Shakespeare: The Four Romances
“The comfortable book on Shakespeare is one of those not worth writing”—an irresistible beginning! Yet anyone who expects an uncomfortable book to follow is going to be disappointed. Mr. Adams expresses his personal views, some of which may not please unidentified opponents, yet so pithily, so benignly, that one chuckles from page to page. With a minimum of footnotes, no name-dropping, no straining or strutting to impress, Shakespeare: The Four Romances is set down with as much modesty as cunning—one of those rare books on Shakespeare that is a genuine delight to read.
Mr. Adams, much as he likes to go his own way, begins with definitions. The romances (“clearly different from the sorts of plays Shakespeare had previously written”) tell “a story of search or quest in which a wanderer, displaced for one reason or other, seeks a goal which, if only for purposes of the tale, is accepted as ultimate.” In all four romances (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) “a major feature of the action is a royal child lost in infancy…and after trials and dangers restored.” Three of the plays “are strikingly episodic,” characterization “is not strongly marked,” “supernatural incidents often occur,” all four “operate at a lower and a more diffused level of psychic tension than the immediately preceding tragedies”—and these characteristics, collectively, “give the four plays a very distinctive flavor.”
This initial definition brings no surprises, as Mr. Adams cheerfully admits. Indeed, having done his duty he backs away (“definition is impossible”), and later adds that each play is, of course, unique. Yet the “distinctive flavor” continues to intrigue him, and he returns to it in a fine concluding chapter, picking up an earlier aside that these plays “are suffused with a visionary spirit.” The plays are “translucent,” a quality repeatedly stressed in discussing the romances, “a quality of seeing through characters without ceasing to see them, of moving in one direction with the logic of statement and in others with devices of allusion and implication.”
Sooner or later every critic of the romances finds himself struggling in deep waters or marooned on an island. Mr. Adams is a Prospero-critic who amuses himself by sometimes pretending that he is Caliban. He proposes “to go at the texts with a minimum of methodological apparatus, if only to find out how far one can get that way,” which, as others will mutter ungratefully, is itself something of a methodological apparatus. Be that as it may, and whether or not one agrees with his starting-point, it is sobering to be told so bluntly that he does not care for the fashionable “parallel between Cymbeline and James the peacemaker of England,…nothing can make the political cross-reference work very well,” or that he is cautious about an even more widely shared view of The Tempest (“it’s easy to exaggerate Prospero into an early instance of ‘plantation mentality’ “).
For some decades now Mr. Adams has cast a cold eye upon the deeper waters. In an acclaimed early book (Ikon: John Milton and the Modern Critics, Cornell University Press, 1955) he protested against those who “overread.”
By “overreading” I mean overloading the allegory, probing too deeply into the background of the imagery, and enlarging upon the incidental implications of secondary concepts.
He still carries the same stick, not so much to strike down others as to define his own position. He declares that he “holds aloof from polemic…. I have done a minimum of challenging,” but it is clear that “the modern critics” are still in business, and that he still likes some even less than others.
Perhaps because of his antipathy to “overreading,” Mr. Adams occasionally disappoints by pulling himself up short—on principle, as it were—just when he scents an opportunity.
A lot of miscellaneous sleeping takes place in [The Tempest]: it contributes to the languid, unreal atmosphere of the island, and it may serve—witness the inconvenient crew—as a temporary storage device. Whether it is anything more is arguable. No sleeper except Caliban remembers the content of his dreams.
And again: “I cannot feel that the sea, for all its pervasive presence in [The Tempest], provides much more than atmosphere.”
The principle at stake in much of Mr. Adams’s earlier criticism is the belief that ” ‘organic’ unity as an exclusive wholesale criterion of critical judgement is a cant phrase out of eighteenth-century Germany, dependent on a sort of muzzy metaphysics,” as he put it in 1955.
For good or for evil, much of Milton’s imagery is strictly decorative; his overtones exist to be realized and forgotten, not to be exalted into general principles and large-scale structural devices.
