The Tempest

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 397-448).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Strachey’s 1610 “True Reportory” | “True Reportory” in MDZ | Jourdain’s 1610 “Bermudas” | Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals”

Shakespeare’s Romance Mode

The Shakespeare plays to which since the nineteenth century we have given the name “romance” (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen) were not so called by Shakespeare or his contemporaries. In the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, as put together by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, The Tempest is listed first among the comedies, and The Winter’s Tale is listed last in the same category. Cymbeline is included among the tragedies, and neither Pericles nor The Two Noble Kinsmen is included at all. (Pericles was included in the Shakespeare Third Folio of 1663-64, and Kinsmen appeared in the Beaumont & Fletcher Second Folio of 1679.) The seeming solidity of the romance play genre, then, is a product of modern critical study, and in truth, Shakespeare is difficult to confine within such terms. He was a master of what one of his characters, Polonius in Hamlet, calls the “poem unlimited” (2.2), or rather the play unlimited.

Still, there are some things we can reasonably say about this modern, constructed genre within the Shakespearean canon. Northrop Frye writes with precision about the defining characteristics of the tragic vision. What underlies this vision, he posits, “is being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation. In the tragic vision death is … the essential event that gives shape and form to life” (3).[1] By contrast, in Frye’s schema, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear. In romance plays, death does not define life; instead, romance characters get a chance to recover what they have lost and to redeem themselves and the order within which they function. In Shakespeare’s romance plays (and comedies), the social order borrows from the stability and perpetuity of the great seasonal cycles that literary cultures have invoked for thousands of years.

The romance mode, as we have come to understand it, differs from the tragic mode of action and perception, but it isn’t identical with comedy, either. While both comedy and romance depend partly on the renovation of a corrupt social order, sometimes by temporary removal into a green world of nature where magic can happen and where restorations and reunions are possible, romance is to be distinguished from tragedy and comedy in its strongly Janus-like quality, its ambivalence about the positive endings it supplies. In a romance play, the characters don’t get “do-overs” in the purest sense; they get second chances in altered circumstances, following temporal gaps or delays. Events and persons may come full circle, but there will be loss and sorrow along the way, and the situation can’t be repaired in a way that altogether removes the loss or sorrow, or annuls the time a person has spent on selfish or otherwise misguided obsessions and pursuits.

It’s worth suggesting, too, that Shakespeare’s romance plays offer the most realistic or naturalistic orientation towards life—not an offer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in the lighter Shakespearean comedies; but a kind of experiential wisdom through recurrence that—if we live long enough—allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and loss that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous second chances we may receive. Towards the end of Homer’s Iliad, Apollo offers an insight that we might apply to romance as well as tragedy: “a steadfast spirit have the Fates given unto men” (24.49).[2]

Act 1, Scene 1 (397-99, A tempest replete with St. Elmo’s Fire drives King Alonso and the other passengers to abandon ship.)

The first thing we see is that authority is the matter in question. That is often the case in Shakespeare’s dramas, especially in the history plays and tragedies but also even in some comedies, such as Measure for Measure. As the sea rages and his ship sinks, the Boatswain is not interested in paying homage to King Alonso of Naples at the bidding of decorum-minded counselor Gonzalo; he has more important things to do. To the imperious order, “remember whom thou hast aboard” (398, 1.1.17), the Boatswain replies only, “if you can command these elements to silence and / work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more. / Use your authority!” (398, 1.1.19-21) The storm, therefore, functions as a great leveling influence.

Shakespeare is not about to ratify anarchy, but the basis of the social order is about to come under scrutiny. This order has for the time being been thrown into productive disarray by Prospero’s tempest. Gonzalo takes comfort in the traditional belief that the cheeky Boatswain “hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect / gallows” (398, 1.1.26-27). In a terrible storm, even such tenuous intimations of fate offer something to hold on to. Gonzalo’s closing words in this scene testify not only to his humility and patience in the face of death but also to the terror that must have filled sea-travelers before the age of modern transportation: “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an / acre of barren ground: long heath, brown furze, anything. / The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death” (399, 1.1.59-61).

Act 1, Scene 2 (399-412, Miranda learns who she is, and who Prospero was: his story of secret studies, exile and miraculous survival; Prospero explains that his enemies are now on the island due to fortune and his own active pursuit of the opportunity fortune has given him; Prospero’s threats against and use for Ariel, Caliban, and Ferdinand; Ferdinand meets the “wonder” Miranda and both show patience with imperious Prospero.)

In this scene, we see that there is need for a movement from ignorance to knowledge on the part of Miranda, Prospero’s fifteen-year-old daughter. On this island since she was three years old, she does not know that her father was once Duke of Milan. Miranda possesses a power of her own, one grounded in empathy. She feels the suffering of those who have been shipwrecked, and begs Prospero to keep them safe: “If by your art … you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (399, 1.2.1-2). Prospero reassures her that no harm has been done and that the shipwreck was arranged for her sake (399, 1.2.15-16).

No more avoiding the issue: the adolescent Miranda, Prospero knows, is entitled to discover her true identity. She must learn about her former place in the social order and prepare for her future role. Prospero begins to inform her by way of posing questions, the first of which elicits some remembrance of childhood attendants in Milan and the second of which, the beautifully phrased, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?” (400, 1.2.49-50), draws no further recollections. Prospero must supply Miranda with some key information: namely, that a dozen years previously he was Duke of Milan, only to be exiled by his brother Antonio and Alonso, King of Naples. In Prospero’s proud declaration, “Thy father was the Duke of Milan and / A prince of power” (400, 1.2.54-55), we can already hear the stirrings of a fine revenge tragedy: the exiled duke (and current island wizard) will surely demand his political authority back from the men who stole it from him.

As Prospero goes on to explain to Miranda, he is not without blame for his own exile. This duke devoted himself to the liberal arts, which for a busy prince might be a problem even if by that phrase we refer only to the traditional trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, music, geometry). But there is some hint that Prospero went beyond those licit subjects: “rapt in secret studies,” he confesses, he neglected the needs of his dukedom, becoming like a “stranger” to those needs (401, 1.2.77; see 75-78). Perhaps by “secret” Prospero only means private and personal rather than public-directed[3], but given what we will later find out about his magical powers (and simply from the fact that at the point of exile back in Milan, Gonzalo furnished him with the books he would later use to instantiate those magical powers), “secret” might plausibly be said to bear another, less traditional, meaning.

