5
Conservative Endings

Shakespeare's late plays feature drastic action and turbulent personal journeys. To some extent it is paradoxical that the world that emerges from the action is very similar to, or follows naturally from, the one that preceded it. This is particularly true of the plays' social structures: the twists and turns of fortune are not reflected in new configurations of power or a greater mobility between groups. Rather, once-truncated royal bloodlines are restored and consolidated by advantageous marriages, and power is passed on. In addition, the good characters in whom moral hopes reside turn out to be related to the ruling families of the plays. There is little of the discovered virtue that one can see in comedy, or of the discovered sin one finds in tragedy: eventually the powerful find validation, albeit in traumatic ways. As Northrop Frye said of romance in general, there may be a 'pervasive social snobbery'.1 The possible conservatism of the romances stands in contrast with the plays that precede them. Timon of Athens and Coriolanus are notably negative about society and its institutions. This tendency takes a variety of forms. Neither of these plays proposes much faith in human nature, and neither places greater hope in the well-born, who tend to be isolated or corrupt—by no means the central point in an organic, cooperative society. We also see tension between different classes, political activism, and people straining against the inherited order.2 In Shakespeare's late work, whether because of genre or conceptual shift, things are different.

It is possible that the notion of social mobility, or its absence, has no place in an audience's or reader's experience of these works, or indeed of any romance. The genre itself may prize restoration and continuity rather than change or progress, and it may be an imposition to begin

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Shakespeare's Late Work
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Oxford Shakespeare Topics - General Editors: Peter Holland and Stanley Wells Shakespeare S Late Work iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contents ix
  • 1: The Late Shakespearian Canon 1
  • 2: Seeing is Believing 30
  • 3: Faith and Revelation 55
  • 4: Family Romances 81
  • 5: Conservative Endings 99
  • 6: Shakespeare, Middleton, and Fletcher 116
  • 7: Shakespeare, Early and Late 138
  • Further Reading 156
  • Notes 160
  • Index 171
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