SHAKESPEARE'S LAST ROMANCES: ALL COPIES.
<i>"Winters Tale": "Cymbeline": "The Tempest."</i>
The wheel has swung full circle: Timon is almost as weak as "Titus
Andronicus"; the pen falls from the nerveless hand. Shakespeare wrote
nothing for some time. Even the critics make a break after "Timon,"
which closes what they are pleased to call his third period; but they do
not seem to see that the break was really a breakdown in health. In
"Lear" he had brooded and raged to madness; in "Timon" he had spent
himself in futile, feeble cursings. His nerves had gone to pieces. He
was now forty-five years of age, the forces of youth and growth had left
him. He was prematurely old and feeble.
His recovery, it seems certain, was very slow, and he never again, if I
am right, regained vigorous health, I am almost certain he went down to
Stratford at this crisis and spent some time there, probably a couple of
years, trying, no doubt, to staunch the wound in his heart, and win back
again to life. The fear of madness had frightened him from brooding: he
made up his mind to let the dead past bury its dead; he would try to
forget and live sanely. After all, life is better than death.
It was probably his daughter who led him back from the brink of the
grave. Almost all his latest works show the same figure of a young girl.
He seems now, for the first time, to have learned that a maiden can be
pure, and in his old idealizing way which went with him to the end, he
deified her. Judith became a symbol to him, and he lent her the ethereal
grace of abstract beauty. In "Pericles" she is Marina; in "The Winter's
Tale" Perdita; in "The Tempest" Miranda. It is probable when one comes
to think of it, that Ward was right when he says that Shakespeare spent
his "elder years" in Stratford; he was too broken to have taken up his
life in London again.
The assertion that Shakespeare broke down in health, and never won back
to vigorous life, will be scorned as my imagining. The critics who have
agreed to regard "Cymbeline," "The Winter's Tale," and "The Tempest" as
his finest works are all against me on this point, and they will call
for "Proofs, proofs. Give us proofs," they will cry, "that the man who
went mad and raved with Lear, and screamed and cursed in "Timon" did
really break down, and was not imagining madness and despair." The
proofs are to be found in these works themselves, plain for all men to
The three chief works of his last period are romances and are all
copies; he was too tired to invent or even to annex; his own story is
the only one that interests him. The plot of "The Winter's Tale" is the
plot of "Much Ado about Nothing." Hero is Hermione. Another phase of
"Much Ado About Nothing" is written out at length in "Cymbeline"; Imogen
suffers like Hero and Hermione, under unfounded accusation. It is
Shakespeare's own history turned from this world to fairyland: what
would have happened, he asks, if the woman whom I believed false, had
been true? This, the theme of "Much Ado," is the theme also of "The
Winter's Tale" and of "Cymbeline." The idealism of the man is
inveterate: he will not see that it was his own sensuality which gave
him up to suffering, and not Mary Fitton's faithlessness. "The Tempest"
is the story of "As you Like it." We have again the two dukes, the
exiled good Duke, who is Shakespeare, and the bad usurping Duke,
Shakespeare's rival, Chapman, who has conquered for a time. Shakespeare
is no longer able or willing to discover a new play: he can only copy
himself, and in one of the scenes which he wrote into "Henry VIII." the
copy is slavish.
I allude to the third scene in the second act; the dialogue between Anne
Bullen and the Old Lady is extraordinarily reminiscent. When Anne Bullen
"'Tis better to be lowly born,
And range with humble livers in content,
Than to be perk'd up in a glistering grief
And wear a golden sorrow"
I am reminded of Henry VI. And the contention between Anne Bullen and
the Old Lady, in which Anne Bullen declares that she would not be a
queen, and the Old Lady scorns her:
"Beshrew me, I would,
And venture maidenhead for't; and so would you,
For all this spice of your hypocrisy."
is much the same contention, and is handled in the same way as the
contention between Desdemona and Emilia in "Othello."
There are many other proofs of Shakespeare's weakness of hand throughout
this last period, if further proofs were needed. The chief
characteristics of Shakespeare's health are his humour, his gaiety, and
wit--his love of life. A correlative characteristic is that all his
women are sensuous and indulge in coarse expressions in and out of
season. This is said to be a fault of his time; but only professors
could use an argument which shows such ignorance of life. Homer was
clean enough, and Sophocles, Spenser, too; sensuality is a quality of
the individual man. Still another characteristic of Shakespeare's
maturity is that his characters, in spite of being idealized, live for
us a vigorous, pulsing life.