It makes sense to refer along with Harold Bloom[4] and other critics to the admonitory career of Simon Magus as told in Acts 8:9-24. Simon, a renowned magician in Samaria, is rebuked sternly by the Apostle Peter when he seeks to buy the apostolic power of instilling the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Coveting magical powers is a risky business for mere mortals—transgression and condemnation are always just around the corner. Prospero was stripped of civil power and exiled largely for pursuing learning that, at some point, may have gone beyond the standard Renaissance liberal arts.[5]

In any event, Prospero explains to Miranda that his beloved “secret” studies and consequent alienation from public responsibility led him to transfer control of daily operations to his brother Antonio. Clearly, governance was not Prospero’s highest priority. It may not have been a priority at all. The upshot of this transferal was, says Prospero, that Antonio learned the ropes of governing and began to consider himself the rightful duke (402, 1.2.102-05). Antonio is a Machiavellian of the bad sort. Possessed of a newly awakened “evil nature” (401, 1.2.93) and misled by Prospero’s trust and by all the power he now exercised, he came to believe in his own authority-steeped words, his “story,” so to speak. What happened to Antonio in Milan sounds almost like a species of intoxication, a drunkenness that led him to take his own and others’ grandiose words and images for truth.

Even so, Antonio’s career of usurpation bespeaks a certain political realism. Shakespeare consistently emphasizes that a good ruler must be shrewd, active, decisive, and, when possible, magnanimous. In consequence, wherever we find a self-absorbed, irresponsible poet-king like Richard II, we are sure to find him pushed out of the way by a Henry Bolingbroke, just as surely as the brilliant but wild Mark Antony meets his match in Octavius, the future Augustus Caesar. At base, Prospero wanted to lead the life contemplative or vita contemplativa to the neglect of the active life, or vita activa.[6] He sought knowledge for personal and private reasons, and grew indifferent to the charitable exercise of power. The results not only for Prospero but for Milan were dire, if predictable: Antonio’s corrupt usurpation made Milan a tributary of the scheming King Alonso of Naples.

Prospero rounds off his lecture to Miranda by reassuring her that far from being a burden to him, she was a great comfort during the perilous exile, and has become all his care. There is a civil imperative in his encapsulation of the education he has given his daughter: “here / Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit / Than other princes can, that have more time / For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful” (403, 1.2.171-74).

We also find that for all his charms and incantations, Prospero is not all-powerful beyond the island. He tells Miranda, whose mind quickly turns towards the reason for the tempest she has seen, that an accident or fortune has brought his enemies within his power. Once this seemingly providential event occurs, he begins to operate on his own under an “auspicious star” (403-04, 1.2.181-84). As always, “There is a tide in the affairs of men” (Norton Tragedies 333, 4.3.219), as Brutus tells Cassius in Julius Caesar, and failing to run with it brings only frustration and ruin. Prospero must act now or lose his chance forever. When he has imparted what he considers sufficient information to Miranda, he casts a spell to end her questioning: “Thou art inclined to sleep. ‘Tis a good dullness, / And give it way. I know thou can’st not choose” (404, 1.2.185-86).

His lecture for Miranda’s benefit concluded, Prospero summons Ariel for a progress report on the tempest’s human effects. Ariel dutifully provides his report, taking considerable pride in his loving attention to detail. He speaks not so much of a plain sea-storm, but instead of creating fantastical atmospheric effects that drove the passengers and sailors half-mad with fright. “St. Elmo’s fire,” as our Norton editors point out on pg. 404, pretty much covers Ariel’s performance. We find out, too, that King Alonso’s son Ferdinand was the first man to jump ship, crying out “Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here!” (404, 1.2.214-15) Ferdinand, says Ariel, has been placed in a corner of the island, while the mariners are all asleep aboard the main ship, which waits undamaged in the harbor. The rest of the fleet’s ships have sailed with heavy hearts towards Naples. (Later, we will learn that Alonso’s party and Stefano and Trinculo have been isolated into logical groups as well.) In sum, Ariel has arranged matters well, with no harm done. (See 404-05, 1.2.217-37).

With all storm details precisely reported, Ariel chafes to gain his freedom, saying, “Let me remember thee what thou hast promised, / Which is not yet performed me” (405, 1.2.243-44). Prospero testily reminds Ariel that he had been imprisoned for his reluctance to serve the powerful witch Sycorax from Algiers, who died and left him trapped and moaning in a pine tree (405-06, 1.2.258-93). Prospero has made an oral contract with Ariel to free him from human control at the end of a certain time, and the old duke reminds him that the time of liberation is near. There’s just a bit more work to do, he says, and his promise to Ariel is, “after two days / I will discharge thee” (406, 1.2.298-99). It’s easy to see why Ariel wants his freedom: he seems to represent imagination or the finer and more sensitive of nature’s powers, so he longs to run free. But if we care to impose a Renaissance-humanist-style reading, the play is in part about how humanity can and must maintain control over the forces within itself (the fantasy or imagination, strong emotions, etc.) and beyond itself (material nature).[7]

In any case, before offering Ariel a solid promise of discharge, Prospero threatens him in a way that suggests potential tyranny. If the spirit does not obey, Prospero thunders, he will punish him severely: “I will rend an oak / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (406, 1.2.294-96). In other words, Prospero will treat him exactly as the witch Sycorax did. Obviously, this is not a democratic island. Ariel is much better (and much better off) than Caliban (Sycorax’s son and therefore the natural heir of this island kingdom), but both feel the power and strong displeasure of Prospero. It is mainly due to this treatment of Ariel and Caliban that, at least since early in the twentieth century, critics and artists have so often given The Tempest a “colonialist” inflection that questions Prospero’s authority to treat the island’s inhabitants as he does, and takes that treatment of them as an instance of the misconduct of oppressive historical interlopers.[8]

Indeed, and by way of introduction to Caliban since we will soon encounter him in Act 1, Scene 2, Shakespeare’s was a great age of exploration, and European countries were busily colonizing and exploiting the New World. The quest motif is very strong in romance generally, and a sense of adventure, magic, wonder, and strangeness pervades the entire genre. Exploration is itself matter for exploration, which in part explains why many critics writing about The Tempest have seen Ariel and Caliban’s circumstances in terms of colonial discourse and practice. This isn’t to say that the play itself comes down in favor of Caliban’s perspective, but there’s little doubt that this romance play catches some of the enthusiasm in the air of Elizabethan-Jacobean England for exploration, and just as little doubt that Shakespeare’s representation of Caliban can plausibly be taken partly as a thoughtful consideration of how “natives” might process the approach of European cultures, with their imperious claims of superiority and their demands for permanent submission. With the firm establishment of cultural studies and colonial/postcolonial studies, these readings will continue to be a force in the criticism on The Tempest.

