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SHAKESPEARE'S LAST ROMANCES: ALL COPIES
“ Winter's Tale”: “Cymbeline ": " The Tempest
HE wheel has swung full circle: Timon is
“ Titus Andronicus”; the pen falls from the nerveless hand. Shakespeare wrote nothing for some time. Even the critics make a break after “ Timon," which closes what they are pleased to call his third period; but they do not seem to see that the break was really a breakdown in health. In “Lear" he had brooded and raged to madness; in “ Timon " he had spent himself in futile, feeble cursings. His nerves had gone to pieces. He was now forty-five years of age, the forces of youth and growth had left him. He was prematurely old and feeble.
His recovery, it seems certain, was very slow, and he never again, if I am right, regained vigorous health. I am almost certain he went down to Stratford at this crisis and spent some time there, probably a couple of years, trying, no doubt, to staunch the wound in his heart, and win back again to life. The fear of madness had frightened him from brooding: he made up his mind to let the dead past bury its dead; he would try to forget and live sanely. After all, life is better than death.
It was probably his daughter who led him back from the brink of the grave.
Almost all his latest works show the same figure of a young girl. He
seems now, for the first time, to have learned that of a maiden can be pure, and in his old idealizing way which went with him to the end, he deified her. Judith became a symbol to him, and he lent her the ethereal grace of abstract beauty. In “ Pericles " she is Marina; in “ The Winter's Tale” Perdita; in “ The Tempest” Miranda. It is probable, when one comes to think of it, that Ward was right when he says that Shakespeare spent his “ elder years » in Stratford; he was too broken to have taken up his life in London again.
The assertion that Shakespeare broke down in health, and never won back to vigorous life, will be + scorned as my imagining. The critics who have agreed to regard Cymbeline," “ The Winter's Tale,” and “The Tempest ” as his finest works are all against me on this point, and they will call for “ Proofs, proofs. Give us proofs,” they will cry, “ that the man who went mad and raved with Lear, and screamed and cursed in "Timon' did really break down, and was not imagining madness and despair.” The proofs are to be found in these works themselves, plain for all men to read.
The three chief works of his last period are romances and are all copies; he was too tired to invent or even to annex; his own story is the only one that interests him. The plot of “ The Winter's Tale” is the plot of “Much Ado about Nothing.' Hero is Hermione. Another phase of “ Much Ado About Nothing” is written out at length in “Cymbeline”; Imogen suffers like Hero and Hermione, under unfounded accusation. It is Shakespeare's own history turned from this world to fairyland: what would have happened, he asks, if the woman whom I believed false, had been true? This, the theme of “Much Ado," is the theme also of “ The
Winter's Tale” and of “ Cymbeline.” The idealism of the man is inveterate: he will not see that it was his own sensuality which gave him up to suffering, and not Mary Fitton's faithlessness. “The Tem
. pest” is the story of “ As you Like it.” We have again the two dukes, the exiled good Duke, who is Shakespeare, and the bad usurping Duke, Shakespeare's rival, Chapman, who has conquered for a time. Shakespeare is no longer able or willing to discover a new play: he can only copy himself, and in one of the scenes which he wrote into Henry VIII.” the copy is slavish.
I allude to the third scene in the second act; the dialogue between Anne Bullen and the Old Lady is extraordinarily reminiscent. When Anne Bullen says
'Tis better to be lowly born,
with humble livers in content,
I am reminded of Henry VI. And the contention between Anne Bullen and the Old Lady, in which Anne Bullen declares that she would not be a queen, and the Old Lady scorns her:
Beshrew me, I would, And venture maidenhead for't; and so would you, For all this spice of your hypocrisy."
is much the same contention, and is handled in the same way as the contention between Desdemona and Emilia in “ Othello."
There are many other proofs of Shakespeare's weakness of hand throughout this last period, if further proofs were needed. The chief character
istics of Shakespeare's health are his humour, his gaiety, and wit-his love of life. A correlative characteristic is that all his women are and indulge in coarse expressions in and out of
This is said to be a fault of his time; but only professors could use an argument which shows such ignorance of life. Homer was clean enough, and Sophocles, Spenser, too; sensuality is a quality of the individual man. Still another characteristic of Shakespeare's maturity is that his characters, in spite of being idealized, live for us a vigorous, pulsing life.
All these characteristics are lacking in the works after “ Timon.” There is practically no humour, no wit, the clowns even are merely boorish-stupid with the solitary exception of Autolycus, who is a pale reflex of one or two characteristics of Falstaff. Shakespeare's humour has disappeared, or is so faint as scarcely to be called humour; all the heroines, too, are now vowed away from sensuality: Marina passes through the brothel unsoiled; Perdita might have milk in her veins, and not blood, and Miranda is but another name for Perdita. Imogen, too, has no trace of natural passion in her: she is a mere washing-list, so to speak, of sexless perfections. In this last period Shakespeare will have nothing to do with sensuality, and his characters, and not the female characters alone, are hardly more than abstractions; they lack the blood of emotion; there is not one of them could cast a shadow. How is it that the critics have mistaken these pale, bloodless silhouettes for Shakespeare's masterpieces ?
In his earliest works he was compelled, as we have seen, to use his own experiences perpetually, not having had any experience of life, and in these, his latest plays, he also uses when he can his own experiences to give his pictures of the world from which he had withdrawn, some sense of vivid life. For example, in “ The Winter's Tale” his account of the death of the boy Mamillius is evidently a reflex of his own emotion when he lost his son, Hamnet, an emotion which at the time he pictured deathlessly in Arthur and the grief of the Queen-mother, Constance. Similarly, in “ Cymbeline,” the joy of the
” brothers in finding the sister is an echo of his own pleasure in getting to know his daughter.
I have an idea about the genesis of these last three plays as regards their order which may be wholly false, though true, I am sure, to Shakespeare's character. I imagine he was asked by the author to touch up “ Pericles.” On reading the play, he saw the opportunity of giving expression to the new emotion which had been awakened in him by the serious sweet charm of his young daughter, and accordingly he wrote the scenes in which Marina figures. Judith's modesty was a perpetual wonder to him.
His success induced him to sketch out “ The Winter's Tale,” in which tale he played sadly with what might have been if his accused love, Mary Fitton, had been guiltless instead of guilty. I imagine he saw that the play was not a success, or, supreme critic as he was, that his hand had grown weak, and seeking for the cause he probably came to the conclusion that the comparative failure was due to the fact that he did not put himself into “ The Winter's Tale,” and so he determined in the next play to draw a full-length portrait of himself again, as he had done in “Hamlet,” and accordingly he sketched Posthumus, a staider, older, idealized Hamlet, with lymph in his veins, instead of blood. In the same idealizing spirit, he pictured