Shakespeare’s Double Vision

Shakespeare: The Four Romances

by Robert M. Adams
Norton, 178 pp., $19.95

“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…

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