When Prospero is nearly done giving orders and promises to Ariel, we are treated to our first encounter with Caliban, and he does not disappoint. At his hostile best, he speaks spitefully in response to Prospero’s demand to fetch wood: “There’s wood enough within!” (407, 1.2.314) he rasps, which earns him threats of lesser torture from Prospero, including pinching by spirits in the form of hedgehogs (called “urchins” in line 326). Defiantly, Caliban insists that the island belongs to him: “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me” (407, 1.2.331-32), and he testifies to his gratitude for the affection, food, and language given to him by Prospero and Miranda: “And then I loved thee / And showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle…” (407, 1.2.336-37). But now, he says, he is a prisoner, an exile in his own land, and he curses himself for believing in their goodness. This, then, is Caliban’s narrative about the coming of these two Europeans to his native island.

There are two “native encounter” narratives at work here, one in which Caliban graciously welcomes Prospero and Miranda, and one in which he foully betrays them when they try to pass along to him their ways and language. We soon hear Prospero and Miranda’s counternarrative, and it isn’t pretty. The old duke, who seems to associate Caliban with the devil or with unregenerate man, upbraids him with the epithets “lying slave” and “Filth” (408, 1.2.344, 346), and between him and Miranda, the story is that Caliban was at first invited to share their quarters and was treated with “humane care” (408, 1.2.346), right up to the point where Caliban attempted to rape Miranda—an attempt that Caliban admits—and only then was he shut up in an open-air prison to keep him from repeating this outrage. Miranda’s address to Caliban is furious and condemnatory: she calls him an “Abhorrèd slave” (408, 1.2.350), and seems particularly incensed that her gift of language to what she considered a childish intellect did so little good. Her pedagogical efforts, she suggests, came to naught because of the pupil’s inherent temperamental inferiority: “But thy vile race, / Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures / Could not abide to be with…” (408, 1.2.357-59).

Caliban’s retort to this stinging reproach is magnificent: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” (408, 1.2.362-64) It’s reasonable to suggest that Prospero and his daughter are unfair to Caliban—to say that he is “capable of all ill,” as Miranda does (408, 1.2.352), is to say something of him that is true of humanity in general: everyone is susceptible to all sorts of impulses, be they good or bad. Caliban is not simply “malice” (408, 1.2.366), as Prospero calls him in morality-play fashion. All in all, this native islander has resources within himself that his European captors do not recognize, and this failure will later put Prospero at some risk.

Even so, for now the bitter argument between masters and servant ends with Caliban’s abject submission. He is terrified of the pain that he knows—and that Prospero harshly reminds him presently—can always be inflicted upon him at the magician’s merest whim: “I must obey,” says Caliban in an aside, “His art is of such power / It would control my damn’s god Setebos / And make a vassal of him” (408, 1.2.371-73). To Caliban, deep down, Prospero seems all but omnipotent. In The Prince, Machiavelli insists that a prince should rule so as to be respected and even feared, but not hated.[9] The exchange we have just covered suggests that here on the island Shakespeare has conjured for us, that is not the relationship that exists between ruler and ruled. Caliban, it’s plain to see, loathes Prospero, and he feels contempt for Miranda, too.

Once Prospero has finished scolding Caliban, it’s time to bring Ferdinand into the picture. The young prince is enchanted by the music of Ariel and drawn on by it. According to Marjorie Garber, Ariel’s first bit of song, “Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands …” (408, 1.2.374-75), can be read as encapsulating the action of the entire play, in part from Ferdinand’s perspective: he comes ashore and joins hands with Miranda, thereby quelling the chaos of the storm; then, the spirits work to facilitate the play’s decorous conclusion.[10] If we read the song that way, we will get the strongest possible sense of how firmly in control Ariel and his fellow sprites are when it comes to executing Prospero’s master plan. The music, we might add, comes to Ferdinand at a supremely vulnerable moment, a moment in which, he says, he was “Sitting on a bank, / Weeping again the King my father’s wreck” (409, 1.2.388-89).

Ariel’s next effort is among the most haunting of Shakespeare’s songs, beginning with “Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made…” (409, 1.2.395-96). This song is certainly not an accurate description of King Alonso of Naples at the time of its singing: although Ferdinand doesn’t know it yet, and won’t until the end of the play, Alonso isn’t drowned, and even if he were lying thirty feet (five fathoms) underwater, he wouldn’t yet be transformed in the fantastical and complete manner implied by the song’s lyrics: “Those are pearls that were his eyes” (409, 1.2.397), and so forth. Ferdinand doesn’t know what to make of it, other than that it is a memorial to his supposedly dead father and is “no mortal business” (409, 1.2.405).

What should we make of it, then? Perhaps the aim of the song is to transform the image of the king in his son’s imagination so strongly that he begins to understand the need to let him go—a point that Ferdinand soon comes round to since he starts describing himself as the new King of Naples. So in part, the song may distance Ferdinand from his father’s death, perhaps because the trials and transformation he is to undergo on the island leave him little time to grieve for a royal father lost. In a sense, Ferdinand, too, is about to undergo a “sea-change / Into something rich and strange” (409, 1.2.400-01): when his elders actually die, he is going to become a king. But in the simplest, plot-driven sense, Ariel’s aim is probably to draw Ferdinand away from the shore and towards his fateful meeting with Miranda.

Ferdinand’s central question to Miranda when he meets her is whether she is human, and, if we read “maid” for its sexual connotation, a virgin: “My prime request, / … is—O you wonder!— / If you be maid or no?” (410, 1.2.424-26). That is a question with institutional significance: Ferdinand wants to make her his queen. As for the term “wonder,” the prince unwittingly lights upon the etymological significance of Miranda’s name, which in its Latin passive periphrastic form miranda est (from the verb miror, wonder at) can be translated “she who must be wondered at or marveled at.”