He now adopts a similar position: the sea and the sleeping in The Tempest provide “atmosphere,” perhaps nothing more, an atmosphere that sits on the play’s surface.
Yet in the chapter on Pericles Mr. Adams scented something similar: the hero’s wanderings “have the quality of a long, anxious dream…. Persons no less than places have the translucent, disconnected quality of figures in a dream.” And what of those sleeping scenes in Cymbeline (Imogen’s bedroom, her supposed death and awakening, the dream of Posthumus)? And the nightmare-like effect of Leontes’ jealousy in The Winter’s Tale? It may be that sleeping and dreaming are not peculiar to The Tempest, and should be seen as a common factor in Shakespeare’s romances, even if always adapted to the special needs of each play.
Once we make this connection it dawns on us that, while the dream’s content may or may not matter, what really interested Shakespeare was the moment of awakening, which could become a painful self-recognition, even a rebirth. Pericles emerges from his stupor, Leontes from his obsession and later his penitence, Imogen and Posthumus from their dream-visions, Alonso from the recital of his crimes—which leads to confusion, adjustment, a redefinition of self. (In this, as in so much else, King Lear anticipated the romances. Mr. Adams holds that “the strongest premonitions of the romances to come are found…in the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.” I think he understates the case for King Lear.)
While there is now fairly general agreement that the “organicism” of literary works should not be pressed too hard, it does not follow that all the images of a play are merely decorative, nor would Mr. Adams suggest it. Some images will be more important than others, depending on their local interaction, their function in a larger design—and in that design the sleeping and sea imagery may indeed pull together. Prospero’s long narration in The Tempest (Act I, scene 2), where he tells Miranda of the wrongs they suffered years ago, when she was an infant, already begins to intertwine these seemingly separate images—it gives Shakespeare the opportunity to tell the audience what it needs to know, and at the same time to reveal a festering wound in Prospero’s mind. (John Wood, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s memorable 1989 production, feels the full pain again as he speaks, and so it should be.)
In short, The Tempest deals with “the dark backward and abysm” (I.2.50) of the mind, with its brooding on the past, its conscious and semiconscious impulses—hence, in part, the miscellaneous sleeping noted by Mr. Adams. And water imagery, as Shakespeare was well aware, is particularly useful if one wants to describe the less visible motions of the mind (“My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr’d; / And I myself see not the bottom of it,” Troilus and Cressida, III.3.303-4). So the “wild waters” and “stinking pitch” of the sea-storm (Tempest, I.2.2-4) perhaps intimate the inner tempest in Prospero’s mind, just as the “filthy mantled pool” in which Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban dance “up to th’ chins” (IV.1.182) may reflect on their states of mind.
Mr. Adams is one of the exceptional critics who sees with his own eyes—often sees what others have missed—and who has a style of his own. Here is part of his concluding paragraph on The Winter’s Tale:
The climate of belief implied in the play is incurious and uncritical to a degree, but it fills the cosmos; the characters breathe the air of an unquestioning eclecticism, but it renders the commonplace luminous. At that concluding uncanonical ceremonial which brings the families together, we smile at the absurd neatness of it all, yet are touched by the thought of a new spring for the familiar world. Nature itself is a sacramental presence in the play; it is dirt, it is holy; given the blessing of art, it is all the more nature.
How much there is here to linger on, and come back to! The paragraph picks up some of the points made earlier, and also sows seeds, for which Mr. Adams has a special talent. For instance, the “climate of belief” goes back to his perception that the characters of The Winter’s Tale repeatedly emphasize the “minimal grounds” for accepting the story.
Accepting the story, in spite of its own disclaimers, for what can be made of it, becomes a test to be passed…. Instead of being invited or lured, one is provoked into belief.
