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About this book

Shakespeare's late plays are a 'mixed bag' with a common theme: from the fiendishly jealous Leontes to the saintly Pericles; from the ineffectual Cymbeline to the omnipotent Propspero; from the 'sprites and goblins' of The Tempest to the famous bear of The Winter's Tale, the characters have excited wonder and contempt while the range of incident is almost irresponsibly extravagant. Was Shakespeare losing his grip, or his interest, or both? Was he striking out in some bold new theatrical direction?

This Guide provides a critical survey of the major debates and issues surrounding the late plays, from the earliest published accounts to the present day. Nicholas Potter offers a clear guiding narrative and an exploration of literary history, focusing on how criticism of these remarkable works, and attempts to make sense of them, have developed over the years.


Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
When John Heminges (died 1630) and Henry Condell (died 1627) assembled the first Folio edition of Shakespeare’s dramatic works for publication in 1623 they arranged them into three sections, Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, in that order, and they placed The Tempest in the first section. By doing so they made a contribution to a significant tendency that they may even have begun: the tendency, that is, to see this late play as the culmination of Shakespeare’s life’s work in the theatre. This tendency begets another (that may have started at the same time): the tendency to regard other plays, seen as similar, as precursor works. These plays together, Pericles (c. 1608), Cymbeline (c. 1610–11), The Winter’s Tale (c. 1611) and The Tempest (1611), form a loose grouping because they are not like the great comedies of the middle period (Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598–9), Twelfth Night (c. 1601), As You Like It (c. 1600)) nor are they quite like the ‘problem plays’ (Troilus and Cressida (c. 1601–2), Measure for Measure (1604), The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–7)1) and, though they have tragic trajectories to start with, they are unlike the great tragedies. Indeed The Tempest buries its tragic part entirely in a long retrospective narrative and is not properly speaking even a ‘tragicomedy’.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter One. The Late Plays: Critical Opinion in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Abstract
It is convenient to collect together in this opening chapter some of the key comments made during nearly two centuries of the early reception of the late plays. This is because there is not very much of it that is of sufficient significance to attract notice for this Guide but also because the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries sees the rapid growth of a veritable industry in literary criticism. It will be useful to recollect some of the comments considered in this opening chapter from time to time, to remind the reader of the whole scope of literary and critical development from Shakespeare’s time to our own. The chapter begins with Dr Samuel Johnson and then discusses the views of two Romantic critics, William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, before moving on to a great Victorian, Edward Dowden and then concluding with Giles Lytton Strachey and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. The last two are particularly significant critics: the first a pioneer Modernist and the second a resolute defender of ‘traditional’ English values, as he saw himself, in literature and in life. Once this background has been firmly established it will be possible to strike out and consider each play individually in subsequent chapters, starting with Pericles and considering each in the order in which it first appeared, through Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale to The Tempest.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Two. Pericles

Abstract
The student of Pericles may be forgiven if he or she becomes confused. Before any question of judgement can arise the question is thrust forward, did Shakespeare write all of it? Quickly following upon the heels of that question is another: if he did not, then who wrote the rest? Here we are into the territory admirably mapped out for us by Suzanne Gossett in her 2004 Arden edition of the play. However we must beware from the beginning: scholarship is not united on the initial question. Doreen DelVecchio and Antony Hammond in their 1998 Cambridge edition claim that the play is all Shakespeare’s, while Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells much earlier, in the Oxford edition of 1984, accept the view that it is a collaboration and set out briefly and clearly their reasons for believing that it is. Suzanne Gossett spells out these reasons in more detail.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Three. Cymbeline (1)

Abstract
Cymbeline has had its supporters, as has been noticed in Chapter 1. Hazlitt, as we have seen, thought it ‘one of the most delightful of Shakespear’s historical plays’,1 and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch felt able to like the play in spite of what Dr Johnson called ‘the folly of the fiction’, though he went on to say that he thought that this proved that ‘Shakespeare is a magical workman so to charm me into forgetting faults so flagrant’.2 Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909), never a great critic it must be said, but a Victorian, stated: ‘The play of plays, which is Cymbeline, remains alone to receive the last salute of all my love. I think, as far as I can tell, I may say I have always loved this one beyond all other children of Shakespeare’.3 There is little evidence in these remarks that the Victorians thought Shakespeare’s powers were failing in Cymbeline. Lytton Strachey did think that of course but he was a self-consciously Modern figure.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Four. Cymbeline (2)