Prospero, while inwardly delighted, knows that the prize must not be won too easily and that the young man has not yet earned the right to reenter the social order and partly succeed him in his daughter’s affections. So he will test Ferdinand, even appearing to threaten him by accusing him of usurpation, something obviously of concern to Prospero since he has been the victim of that particular offense at the hands of a pair of intriguers. Aside from stealing the King of Naples’s title, blusters Prospero to Ferdinand, “Thou … / … hast put thyself / Upon this island as a spy to win it / From me, the lord on’t” (410, 1.2.452-55). The prince draws his sword against Prospero, though ineffectually, in despite of the old man’s magic (411, 1.2.464), and realizes that violence is not the way to get out of this fix. In fact, his attitude takes a turn as he observes that all his present losses and concerns “are but light to me, / Might I but through my prison once a day / Behold this maid” (411, 1.2.488-90). This quick adjustment shows patience, self-restraint, and nobility of character.

As for Miranda, she is as taken with Ferdinand as he is with her, so much so that it’s hard not to be reminded by this scene of Christopher Marlowe’s famous line from Hero and Leander, “Whoever loved, that loved not at first sight?” At first, she is nearly certain that Ferdinand is no mortal but “a spirit” (409, 1.2.410). Like a good Renaissance Neoplatonist, she is sure that such a handsome prince could not possibly mean anyone harm: “There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple” (411, 1.2.456). In Ferdinand’s case, that seems true enough—he is a fine young man—but if Miranda is to become a proper Neapolitan queen when the time comes, she must learn that the good and the beautiful don’t always coincide. That she shows promise is obvious from her remark to Ferdinand just before he is ordered to follow along after Prospero: “Be of comfort; / My father’s of a better nature, sir, / Than he appears by speech” (412, 1.2.495-97). She has already learned that her father is not facilely reducible to the man he seems to be, and that his mercurial moods are not so easy to scan.

Act 2, Scene 1 (412-20, Gonzalo tries to console King Alonso and then entertains Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian with his naïve utopia; Antonio suborns Sebastian to murder the sleeping King Alonso and usurp his Neapolitan crown, but Ariel foils the attempt and the party goes off in search of Ferdinand.)

Ariel has worked his magic so that King Alonso and his company are together on the island: his brother Sebastian, Prospero’s brother Antonio, the Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo, and two Neapolitan lords named Adrian and Francisco. Gonzalo begins the second act by advising Alonso not to be swallowed up by grief; we must “weigh / Our sorrow with our comfort,” he tells the disconsolate king (412, 2.1.8-9). This may be good advice, but it is also a painfully abstract and dry piece of philosophy when spoken to a freshly grieving man. We may remember Leonato’s wise putdown of Stoicism in Much Ado about Nothing that “there was never yet philosopher / That could endure the toothache patiently” (Norton Comedies 578, 5.1.435-36). But Gonzalo is actually more of an optimist than a Stoic: he notices how green the island is, and claims to know that it has “everything advantageous to life” (413, 2.1.48). Such observations provide Antonio, Sebastian, and Adrian matter for their sardonic jests, but all the same, Gonzalo is quite observant—he has noticed something odd about their garments: how is it, he asks, that they are not soaked through but are instead “as fresh as when / we put them on first in Africa …” (413, 2.1.65-66) for Claribel’s wedding?

King Alonso not only must swipe away Gonzalo’s kindly but ineffectual attempts at consolation, he must deal with Francisco’s claim that Ferdinand may have survived and then, in quick succession, with Sebastian’s snappish criticism that Ferdinand’s supposed demise is Alonso’s own fault for contriving a wedding so far from Naples. Alonso is a guilty man, but one may well feel sorry for him as he despairs over the loss of his son. He wonders to the absent Ferdinand, “what strange fish / Hath made his meal on thee?” (414, 2.1.107-08) Gonzalo’s utopian musings follow the king’s expressions of despair and the other men’s silly word-wrangling. These musings amount to yet a second attempt to improve the king’s mood. What Gonzalo serves up is a slightly comical, pre-tech communist fantasy: a place wherein there would be no commerce, no magistrates, and above all, “No occupation, all men idle, all; / And women too—but innocent and pure; / No sovereignty—” (415, 2.1.149-51; see 142-51, 154-59, and 416, 2.1.162-63). Gonzalo would undo the punishments stemming from original sin: no labor but everything brought forth by generous Mother Nature, and no menacing authority figures to deal with. Sebastian is right to point out the irony that Gonzalo still “would be king” of his imaginary utopian isle (415, 2.1.151).

This vision, which, the Norton editors point out, derives from descriptions of native life by Montaigne in his essay “Of Cannibals,”[11] is pleasant to contemplate, but also fundamentally flawed—by Christian lights, how would fallen humankind thrive and keep the peace by sitting around doing nothing all day?[12] In any case, Gonzalo’s vision scarcely equals Prospero’s magic and foresight as the island’s governor. Gonzalo is too ready to live within the confines of his natural surroundings rather than transforming them into something more civil, so it seems that this little group of stranded Milanese and Neapolitans doesn’t have all the answers to questions about maintaining civil society. Gonzalo is surrounded by people such as Sebastian and Antonio, who do not appreciate his wisdom. Wisdom appears to be separated from rank at the moment, whereas both are required to keep firm order.

When old Gonzalo and King Alonso fall fast asleep, the talk between Antonio and Sebastian turns serious and treasonous. Antonio, who himself usurped Prospero’s dukedom, declares to Sebastian, brother of King Alonso, “My strong imagination sees a crown / Dropping upon thy head” (417, 2.1.201-02). Sebastian doesn’t follow, so Antonio spells it out for him: both of them believe Ferdinand is drowned, and Claribel is queen of far-flung Tunis, so she’s in no position to inherit Naples. These realizations lead to Antonio’s stage-Machiavel conclusion regarding the innocent sleepers they are supposed to be protecting, “Say this were death / That now hath seized them: why, they were no worse / Than now they are” (418, 2.1.253-55). Once others at court realize what’s happened, says Antonio, they’ll quickly accommodate the new order of things. Antonio openly invites Sebastian to follow his example as usurper of Milan, and the gambit works: Sebastian declares, “As thou gott’st Milan, / I’ll come by Naples” (419, 2.1.284-85). So we have passed from Gonzalo’s unworkable but harmless utopia to a potentially lethal political intrigue by the wicked brothers of two respective rulers. Antonio is certainly a moral imbecile, but his characterization of just how fast a legitimate political order can be taken down and replaced with a far less appealing one is chilling, and on the mark.

