All’s well that ends well: Shakespeare’s Romances as restoratives

This essay was first published online at thespellofwakinghours in December 2013.

Thou met’st with things dying,
I with things newborn.
Old Shepherd, The Winter’s Tale (III.3)

Of the four genres that Shakespeare’s plays can be broken into, it is the final group that is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood. Yet it is this very same group that perhaps holds the keys to unlocking the humanism at the heart of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. These four plays, the ‘Romances’ – comprising PericlesCymbelineThe Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – are generally believed to have been written between 1608 and 1612. When viewed together, they form a valediction to one of the most consistently human and moving bodies of work in the modern-English literature canon, and are characterised by their almost fairytale-like plots and structures, and almost-absurdly contrived turns of events that carry them from one incredible scene to the next. Read as a progressive series of Chinese boxes, this quartet (or quintet, as I shall suggest) forms a coda to the plays, poems and sonnets that have come before them. There is a restoration of balance at their heart, a distinct sense of regaining an inherent aesthetic equilibrium, one that sets out to right wrongs; like Prospero at the conclusion of The Tempest, they seem to be asking readers and audiences alike, “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”
Previously classified as Comedies by the editors of the First Folio, or simply as the ‘Last Plays,’ the term ‘Romances’ was first used in conjunction with these four plays in the 1870s by Edward Dowden. “In these “Romances,”” Dowden writes in his Shakespeare (1877), “a supernatural element is present… Shakespeare’s faith seems to have been that there is something without and around our human lives, of which we know little, yet we know to be beneficent and divine.” Similarly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the first to use the term ‘romantic’ to describe their plots: “The Tempest [is] a specimen of the romantic drama… which owes no allegiance to time a place – a species of drama [in] which errors of chronology and geography [count] for nothing.”  For Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences though, the Romance mode was a mere continuation of a rich vein of storytelling, dating back through the centuries to Greek romances from the second and third centuries AD. Usually episodic, these stories utilised the processional ‘quest’ motif, “involving perilous journeys and final recognitions and reunions.” A contemporary example to Shakespeare’s Romances is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, an epic and sprawling narrative which seems to take aim at the very romances and chivalric tales which were popular, whilst itself continuing the tradition. (I cannot help but think that Shakespeare himself would have been quite fascinated, and perhaps slightly apprehensive about such a book.) If we read Shakespeare’s Romances as continuing this mode, then their foreignness to contemporary narrative sensibilities seems to disappear, seems to be absorbed into the very fabric of their storytelling, leaving behind a tale like no other, one in which “wonders never cease,” and magic appears to happen.

Taking a leaf from Helen Cooper, we can perhaps describe Shakespeare’s Romances by appropriating the creature in Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” (The Winter’s Tale, III.3) The bear, Cooper illustrates, was an illustration of a motif that “owes its birth and longevity to the fact that it is an enthralling story element, but which was used to tell a story about providence, the disruption and restoration of order and lineal succession, innocence accused and vindicated; and [which] needed new meanings, new justifications [to] give it continued life.” While its resonances were well-known to Jacobean spectators, its meaning is lost on their twenty-first century counterparts, hence the stage direction’s notoriety for being so “random and meaningless,” a veritable red-herring amongst the play’s core fabric.
But the bear is only one of a number of fascinating and seemingly endless illustrations of the fairy-tale like suspension of allegiance to reason, place or time that Coleridge describes: “the romance tale [permits a] copious abundance of incident, with little or no concern for verisimilitude, plausible links of cause to effect, or clear continuity.” While everything generally untangles itself in the end, endings where “poetic justice is always, satisfactorily, done. [But] before that, anything can happen.” And in Shakespeare’s Romances, with their quests and journeys, of shipwrecks and traps, escapes and imprisonments; death, resuscitation, magic, disguise, salvation and redemption, ‘anything’ truly does seem to happen.
Structurally, Shakespeare’s Romances are typified by a beginning in which “some great crime or act of evil [is committed], but halfway through they turn around, thanks to some act of mercy, forgiveness, or reconciliation, and become about hope, optimism and regeneration.” As in any story, there are dark aspects which are countered by lighter moments, but in the Romances, it’s almost as if the dimensionality of these aspects is flattened, caricatured: “the good are very good, the evil very evil; the noble are beautiful, the bad are ugly.” Again, we turn to the idea of the Romances as being fairy-tale like, almost like old folk-tales. As Christopher Rush says in his extraordinarily ventriloquistic novel, Will,
The last plays are an antidote to pain, to tragedy personal and theatrical. Improbable plots, unlikely characters, exotic settings, shipwrecks, storms, separations, reunions, revelations, reconciliations – all brought about by the unlikely interplay of chance, nature, the gods, and the overpowering drive of human love, leading to ultimate hope and harmony. Faults are forgiven, discords dissolved, lost love restored, lost children found, lost parents re-united, the hearth become the new kingdom of the heart.
Curiously, though, Shakespeare’s Romances all feature prominent female roles. Despite these new heroines being relatively naïve, far removed from his Cleopatra or Rosalind or Portia, there is still a strong lyricism in their words, a powerful antidote to suffering and loss. Even more strangely, the Romances are about fathers and daughters – Pericles and Marina, Cymbeline and Innogen (or Imogen), Leontes and Perdita, Prospero and Miranda – while the mothers barely feature at all; if they do, they are either thought dead and reappear in the final scenes (as Thaisa is in Pericles), or they are abused, sentenced to death, banished and revealed as a statue sixteen years later (as Hermione is in The Winter’s Tale). The sons are also strangely absent, excepting Mamilius in The Winter’s Tale (who dies in III.2), or perhaps Cymbeline’s step-son Cloten and Prospero’s eventual son-in-law Ferdinand. While it is foolish to read autobiography into any one of Shakespeare’s plays, the evidence here is curiously biased towards such a reading, almost as if Shakespeare himself is atoning for his long absences from Stratford during his children’s youth, for the sudden death of his son, aged eleven years old.
The flip-side of this strange absence of male heirs to the family name is, of course, the practice of boy-players performing the women’s roles in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres. Perhaps, in performances in Shakespeare’s time, the loss of a son could be atoned for through the playing of a daughter; it has been suggested that the actor who played Mamilius in The Winter’s Tale would then double as his sister Perdita, sixteen years later, giving credence to this perceived poignancy. However it was or may seem, there is no doubt that the magic of Shakespeare’s words and plays comes not from without but within. Through such a gesture, Shakespeare seems to be closing a circle, asking audiences to indulge of his forgiveness, and rendering into poetic drama an “intensified lyricism,” a language of “mercy, love, forgiveness and reconciliation of family conflicts.” A language of stories, of dreams, of magic.

