Shakespeare’s late comedies – Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are often considered their own group. The Two Noble Kinsmen is also often considered a Shakespearean romance, although it is largely the work of John Fletcher and deviates strongly from the group's general pattern. Henry VIII, though considered a History play shares many elements of the Romances. Written between about 1607 and 1613, the romances are the works of the playwright's final period. Each is a Tragicomedy in the broadest sense of the term: elements of Tragedy find their resolution in the traditional happy ending of Comedy.
All of the romances share a number of themes, to greater or lesser degree. The theme of separation and reunion of family members is highly important. Daughters are parted from parents in Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and wives from husbands in the first three; sons are also lost, to a father in The Winter's Tale (permanently) and The Tempest, and to parents of each sex in Cymbeline. The related idea of exile also features in the romances, with the banished characters—usually rulers or rulers-to-be—restored to their rightful homes at play's end. Another theme, jealousy, is prominent in The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and it has minor importance in Pericles and The Tempest. Most significant, the romances all speak to the need for patience in adversity and the importance of providence in human affairs. This visionary conception outweighs any given individual's fate or even the development of individual personalities.
Compared with earlier plays, realistic characterization in the romances is weak; instead, the characters' symbolic meaning is more pronounced. The plots of these plays are episodic and offer improbable events in exotic locales. Their characters are frequently subjected to long journeys, often involving shipwrecks. Seemingly magical developments arise—with real sorcery in The Tempest—and supernatural beings appear. These developments are elaborately represented, and all of the romances rely heavily on spectacular scenic effects.
In all these respects, the romances are based on a tradition of romantic literature going back at least to Hellenistic Greece, in which love serves as the trigger for extraordinary adventures. In this tradition love is subjected to abnormal strains—often involving jealous intrigues and conflicts between male friendship and romantic love—and there are fantastic journeys to exotic lands, encounters with chivalric knights, and allegorical appearances of monsters, supernatural beings, and pagan deities. Absurdly improbable coincidences and mistaken identities complicate the plot, though everything is resolved in a conventional happy ending. The protagonists are also conventional, their chief distinction being their noble or royal blood. They lack believable motives and are merely vehicles for the elaborate plot, whose point is frankly escapist. Such tales were extremely popular in Shakespeare's day, especially in the increasingly decadent world of the court of King James I, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth in 1603.
The genre had long influenced the stage, but its impact was particularly strong in the early 17th-century Masque, a form of drama that was popular at James' court. In the masque, lush and exotic settings framed strange, often magical tableaus and episodes. With the advent of Jacobean Drama, the taste for such allegorical presentations expanded beyond the court to the so-called private theatres. These differed from the 'public' playhouses, such as the Globe Theatre, in being enclosed against the weather. They were smaller and more intimate, lit by candles and equipped with the mechanical apparatus necessary for elaborate scenic effects. To support all this, they charged a much higher admission price, and they attracted wealthier, better-educated, and more sophisticated audiences.
Shakespeare had made use of romance material throughout his career—The Two Gentlemen of Verona is based on a famous romance, for instance, and small scale masques are performed in a number of plays, while others contain masquelike elements. He had not, however, applied it so fully and systematically before. Any personal motives the playwright may have had for turning to romance late in his career cannot be known, but adequate reasons were available in the theatrical world. Around 1608, his acting "company, the King’s Men, took over the Blackfriars Theatre, a private playhouse, and began to produce plays in this new, more remunerative but more demanding venue. Shakespeare was a thoroughgoing theatrical professional—he made his living from the success of every aspect of the company's business, not simply from writing plays for pay—and he responded to the new situation by creating a drama to match it. The exotic locales, supernatural phenomena, and elaborate masques of the romances are clearly intended to satisfy the tastes of the time, and they succeeded. However, though the playwright considered popular demand, he also followed his own artistic sensibility. Unlike many similar works of the period, Shakespeare's plays build a meaningful symbolic world on the escapist premises of romance literature.
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In the romances, Shakespeare returned to an idea that had been prominent in his earlier comedies: young lovers are united after various tribulations. Now, however, the focus is not only on the young lovers, but also encompasses the older generation, once the opponents of love. At the end of these plays, the emphasis is not on reward and punishment—with the young lovers wed and the obstructive elders corrected—but rather, on the reunion of parents and children and the hopeful prospect of new generations to come. The romances concern themselves with the lovers not for their own sake but for their effect on the whole continuum of life. The focus is on family groupings rather than on individuals or couples, and the action is spread over many years (except in The Two Noble Kinsmen), making this aspect especially clear. (The Tempest and Cymbeline take place over shorter periods—The Tempest within a single day—but narrations of pre-play events produce the same effect.) This broader canvas is enlarged even further with its many images of the supernatural—gods and goddesses, rituals and oracles, apparent resurrections—which add a sense of infinite mystery.