Antonio, who says to Sebastian of the recent events including their supposed shipwreck, “what’s past is prologue” (418, 2.1.246), sees only the operation of random chance in the coming-on of the storm. He does not know that Prospero has used Ariel to generate the tempest. As always, the category of nature is not to be taken simply in Shakespeare. We are not dealing with an ordinary natural storm; this is a thing of nature brought on by human and superhuman magic. The storm is even associated with providence since Prospero believes he was steered during his own perilous sea-voyage by the divine will. Antonio mistakenly sees Sebastian triumphing over friends and potential subjects as passive men just waiting to take orders,[13] but this evil scheme is foiled by Ariel, who warns Gonzalo to “Shake off slumber and beware” (419, 2.1.297). With Gonzalo and King Alonso now awake, talk of conspiracy is silenced for the moment, and everyone in Alonso’s group sets out to look for Ferdinand.

Act 2, Scene 2 (420-423, Caliban’s fear of Prospero’s spirit-ministers gives way to exuberant worship of Stefano as the prospective new lord of the island: a parodic usurpation to match the more serious plot of Antonio and Sebastian in the previous scene.)

The scene opens with Caliban, alone, describing his reaction to the torments Prospero’s spirit-agents visit upon him because of his misbehavior: “For every trifle are they set upon me …” (420, 2.2.8), and the torments include apes that grimace and bite, snakes that twine themselves around him and hiss, and hedgehogs that block his way forward with their painful spines. When Caliban meets up with Stefano and Trinculo, we will get a chance to see how he imagines the island’s potential new order, but for now we are left with his abject fear of punishment at Prospero’s hands: “I’ll fall flat. / Perchance he will not mind me” (420, 2.2.16-17).

The jester Trinculo and the butler Stefano will develop their own ideas about paradise soon enough, but at first, Trinculo is frightened at the sound of the thunder he hears and amazed at the sight of the “strange fish” (420, 2.2.26) Caliban. Trinculo muses in the manner of Hamlet’s gravedigger about the peculiarities of the English, and in particular their love of exotic displays: “any strange beast there makes a man” (420, 2.2.29-30), meaning both “makes a man rich” and “might be taken for a man.” There might be some money in this so-called monster, thinks Trinculo. But for now, he chooses to hide from the terrors of the storm under the “monster’s” cloak. Not long afterwards, in comes Stefano singing a bawdy sailor’s tune most unlike the wonderful things we have heard from Ariel. He hears Caliban cry out, and seeing the strangely composed doubling of Caliban and Trinculo, turns his mind to a showman’s profit: “If I can recover him and keep him tame and get to / Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor…” (421, 2.2.64-65). What follows is an attempt to ply Caliban with liquor and a strange, drawn-out recognition scene between Stefano and Trinculo, who slowly emerges from combination with Caliban and is perceivable as simply himself.

Stefano’s gift of alcohol turns Caliban into an ardent worshiper: “That’s a brave god, and bears celestial liquor. / I will kneel to him” (422, 2.2.108-09). Already a willing subject, Caliban promises to uncover for his new masters “every fertile inch o’th’ island” along with the best of many things the place has to offer (423, 2.2.139ff). Stefano is not slow to see the potential in this encounter with such a knowledgeable native guide: “the King and all our company else being drowned, we will inherit here,” thinks His Royal Highness the onetime butler. (423, 2.2.165-66) Caliban, for his part, sees the arrival of Stefano and Trinculo as his best chance to attain the ultimate freedom, which, paradoxically, will involve trading one harsh master for two drunken fools. He chants gleefully, “’Ban, ‘Ban, Ca-Caliban / Has a new master: get a new man. / Freedom, high-day…” (423, 2.2.174-75). Prospero can go find himself a new servant to bully: Caliban has found lords more to his liking, and the bar is always open.

On the whole, the second act is parodic in its aims and structure: it chronicles the beginning of a pair of attempts to set up a new kingdom over what appears to be the wreck of the old, with Sebastian, under Antonio’s tutelage, plotting to make his own providence by bashing in a skull or two, and Stefano and Trinculo (along with Caliban) vowing to set up their own madcap anti-government.

Act 3, Scene 1 (424-26, The Courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda advances; Prospero goes to his book to prepare for his triumph over Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian.)

The third act transitions to more legitimate attempts at self-discovery on the part of Ferdinand and Miranda. In turn, this focus will gesture towards a future that includes a regenerated dukedom of Milan and Naples. The developing affection between Ferdinand and Miranda is central in this scene. Ferdinand performs his difficult labors mindful of Miranda and in hopes of better times. For him, love makes labor redemptive—it is not something to be avoided so that one can set up a fool’s paradise. In soliloquy he says, “The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead / And makes my labors pleasures” (424, 3.1.6-7). By his patience, Ferdinand reveals his genuine nobility. We are being encouraged to note the contrast with Caliban here since that character grumbled darkly when Prospero laid upon him the same task of fetching wood. To be fair, though, Ferdinand actually has something great to look forward to, while Caliban does not.

Miranda, as we know, has plenty of fine qualities, above all empathy and a strong intellect. At no point does she seem merely passive, even when her imperious wizard of a father is holding forth for her benefit, or when she sees an opportunity to lessen Ferdinand’s heavy burden of labor. She has a bit of the rebel in her, as indicated by the following advice she gives Ferdinand: “My father / Is hard at study. Pray now, rest yourself. / He’s safe for these three hours” (424, 2.1.19-21). Caliban might appreciate that kind of teen spirit. All in all, Miranda’s words and actions show that she is ready to hear the information her father has imparted to her.

When Miranda reveals her name to Ferdinand, he again plays upon the etymology of it, exclaiming: “Admired Miranda!” (425, 3.1.37) It seems that Ferdinand has spent a fair amount of time at his father’s court in Naples and is nowhere near as inexperienced in love matters as Miranda. He tells her that he has “liked several women,” but “never any / With so full soul but some defect in her / Did quarrel with the noblest grace she owed / And put it to the foil” (425, 3.1.43-46). But in Miranda, he says in Petrarchan mode, he has discovered a woman “created / Of every creature’s best” (425, 3.1.47-48).

From here it’s on to Miranda’s admission that while she has seen only one other man (her father; she leaves Caliban out), at first espial of Ferdinand she has seen enough to know that he’s the only man for her. (425, 3.1.50-55) From thence it’s only a hop-skip to pledges of loyalty that in Elizabethan-Jacobean times basically amount to marriage vows. Ferdinand declares himself perpetually devoted to Miranda, and she boldly asks him, “My husband, then?” (426, 3.1.88) and receives the desired answer “Here’s my hand” (426, 3.1.89). The entire scene should demonstrate that the two lovers are quickly mastering the fitting and at times decorous language essential to a proper match between them. Marriage is an institution—and a political one at that, in their case—but Ferdinand and Miranda’s passionate and yet nuanced conversation shows that they have made an excellent start. These two are, after all, the future of governance in Naples and Milan.

