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Emergence of Shakespeare's Romance Plays

In: Shakespeare free essays

Emergence of Shakespeare's Romance Plays

There is considerable critical controversy surrounding the labelling of Shakespeare's late plays. The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, among others, use recognisable elements of both tragedy and comedy, hence their placement in the `tragicomedy' category, but this category is in fact an emerging genre with certain implications; therefore the use of the term requires knowledge of Renaissance theory concerning tragicomedy. A group of these late plays have also been labelled `romance', as several draw on the romance tradition, but they are far from straightforward transference of romance plots to the stage. This essay will consider the developments in Renaissance drama that contributed to or allowed for the emergence of these late plays.

The 1560s saw the recognition of the fact that playwrights were beginning to mix genres, rather than remain confined to the Aristotelian rules separating tragedy and comedy. Cambises was described as `A Lamentable Tragedy mixed full of pleasant mirth', and in his Prologue to Damon and Pithias Richard Edwards labelled the play a `tragical comedy'. These developments in England may well have been influenced by developments on the continent. Giambattista Guarini's controversial pastoral tragicomedy Il Pastor Fido was made available in London in 1591, and in 1602 it appeared in English, bound with the Compendio della poesia tragicomica, Guarini's defends of this new genre. This defence was directed at critics such as Philip Sidney, who viewed the mixed genre plays as `neither right tragedies, nor right comedies' but merely `mongrel tragic-comedy'. In the winter of 1599/1600 John Marston presented two plays: the romantic comedy Antonio and Mellinda and the tragic companion play Antonio's Revenge. Shakespeare's version of the tragicomedy, as seen in The Winter's Tale, Pericles, The Tempest and Cymbeline, shows a similar theatrical awareness to Marston in combining or deliberately juxtaposing traditionally separated genres in order to create a new dramatic effect.

As well as responding to contemporary ideas Shakespeare also uses source material in an intriguing way in the romances. Cymbeline, like King Lear, uses two different sources, one historical and one romantic. In King Lear the historical becomes the main plot, with some alteration in order to give it a tragic conclusion, while the romantic material from Arcadia is converted into a sub-plot. Cymbeline relegates the Holinshed historical plot to second place, focussing instead on the romance for the main plot. This combination is unusual. The basic romance plot - the story of a wager on a wife's chastity and her wandering in disguise as a page - hardly seems enough for a Shakespearean drama, particularly as Shakespeare has already exploited the idea of a young woman disguised as a page in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Twelfth Night. J. C. Maxwell labels Cymbeline `experimental', stating that it has a `deliberate incongruity' and shows `comic exploitation of conventions', using the audience's familiarity with romance plots as a metatheatrical comedic device. John Wain states that it is Shakespeare's `most avant-garde work'.

Cymbeline and the other romance plays certainly use source material with great awareness, both self-awareness and awareness of the audience's theatrical knowledge. Pericles mainly uses Gower's Confessio Amantis as its source, but also shows awareness of the Latin romance Apollonius of Tyre in its inclusion of the brothel scenes. The theme of virgins defending their honour was a common favourite of Greek romance, but such unsavoury subject matter was culled in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare's return to classical sources would have provided a new dimension for a Renaissance audience, so that, although there are many similarities between the romance plays in terms of plotting, the treatment of the subject matter gives the audience a new experience with each one. Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest all centre around separated parents and children, but The Winter's Tale exploits the audience's assumption that an actor playing a statue could never come to life, and The Tempest and Pericles add a magical element, challenging our understanding of realism and illusion. The Tempest, like Pericles, uses a shipwreck to bring about romance, but in The Tempest the shipwreck is engineered by Prospero, who, like the playwright, controls much of the action onstage. Shakespeare uses the audience's knowledge of romantic plot devices and confounds their expectations.

Shakespeare also allows for our knowledge of his work. In The Winter's Tale the language at the beginning of the play shares many similarities with Othello, a play that centres on the theme of jealousy. Shakespeare's audience might feel he is repeating earlier work by exploring Leontes' jealousy, but Shakespeare shows his awareness of this by deliberately echoing Othello linguistically and then taking The Winter's Tale in a different direction, towards a comic resolution rather than a tragic one. In the following quotation from Act 2 Scene 1 Iago describes the interaction between Cassio and Desdemona:

He takes her by the palm…Ay, smile upon her do…it had been better you had not kissed your three fingers so often which now again you are so apt to play the sir in…Yet again your fingers to your lips?...Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand? Didst not mark that?

