Did Shakespeare know they were his ‘last plays’? Or his ‘late romances’? The very terms by which scholars habitually refer to Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest, All Is True (Henry VIII) and The Two Noble Kinsmen, all composed between about 1607 and 1613 – between Shakespeare’s 43rd year and his 49th – compound the issue of genre with questions of biography. Given the fates that overtook his colleagues Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd in 1593 and 1594 – the one stabbed to death at 29, the other eventually dying after an extensive and painful interrogation – you could argue that Shakespeare might have felt that he had been living on borrowed time since the age of thirty. Ben Jonson survived into his mid-sixties (having had the good fortune, at 26, to kill the 20-year-old actor Gabriel Spencer instead of being killed by him), but Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher both died in their mid-forties, Francis Beaumont at thirty, while Henry Porter (whose Two Angry Women of Abingdon influenced The Merry Wives of Windsor) may have been still younger when he was killed in a duel by John Day, another playwright, in 1599. John Lyly, who gave up writing for 15 years to concentrate on his unsuccessful career in politics, made it to his early fifties, and John Marston lived to nearly sixty. But Marston relinquished the theatre in 1609 to spend the last 25 years of his life as a priest, perhaps calculating that his chances of being killed by a fellow canon were much lower than the chances of being cut down by a rival scriptwriter or a disaffected leading man. A cheerful recent stained-glass window in an annexe at Christchurch Priory in Dorset nonetheless represents Marston as a bearded and beruffed young man sitting with a balder companion in front of two tankards of ale. Sadly, today’s visual shorthand for ‘morally intense Jacobean playwright who took holy orders’, even in the church where he prayed for a quarter of a century, is just ‘bloke in pub with Shakespeare’. You can have written as many Malcontents and Dutch Courtesans as you like, but nowadays your chief claim to immortality will be that you probably knew the author of The Tempest.
Often depicting physical and psychological traumas as extreme as any in the tragedies, but finding their ways via magic, miracles and divine interventions to endings as prone to betrothals and family reunions as those of the comedies, Shakespeare’s late plays speak at once of mature sophistication and of second childhood. They frequently draw on texts remembered from his youth: The Winter’s Tale dramatises a prose romance from 1588, Pandosto, appropriately written by the same Robert Greene who accused Shakespeare of being a plagiaristic ‘upstart crow’, while both The Tempest and Cymbeline borrow from Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, a creaky anonymous play of the early 1580s about an exiled courtier who lives in a cave and exercises magical powers derived from his books. The plots of the late plays revert nakedly towards fairy tale, in ways Ben Jonson, for one, found embarrassing: in 1614, in the induction to Bartholomew Fair, Jonson promised that his play would not include a ‘servant-monster’ like Caliban, and he ridiculed The Two Noble Kinsmen in the play itself. In ‘An Ode on Himself’, 15 years later, Jonson was still lamenting that theatre audiences undervalued his scrupulous satirical realism, preferring ‘some mouldy tale/Like Pericles’. But despite their apparently naive narrative materials, the linguistic textures and dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s late plays reach with effortless accomplishment towards impossible difficulty, as if making one final push at the boundaries of playmaking.
This difficulty is what has made Shakespeare’s last plays so attractive to scholars and literary critics ever since the invention of English literature as an academic discipline at the end of the 19th century, a development which contributed to the more general modernist bid to rescue Shakespeare from easy popularity. Even the mock-medieval Pericles – which if it weren’t for its depictions of incest and prostitution might look like a very superior piece of children’s theatre – provided endless opportunities for tours de force of textual criticism, thanks to its survival only in a damaged and unreliable quarto, with the additional teasing possibility of its having been co-written with the unsavoury George Wilkins (suspected brothel-keeper, convicted perpetrator of various acts of violence against women, and playwright). Lytton Strachey, it’s true, wasn’t keen. In ‘Shakespeare’s Final Period’ (published in Books and Characters, 1922) he wrote that the last plays just showed that in his latter years Shakespeare was ‘bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams. He is no longer interested, one often feels, in what happens, or who says what, so long as he can find place for a faultless lyric, or a new, unimagined rhythmical effect, or a grand and mystic speech.’