Prospero, ever solicitous about what Miranda is up to, is of course secretly listening in on her and Ferdinand throughout their charming courtship encounter and their marriage pledge. As before, he blesses this union to himself since he is convinced that Ferdinand and Miranda will prove compatible. There is a hint of the father’s jealousy à la Freud in Prospero’s observation, “So glad of this as they I cannot be” (426, 3.1.92), but even so, he says, “my rejoicing / At nothing can be more” (426, 3.1.93-94). He takes his leave with the reminder to himself that it’s time now to go back to his magic book and work up appropriate spells to complete his triumph over his enemies. This will require delaying Ferdinand and Miranda’s courtship for a while even as he blesses and furthers it: “I’ll to my book,” says Prospero, “For yet ere suppertime must I perform / Much business appertaining” (403, 3.1.94-96). Based on what follows, he probably refers here to the device he is preparing to spring against King Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian.

Act 3, Scene 2 (426-29, Caliban encourages Stefano to murder Prospero as he sleeps; Stefano flatters himself with plans for governing his kingdom; Ariel frustrates the conspiracy.)

Caliban, meanwhile, is courting Stefano as his master and chafing at Trinculo’s bad manners and disrespectful treatment of a faithful servant: “How does thy honor? Let me lick thy shoe. / I’ll not serve him; he is not valiant” (426, 3.2.21-22). Caliban is too easily won over to servitude. To him, government is a protection racket. We notice that he describes himself rather like Prospero, as someone exiled by a tyrant and cheated of his inheritance by evil powers: “I say by sorcery he got this isle …” (427, 3.2.49). Caliban’s plan is to surprise Prospero and make away with him: “‘tis a custom with him / I’th’ afternoon to sleep. / There thou mayst brain him…” (428, 3.2.81-82). Stefano, as usual, is spinning a storyline from his own base desires—once having seized Prospero’s books and murdered the man, he thinks, he will be free to marry Miranda: “Monster, I will kill this man. His daughter and I will / be king and queen …” (428, 3.2.100-01).

They all serve their own base material desires, these parodic conspirators. Ariel, however, is looking over them even as they devise their plot (429, 3.2.108), and the would-be ruler ends up following the “monster” Caliban (429, 3.2.143). Well, Caliban does know his island, which is “full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” (429, 3.2.128-29). The entire passage near the end of the second scene is among the most haunting and lyrical in all of Shakespeare: “and then, in dreaming, / The clouds methought would open and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again” (429, 3.2.134-36). In any event, the die is cast: Caliban, Stefano, and Trinculo have planned their attack on the old magus who stands in the way of their dominion.

Act 3, Scene 3 (429-32, King Alonso’s despair over Ferdinand begins and ends the scene; Prospero is nearing the pinnacle of his power: spirits lay out a banquet for Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian; Ariel, in the form of a harpy, promptly snatches it away and admonishes these bewitched “men of sin.”)

King Alonso is ready to give up the search for his lost son Ferdinand, saying “Even here I will put off my hope …” (429, 3.2.7). The conspirators Antonio and Sebastian, however, are as determined as before to see their plot through to success. As Prospero looks on from a height, Ariel’s “strange shapes” enter to music and dance around a banquet that they then invite Alonso’s party to enjoy. As the banquet is brought in, Sebastian sees only “drollery” in this miraculous sight (430, 3.3.22), but Gonzalo sees the excellence and civility of this strange island: though the inhabitants are monstrous-seeming, he says, “yet note / Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of / Our human generation …” (430, 3.3.33-34). The wonder of exploration is part of romance, and Antonio testifies (even if sardonically) to his own sense of wonder: “Travelers ne’er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn ‘em” (430, 3.3.27-28). Just as the men pluck up the courage to step forward and eat, Ariel swoops down in the form of a harpy, and with a clap of his wings, makes the banquet vanish.

This “Harpy” episode has a classical precedent in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 3, where the Harpies snatch away the Trojan remnant’s feast and Celaeno, the Harpies’ chief, warns the beleaguered Trojans that they will suffer famine before they reach their destined home in Italy.[14] The reason for this is that, like Odysseus and his crew on their way home to Ithaca, they killed animals from herds belonging to a divine being without asking permission. In Odysseus’s case the offended deity was Helios the sun god, while with regard to Aeneas, it was the Harpies, and they demanded strict retribution for his breach of hospitality.

When Shakespeare works these ancient emblems of revenge into a key scene in The Tempest, he is most likely reminding us how serious a fix Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian might be in if they weren’t dealing with a reasonable governor like Prospero. “Justice” was no delicate matter in the time of Elizabeth I or James I: in cases of treason, it tended to involve prolonged torture and horrible forms of execution. Merely being beheaded with an axe instead of hanging or worse was considered a favor to guilty noblemen—people convicted of serious crimes against the state usually didn’t get such a quick death. Prospero’s enemies are lucky, then, that his invocation of revenge is aethereal and ceremonial rather than material. The Tempest as a whole is, among other things, a fable of power and authority: the play is much concerned with how power is won, maintained, and lost, and how authority ought to be wielded by fallible human beings. So the reminder of how violent and sudden retribution can be is salutary for Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian.

Once Ariel has snatched away his carefully prepared fool’s banquet, in the name of “destiny” and “fate” he aims a stern address at the “three men of sin” (431, 3.3.54). Ere now, he says, men have been driven to suicide by the type of madness with which he has afflicted them. (431, 3.3.59-61) They have been driven here to a lonely island to be punished for their sins in exiling Prospero (431, 3.3.69-76), and for this offense, they are threatened with “Ling’ring perdition” (432, 3.3.78), unless they feel “heart’s sorrow” and demonstrate “a clear life ensuing” (432, 3.3.82-83). Failure to accept this penitential program would leave them only an anti-romance pattern, a futile life of repetitious action stripped of meaning and redemptive quality.

This is the first of two high points in Prospero’s wielding of power: delighted with the performance of Ariel and his other ministers, he says, “My high charms work, / And these mine enemies are all knit up / In their distractions. They now are in my power; / And in these fits I leave them…” (432, 3.3.89-92). Soon thereafter, Prospero goes off to see Ferdinand and Miranda. At present, the “men of sin” still think Ferdinand is dead, and Alonso, hearing the very waves, winds and thunder speak “The name of Prosper” (432, 3.3.100), feels bitter remorse at the loss of his son and wishes only for a watery death. Sebastian and Antonio wander off, thinking somehow to wage war against the spirit host “one fiend at a time” (432, 3.3.103). Gonzalo alone sees what’s happening to these desperate souls: “their great guilt, / Like poison given to work a great time after, / Now gins to bite the spirits” (432, 3.3.105-07). The old counselor therefore orders others in the party to follow after them and keep them from further harm.

