s mind, and who rewrote its last act more or less entire.

It is worth remarking the recurrence of certain terms or notions here – ‘Drolleries’, ‘folly’, ‘absurdity’, ‘system’, ‘imbecillity’, ‘mind’. The case made and the feeling expressed are consistent from Sidney onwards, and they argue a definition of the literary, and in fact of the ‘mind’, so narrow as to exclude most great artists. Strikingly, Johnson, the largest-minded of all these rationalists, elsewhere perceived that where Shakespeare was apparently irrational he was so in a manner that enlarged his writing, that gave his work lifelikeness and truth: because life itself, Johnson judged, mixes modes and is, one might say, tragicomic. And in fact the continual early stress on Nature rather than Art in this ‘unlearned’ Elizabethan’s work is the same kind of worried acknowledgment that Shakespeare manages to be very good indeed while breaking all the rules or not knowing them.

Shakespeare ‘knew’, in some sense, all the rules of his art, and then some. He probably knew from the beginning what he wanted to do, and he spent his whole career learning how to do it. Hence the continuity of the whole. And yet it is also true that in the romances he is writing with a more aesthetic, ironic, even ‘learned’ consciousness than ever before. The change is in the articulation. What may be Shakespeare’s first comedy, even his first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, has a wildly romantic geography, ardently silly heroes, refined brigands and a dog in the cast. But editors of the immeasurably more sophisticated The Tempest admit to uncertainty about the plot, the location of the island, and the exact biology of its monster and goddesses. The witch Sycorax (mother of Caliban) is as tricky a factor as the dog Crab – but then, she doesn’t appear. The sequence here is steady: Shakespeare chooses ‘folly’, which is to be – as the plays recurrently tell us – ‘not altogether fool, my lord’. He transforms a native looseness of culture, a romanticism always available, into liberty rather than licence. Rather than narrowing and ‘making it new’, Shakespeare found range and richness in the intellectual spectrum of his time: he found more future in the past. He was, of course, as good biographers now like to underline, alert to anything new that might nourish his work. He may well have known, for instance, about the academic experiments in a new art of tragicomedy explored in Italian court drama. But he neither needed nor chose to be guided by these. His own comedies, serious and even sad from the beginning, and his tragedies, touched and quickened by lunatic humour, always antedated such vogues. This is why the Sonnets express a kind of anxiety of consistency in his own performance: ‘I must each day say o’er the very same,/Counting no old thing old’.

This fusion of what are theoretically ‘tragic’ and ‘comic’ materials sets the romances, and all of the last writing, within the whole mixed and romantic continuum of Shakespeare’s career. Pericles, Prince of Tyre would sound like a historical tragedy if its history were not so absurd – Pericles of Athens was one of the very greatest Greek figures. Though in character and sequence its events are too ramshackle to be called tragic, they are sombre from the beginning. Pericles woos as his first love a princess whom he discovers to be incestuously involved with her father; his flight, and a shipwreck, leads him by chance to a far better woman, Thaisa, whom he wins and weds, but who dies (it seems) in childbirth on a stormy sea; the child, Marina, separated from her father and raised by treacherous foster-parents, is seized by pirates and sold into a brothel, where she obdurately defends her virginity and converts a would-be customer, the governor of the city, into a chaste and loving suitor. Profoundly impressed as he is by her qualities, the governor takes her to visit a mad and grieving prince, in hopes that she can help him – as she does, since they are Marina and Pericles.

Their coming together involves an extremity of feeling that reflects both joy and the pain of what has passed. The prince’s description ‘Thou dost look/Like Patience gazing on kings’ graves, and smiling/Extremity out of act’ is a remarkable summary of the tragicomic mood, so long as we allow comedy the more medieval meaning of a journey into happiness rather than a source of uproarious laughter. Uproarious laughter is something the romances never provide, though they all resemble Pericles in seeing ‘our life’, as All’s Well that Ends Well has it, as ‘a mingled yarn, good and ill together’, suffering and joys involved with each other.