All these characteristics are lacking in the works after "Timon." There
is practically no humour, no wit, the clowns even are merely
boorish-stupid with the solitary exception of Autolycus, who is a pale
reflex of one or two characteristics of Falstaff. Shakespeare's humour
has disappeared, or is so faint as scarcely to be called humour; all the
heroines, too, are now vowed away from sensuality: Marina passes through
the brothel unsoiled; Perdita might have milk in her veins, and not
blood, and Miranda is but another name for Perdita. Imogen, too, has no
trace of natural passion in her: she is a mere washing-list, so to
speak, of sexless perfections. In this last period Shakespeare will have
nothing to do with sensuality, and his characters, and not the female
characters alone, are hardly more than abstractions; they lack the blood
of emotion; there is not one of them could cast a shadow. How is it that
the critics have mistaken these pale, bloodless silhouettes for
In his earliest works he was compelled, as we have seen, to use his own
experiences perpetually, not having had any experience of life, and in
these, his latest plays, he also uses when he can his own experiences to
give his pictures of the world from which he had withdrawn, some sense
of vivid life. For example, in "Winter's Tale" his account of the death
of the boy Mamillius is evidently a reflex of his own emotion when he
lost his son, Hamnet, an emotion which at the time he pictured
deathlessly in Arthur and the grief of the Queen-mother Constance.
Similarly, in "Cymbeline," the joy of the brothers in finding the sister
is an echo of his own pleasure in getting to know his daughter.
I have an idea about the genesis of these last three plays as regards
their order which may be wholly false, though true, I am sure, to
Shakespeare's character. I imagine he was asked by the author to touch
up "Pericles." On reading the play, he saw the opportunity of giving
expression to the new emotion which had been awakened in him by the
serious sweet charm of his young daughter, and accordingly he wrote the
scenes in which Marina figures. Judith's modesty was a perpetual wonder
His success induced him to sketch out "The Winter's Tale," in which tale
he played sadly with what might have been if his accused love, Mary
Fitton, had been guiltless instead of guilty. I imagine he saw that the
play was not a success, or supreme critic as he was, that his hand had
grown weak, and seeking for the cause he probably came to the conclusion
that the comparative failure was due to the fact that he did not put
himself into "The Winter's Tale," and so he determined in the next play
to draw a full-length portrait of himself again, as he had done in
"Hamlet," and accordingly he sketched Posthumus, a staider, older,
idealized Hamlet, with lymph in his veins, instead of blood. In the same
idealizing spirit, he pictured his rose of womanhood for us in Imogen,
who is, however, not a living woman at all, any more than his earliest
ideal, Juliet, was a woman. The contrast between these two sketches is
the contrast between Shakespeare's strength and his weakness. Here is
how the fourteen-year-old Juliet talks of love:
"Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaways' eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk'd of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties."
And here what Posthumus says of Imogen:
"Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain'd,
And pray'd me oft forbearance: did it with
A pudency so rosy, the sweet view on't
Might well have warmed old Saturn."
Neither of these statements is very generally true: but the second is
out of character. When Shakespeare praises restraint in love he must
have been very weak; in full manhood he prayed for excess of it, and
regarded a surfeit as the only rational cure.
I think Shakespeare liked Posthumus and Imogen; but he could not have
thought "Cymbeline" a great work, and so he pulled himself together for
a masterpiece. He seems to have said to himself, "All that fighting of
Posthumus is wrong; men do not fight at forty-eight; I will paint myself
simply in the qualities I possess now; I will tell the truth about
myself so far as I can." The result is the portrait of Prospero in "The
Let me just say before I begin to study Prospero that I find the
introduction of the Masque in the fourth act extraordinarily
interesting. Ben Jonson had written classic masques for this and that
occasion; masques which were very successful, we are told; they had
"caught on," in fact, to use our modern slang. Shakespeare will now show
us that he, too, can write a masque with classic deities in it, and
better Jonson's example. It is pitiful, and goes to prove, I think, that
Shakespeare was but little esteemed by his generation.
Jonson answered him conceitedly, as Jonson would, in the Introduction to
his "Bartholomew Fair" (1612-14), "If there be never a <i>Servant
monster</i> i' the Fayre, who can help it, he sayes; nor a nest of
<i>Antiques</i>. He is loth to make nature afraid in his
like those that beget <i>Tales</i>, <i>Tempests</i>, and such like
At the very end, the creator of Hamlet, the finest mind in the world,
was eager to show that he could write as well in any style as the author
of "Every Man in his Humour." To me the bare fact is full of interest,
and most pitiful.