Act 4, Scene 1 (432-39, Prospero urges restraint on Ferdinand, summons spirits to prepare a show for Ferdinand and Miranda: Juno and Ceres bless their coming union; Prospero sums up the vision — “we are such stuff …” and is overcome with thoughts of Caliban’s conspiracy: he is tempted to act tyrannically against the conspirators.)

Prospero, who now apologizes to Ferdinand for the severity of the trials imposed upon him, informs the young man that he has admirably “stood the test” (433, 4.1.7) and won himself a matchless wife. Still, Prospero insists that Ferdinand must not behave like Caliban and spoil the honor of his daughter, lest, he says, “discord, shall bestrew / The union of your bed with weeds …” (433, 4.1.20-21). Ceremony must be attended to, and custom obeyed. These are the time-honored means of blessing a socially and politically significant union, and marriage, we are to understand, is part of the magic of civilization. As usual, Ferdinand speaks skillfully, replying to Prospero, “the strong’st suggestion / Our worser genius can, shall never melt / Mine honor into lust, to take away / The edge of that day’s celebration” (433, 4.1.26-29).

Momentarily, Prospero summons Ariel and orders him to bring the lesser-spirit “rabble” (an important word here in terms of governance: the lower orders amongst the spirits, so to speak, are enlisted to help bring order from chaos) so that he may give the young couple a demonstration of his powers, saying, “I must / Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of mine art. It is my promise, / And they expect it from me” (433, 4.1.39-42). Perhaps Prospero has made just such a promise to the young couple out of our hearing, but in any case, as the Norton editors point out, the term “vanity” is rich with connotations.

Which of the four possibilities laid out by the editors—“Trifle; conceit; illusion; display”—does the magician intend? He may well mean all of them in some combination: we have already seen evidence of Prospero’s great power, and he will tell us still more about that power’s various workings in Act 5. By comparison to the tempest he has stirred up, or the way he has wielded his force against Caliban and even Ferdinand, the courtly, aethereal masque that is about to be enacted might indeed be taken as a mere “trifle,” a pretty fireworks display or feast for the eyes, so to speak, of an awesome power that the wizard himself struggles to refrain from using in more heavy-handed, darker ways. Ariel and Prospero exchange their mutual affection for each other, with the spirit asking Prospero, “Do you love me, master? No?” and receiving the touching reply, “Dearly, my delicate Ariel” (434, 4.1.49-50). Given the at times tense dialogue between these two up to now, this brief exchange is pleasing to hear.

Soon, the masque unfolds. Iris, the rainbow-goddess and messenger of Juno, goddess of marriage and childbirth and all-powerful Jupiter’s wife, opens the display. In Juno’s name she bids Ceres, a fertility and agricultural goddess, to leave her rich dominions and come entertain Juno by sporting with her for the mortal lovers’ pleasure. Ceres is also being summoned for another purpose: there is “A contract of true love to celebrate / And some donation freely to estate / On the blessed lovers” (435, 4.1.84-86). Ceres will offer up her own special gift of abundance in perpetuity and, therefore, a secure future, for Ferdinand and Miranda.

The presence of this goddess may also remind us, though in a way not immediately available to the young couple, of Prospero’s distress at the reality of losing his daughter to the Prince of Naples. Ceres was the mother of Proserpina, the beautiful girl who was abducted by the god of the Underworld, Pluto (or Hades in the story’s Greek version), to be his queen.[15] But the only present menace, at least in the masque itself, is the mention of Cupid, son of the love goddess Venus, both of whom (as the Norton editors point out) were responsible for Pluto’s falling in love with Proserpina. But Iris reports that no such mischief will come from that quarter respecting Ferdinand and Miranda, so the couple are safe.

Next, at Juno’s own request, Juno and Ceres celebrate the coming marriage contract of Miranda and Ferdinand, and Ceres details the beneficence of nature that she brings: ”Earth’s increase, and foison plenty …” are available for the enjoying (435, 4.1.110; see 435-36, 4.1.106-17). Ferdinand, for his part, is amazed at all this spectacle and music, exclaiming “Let me live here ever! / So rare a wondered father and a wise / Makes this place paradise” (436, 4.1.122-24).[16] Possibly because Ferdinand’s word “paradise” is ringing in his ears even as the show goes on, Prospero suddenly remembers the “foul conspiracy / Of the beast Caliban and his confederates” (436, 4.1.139-40). As soon as he speaks these and a few more lines, the spirit-masquers decamp: they must be disappointed at being rushed so unceremoniously out of view.

It may seem odd that Prospero would forget a vile plot against his life even for a moment; but then, he spent a good deal of time “rapt in secret studies” back in Milan even when he was tasked with governing, so perhaps his latest use of such erudition—a lovely masque enacted by the airy spirits he controls—has had a similar effect on him, much to his discomfiture. Ferdinand and Miranda are almost as amazed at Prospero’s sudden crestfallenness as they were by the masque itself, and by way of reassuring them, the old wizard follows up with one of the most lyrical and profound passages in the whole of Shakespeare’s works, beginning with “Our revels now are ended…” (437, 4.1.148; see especially lines 148-58).

The upshot of Prospero’s description of the “revels” and their conclusion is that not only the masque and the players, but everything and everyone, is transitory: there is no substance to anything, and all of it—including the audience—will pass, leaving “not a rack behind” (437, 4.1.156; “rack,” the editors explain, means “wisp of cloud”). One is reminded of Edmund Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos in The Faerie Queene, with their long analysis of “the ever-whirling wheele / Of Change, the which all mortall things doth sway”or the later poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s observation that “Nought may endure but Mutability.” Prospero sums up human life, and perhaps everything his wizardry and art have accomplished, by saying that we are “such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (437, 4.1.156-58).  These are beautiful lines, even if, in context, it is a little hard to imagine them bringing much cheer to Ferdinand and Miranda.