Much of the electric energy of the romances derives from this steady ‘mingling’ or crossing of factors. Cymbeline’s Folio editors included it with the tragedies because it is named after its king and has historical and epic dimensions comparable with, say, King Lear. Its finale gathers together in a reformed court the whole British royal family (king-father, princess-daughter, long-lost sons and new son-in-law); at the close, the Roman eagle melts into distance as the crooked smoke of altars climbs up to the gods’ noses. All this is grand and moving. But this long last scene also crystallises a reticent ludicrousness present everywhere in the play. It derives from a degree of stylisation, both verbal and dramatic, that is both brilliantly poised and full of self-mockery (this last scene demurely enfolds into itself every distress and trouble of the huge preceding action and unfolds them into what are – famously and countably – 27 dénouements). The same coolness regulates what is theoretically the comic side of the play. The heart of the story concerns lovers, but lovers neither truly married nor unmarried, and mostly apart: their last blissful meeting begins with a husband striking a wife. And the same mixedness strengthens The Winter’s Tale, which risks seeming to be two plays, the first tragic and the second comic: only the work’s own mastery holds them together, and resolves them at last. The Clown, narrating his and his father’s inclusion in the coming together of the royal family, says: ‘And so we wept; and there was the first gentleman-like tears that ever we shed’; to which his father, the Shepherd, adds the comfortable antiphon, ‘We may live, son, to shed many more.’

All four of these plays share the same kind of archaic story or myth or fable of a royal family, estranged and brought together, in a world either ancient or pastoral or both, and above all fantastic, irrational. It is as if the action is now not of primary interest to the dramatist, except as a vehicle. What is singular is the degree to which these plays, sharing so much (the strictness of the balance between dark and bright, happiness and suffering, tragedy and comedy), nonetheless define worlds so individual in character. Through them all, a more and more absolute aesthetic or imaginative life supersedes action. In the very late The Two Noble Kinsmen, the tragicomic synthesis has crystallised into a formula, a paradox; as Theseus ends the play, saying:

you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh; for what we have are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is.

Given the loss of Cardenio, this closing choric statement possibly represents the last theatrical words left us by Shakespeare: a rhetoric almost motionless in its balance. Yet even The Two Noble Kinsmen could not be thought entirely alien to Shakespeare’s first comedies, which understand life as a winning and losing, a gaining of wisdom by acting folly. All the same, something begins with Pericles that earns these late plays the right to be considered a group, almost a genre, a system within a system. The difficulty of Pericles as text and play may well lie in the effort and struggle of Shakespeare’s new beginning.

Beginnings are sometimes most visible in terms of endings, and a thing may be described by what it is not. The romances leave behind the solid romantic realism, even if not naturalism, of the highly accomplished middle-period comedies. Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It are shrewd, humorous and richly embodied anecdotes about the search for love in marriage on the part of young people within a gentry society. This is the world of what Benedick calls ‘good neighbours’, where romantic passion makes its peace with human kindness and good sense: ‘The world must be peopled,’ as Benedick says. These plays are not bland or insipid: there are plenty of troubles to be endured when most neighbours actually met may be as bad as they are good. But they concentrate on the finding of a proper happiness within such a world. The plotting of Much Ado about Nothing is intensely original in that it allows two socially subordinate but more intelligent and principled persons to take the lead through the wise vitality of their love (just as the fools, too, play their part in the resolution). It was the recognition, surely, of the way in which Beatrice and Benedick perfectly embody this action that made the two in Shakespeare’s own time as popular as Falstaff and Hamlet.

The social boundaries of comedy open wider in the ‘dark comedies’, Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well: the fiction must now domesticate the city prison, the brothel, the army camp, the body’s appetites, the mind’s snobberies, the unwilling mate, even pregnancy. The result is brilliant and absorbing, but the happy ending struggles and perhaps fails to accommodate severe dislocations. The two movements of Measure for Measure do not always convince an audience that they cohere, or that these broken spirits can become cheerfully married bodies; in All’s Well that Ends Well hardly anyone could want Bertram as a cheerfully married body. The new and exciting breadth and toughness of Shakespeare’s vision can hardly be resolved, either technically or humanly, without the sense of great fissures of feeling, estrangements between human beings, which a simple social courtship and marriage can cope with no more than nominally.