Let us now turn to "The Tempest," and see how our poet figures in it. It
is Shakespeare's last work, and one of his very greatest; his testament
to the English people; in wisdom and high poetry a miracle.
The portrait of Shakespeare we get in Prospero is astonishingly faithful
and ingenuous, in spite of its idealization. His life's day is waning to
the end; shadows of the night are drawing in upon him, yet he is the
same bookish, melancholy student, the lover of all courtesies and
generosities, whom we met first as Biron in "Love's Labour's Lost." The
gaiety is gone and the sensuality; the spiritual outlook is infinitely
sadder--that is what the years have done with our gentle Shakespeare.
Prospero's first appearance in the second scene of the first act is as a
loving father and magician; he says to Miranda:
"I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one! thee, my daughter."
He asks Miranda what she can remember of her early life, and reaches
"What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?"
Miranda is only fifteen years of age. Shakespeare turned Juliet, it will
be remembered, from a girl of sixteen into one of fourteen; now, though
the sensuality has left him, he makes Miranda only fifteen; clearly he
is the same admirer of girlish youth at forty-eight as he was twenty
years before. Then Prospero tells Miranda of himself and his brother,
the "perfidious" Duke:
"And Prospero, the prime Duke, being so reputed
In dignity, and for the liberal arts
Without a parallel; those being all my study."
He will not only be a Prince now, but a master "without a parallel" in
the liberal arts. He must explain, too, at undue length, how he allowed
himself to be supplanted by his false brother, and speaks about himself
in Shakespeare's very words:
"I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicate
To closeness, and the bettering of my mind
With that, which, but by being so retired,
O'erprized all popular rate, in my false brother
Awaked an evil nature: and my trust,
Like a good parent, did beget of him,
A falsehood, in its contrary as great
As my trust was; which had, indeed, no limit,
A confidence sans bound."
Shakespeare, too, "neglecting worldly ends," had dedicated himself to
"bettering of his mind," we may be sure. Prospero goes on to tell us
explicitly how Shakespeare loved books, which we were only able to infer
from his earlier plays:
"Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough."
And again, Gonzalo (another name for Kent and Flavius) having given him
some books, he says:
"Of his gentleness,
Knowing I loved my books, he furnished me
From my own library, with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom."
His daughter grieves lest she had been a trouble to him: forthwith
"O, a cherubim
Thou wast, that did preserve me. Thou didst smile
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have deck'd the sea with drops full salt
Under my burden groan'd; which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue."
But why should the magician weep or groan under a burden? had he no
confidence in his miraculous powers? All this is Shakespeare's
confession. Every word is true; his daughter did indeed "preserve"
Shakespeare, and enable him to bear up under the burden of life's
No wonder Prospero begins to apologize for this long-winded confession,
which indeed is "most impertinent" to the play, as he admits, though
most interesting to him and to us, for he is simply Shakespeare telling
us his own feelings at the time. The gentle magician then hears from
Ariel how the shipwreck has been conducted without harming a hair of
The whole scene is an extraordinarily faithful and detailed picture of
Shakespeare's soul. I find significance even in the fact that Ariel
wants his freedom "a full year" before the term Prospero had originally
proposed. Shakespeare finished "The Tempest," I believe, and therewith
set the seal on his life's work a full year earlier than he had
intended; he feared lest death might surprise him before he had put the
pinnacle on his work. Ariel's torment, too, is full of meaning for me;
for Ariel is Shakespeare's "shaping spirit of imagination," who was once
the slave of "a foul witch," and by her "imprisoned painfully" for "a
That "dozen years" is to me astonishingly true and interesting: it shows
that my reading of the duration of his passion-torture was absolutely
correct--Shakespeare's "delicate spirit" and best powers bound to Mary
Fitton's "earthy" service from 1597 to 1608.
We can perhaps fix this latter date with some assurance. Mistress Fitton
married for the second time a Captain or Mr. Polwhele late in 1607, or
some short time before March, 1608, when the fact of her recent marriage
was recorded in the will of her great uncle. It seems to me probable, or
at least possible, that this event marks her complete separation from
Shakespeare; she may very likely have left the Court and London on
ceasing to be a Maid of Honour.
Shakespeare is so filled with himself in this last play, so certain that
he is the most important person in the world, that this scene is more
charged with intimate self-revealing than any other in all his works.
