Last Things and Last Plays: Shakespearean Eschatology

Last Things and Last Plays: Shakespearean Eschatology

Last Things and Last Plays: Shakespearean Eschatology

Last Things and Last Plays: Shakespearean Eschatology

Synopsis

In this first sustained examination of Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, Pericles, and The Tempest in the context of English Renaissance discussions of death, judgment, and afterlife, Cynthia Marshall contends that the late plays of Shakespeare represent the active concerns of a culture heavily imbued with apocalypticism.

Only recently has there been wide recognition of how thoroughly apocalyptic thought pervaded the culture of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Millenarians, Puritans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics all shared a concern for last things. Even King James I, speaking in Star Chamber, referred to "the latter days drawing on."

In fact, these four plays, considered in themselves, exhibit distinctive qualities of "lastness." They contain, Marshall argues, an alternative theatrical eschatology, representing anxieties about judgment, hopes for personal reunion, and transcendent perspectives on time.

Excerpt

"T h'immutable devine decree, which shall / Cause the Worlds End, caus'd his original": for us, now, Joshua Sylvester's monumental translation of Du Bartas for the English Renaissance would seem to get things backwards. But this is seriously to misundertand the anxieties, caused in part by grave political and religious irreconciliations and in part by an aging queen, that prompted the later Elizabethans (and the early Jacobeans following them) to think hard about the end of things, the end indeed of the world. As early as 1587, William Perkins, that outspoken Puritan leader at Cambridge, published his "Fruitfull Dialogue Concerning The Ende of the World," initiating large numbers of such warnings -- first for 1588, then for 1600, then for the Jacobean reign which James I's great Union and new translation of the Bible only seemed to prepare his people to witness -- and we find such later poets as Donne and Milton referring quite seriously to "these latter days." Viewed in its own time, Spenser Faerie Queene could be seen not so much as a grand national epic as a testimony to contemporary eschatological issues. The threat of the old queen's death conditioned much of the writing and thinking of the later 1590s; the fact of her death lingered, haunting England (with frequent printed references) well past 1610. This inescapable sense of doom and death, personal and universal both, is surely behind the great tragedies of the period as it is behind the newly emergent (and often bitter) satiric and city comedies. Its pervasive force is felt, too, in the bittersweet romances by which a slightly later age, of the late Shakespeare or of Beaumont and Fletcher, wrote their romances or Jonson his (often overwrought) masques. For Cynthia Marshall, in this thoughtful and provocative book, such a sense ripened and guided Shakespeare's four great romances when re-viewed, in . . .

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