As one lingers, however, one also sees other possibilities. “The climate of belief…is incurious and uncritical”—true, in certain scenes. But what of the first three acts, of the ever louder voices of disbelief that batter against Leontes’ conviction that Hermione has been unfaithful? Camillo, Polixenes, Paulina, Hermione herself, the oracle: we cannot maintain that their reaction is uncritical, though Leontes’ own surrender of reason may have something to do with what Shakespeare asks of us in the statue scene, and in the play as a whole: “It is requir’d / You do awake your faith” (V.3.94-5). So it may be that we should take a wider view—of belief and unbelief interacting, a process that culminates in the daring “mingle” of Leontes’ response to the statue:
But yet, Paulina,
Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing
So aged as this seems….
The interacting of belief and unbelief begins in the very first scene, as Archidamus wryly waves away Camillo’s extravagance that “they that went on crutches ere he [the King’s son] was born, desire yet their life to see him a man.” “If the King had no son,” says Archidamus, “they would desire to live on crutches till he had one.” So unobtrusively Shakespeare prepares the ground. And of course he added Autolycus to the story to bring the collisions of belief and unbelief into sharper focus.
Mr. Adams writes at length and illuminatingly about Autolycus. “He enters the play from nowhere in particular, and departs in the same direction; he is detached and utterly unpredictable.” Whereas Camillo, a man of honor, “unhesitatingly betrays his word given to Florizel…. Autolycus, a professional thief and deceiver, refuses to snitch on the eloping lovers, citing professional ethics, no less.”
Though Autolycus has many appearances, he is a most insubstantial piece of dramatic substance…. His business is illusion; so is his nature…. In Autolycus we have an instance, exceptional mainly in its pointedness, of Shakespeare larking with his entire relation to the theater.
Autolycus exists in part to augment the apparent inconsequentiality in the story (compare the suddenness of Leontes’ jealousy, the bear, the statue). Mr. Adams notes something similar in the other romances—in Pericles “the characters bring about neither the misfortunes with which for years they are overwhelmed nor the happy ending to which they are led.” Or again, “Cymbeline himself and his close family provide a major center of vacancy…. Having defeated the Romans through no merit of his own, he submits to imperial authority for no particular reason.” Here, for once, Mr. Adams loses patience: either defiance or compliance would have been acceptable, “but to have a king shift from one to the other for no apparent reason, especially when men have given their lives on his first say-so, is intolerable.” He takes a more generous view of The Winter’s Tale, and one more consistent with his own thinking elsewhere: “This sense of airy vacancy in the play contributes to a lack of moral pressure that may well be one of the most precious things about it.”
We have reached the central issue for a critic of the romances—their apparent unseriousness, after “the concentrated fury,” as Mr. Adams aptly calls it, of the tragedies. Like others he asks “why Shakespeare embarked on such a new path toward the end of his career.” (Did Shakespeare know that he was near the end of his career? He wrote the romances in his mid-forties.) We are advised that
the notion that Shakespeare in taking up romances was following the lead of Beaumont and Fletcher trips over obstinate chronology: Pericles had to be written no later than the first months of 1608, Philaster cannot possibly be moved back far enough to constitute an influence.
To which we may add that the Beaumont and Fletcher play formula has as much in common with All’s Well That Ends Well as with the romances. The younger men were dedicated Shakespeare followers, whereas Shakespeare, at this point in his career, did not imitate others—he followed himself.
Another explanation of the romances was once offered by Lytton Strachey. Having completed thirty or so plays, Shakespeare had run out of steam, he was getting bored.
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.
This theory now has few backers, yet Strachey’s account of the plays themselves may still strike us as valid.
Thus strangely remote is the world of Shakespeare’s latest period; and it is peopled, this universe of his invention, with beings equally unreal, with creatures either more or less than human, with fortunate princes and wicked step-mothers, with goblins and spirits, with lost princesses and insufferable kings. And of course, in this sort of fairy land, it is an essential condition that everything shall end well.*
Remote, unreal—yes, and often deliberately “causeless” as well, pulling away from the bread-and-butter world as we know it. To return to psychobiography for a moment, it may be that the dramatist was not so much bored as supremely self-confident, after the triumph of the tragedies. He was now recognized as a classic, he was “our Shakespeare,” he could please himself. The idea that he imitated Beaumont and Fletcher because that would please the audience overlooks the fact that the romances resemble Beaumont and Fletcher’s only superficially—even if they came later than Philaster, etc., which is unlikely, they are so much more multidimensional. Shakespeare attempted absolutely new marvels in each of these “last plays” and we have no reason to doubt his artistic seriousness, however “unreal” their stories may appear to be. He must have thought the material worthy of his genius.
