If Shakespeare’s tragedies give us the measure of what it means to sink beneath the burden of history, crushed by ‘The weight of this sad time’ (King Lear, V.iii.324), his comedies and romances create opportunities to explore the way the world might look and feel with the dead weight of prevalence and probability lifted from its shoulders. The tragedies are preoccupied with the destruction of the potential by the actual, of the more desirable forms living might take by the forces currently conspiring to obstruct their realization. But in his Elizabethan romantic comedies, and in the haunting last plays of his Jacobean period, Shakespeare’s gaze is levelled at the remote horizon of what could be, rather than absorbed in the immediate tyranny of what is. The primary concern of these plays is to dramatize the surrender of the prevailing to the possible, the triumph of benevolent human desires over the harsh constraints of historical actuality. The wishful projection of this metamorphosis is always qualified, however, by a realistic registration of the fact that humanity remains in thrall so far to the callous sway of the here and now. Reassessed from this point of view, Shakespearean comedy and romance could be argued to be no less powerful and valuable than the tragedies. For they can be seen as pursuing an equally uncompromising assault on the existing terms of life, through their overt education of our imagination in utopian norms and expectations. Needless to say, this is not how plays such as As You Like It or The Winter’s Tale are regarded in the standard accounts.
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