Shakespeare's Late Work

Shakespeare's Late Work

Shakespeare's Late Work

Shakespeare's Late Work


Shakespeare's Late Work is a detailed reading of the plays written at the end of Shakespeare's career, centering on Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. Unlike many previous studies it considers all the late work, including Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, the revised Folio version of King Lear, and even what can be ascertained about the lost Cardenio. From this broadened canon emerge signs of a distinct identity for the late work. Lyne explores how Shakespeare sets great store in grand principles--faith in God, love of family, reverence for monarchs, and belief in theatrical representations of truth. However, there is also a ubiquitous and structuring irony whereby such principles are questioned and doubted. Audiences and readers are left with a difficult but empowering decision whether to believe, or to question, or to accommodate both faith and skepticism. Alongside this interest in the new and characteristically "late" qualities of this phase in Shakespeare's career, Shakespeare's Late Work puts it in a wider cultural context. A chapter on the collaborations and broader dramatic relationships with John Fletcher and Thomas Middleton illuminates how Shakespeare's canon interacts with other writing of its time. A chapter on how the late work revisits and reconsiders themes from earlier plays shows that continuity needs to be remembered alongside novelty. Overall this is an introduction to the key works of this period which advances a new reading of them. They emerge as fascinating and dazzling explorations of their potential and their limitations.


Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

(The Tempest, 1.2.402–4)

Readers, audiences, and critics have regularly described special qualities in the works written towards the end of Shakespeare's theatrical career: especially Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. Ariel's song, quoted above, calms and perplexes Ferdinand with its description of an intriguing physical change, but as the prince discovers later, Alonso has not actually died at all. While extraordinary stories filled with emotional intensity and challenging dramaturgy add up to a 'rich and strange' new direction in Shakespeare's career, the metamorphosis can be overstated—many key interests of earlier works find themselves reworked. The goal of this book is to explore and characterize new and old features in Shakespeare's late writing. This is a complex but rewarding task: these are elusive, finely tuned works that illuminate the richness and strangeness of fundamental questions about people, society, the supernatural, and the dramatic, rather than offering answers.

Even the question 'what is Shakespeare's late work?' is only deceptively straightforward. There is an easy answer, namely 'the work written at and towards the end of Shakespeare's career'. However, this answer masks considerable complexity. Critics have defined different groupings of 'late' or 'last' plays, the usual tendency being to create tight trios, quartets, or quintets centred on The Tempest. E. M. W. Tillyard's classic study Shakespeare's Last Plays (1938) covers . . .

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