This language is echoed by Leontes in Act 1 Scene 2, who in this comparison is both Iago and Othello, convincing himself of his wife's betrayal:

But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers

As now they are, and making practised smiles…

Didst note it?...Didst perceive it?...

Kissing with inside lip?

Leontes picks up several aspects of Iago's language, such as the paddling palms, and of Iago's rhetoric, such as the leading questions like `Didst not mark that?'. Shakespeare leads the audience to expect a tragic tale of jealousy and murder, or a cautionary tale like the source matter, Pantosto, in which the wronged wife does not come back to life and the King commits suicide after having lustful feelings for his own daughter. Instead, Shakespeare seems to change genres, exploring pastoral comedy as well as court drama, and the happy resolution, going against both the darker first act and against Pantosto, should truly take the audience by surprise, as both plot and genre have led us to expect something different.

There is a mixture of linguistic styles in The Winter's Tale, reinforcing the mixture of genres. In the first act Mamillius, picking up on the sombre mood of the court, starts to tell a sad tale for winter, but is prevented. In contrast Hermione's language is playful and humorous. The relationship between the doomed Antigonus and his dominating wife Paulina seems more suited to comedy than to tragedy, making Antigonus' demise and Paulina's later impassioned role surprising. Lee Bliss in `Pastiche, burlesque and tragicomedy' describes such a mixture of styles and linguistic registers in Marston's theatrical duo as verbal parody:

Language becomes an index of moral attitudes, yet is itself scrutinized as an instrument for expressing and controlling human experience.

The juxtaposition of styles makes the audience aware of the use of language, and thereby makes us more critical of the effect language, particularly in drama, has on us and on our attitude towards various characters. Marston takes this to an extreme, employing a wide range of dissonant linguistic registers. His fools and fops misuse language, but also employ Senecan stoicism; Antonio exhibits both Petrarchan idealism and suicidal despair; and all action is halted for a 20-line duet in Italian. This makes the audience aware of different dramatic conventions, both classical and contemporary, and the way in which many Renaissance critics and playwrights try to combine them.

This metatheatricality is often present in the romances, as well as in Marston's plays. Marston's self-awareness begins in his challenge to theatrical conventions in calling Antonio and Mellinda a product of `slight idleness' in the Prologue and in his tongue-in-cheek dedication of the printed text to `Nobody'. Marston also calls attention to his theatrical venue, Children of Paul's, in which the company was comprised of boys. Antonio and Mellinda begins with the conventional dramatic introduction, an apparently spontaneous pre-play discussion among the actors, becomes a comment upon acting itself. The boy players enter with their parts in hand, concerned about their ability to play adults. They also comment critically upon the recognisable dramatic types they are being asked to play, such as the tyrant conqueror - `Such rank custom is grown popular'.

This type of metatheatrical comment is present, more subtly, in The Winter's Tale. Shakespeare puns extensively on the word `play', first through Leontes in Act 1 Scene 2:

Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I

Play too, but so disgrac'd a part, whose issue

Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamor

Will be my knell.

Leontes is bitterly commenting on Hermione's infidelity, seeing her as playing a part and forcing him into the part of the cuckold who must demand justice, but this can also be understood as the character knowing he must play an unpopular part. This is juxtaposed with Mamillius' version of `play' in the more innocent sense of the word. In Act IV Perdita wishes she has flowers to strew on Florizel and he asks if she means like a corpse:

No, like a bank, for love to lie and play on:

Not like a corpse; or if - not to be buried,

But quick and in mine arms. Come, take your flow'rs:

Methinks I play as I have seen them do

In Whitsun pastorals. Sure this robe of mine

Does change my disposition.

Perdita is aware of the pastoral image into which Shakespeare places her; she is playing the part of the rustic maiden, and her `robe' or costume converts her into such a character. Thereby Shakespeare both evokes the pleasant pastoral scene his audience expects to see in a country comedy and comments on the popularity of such an unreal scene in contemporary drama.

Marston shows a similar awareness of dramatic types and other plays in Antonio's Revenge. The play contains many verbal and visual allusions to Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, one of the most popular revenge tragedies, and also to Titus Andronicus, Seneca's Thyestes, Medea and Octavia. Piero, the cruel tyrant of the play, is evidently inspired by The Jew of Malta's Barabas, and the tyrant type is commented on within the play. Just before Piero murders the stock villain Strotzo in a trick reminiscent of The Spanish Tragedy Strotzo mocks Piero's exaggerated tyrant's rant, making the audience aware of the absurdity of the character and of the play. Similarly Shakespeare makes his audience aware of the extremes of tragedy and comedy by juxtaposing them, showing us the absurdity of categorising drama in this way.