The Winter’s Tale opens with a pair of mannered but knowing courtiers who speak of love and marriage between powerful adults in just this image of fissure, of estrangement: court love enacts itself as between persons who ‘shook hands, as over a vast; and embrac’d as it were from the ends of opposed winds’. In its new and fantastic conventions the work reveals its precise consciousness of how difficulties at once aesthetic and human might be resolved. Romance provides metaphors. The play’s own version of this ‘vast’, the human distance from loving, is, of course, the setting of the action in two kingdoms, Sicily and Bohemia (Ben Jonson ridiculed Shakespeare for reversing the locations of his source, thus giving a sea-coast to his Central European Bohemia; but geographical absurdities throughout these plays only release the factual into another dimension). The action is broken by the ‘great gap of time’ at its centre, too; but in this structure of new conventions we are left unstartled to find that 16 years are passing, here and now – Time himself tells us so.

Cymbeline begins with a comparable chat between worldly and detached gentlemen. A civilised soul in the early British court explains to another, presumably visiting, that the secret marriage of the Princess Imogen to the non-royal if gentlemanly Posthumus matters, because her two brothers, the heirs to the throne, went missing in infancy some twenty years before. The visitor exclaims faintly: ‘That a king’s children should be so convey’d,/So slackly guarded, and the search so slow/That could not trace them!’ He is quashed by the first gentleman: ‘Howsoe’er ’tis strange,/Or that the negligence may well be laugh’d at,/Yet it is true, sir.’

This is both funny and genuinely serious. The late-play courtiers who first appear in All’s Well that Ends Well serve a special purpose, defining a proper stance in the auditors. The lines of communication in Shakespearean romance are simple and literal, but also sophisticatedly tacit: we are made complicit to the terms of the play; and our attention is at once detached and feeling – and more feeling about some things because more detached about others.

The strangeness of the romances extends beyond mere archaism and absurdity. They show a pattern in human lives, and a relation between human beings, other than what was hoped for in the earlier world of ‘good neighbours’. The disturbed and endangered adults of romance move through a landscape that is claustrophobic, if courtly; and if rustic and pastoral then also oddly empty; their deepest experiences are solitary. The mature comedies propose good sense and kindness as vital qualities. But from Pericles onwards, such virtues have lost their relevance. Pericles has moments of human feeling that touch the sublime, but few people in it are ever kind or sensible. The world of the romances is too fantastic, and too lonely, to house good neighbours. And yet this anachronistic dislocated world of the romances, in which people wander solitary, can also sustain the plays’ (by and large) intensely happy endings, and even convince bystanders that this is all in some sense ‘true’.

Imogen, seeing that she must escape her weak father Cymbeline’s helplessly corrupt court, borrows an instinct from the earlier tragic Coriolanus, who hoped for a ‘world elsewhere’: a place, she believes, that will be a truer native land to those hungers of the heart demanding what is ‘beyond beyond’. Imogen’s phrase here has an almost metaphysical wit, a difficulty both philosophical and linguistic, found everywhere in the idiosyncratic and (for those who can take it) incomparable style of Cymbeline – and, in different styles, of all the romances. Each play has this factor of the ‘beyond beyond’: they are not in any ordinary sense ‘social’ at all, being at once more subjectively directed and larger in their range (sometimes dizzily so). Their issues involve communities and families, but they speak to a new audience of one, the private reader, in a style both intimate and detached, both cool and profound.

Some seventy or more years ago, literary Modernism found in the romances a favourite predecessor, perhaps because their absurdities brought them near to Symbolism. T.S. Eliot wrote ‘Marina’ after Pericles; some of Beckett’s characters seem to echo The Tempest. Modernistic critics read unsociability as transcendence. Mythical or theological readings of these plays from half a century or more back don’t cut much ice now. More recent grounded politicising approaches don’t very noticeably help this work either. The problem with affixing political stances to the romances is that they have no very easily recognisable polis. The royal courts in them are never much more than points of departure. This objection applies as well to scholarly attempts to pin these plays to social moves like the company’s lease on the more upmarket Blackfriars indoor theatre – Pericles, a Globe play, fairly certainly predates the acquisition; or by comparable efforts to instance as inspiration the courtly drama of Beaumont and Fletcher, which again (in my view) Pericles predates.

