Romances or Tragicomedies in Shakespeare’s Last Plays

Shakespeare's last plays 'romances' effectively continue the irregular line of development of his earlier works by interfacing comic and tragic themes with a new intensity. All these romances deal in one way or another with evil and innocence, guilt and atonement, uncorrupted youth undoing original sin and starting life afresh. Mythology, folklore, and magic find their way into these plays to a greater degree than in any other of Shakespeare's matured works.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

In Pericles, Marina and her mother, both assumed to be dead, are found at the end alive and innocent; in Cymbeline, lmogen similarly comes alive again: in The Winter's Tale, the statue of Hermione proves in the end to be the living Hermione, long thought dead; and in The Tempest, Alonso and his company is miraculously redeemed from drowning to find repentance and new virtues.

Shakespeare's poetic symbolism is directly connected with the tragic contradictions of human nature. With the passage of time, his poetic symbols too move to a larger realm. His later symbols deal with the moral arrays and the other human potentials of life that can be projected with the peaceful beauty of one who is does not have any tragic flaw.

Shakespeare turns from the psychological realism of the great tragedies to a new, more symbolic kind of play in which he could come to terms with the problem of evil in a different manner. Pericles, his another famous play deals with the themes of religion, death, resurrection, ritual purification and the redemptive power of innocence.

In Cymbeline, an element of fairy tale runs right through the play. The theme, as of Pericles is innocence triumphant, emerging victorious from the darkest possible circumstances. This is a tragicomedy, a play in which all the terror of tragedy is given full vent before the tide is allowed to turn.

In such romances evil in all its horror is imported directly. Salvation comes from magic or coincidence, and the ritual of pardon is performed in the serenity of a brave new world in which we cannot literally believe.

Part of the essential tragedy of Hamlet and Othello is that one can never undo the past; evil once done is done, and there is no way of restoring the lost world of innocence. But in these last plays, Shakespeare finds a way of at least partially undoing evil.

The Tempest treats the theme of forgiveness and the younger generation. It is a magic play full of grave beauty. It is a play out of this world, a wish-fulfilled play in which virtue has all the power and innocence meets its appropriate destiny. The setting of the play is in the island.

In this way, his plays dramatize how treachery, calumny, and tyranny distort human and political relationship, and similarly the humanist ideals of self-discipline and self-knowledge are represented as counters to public and private misgovernment.

The main characteristics of these plays can be summed up as follows:

  1. Application of the new method breaking some sort of tradition.
  2. Tragic incident, but the ending is happy.
  3. Peace, calm, serene and genial atmosphere.
  4. Exercise of noblest emotion.
  5. Feeling of human life.
  6. Reconciliation, atonement, forgiveness, beauty, love, mirth and grief of youth are emphasized.
  7.  Manifestation of mature characters.

In the last of his plays, in collaboration with John Fletcher, Shakespeare returned to the Matter of England in his play Henry VIII. It has the indeterminate mixture of history, tragedy, comedy, pageant, and spectacle. It has dignified a wronged woman and, perhaps more distinctively, it has domesticated a queen.

Shakespeare was more than a brilliant dramatist and man of the theatre: he was also the greatest poet the English language has yet produced. He began his literary career as a poet and he never ceased to be fascinated by the poetic possibilities of image, conceit, metaphor, and symbol. As for all truly great poets, language was for him not only expensive, but cognitive and exploratory; for him, the nature of reality could be probed by the very fact of rendering it in poetic speech. He had the true objectivity of the artist, the supreme craftsmanship of the man of the theater, a human curiosity about man and his nature, an extraordinary ability to conceive and create characters, and an unrivaled mastery of the English language. That was William Shakespeare: he remains the unchallenged champion in the whole field of English literature.

Related Topic

William Shakespeare: Biography