For many modernists, however, the last plays showed Shakespeare at his most laudably and bracingly un-Victorian. They were consciously experimental, impatient with vulgar realism, aesthetically dissonant, apparently intended for an intellectual elite rather than a mass audience. Among modern poets, they begat Eliot’s ‘Marina’ (one of the ‘Ariel Poems’, 1930) and Auden’s ‘The Sea and the Mirror’ (1944), and among academics they begat criticism: the first of E.M.W. Tillyard’s lastingly influential books on Shakespeare, for instance, was Shakespeare’s Last Plays (1938). They have continued to inspire criticism: before Seth Lerer’s Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage appeared, this century’s crop already included Russ McDonald’s Shakespeare’s Late Style (2006), Gordon McMullan’s Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing (2007) and a Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Last Plays edited by Catherine Alexander (2009).
If there is something intriguingly late aesthetically about these plays, there is also something emphatically last biographically. Whereas Marston and Lyly just stopped writing plays in order to do something else, Shakespeare’s last plays seem to have been followed by a period of voluntary silence. When he died in Stratford in April 1616, on or very close to his 52nd birthday, Shakespeare had apparently not written anything other than his will for two years. Some have explained this by considering his unusual position as both playwright and theatrical entrepreneur, which meant that unlike his more hand-to-mouth colleagues, compelled to keep turning out scripts practically on their deathbeds, Shakespeare could watch the Globe Theatre burn down during an early performance of Henry VIII on 29 June 1613 and, as Samuel Schoenbaum long ago pointed out, decide that this was the perfect time for him to sell his share in the King’s Men, simultaneously funding a comfortable retirement and avoiding paying a portion of the bill for rebuilding the playhouse. Instead of getting involved in the fuss and cost of reconstruction, according to this narrative, Shakespeare contributed just the opening and closing sections of The Two Noble Kinsmen, quite possibly the play with which the restored Globe opened in 1614, and went home to Stratford, leaving his junior colleague Fletcher to fill in the middle acts and take over as the company’s chief scriptwriter.
Other commentators, though, have preferred to see not mere financial calculation but a spiritual trajectory in the end of Shakespeare’s career. Surely he settled into a last tranquil silence only because in The Tempest he had deliberately said his last word? As early as 1667 Dryden was identifying Shakespeare with Prospero, and the notion of The Tempest as the farewell of a magus to his art has been a commonplace ever since Edward Dowden published Shakspere (1877), the sequel to his equally influential William Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875). Dowden divided the playwright’s career into four stages, devising a schema according to which Shakespeare learned his trade ‘In the Workshop’; then wrote the mature comedies and histories ‘In the World’; then wrote the great tragedies, confronting mortality and defeating it, in his penultimate phase, ‘Out of the Depths’. And finally – ‘On the Heights’ – ‘he turned for relief to the pastoral loves of Prince Florizel and Perdita; and as soon as the tone of his mind was restored, gave expression to its ultimate mood of grave serenity in The Tempest, and so ended.’ To Dowden and his followers, all those reunions and reconciliations between middle-aged men and their wives, daughters and sons-in-law – Pericles with Thaisa, Marina and Lysimachus; Cymbeline with Imogen and Posthumus; Leontes with Hermione, Perdita and Florizel; Prospero with Miranda and Ferdinand – spoke above all of Shakespeare’s own return to his wife, Anne, and to his just married and just about to be married daughters, Susanna and Judith. As F.J. Furnivall put it in 1892, ‘at last, in his Stratford home again, peace came to him, Miranda and Perdita in their lovely freshness and charm greeted him, and he was laid by his quiet Avon side. With his wife and daughter again around him, the faultful past was remembered only that the present union might be closer.’