The prominence of resurrection as a motif in the romances points to their similarity to the ancient festivals celebrating the rebirth of spring each year. The mock death and staged resurrection so common in such rites are re-enacted in each of the romances. In The Two Noble Kinsmen the reference is oblique, but Palamon, sentenced to death, is reprieved, and the Gaoler's Daughter is restored to normal life from her descent into insanity, an emblematic death. In Pericles the prince undergoes a similar restoration from catatonia, and two reported deaths, Marina and Thaisa’s, prove false. Similarly, in The Tempest, Ferdinand and Alonso each mistakenly believe the other is dead, as do Imogen and Posthumous in Cymbeline (Posthumus' very name suggests resurrection). Also, Perdita and Hermione are believed dead in The Winter's Tale, where an elaborate resurrection scene is staged by Paulina.
Winter is represented as well as spring. Compared to the earlier comedies, increased importance is given to separation and bereavement, to error and conflict, in short to the anxieties associated with tragedy. A tone of resignation and grief prevails until a sudden reversal brings an ending of joy and renewal that had seemed impossible. Pericles, Leontes, Cymbeline, and Prospero all suffer grievously. Each experiences a painful separation from all he holds dear (while Prospero, unlike the others, retains his daughter, he is isolated from everything else in his once-secure world). Each then undergoes a penance before the final reconciliation (except Pericles, an omission that Shakespeare may have consciously corrected in the subsequent plays). Here, too, the play encompasses the entire community, for each sufferer is also a ruler, so his welfare has great symbolic resonance. His winter of struggle gives way to the spring of resurrection—and regeneration, through the marriage of the young people who have been resurrected. As in ancient ritual, temporary death turns to hope for the future.
The pagan religious component of these plays is quite overt, with the appearances of Diana in Pericles and Jupiter in Cymbeline, the vivid evocation of Apollo's oracle in 3.1 of The Winter's Tale, the goddesses enacted in the betrothal masque in The Tempest (4.1), and the stunning scenes of worship at the altars of Mars, Venus, and Diana in 5.1 of The Two Noble Kinsmen. In such an ambience, the merits of the characters are generally of less importance than the good will of the gods—or of Prospero, their surrogate (and even Prospero is dependent on 'bountiful Fortune' [1.2.178] to bring his enemies within range of his magic).
The plays insist that a patient acceptance of the accidents of fate is necessary to survive. The several shipwrecks in these plays and their imagery of the ocean's power make this point clear, for the impersonal violence of the sea is beyond humanity's influence. The characters are often passive and in any case are helpless to improve their situations. Their strength in adversity is supported by faith—not that the gods will save them but that the gods are great and therein lies their eventual salvation. As Paulina puts it, It is requir'd / You do awake your faith' (Winter's Tale, 5.3.94-95). Only providence can bring about the destined resolution through strange turns of fate, whose very improbability stresses the irrelevance of human desires. In the unreal world of the romances, the characters—and we as spectators—must, like Pericles, make our 'senses credit . . . points that seem impossible' (Pericles 5.1.123-124).
However, more is also required. It is necessary for humankind to act with mercy, in emulation of the gods. Imogen accepts Posthumus despite his viciousness towards her; Hermione also forgives Leontes; and Prospero's forgiveness motivates the entire action of The Tempest. Even where repentance is not offered, most flagrantly in the case of Antonio in The Tempest, vengeance—even justice—is foresworn. All of the romances—like many of Shakespeare's comedies—have points in common with the medieval Morality Play, in which a sinful human receives God's mercy through no merit of his own. Although the romances are secular works (their pagan gods were presumed by Shakespeare and his audiences to be fictional), their Christian content is nonetheless clear. Our receptivity to such abstract philosophical concerns is eased by the fantasy inherent in the romance genre, for it offers a different level of imagination from which to view the complexities of life.
The romances conclude in a spirit of hope, as the main characters are reunited in an aura of reconciliation—a favorite motif throughout Shakespeare's career. Wrongs are righted and errors amended, exiles return to their homes, and even death is frustrated. The natural good in humanity is put under pressure I but preserved through the action of providence. An I emphasis on the cycle of regeneration—both in the I traditional comedic emphasis on marriage and in the theme of reunited families—offers a guarantee that the preservation will be lasting.
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