Abstract
In 1682 Thomas D’Urfey (1653–1723) adapted Cymbeline, changing the names and the action, re-titling the play The Injured Princess and in general making the play a more sensationalized and much coarser work,1 but it was the 1761 version of David Garrick (1717–79) that became a theatrical success, surviving for generations, taken over by John Philip Kemble (1757–1823) and lastly by Samuel Phelps. This Garrick-Kemble version was last produced by Phelps in 1864.2 The essay by Helen Faucit (1814–98) on her experience of playing Imogen is a fair testimony to Victorian theatrical tastes, echoed by the account by Anna Jameson (1794–1860) of Imogen in her Shakespeare’s Heroines (1846).3 The play fell out of favour in the 1860s and really is in eclipse in the theatre until Peter Hall (born 1930) revived it in 1957 at Stratford, followed by William Gaskill (born 1930) in 1962 and, amongst others, Bill Alexander in 1987.4 Stephen Orgel’s entertaining review of Danny Sheie’s 2000 production, ‘Cymbeline at Santa Cruz’ displays a postmodern mélange out of which the strongest impression to survive seems to be the impossibility of believing in any of the constituent elements out of which Cymbeline appears to have been made, whether those are taken to be romantic love, a myth of the formation of a political entity (Britain), beliefs about kingship or the stability of sexual identity (tested, as it is in the comedies, only to be confirmed).
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Five. The Winter’s Tale: Early Moderns

Abstract
The twentieth century views The Winter’s Tale very differently from the nineteenth century. While Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, for example, who liked Cymbeline so much, had no high opinion of The Winter’s Tale, critics of the early twentieth century, E M W Tillyard, S L Bethell, F R Leavis and G Wilson Knight, regard The Winter’s Tale as a work of high art.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Six. The Winter’s Tale: Later Moderns

Abstract
The change of perspective, or of temperament, that led to the early twentieth century’s approach to The Winter’s Tale, so very different from the views more common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before it, does not change again. There is a remarkable consistency of view, persisting through many differences of opinion, that The Winter’s Tale is a work of distinctive seriousness. Ernest Schanzer illustrates this point very clearly: he takes issue with E M W Tillyard’s account but does not disagree with his fundamental view that the play deserves, even demands, close and attentive critical discussion.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Seven. The Winter’s Tale: Post-moderns

Abstract
GWilson Knight’s essay on The Winter’s Tale adopts a clearly-defined methodology that is quite at the opposite end of the spectrum of possible approaches from that characteristically adopted by contemporary criticism. When Wilson spoke dismissively of ‘the side-issues of Elizabethan and Jacobean manners, politics, patronage, audiences, revolutions and explorations’, saying that he would be concentrating on ‘the poetic quality and human interest of the plays concerned’,1 he placed his work firmly in the tradition that leads up to that work and that surrounds it, and he demarcated himself sharply from what was to develop soon afterwards.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Eight. The Tempest: Moderns

Abstract
The last two chapters of this Guide consider critical discussion of the play that acts as a focal point for all discussion of the ‘last’ or ‘late’ plays, because it is a play that tempts so many to identify its central character with Shakespeare himself, and Prospero’s farewell to his art as Shakespeare’s own; because it is a consummate work of art and very beautiful; because its thematic material is so rich and condensed; because Heminges and Condell put it at the front of their Folio edition of Shakespeare’s works. The broad distinction already introduced, between Moderns and Postmoderns, will serve here, as elsewhere in this Guide, to indicate broad distinctions of interest: the present chapter discusses some key Moderns; the following chapter some key Postmoderns. F R Leavis’s comments on Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale have already been introduced. Now we turn to his discussion of The Tempest.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Nine. The Tempest: Post-moderns

Abstract
The Tempest is the play of all the late or last plays that lends itself most obviously to postmodern treatment, more so even than Pericles and Cymbeline, plays which have been gleefully exploited in performance by postmodern directors but which lack the crucial element so clearly structural to The Tempest and so important to postmodern thinking, conscious reflexivity. The Tempest is a self-conscious play: a play about theatre, that enacts a piece of theatre (Prospero’s management of the shipwreck and the conduct of the shipwrecked on his island) and that contains a masque deliberately interrupted by Prospero who thus shows that it is his to control. Such a degree of self-consciousness recommends itself to a culture that values self-consciousness as postmodernism does. Self-consciousness manifests itself paradoxically in postmodernism, showing extreme self-doubt and uncertainty at the same time as it enthusiastically embraces fragmentation and inconsistency. Its pursuit of liberation from oppression of all kinds leads it into complex positions and the central essay to be considered in this chapter is not easy reading. It might be argued on the other hand that the play that it addresses is not easy reading either: its clarity has proved deceptive and its apparent willingness to offer itself to a variety of interpretations, let alone uses, is itself instructive, as the following brief survey, that will act as an introduction to this chapter that ends the consideration of the last plays of Shakespeare, will show.
Nicholas Potter

Conclusion: Future Directions

Abstract
The cultural distance that has developed in the course of the twentieth century can be measured by holding in the mind some of what Meredith Skura has been discussing and contrasting it with the following passage from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lectures on The Tempest published in Shakespeare’s Workmanship in 1918. Q imagines the aftermath of the performance:
■ The lights in the royal banqueting-house are out. Tomorrow the carpenters arrive to take down poles, rollers, joists — all the material structure of this play — and, a day after, comes the charwoman to sweep up saw-dust with the odds and ends of tinsel. The lights are out; the company dispersed to go their bright ways and make, in the end, other dust. Ariel has nestled to the bat’s back and slid away, following summer, following darkness like a dream.□
Nicholas Potter
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