Shakespeare’s romances often make his wildest plots seem tame. In this one, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, loses his wife in a shipwreck and leaves his daughter Marina to be raised by another couple. When Marina’s stepmother Dionyza becomes jealous of her beauty, Dionyza orders her killed–but Marina ends up sold to a brothel where she, hilariously, ends up converting all the patrons while she protects her chastity. The play is far-fetched but exuberantly so–Shakespeare makes his audience not only accept the absurdities but also enjoy them. A good dose of romance both with Marina’s parents and for Marina herself doesn’t hurt, either.
Shakespeare loves his problematic romances, from Viola and Orsino to Isabella and the Duke. In Cymbeline presents a perhaps even more troubling relationship. Princess Imogen has married Posthumus, a good man but one of lower birth. Her father Cymbeline banishes Posthumus who, while abroad, makes a wager that one Jachimo cannot seduce Imogen. Jachimo can’t, but he lies about it and Posthumus orders Imogen’s death. Convoluted plot stuff follows until everyone meets up again at the end to try to sort things out. My verdict? I thought Shakespeare had some crazy plays before I read this one, but Cymbeline might win my vote for the craziest. Jachimo’s stratagems and Posthumus’s instant anger are bizarre enough, but when they mix with potions, lost children, and a Roman invasion that seems like an after-thought…well, you know magic is happening. It’s so bizarre that I can’t help but want to see it performed.
(Intriguingly, William Hawkins adapted Cymbeline in the 18th century to make it more in line with classical unities. While doing so, he also announced that his play was not about lovers, but about war. He inserted a lot of patriotic speeches and some yelling of “Britain and Liberty!” to drive his point about British nationalism home. His version contains a lot talking rather than showing (because doesn’t want to change locations), but it’s still fascinating.)
The Winter’s Tale
The Winter’s Tale is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. It gets some criticism for its depiction of Leontes, a king who, without evidence, accuses his wife Hermione of adultery and orders her death, along with the exposure of their newborn daughter. (This is a particularly interesting characterization since Shakespeare’s source, Green’s Pandosto, has another man visiting Hermione’s room, thus providing a basis for suspicion–but Shakespeare cuts this out.) The result is a beautiful extended meditation on sin, repentance, and redemption. And it features my favorite female character, Paulina–the only person in court who dares to tell Leontes he’s mad.
The Tempest is famous for being Shakespeare’s last play–that is, the last he wrote without a co-author–and thus is often interpreted as a meditation on the playwright as magician or author, and as his adieu to the stage. This critical interpretation ends up being what I find most interesting about it as otherwise its adherence to the classical unities makes it seem like nothing much happens, plot-wise. Some mariners run around the island, Ferdinand chops wood, Ariel presents a masque…. I understand why Davenant and Dryden made it into a rom com during the Restoration. Their version is at least funny.