For students studying any of the late plays, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale or The Tempest, here are a few extracts from the opening of my book.
The Elizabethan and Jacobean periods which Shakespeare’s plays span were troubled and dangerous. The twin kernel of this potential instability and uncertainty lay in religion and the monarchy. The event which, for the English, epitomises this, is the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, an event branded into the cultural memories every November 5th to this day through the burning of Guy Fawkes in effigy on bonfires across the nation.
Once Henry VIII had elected to abandon the Catholic Church in 1534 via the Act of Supremacy, England found itself embroiled in religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant ideologies. There was nothing especially unusual in this; much of Europe was undergoing similar struggles as the omnipotence of the Pope in Rome was threatened doctrinally by reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther, and politically by men like Henry. In England much of this controversy settled itself on the shoulders of the monarch, and both Elizabeth I and James I had to work hard to maintain their authority and command respect, amongst ambitious nobles and an underlying mistrust between Catholic and Protestant, whatever their rank.
Shakespeare was born in 1564. By then Elizabeth, aged thirty-one, had been on the throne for six years. By the time he began writing plays in the early 1590s, she had maintained a strong hold on the nation for more than three decades. Life expectancy being what is was then, this was a considerable achievement and one characterised in the popular mind by peace and stability. Yet paradoxically, the violence and cruelty of the state were terrifyingly extreme. Catholics were forbidden by law to practise their faith, priests were hunted down and executed, and Catholic families frequently fled London at night into the surrounding countryside under the shadow of rumours about Protesteant attacks. The Catholic Mary Queen of Scots presented a constant threat to Elizabeth’s rule until her trial and death in 1587. Anyone unfortunate enough to be caught conspiring against Elizabeth by the numerous spies run by her chief adviser, Robert Cecil, faced appalling torture and a public death consciously designed to terrorise. James was equally savage in his handling of conspiracy, and the suffering inflicted on Guy Fawkes and his friends is not a research topic for the queasy.
Not surprisingly in such circumstances, the theatre lived a vital but precarious existence itself, subject to official control and censorship whenever times became especially unstable and always under suspicion from those in authority because of its great power to debate. Shakespeare wrote eleven plays with the word ‘king’ in the title, and if you add Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Anthony and Cleopatra, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, you find 20 plays out of 37 dealing with notions of the monarchy.
One of the most popular critical stances taken by scholars interested in the late plays is to see some sense of finality in them. The mere fact that they come at the end of Shakespeare’s career seems to encourage us to look for something which will neatly conclude both that career and Shakespeare’s entire dramatic vision. Such attempts, however, are doomed from the start since they rely on accepting not only that Shakespeare saw himself as consciously constructing such a career, but that he was somehow uniquely immune to the theatrical fashions and trends around him.
Yet the late plays quite clearly form an identifiable group. They are often referred to as romances, a term which needs some explanation here since its modern connotations are many and various. To the Renaissance reader the romance was a form more familiar in verse or prose than drama. In fact many inherent features of romance as a genre make it extremely problematic to dramatise. It involved the sublime love relationships of kings and princes, heroism, exotic locations and swift and unpredictable changes in fortune frequently generated by divine will. Much of the action took place in either country settings or Arcadian ones, the heroes’ changing fortunes leading them between the two, often to find love where it was least expected but ultimately most fitting. Although romances were widespread throughout Europe, in English Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia and Edmund Spencer’s The Fairie Queene were the two most well known romances of the age.
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