Strachey didn’t, being bothered by the gap between a faultless style and characters and events that he, the critic, could not take seriously. When Mr. Adams proposes, in a characteristic aside, a spoof on Cymbeline (“a play like Tom Stoppard’s joyous spoof on Hamlet, but focussing on the ethical and emotional dilemmas of Pisanio”), I wonder whether, like Strachey, he misses the point that Cymbeline is already a kind of spoof, though a more subtle one than its near-contemporary, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Shakespeare, master of his craft, soars away into the Land of Romance, accepts its conventions—and at the same time asks us to smile at their absurdities.
Consider the celebrated speech of Imogen after her supposed death:
[Awakening] Yes, sir, to Milford Haven. Which is the way?
I thank you. By yond bush? Pray, how far thither?
‘Ods pittikins! can it be six mile yet?
I have gone all night. Faith, I’ll lie down and sleep.
But, soft! no bedfellow. O gods and goddesses! [Seeing the body]
These flow’rs are like the pleasures of the world;
This bloody man, the care on’t. I hope I dream;
For so I thought I was a cave-keeper,
And cook to honest creatures. But ‘tis not so;
‘Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing,
Which the brain makes of fumes. Our very eyes
Are sometimes, like our judgements, blind….
(Cymbeline, IV.2.291 ff.)
What exactly is going on? A typical romance heroine in a pretty confusion? At first Imogen speaks as if still dreaming (and perhaps the editor’s insertion, “Awakening,” is a mistake; she could be talking in her sleep). She seems to decide “I’ll lie down and sleep” while still dreaming; the shock of seeing the body must have some effect but, though now more conscious of her “real” surroundings, she hopes she dreams—then recollects the cave and its “honest creatures,” and thinks that they, at least, must have been a dream. While these various uncertainties play through her mind we are given the opportunity to anticipate what follows—that she is bound to conclude that the headless body wearing her husband’s clothes must be her husband’s. We know it isn’t, and we look back and appreciate, for the first time, all the little authorial strategems that have brought about this improbable situation. The complexities of what had seemed thin material are suddenly obvious—complexities of plotting, mental process, language—and we become conscious of the magician, the master dramatist who can still manage to speak through Imogen while so many other things are moving forward. ” ‘Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing….”
Humor and language can be as personal as the human face. “Language most shows a man: speak,” said Ben Jonson, “that I may see thee.” Ariosto and Cervantes and Shakespeare all smile at the conventions of romance, each in his own way, and Shakespeare’s complete mastery of language in the romances contributes no less potently. The naturalness of so many of the lines and half-lines in Imogen’s speech counterpoints the artifice of the situation. I am reminded of Die Zauberflöte, another highly textured “language,” richly humorous and personal, where, again, genius stoops to play with the conventions of a lower order of art—a spotless prince and princess, monsters, an enchantress, a benevolent wizard—embraces them and magically transforms them. The effect is delightful because genius here adopts a double vision, simultaneously adult and child, sophisticated and silly, a difficult combination, perhaps only possible when the artist is quite confident that he will be taken seriously. Shakespeare, like Mozart, had conquered his world: in his own theater, performed by his own company, he expected to be recognized—and that his originality would be felt, if not understood.
Not every critic is comfortable in the sophisticated–playful world of the romances. Mr. Adams understands their profundities and loves their absurdities. So we may say, in conclusion, that he has written a “comfortable book” in spite of himself, and one that was well worth writing.
Lytton Strachey, "Shakespeare's Final Period," in Books & Characters (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922).↩
Whose Shakespeare? February 15, 1990
Lytton Strachey, “Shakespeare’s Final Period,” in Books & Characters (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922).↩