Shakespeare's Tragic Form: Spirit in the Wheel

Shakespeare's Tragic Form: Spirit in the Wheel

Shakespeare's Tragic Form: Spirit in the Wheel

Shakespeare's Tragic Form: Spirit in the Wheel


Since about 1960, when five-act division in Shakespeare's plays was strongly disputed, most critics have focused on individual scenes rather than holistic form. This book argues for Shakespeare's use of five acts, arranged in three cycles to form a 2-1-2 pattern. It also examines the role of multiple plots and centers of consciousness, especially in the festive comedies and romances. Additionally, it traces Shakespeare's gradual mastery of the art of epiphany, compares it to Spenser's complementary focus on transcendent reality, and traces in Macbeth the dark mode of Shakespeare's dramaturgical pattern.


The fingers of the powers above do tune
The harmony of this peace.
… let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils.

Cymbeline 5.5.470–71, 481

To seek a simple, singular form in Shakespeare's plays is to court frustration. As Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources attest, Shakespeare draws from radically disparate texts and social cultures—British chronicle histories, lives of Greek and Roman worthies, Ovidian myths, romance anthologies, folk tales, and anecdotal gossip—stories that elicit quite different cultural values and ritual patterns. His dramaturgy exploits an equally broad heritage— Seneca, Plautus, and Terence; medieval mysteries and moralities; Lyly’s courtly allegories; and Greene’s, Kyd’s, and Marlowe’s staging of lovers, revengers, and overreachers with a bold new eloquence in their drive toward fulfillment.

Shakespeare shapes these varied tales and psyches into the full gamut of dramatic genres—sometimes rendering the same tale in contrary modes: “Pyramus and Thisbe” as tragedy (Romeo and Juliet) or comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); “the maiden falsely slandered” as comedy (Much Ado about Nothing), tragedy (Othello), or romance (The Winter’s Tale). In the final plays the diversity broadens, with tragic-comic-pastoral-historical facets mingled in the inclusive cycle of “romance,” yet each play quite singular. Though scholars like Frye and Barber have described the prominent mythic and festive patterns of each genre, or like Holland, Wheeler, Schwartz, Adelman, Skura, and Sprengnether have traced psychological patterns within each genre, finally one wishes to agree with Kenneth Muir that “there is no single Shakespearean dramaturgy; each play is unique.”

Yet despite Shakespeare’s evident delight in multiplicity, his restless, playful experimentation with diverse materials, I believe a com-

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