If we allow ourselves a moment of indulgence to rhapsodise upon this theme of Romances, we can perhaps see a final statement of Shakespeare’s themes, styles, and characteristic humanity in the ‘lost play’ Cardenio. Purportedly based upon an episode in Cervantes’ Don QuixoteCardenio was first described in the records of Lord Stanhope of Harrington in May 1613, and following the fire in the Globe theatre later that year, its contents have been hotly contested and eagerly sought after by directors, impresarios and scholars alike. Notably adapted by Lewis Theobald as Double Falshood, or The Distrest Lovers in 1727, Cardenio has been reconstructed several times by academics and theatre companies, each trying to capture a certain Shakespeareaness and an authenticity to their interpretation of this lost play. If we take the Royal Shakespeare Company’s reconstruction of Cardenio as presented in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2011, we can perhaps see a flavour of what Shakespeare’s play could have been about. As described by J.L. Carrell in her novel The Shakespeare SecretCardenio is
a triangle. The simple geometry of love tested: lover, beloved, and a friend turned traitor. It was an architecture Shakespeare had used long before [but that] was just the beginning. Reading the tale of Cardenio was like looking at Shakespeare's collected works splintered and spangled through a kaleidoscope. Into one tangled story, it gathered many of the moments that make various plays hang on the mind. A daughter forced by her father into a marriage she loathes… A wedding broken, and a woman treated worse than a stray dog, yet still loyal, still in love. A daughter lost… and a daughter found. A forest littered with love poems, and a man haunted by music.
As a workable theatrical hypothesis, it is hypnotic, not least for how director Gregory Doran and his fellow reconstructers have captured the essence of Shakespeare’s own humanity and his poetic style (something Gary Taylor in his History of Cardenio doesn’t quite manage). As a play and an adaptation of a much larger and more complicated novel, it is fascinating and intriguing, to see how the characters of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza have been removed from the story; their participation is no longer required for Shakespeare’s revelation-upon-revelation ending to work its full magic. Just as in Cymbeline, the resolution of Cardenio – where Luscinda, Dorotea, Fernando and Cardenio all reveal each other’s presence to each other in turn, shedding disguises, coming back from presumed deaths and or banishments – defies the logic of credibility, but if you stop for a moment to see what Shakespeare is perhaps doing here (or, rather Shakespeare with the help of his twenty-first century co-authors), then you’ll find that this scene is not so much contrived as we first thought. In fact, the scene feels very real; it is shot through with a cynicism and an ambiguity, much like the ends of Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale; its act of restoration is a kind of temporary balm put on old wounds and quarrels so that the characters may depart the story’s stage in relative harmony, but once back in their own lives and away from the prying eyes of audiences and playwrights, who’s to say there is a continued happily ever after? Just because it ends thus, doesn’t mean it stays thus. It is something that Shakespeare was all too aware of throughout his work, and you can see it at the end of As You Like ItMeasure for MeasureThe Merchant of Venice, perhaps even Twelfth NightThe Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the ambiguity of life is what fascinated Shakespeare, and in a way it’s only fitting that he returned to it as the ending to what would have been his last play. “No wonder Shakespeare had taken Cardenio for his own,” Carrell concludes. “It must have felt like coming home.” In light of Cardenio’s supposed place among the Romances, and Shakespeare’s subsequent retirement from the London theatres in 1613, it seems like as good a way to end a career well written as any other.

As a group, Shakespeare’s Romances are perhaps not the most well-known or widely-performed. But if we look beyond their varied and changeable plots, their seemingly bizarre leaps in time, location and style, and their diverse influences, we can perhaps unlock the humanism that lies at the very heart of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Through examining their varied interrogations of their Romance origins, their tendency to favour more naïve female leads, a strong stylistic leaning towards the fairytale mode of storytelling, and an extension of the conventions of medieval chivalric tales, then their impenetrability and foreignness seems to evaporate, leaving behind a series of tales like no others, ones in which “wonders never cease,” and magic can – and very often does – happen.

Give me your hands if we be friends,
And Shakespeare shall restore amends.

John Bell. On Shakespeare. Allen & Unwin: Sydney, 2011.
J.L. Carrell. The Shakespeare Secret. Sphere: London, 2007.
Helen Cooper. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of ShakespeareOxford University Press: Oxford, 2004
Christopher Rush. Will. Beautiful Books, Limited: London, 2007.
Coleridge and Dowden, quoted in Tony Tanner. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Belknap Press: CambridgeMA, 2010.
Gary Taylor, The History of Cardenio 1612 – 2012, in Gary Taylor and Terri Bouros (Eds.). The Creation & Recreation of Cardenio: Performing Shakespeare, Transforming Cervantes. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2013.