Magical and Mundane Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Last Plays: A New Approach

by Frances Yates
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 140 pp., $10.25

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

Years of courtly and esoteric studies have made Frances Yates, vicariously, a learned Renaissance courtier, skilled in the allegory of royal pageants, a great reader of the political implications of tapestries, a sympathetic invisible witness at the dinner party in London at which Giordano Bruno expounded his theory of the infinite plurality of worlds to Elizabethan noblemen, probably including Fulke Greville, perhaps Sir Philip Sidney. In Shakespeare’s Last Plays her New Approach is to attend the plays as though a member of a court party intent on the revival, through James I’s children, of the great days of Elizabeth as the champion of Protestantism on the Continent, the days of Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser, the mathematician-magician John Dee. Miss Yates is caught up in high hopes for high people. Young idealistic Prince Henry has been enhanced by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones as the reviver of chivalry in “Prince Henry’s Barriers” and “Masque of Oberon.” Suddenly, in 1612, Henry is taken ill and dies, while plans are in progress for his sister Elizabeth’s marriage to Frederick, the Elector Palatine.

The hopes now turn on them. It is Shakespeare, this time, who expresses them, in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. He had already written Cymbeline about the royal children. Henry and his younger brother Charles are represented as Guiderius and Arviragus, Frederick as Posthumus Leonatus (his royal insignia was the lion), and Elizabeth as Imogen. The play was not shown at the wedding in 1613, “because, I suggest, Prince Henry and his plans were so deeply built into Cymbeline that the prince could not be removed without wrecking the play, and the Prince was dead.”

Some years ago, Miss Yates wrote a book on The Valois Tapestries (1959) which concluded that their courtly scenes were produced by a Flemish designer “in the confidence of William of Orange as a plea to Catherine de’ Medici and Henry III to support Anjou’s venture in the Netherlands.” The present book is an attempt to read the late plays in the same way, as art aimed at a political result. It is a strange enterprise, which fails. Chronology alone makes its thesis impossible, for recorded performances of all three plays antedate not only the marriage of Elizabeth to Frederick but the decision that it should take place.

Yet the book has real interest, of two kinds. It contains much that is suggestive about the ambiance of Shakespeare’s later Jacobean work, with illustration of themes and attitudes he was dramatizing, including magical ideas and attitudes Yates has studied exhaustively, notably in her great book on Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). It also exhibits the spectacle, not without interest and pathos, of a great student of magic herself falling into magical thinking. Magic takes imagination literally, and that is just what Yates tries to do with Shakespeare, enacting on a very scholarly plane a sort…

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