The tone of the courts in the romances can be amusedly blue-blooded. Yet the flight from court and even, it sometimes feels, from the public life of the state, towards an interior self-knowledge, is more vital to them than any renewed life in court or family after the ending. Pericles lacks any structure that is really forward-looking or purposive; its hero stumbles from one mischance to the next, and reunion comes as a blissful serendipity, an almost holy randomness. The prince’s madness is his surrender, his acceptance that he is no hero; Marina, who finds him, is herself nothing but a natural principle, that is ‘Call’d Marina/ For I was born at sea’. Full of action, the play has no plot, which is why it needs the ancient narrator, Gower. The enormous, diffuse Cymbeline, with its triple times and places, is a more and more widely centrifugal flight from the known, through identifications with uncivilised Wales and invading Rome – ‘beyond, beyond’ – and through the discovery of new definitions of faithfulness as the crooked smoke ascends to the noses of the gods. The whole play is divinely crooked. In Pericles, the court of love is perverse; in Cymbeline, claustrophobic and poisonous; in The Winter’s Tale, rule is an unbearable power that maddens Leontes; in The Tempest, only some of the drowned courtiers lose their voracity for dominion.

In Cymbeline, the wildness beyond the court is intimated by an extraordinarily delicate and pervasive imagery of the natural, radiating outwards from the mark like a cowslip on the sleeping Imogen’s breast that is spied on and noted down by Iachimo. It was probably this sense of an intricate world of nature, dew-drenched and extending mistily into space, that made poets such as Collins and Tennyson love the play so much. The fresh wildness of Cymbeline, expressed through subtle and ornate rhetoric, is quite different from the courteous flower-giving in The Winter’s Tale’s Bohemia: each play has its own nature, or, as Polixenes says, ‘The art itself is nature.’ But in all these plays, apart from Cymbeline, the centrifugal flight into a wild world is crystallised in the presence of the sea. The polis, the home of the good citizen, here dissolves into what the Servant in Timon of Athens imagines as estranging and divisive: ‘We must all part/Into this sea of air.’ There are many sources, from the Old Testament onwards, for Shakespeare’s understanding of an ocean that he may never have seen, or the ‘sea of air’ itself. But Horace, whose work he certainly knew, calls the sea ‘oceanus dissociabilis’, which means estranging. The sea is the greatest maker and breaker of all: random, deranging, the end and the beginning of human life.

The discoveries at the end of the romances are hard-earned. This is not a world of good neighbours, but of solitary selves. The wonderful embrace of father and lost daughter in Pericles takes place out at sea; the father is mad, and the daughter hardly knows who she is, except that she is ‘Marina’, ‘of the sea’. When Cymbeline’s journeys begin to end and Imogen leaps to embrace Posthumus, he strikes her, or him, because – in this play of lies and disguises, where secret deceptions rule – he does not know who she is; and (in my reading of the play at least) he is a kind of stranger too, because she has long ago lost her first adoring image of the husband who seeks to kill her. Though Hermione surely loves her recovered husband, she does not speak to him, having lost the way of it for 16 years; her daughter, soon to be married, is not known to her; her small son is dead. The Tempest ends when Prospero takes the hand of his former enemy, forces himself to forgive his predatory brother, and gives away his daughter.

So, if Shakespeare had died in 1607, what we would have lost is a new form of art: plays full of darkness, yet lucidly and sometimes radiantly comic. Their watchword is what Pericles sees when his unknown daughter reaches him: ‘Patience . . . smiling extremity out of act.’ The romances inherit from history and tragedy, transforming them into comedy. One of the processes entailed is the modulation of male and heroic existence into a vision that is female and comic. This has already begun in the late or classical tragedies, which are dense with ironic ambiguities. The heroic self, losing its inwardness, is starting to become what Enobarbus calls Cleopatra: ‘A wonderful piece of work’.