And when Ferdinand comes upon the stage Shakespeare lends him, too, his
own peculiar qualities. His puppets no longer interest him; he is
careless of characterization. Ferdinand says:
"This music crept by me upon the waters
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air."
Music, it will be remembered, had precisely the same peculiar effect
upon Duke Orsino in "Twelfth Night." Ferdinand, too, is extraordinarily
"I am the best of them that speak this speech.
.... Myself am Naples."
Shakespeare's natural aristocratic pride as a Prince reinforced by his
understanding of his own real importance. Ferdinand then declares he
will be content with a prison if he can see Miranda in it:
Have I in such a prison."
Which is Hamlet's:
"I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself
a king of infinite space."
The second act, with its foiled conspiracy, is wretchedly bad, and the
meeting of Caliban and Trinculo with Stephanie does not improve it much,
Shakespeare has little interest now in anything outside himself: age and
greatness are as self-centred as youth.
In the third act the courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda is pretty, but
hardly more. Ferdinand is bloodless, thin, and Miranda swears "by her
modesty," as the jewel in her dower, which takes away a little from the
charming confession of girl-love:
"I would not wish
Any companion in the world but you."
The comic relief which follows is unspeakably dull; but the words of
Ariel, warning the King of Naples and the usurping Duke that the wrong
they have done Prospero is certain to be avenged unless blotted out by
"heart-sorrow and a clear life ensuing," are most characteristic and
In the fourth act Prospero preaches, as we have seen, self-restraint to
Ferdinand in words which, in their very extravagance, show how deeply he
regretted his own fault with his wife before marriage. I shall consider
the whole passage when treating of Shakespeare's marriage as an incident
in his life. Afterwards comes the masque, and the marvellous speech of
Prospero, which touches the highest height of poetry:
"These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inhabit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made of; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell,
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind."
I have given the verses to the very end, for I find the insistence on
his age and weakness (which are not in keeping with the character of a
magician), a confession of Shakespeare himself: the words "beating mind"
are extraordinarily characteristic, proving as they do that his thoughts
and emotions were too strong for his frail body.
In the fifth act Shakespeare-Prospero shows himself to us at his
noblest: he will forgive his enemies:
"Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further."
In "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" we saw how Shakespeare-Valentine
forgave his faithless friend as soon as he repented: here is the same
creed touched to nobler expression.
And then, with all his wishes satisfied, his heart's desire
accomplished, Prospero is ready to set out for Milan again and home. We
all expect some expression of joy from him, but this is what we get:
"And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave."
The despair is wholly unexpected and out of place, as was the story of
his weakness and infirmity, his "beating mind." It is evidently
Shakespeare's own confession. After writing "The Tempest" he intends to
retire to Stratford, where "every third thought shall be my grave."
I have purposely drawn special attention to Shakespeare's weakness and
despair at this time, because the sad, rhymed Epilogue which has to be
spoken by Prospero has been attributed to another hand by a good many
scholars. It is manifestly Shakespeare's, out of Shakespeare's very
heart indeed; though Mr. Israel Gollancz follows his leaders in saying
that the "Epilogue to the play is evidently by some other hand than
Shakespeare's": "evidently" is good. Here it is:
"Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want,
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults
As you from crimes would pardon'd be
Let your indulgence set me free."
From youth to age Shakespeare occupied himself with the deepest problems
of human existence; again and again we find him trying to pierce the
darkness that enshrouds life. Is there indeed nothing beyond the
grave--nothing? Is the noble fabric of human thought, achievement and
endeavour to fade into nothingness and pass away like the pageant of a
dream? He will not cheat himself with unfounded hopes, nor delude
himself into belief; he resigns himself with a sigh--it is the
undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns. But
Shakespeare always believed in repentance and forgiveness, and now,
world-weary, old and weak, he turns to prayer, [Footnote: Hamlet, too,
after speaking with his father's ghost, cries: "I'll go pray."] prayer
Mercy itself and frees all faults."
Poor, broken Shakespeare! "My ending is despair": the sadness of it, and
the pity, lie deeper than tears.
What a man! to produce a masterpiece in spite of such weakness. What a
play is this "Tempest"! At length Shakespeare sees himself as he is, a
monarch without a country; but master of a very "potent art," a great
magician, with imagination as an attendant spirit, that can conjure up
shipwrecks, or enslave enemies, or create lovers at will; and all his
powers are used in gentle kindness. Ariel is a higher creation, more
spiritual and charming than any other poet has ever attempted; and
Caliban, the earth-born, half-beast, half-man--these are the poles of