Whether they choose to reject or to ratify it, almost a century and a half after Dowden this is still the account from which most biographers and most critics of the last plays start. Edward Bond’s 1973 play Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death, for instance, derives much of its energy from its determined inversion of Dowden, exploiting the shock value of presenting Shakespeare – originally played by John Gielgud – not as a visionary enjoying a beatific final quietude but as a property-owner belatedly becoming a proto-Marxist indulging in a terminal sulk. Visited by a concerned Ben Jonson, this Shakespeare says only that he is ‘written out’, and drinks himself into a stupor so as not to have to respond to Jonson’s attempts to draw him out on the subject of his enigmatic recent plays (‘What was The Winter’s Tale about? I ask to be polite’). His family life has nothing in common with the endings of the romances, not least because his continuing faultful refusal even to speak to an offstage Anne has driven her violently mad. Rather than dying reconciled to the universe, Bond’s Shakespeare, recognising that the serenity he has tried to buy has merely been ‘stolen’ from the victims of enclosure, poisons himself in despair at how little his career has done to alleviate human suffering.
And then there is Kenneth Branagh’s 2018 film All Is True, which retains something of Bond in its visit from Jonson and in the bitterness it attributes to the Shakespeare who returns to Stratford after the destruction of the Globe. But then it turns back decisively towards Dowden – with the twist that Ben Elton’s script at first ignores The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale in favour of Henry VIII, as per its own title. It presents a Shakespeare who, like the protagonist of his last history play, is obsessed with the failure of his male line (indulging an enduring grief over the death of his son, Hamnet, 17 years earlier, at the expense of his relations with the surviving members of his family), but whose life and indeed death are at the last more comfortably attuned to the closing harmonies imagined in the romances. The film’s implausible but surprisingly poignant final image is of the newly literate Anne, Susanna and Judith reading ‘Fear no more the heat o’the sun,’ the dirge from Cymbeline, at Shakespeare’s funeral. The fact that this poem is often recited or sung at the funerals of Shakespearean actors and directors, and will very likely be heard in due course at Branagh’s own, gives this ending a self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness which further align it with the habits of the last plays.
It is a little inconvenient for accounts of Shakespeare’s last period that insist on explaining it in terms of a return to Stratford that even after ceasing to write for the King’s Men, Shakespeare seems to have remained very much connected to London. Although he had hitherto lived in rented lodgings during his periods in the city, and in 1612 described himself in legal testimony as ‘William Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwick’, in March 1613 he bought a gatehouse close to the King’s Men’s indoor theatre, the Blackfriars. This purchase may have been purely an investment, but a memorandum jotted down by Thomas Greene, Stratford’s town clerk and a relative of Shakespeare’s by marriage, records that while in London on business in November 1614 he paid a visit to ‘my Cosen Shakspeare’: ‘I went to see him howe he did …’ In the spring of 1615, Shakespeare added his name to a petition seeking to ensure that a Mathias Bacon would surrender the title deeds to the estate of which the Blackfriars gatehouse was part. Although his will (first drafted in January 1616 and signed that March) states that the gatehouse was then rented out to a man called John Robinson, Shakespeare clearly did not have any plans to relinquish or forget it.
It is striking to consider how different his posthumous image might have looked had Shakespeare been on one of these errands to London when he died in April 1616, and how different our sense of the last plays might have been. For one thing, Shakespeare would almost certainly have been buried in Westminster Abbey, close to Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser and Francis Beaumont (who had died only the previous month), so that Ben Jonson’s prefatory poem in the First Folio (1623) would not have been obliged to vindicate Shakespeare’s burial in Stratford by landing him with the enduring, tourism-friendly nickname of ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’. With a tomb in London – which, thanks to the proximity of wealthy patrons such as the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Pembroke and King James, might well have been an even more conspicuous and baroque monument than the one that now adorns Holy Trinity in Stratford – and with a life trajectory of province-to-capital rather than province-to-capital-and-back, I suspect Shakespeare would have been associated much more thoroughly by early readers and critics with the culture of the Jacobean court and the Jacobean playhouses. If he had pictured him in Blackfriars and around the Stuarts rather than in the Warwickshire water meadows, the young Milton would probably not have depicted Shakespeare ‘warbling his native woodnotes wild’ in ‘L’Allegro’. Rather than being read as the last inspired musings of a rustic bard dreaming beside his provincial fireside or dreaming of it, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale might simply have looked like symptoms of the courtly vogue for tragicomedy which had been spreading across Europe since the appearance of Guarini’s Il pastor fido in 1590.