From Pericles onwards we observe a disintegration of that coherence in Shakespeare’s art which fuses action with character. In the romances things happen, and people trudge on. It is often assumed that this late work is therefore psychologically null or shallow. Certainly Pericles, if compared with Macbeth, hardly exists as a character at all. These are dramas crammed with types and cyphers, bit parts and walkers-on. Yet it is also true that The Tempest has haunted imaginations for centuries, not merely because it is beautiful, but because it appears to hold extreme depths of meaning; and all the romances have this fount of psychological insight somewhere inside them. This can localise itself startlingly. A good novelist and literary critic, J.I.M. Stewart, described Leontes as so exact an analysis of civilised anxiety as to verge on a case-study of paranoia. The same edge and depth can attend the most minor players, and often the dingiest among them: Boult, the brothel-servant, who speaks out with all the ferocity of the trapped man; the cheerful tradesman Autolycus, jollily tormenting the weak Shepherd and Clown with threats of horrific courtly tortures; or the peculiarly ratty lot of courtiers and servants in The Tempest, Antonio, Sebastian, Stephano and Trinculo, who under the fierce light of the island embody the possibility that human beings are never actually reclaimable at all.

It is a characteristic of the romances to think in harmony with important moral and even theological positions, without deviating into the utterance of them. The highly sophisticated telling of these ‘Stories of old time’ permits a special reticence, a style of implication nonetheless very clear to an attentive auditor. The late plays reveal most completely their art of making and breaking when they are concerned with ends and beginnings, deaths and revivals.

Pericles finds and marries (after the seemingly ill-written, ill-printed, and only momentarily comprehensible first half of his story) the good queen Thaisa, who while they are at sea in a great storm bears her first child, Marina, and who appears to have died in labour, and is cast overboard. The chest in which she is coffined washes ashore and is brought to the Lord Cerimon, a gifted doctor and/or magician, who, when it is opened, says:

Gentlemen, this queen will live.
Nature awakes, a warmth breathes out of her.
She hath not been entranc’d above five hours.
See, how she ’gins to blow into life’s flower again!

This is a kind of perfection that depends on everything that was imperfect in the preceding text. Previous confusion here becomes an unflawed tentativeness. A slightly laughable or pedantic rhetoric of expertise (‘Gentlemen’, ‘above five hours’, ‘See . . .’) is crossed by the innocence of non-human existence: ‘A warmth breathes out of her.’ The small shock of ‘this queen’ (we don’t expect queens to do anything as unadorned as ‘living’) announces a note present in each romance: death is a great leveller, and if honour is due, it is to mortality, not to rank. The same light disturbance comes in ‘she ’gins to blow’, a verb of course meaning ‘blossom’, like the flower that soon follows; and yet there is in the sudden word an animal gravity, like the ‘belching Whale’ that drifts over the queen’s drowning body in the scene before – or perhaps like the first breath taken by the newborn Marina.

The ‘deaths’ in the romances are each so different from the other as to suggest that, with his great theatre achievement behind him, Shakespeare may have envisaged a series of plays whose closely similar materials might allow him to justify himself as a poet – to show that each of these ‘old romances’ could be imaginatively unique. Thaisa’s seeming death in childbirth brings with it all the awkward candour of an old saints’ legend. Imogen’s death in the fourth act of Cymbeline could hardly be more different. Imogen takes as a kindly offered stimulant a drug originally brewed by the wicked queen, her stepmother, and appears to die of it; she is laid out by her tenderly grieving unrecognised brothers, in wild Wales, next to the corpse of the queen’s son, Cloten, who had, disguised as her husband, intended to rape her. Waking, Imogen takes the headless body to be that of Posthumus, whom she laments in a desolate display of baroque rhetoric, at once glittering and silly. But while she slept, the two boys, whose voices happen to be breaking, have spoken ‘Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun’; and few bystanders, hearing this marvellous lyric, could fail to feel obscurely that something real has died here – something has broken beyond the voices. But there is a new life too. A kindly Roman captain takes on the sad princess as a male page named Fidele, or Faithful. Moreover, Posthumus will slowly discover how, like his wife, to be a survivor (which is what the Latin ‘posthumus’ means), one born after death. Both husband and wife break and make their love and their own characters, passing from one fidelity to another and another, and finally and blissfully unite, as perfect strangers to each other.

