Making and Breaking in Shakespeare’s Romances

Barbara Everett

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 In such contexts there is always, at best, a tolerant patronage, an assumption that we have moved beyond this out-of-date stuff.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’.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in