The arrival of that fashion in London is more usually associated with Shakespeare’s apprentice John Fletcher, whose The Faithful Shepherdess appeared at around the same time as Pericles. But whether Shakespeare was leading or following this trend he was still very much part of the Jacobean theatrical scene, and very much aware of what was happening at the Jacobean court. All the late plays borrow elements of spectacle from the Jacobean masque: the interrupted operatic display staged for Miranda and Ferdinand by Prospero’s spirits in the guise of goddesses in The Tempest; the cameo appearance made by Jupiter on an eagle in Cymbeline; the dance of satyrs in The Winter’s Tale (apparently a late addition to the play, lifted from Jonson’s Masque of Oberon). Many also have visible connections to Jacobean politics. Cymbeline, Shakespeare’s depiction of an unfortunate episode in ancient British history when repulsive nationalists almost succeeded in taking Britain out of the Roman Empire, engages closely with James VI and I’s unionist and pro-European policy agendas, and the play owes its obsession with Milford Haven (memorably treated as a hilarious, gloriously unlikely running gag in Emma Rice’s prose adaptation in 2006) to the fact of James’s great-great-grandfather Henry Tudor having landed there en route to defeating Richard III and becoming Henry VII. The Tempest, set in the Mediterranean but informed by early experiences of colonialism in the Americas, draws heavily on an account of the shipwreck of the Sea Venture on Bermuda en route to Jamestown in 1609 (William Strachey’s ‘True Reportary of the Wrack and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates’), to which Shakespeare must have had access in manuscript, possibly thanks to his patron Southampton’s involvement in the Virginia Company. Both this play and The Winter’s Tale were performed at court as part of the three months of revels following the marriage of James’s daughter Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine in 1613. Given that this marriage took place hard on the heels of the death of Elizabeth’s older brother, Prince Henry, The Winter’s Tale – in which the betrothal of Leontes’s daughter Perdita to Prince Florizel of Bohemia may or may not appear to compensate Leontes and Hermione for the death of Perdita’s older brother, Mamillius – must have looked painfully appropriate: retrospectively, after Frederick and Elizabeth briefly became king and queen of Bohemia, it might have looked even more so.
Seth Lerer brings to these rich and strange plays, with their contradictory impulses towards topicality, towards the past and towards the beyond, not only a deep knowledge of Jacobean history and culture, but a fine ear. His route into their intricacies is via music: following on from the interest in Renaissance soundscapes pioneered by Bruce Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England (1999) and more recent studies of the tastes cultivated at the Blackfriars such as Simon Smith’s Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse, 1603-25 (2017), Lerer is alert above all to the cadences of the last plays’ dialogue and to the time-stopping, time-confounding moments when their action gives way to song. Whereas to Lytton Strachey the ‘faultless’ lyrics in late Shakespeare stood out because they seemed to be inserted with inadequate regard for dramatic context, for Lerer the incongruities between music, musicality and character – it is, for instance, the gross Cloten who commissions the serenade ‘Hark, hark, the lark’ in Cymbeline, and Caliban who speaks rhapsodically about the sounds and sweet airs that haunt Prospero’s island in The Tempest – are part of a pattern by which Shakespeare both highlights his characters’ sometimes irreconcilable perspectives on what they are hearing and finds in music an escape route, however fleeting, to other times and other ways of being. Ariel’s ‘Where the bee sucks’, the song in which he and consequently the audience imagine the state of perfect freedom possible after and outside The Tempest, provides the purest example. The self-consciously dissonant ways in which poetry and song work across drama are the point. ‘The late works,’ Lerer argues, ‘create a sense of displaced lyric utterance, where set-pieces of poetry and performance signal generational distance and cultural change.’