Cymbeline is a great and lavish network of little deaths. There is relevance in the fact that in the period this phrase was a cant term meaning ‘orgasm’. Each of the romances has some element of sexual brutality or morbidity, from incest and the brothel in Pericles, to the murderous fantasies of adultery in The Winter’s Tale, to the rape of Miranda planned by Caliban in The Tempest: all of these corruptions of love by the lust for power involve an exorcism that is the whole action of the play. But these suggestions of the erotic seem peculiarly intense in the stifling court scenes of Cymbeline, from grossnesses in Cloten’s speech that, for Shakespeare, go curiously far, to the unannounced and startling moment when Iachimo slides out of the chest in Imogen’s bedchamber and begins to take notes. The unconsummated marriage of the hero and heroine, their assumption of their ‘manacles of love’, complete the sense of morbid, even deathly passion. From this imprisonment the journeys of the play are a flight, always ‘beyond beyond’, as those capable of loving are steadily denuded of romantic pretensions, to learn an outcast fidelity. The deaths are the lost illusions of love; the abandoned fantasies are sacrifices of the wrong selves – another meaning of the crooked smoke mounting skywards to the nostrils of the gods.

Pericles and Cymbeline are two remarkable and perhaps equally difficult works; The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest have what might be called easier difficulties. They have shed the shock and discordancy of their two predecessors; they have each acquired a different sublime assurance, an articulateness nearer the surface on the subjects of love and power, art and magic. Not everyone can accept what they offer. A colleague of mine, a good Shakespearean, couldn’t find unity in The Winter’s Tale, insisting that Shakespeare left the good queen dead and that a collaborator botched a happy ending. But the last scene of The Winter’s Tale is one of the marvels in Shakespeare’s work. The hints of Hermione’s dying, the 16 unlived years, the long wretchedness of Leontes, the grown and mated daughter and the lost small son: all these echo Paulina’s ‘It is required you do awake your faith’ – a faith articulated, in this case, by a work of art. Life is tormented by absurdities, and art enriched by them: as the statue steps down into life, the strange mutates into the true.

Shakespeare always wrote for a theatre he always (if complicatedly) loved, and the stepping down of the statue may be seen as an image of his feeling that poetry always requires life, demands action. Throughout the romances, which are loved by modern symbolists of all kinds, action can be felt to be ebbing towards vision. It is possible that The Tempest really was in some sense what Victorians called it, Shakespeare’s ‘farewell to the stage’, and that he accepted a collaborative hand in the very late plays that followed it because he saw in his older and tiring self an uninterest in action, a disbelief in plots: the element of masque, present through all this work, takes over at the end.

Most good editors agree that the plot of The Tempest is vestigial, although Prospero knows what he is about from the beginning. It might be said that such action as there is serves vision, and nurtures understanding in the understanders. And it is noteworthy that all the unsalvageable people in the play are power-seekers – courtiers and servants certain that doing is more than being. Helped by Nature and Fortune, sea-storm and chance, Prospero has magicked to his island, his lonely place, a crowd of old enemies, because his loved daughter now needs a future; and there he drowns them – ‘Full fathom five thy father lies;/Of his bones are coral made;/Those are pearls that were his eyes . . .’ The power-seekers among them spend their time held in a dead past, endlessly rehearsing the empty play of their own desires. The good take the chance of Prospero’s drowning of them to survive, to emerge from the past as from the great sea of time, new men. As such they are reconciled to a Prospero whose future is responsible and shadowed. Making and breaking are in this work at once severe and benign; the vision of the two great human interactions, love and power, is at once tragic and comic, ‘strange . . . yet . . . true’.

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