Shakespeare's Romances

Shakespeare's Romances

Shakespeare's Romances

Shakespeare's Romances


-- Brings together the best criticism on the most widely read poets, novelists, and playwrights

-- Presents complex critical portraits of the most influential writers in the English-speaking world -- from the English medievalists to contemporary writers


The Anglo-Irish critic Edward Dowden, a friend of the poet W. B. Yeats's family, created some long-range mischief when he first characterized a group of Shakespeare's final plays as "romances." Shakespeare, I suspect, thought of most of them as tragi-comedies, and may have regarded The Tempest as relatively unmixed comedy. But universal usage condemns us to call these visionary comedies, "romances," and so I will not argue the generic term here.

Most of the "romantic" features in Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and in the Shakespearean parts of Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen actually are more diverse than not, and do not hold these five very different plays together as a group. While they are hardly Shakespeare's only studies in obsessive quests, that may be the common element in these late tragicomedies.Pericles mourns obsessively for his lost wife and daughter, and indeed is traumatized before Marina restores him.Posthumus is almost more stupid than obsessive in his jealousy concerning Imogen, but he is insane enough to order her murdered. The cosmological fear of supposedly having been cuckolded is too titanic to be termed Leontes's obsession; a stronger term even than madness seems required.

Prospero, in The Tempest, might seem too wise an hermeticist, too much an anti-Faust, to fit this pattern. And yet the deep scheme of his Art has its compulsive strains: to win power over all his enemies, for whatever purpose, does not seem a wholly adequate project for a magus who tells us that he has raised the dead. Something obsessive urges Prospero on, though we cannot wholly grasp what that is.

In The Two Noble Kinsmen,Shakespeare ends his career with an extraordinary vision of erotic obsessiveness, so extreme that some revulsion from desire has to be argued as central to Shakespeare's share in the work. It seems odd that obsessiveness should be represented with different modes of authorial estrangement in these five late plays. Pericles (again, the Shakespearean . . .

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