Lerer’s Shakespeare, involved with Jacobean politics but yearning for an artistic mode of transcending them, is haunted at once by the mythical figure of Orpheus (the supreme artist, but ultimately powerless against death) and by the historical figure of John Dowland, that cult success of the Elizabethan music scene who returned to London after a decade in Denmark in 1606 and struggled to establish himself anew at James’s court. Lerer is particularly good at hearing the notes of nostalgia in late Shakespeare, finding echoes of Elizabethan poems in praise of Dowland, for instance, in Caliban’s evocation of ‘twangling instruments’. While any book on music in the late plays would need to pull out the stops when analysing ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ (which Lerer does, brilliantly), he also finds far more to say about All Is True (Henry VIII) than do many studies of the histories, producing a set-piece of his own when describing the scene in which Katherine of Aragon listens to the Dowlandesque song ‘Orpheus with his lute’ and then enjoys her dream of being offered a crown by angels. The emotions evoked by moments like these, for both onstage characters and their auditors, may be incongruous, difficult and excessive even when they do not gesture, as here, towards an afterlife.
Lerer is a little disappointing on Pericles. Perhaps if that dodgy quarto text had supplied the words Marina sings to Pericles during the climactic recognition scene this section of the book would have been different, but as things stand Lerer doesn’t even seem to have read the mouldiest but most explicitly therapeutic of the last plays very carefully, claiming, oddly, that when the comatose, postpartum Thaisa is washed up on the beach at Ephesus and revived by Cerimon, ‘years’ have passed since Pericles threw her coffin overboard. (Since we are told that Pericles’ storm-tossed ship is just off Ephesus in the scene before this one, in which this premature burial at sea takes place, but that Pericles will now have to make for Tharsus, and since the scene after this one shows Pericles entrusting the newborn Marina to foster parents on his arrival at Tharsus, the scene of Thaisa’s revival as construed by Lerer would be the only example of a flash-forward in Shakespeare, unless we count the vision of Banquo’s future descendants in Macbeth.) Similarly, although he sees the 1623 First Folio as a lovingly sealed time capsule from what by the time of its publication was a lost earlier era, Lerer refuses to have much to do with The Two Noble Kinsmen, on the grounds that its 1634 quarto – which, with equal historical self-consciousness, attributes the play to ‘the memorable Worthies of their time, Mr John Fletcher and Mr William Shakespeare’ – is too much of a museum piece to be considered a reliable record of a Jacobean script. This seems a strange objection to make in a book that is particularly interested in the uncanny ability of poetry and music, even after being embalmed in print for years, to summon previous cultural moments back into the present.
The tone of melancholy audible throughout much of Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage is only partly Jacobean: it is also very much of the early 21st century. One of Lerer’s central questions, which for him is also one of Shakespeare’s, is ‘What is the place of the aesthetic in the exercise of rule?’ As chief playwright for the King’s Men, and close colleague of Jonson, the arch-composer of on-message court masques, Shakespeare was at the end of his career working at a time when Renaissance absolutists like James I were more than happy to employ all the arts, including drama, in the service of power. Lerer wants Shakespeare to have been uncomfortable with this: he is hardly any happier himself in a world in which the powerful seem perfectly at home with the aesthetics of reality television, and are much more likely to outline their agendas in ungrammatical tweets than in baroque allegories. Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage, according to its preface, is ‘an elegy for the imagination’, composed at a time when even universities are increasingly dominated by corporate philistinism. ‘Most men may flatter themselves a Prospero in the classroom,’ Lerer remarks. ‘I have found myself an Ariel among administrators.’ Many readers will hope that this will not be his last book, but nobody is likely to grudge Lerer his freedom from those administrators, whether he chooses to spend his own retirement in a metropolis, in a province, or under the blossom that hangs on the bough.