Prospero’s observations at this point in the play have sometimes been taken as Shakespeare’s farewell speech as a dramatist, even though The Tempest isn’t his last project—after its November 1, 1611 performance by the King’s Men at Whitehall Palace’s Banqueting House for King James I, over the next few years he collaborated with John Fletcher on Henry VIII, a lost play called Cardenio (the plot of which was apparently drawn from Don Quixote), and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Whatever the status of the “revels” speech, there is a parallel between art and life to be drawn from it, and from The Tempest in its entire action. Art has much to tell us about life, and—notwithstanding claims like that of W. H. Auden’s speaker in the elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” that poetry “makes nothing happen”—one of its functions is to serve as a kind of magic that participates in and lends decorous approval to the necessary activities of civic life and the fulfillment of individual desire. A key purpose of Prospero’s elegant spirit-masque, in fact, is to bless the future union of Miranda and Ferdinand.

No sooner does Prospero speak his most philosophical lines than he confesses to Ferdinand that he feels confused and enfeebled: “Sir, I am vexed. / Bear with my weakness: my old brain is troubled” (437, 4.1.158-60). He must get the young couple safely out of the way for a while, so he can take care of the unfinished business that he had temporarily forgotten. In effect, the courtly spirit-masque put on for Miranda and Ferdinand amounts to something like the “false catastrophe” often seen in classical comic structure. Prospero’s magical island is not paradise after all: the consequences of human error, of human fallenness if we want the theological overtones of that word, impend even in this strange, lovely place somewhere in the Mediterranean that has traces of tropical ultra-green.[17] Ariel is summoned, and he delivers an update on what he has done to frustrate and annoy Caliban, his arrogant new master Stefano, and second-in-command Trinculo, any one of whom would try the patience of a saint. Prospero, we know, isn’t quite that. That the old man is once again tempted to turn tyrant is at least hinted at in his pronouncement, “I will plague them all, / Even to roaring” (438, 4.1.192-93). 

The scene ends with Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban being hunted down like wild animals by Prospero’s spirits, now morphed into vicious canines. We are getting near thehigh point of Prospero’s demonstration of power, the apex of the ultimately benevolent plot he has stirred up by magic and with help from Fortune: “At this hour,” observes Prospero, “Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (439, 4.1.259-60). This is the moment he has waited for and worked for. What will he do with it?

Act 5, Scene 1 and Epilogue (439-48, Prospero forgoes vengeance: both sets of conspirators are trapped, there are faults called out and forgiven; King Alonso is reunited with Ferdinand; the Boatswain reports that the ship is ready; Prospero will sail to Naples for Miranda’s wedding, then go home to rule Milan and study the art of dying well; Ariel is finally set free.)

It doesn’t take long for us to realize that Prospero will make the right and merciful call in dealing with his enemies. Even Ariel is moved at the plight of Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian, who, sitting in a lime garden near Prospero’s cell, “abide all three distracted, / And the remainder mourning over them…” (440, 5.1.12-13). Upon hearing this, Prospero sums up his reaction as follows: “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick, / Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury / Do I take part. The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (440, 5.1.25-28). Virtue, as the Renaissance humanist commonplace goes, will always prove productive of still greater good, while vengeance is destructive and de-creative, tending to chaos instead of order. Prospero will unsay the spells he has laid upon the three sinful men, and “they shall be themselves” (440, 5.1.32) so that they may receive their just reckoning.

Immediately after letting us in on his decision to exercise genuine authority rather than play the tyrant with his now hapless enemies, Prospero details the stunning reach of the powers he has long exercised and now proposes to let go once and for all. As the Norton editors point out, the description he gives us is adapted from Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses 7.265-77).[18] Aside from consorting with fairies and elves, controlling nature in impressive ways, and the like, the most startling claim Prospero advances is that by his “so potent art,” graves have “waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth…” (441, 5.1.48-50).[19]

Most readers and audience members probably won’t have seen this claim coming: raising the dead is a frightening power steeped in divinity; it is not something that anyone would consider “white magic,” as opposed to darker occult practices. All the same, as Sean Benson points out,[20] references to something like such activity are hardly lacking in Shakespeare’s later plays. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Winter’s Tale, and Cymbeline also gesture towards the resurrection of the dead, whether real or apparent. Whatever may be the case about this startling claim, Prospero makes a tough decision: he will forswear any such “rough magic” (441, 5.1.50) and return to his old life as a mere mortal, even though a rather important one as Duke of Milan. He pledges, “I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book” (441, 5.1.54-57).

Upon the entrance of the guilty Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian into the magic circle that Prospero has drawn, he waits for the spell he had cast on them earlier to wear off. To himself (since they cannot hear or see him yet), he proceeds to sketch the fault of each man: “Most cruelly / Didst thou, Alonso, use me and my daughter. / Thy brother [Sebastian] was a furtherer in the act” (441, 5.1.71-73). As for Antonio, he stands accused most recently of egging Sebastian on to murder Alonso and thereby repeating by Neapolitan proxy his initial usurpation of Milan (441, 5.1.74-79). But even Antonio is forgiven, though neither he nor Sebastian will bother to apologize.

Prospero realizes that he should dress himself so as to be recognizable to his onetime abusers. Ariel, sensing freedom to be near, can hardly contain his glee as he helps dress Prospero in his proper attire as Duke of Milan: “Merrily, merrily shall I live now, / Under the blossom that hangs on the bough” (442, 5.1.93-94), sings this innocent, natural creature even as he invests a mortal man in robes of state. To move things along, Prospero tells Ariel to summon the Boatswain and the ship’s Master to the scene. When Prospero finally addresses King Alonso audibly and allows himself to appear to him, Alonso promptly agrees to forget his insistence on Milanese tribute for Naples and asks forgiveness for his complicity in the exiling of Prospero, saying, “Thy dukedom I resign and do entreat / Thou pardon me my wrongs” (442, 5.1.118-19). Next, the magician embraces his loyal friend Gonzalo and, in an aside to Sebastian and Antonio, promises not to reveal to Alonso their conspiracy against him, at least for the time being. He then demands his state back from his brother Antonio: “I do forgive / Thy rankest fault—all of them—and require / My dukedom of thee…” (443, 5.1.131-33).

King Alonso is amazed to see Prospero still alive, but his chief care is still, of course, for his lost son: “I wish / Myself were mudded in that oozy bed / Where my son lies” (443, 5.1.150-52). To this despairing monarch, Prospero at first commiserates as one who has, in a sense, also lost his child; he has had to give her to Ferdinand. But it would be wrong to toy with a grief-stricken father, so Prospero has one last wonder to reveal to Alonso and the whole party: he shows them Ferdinand and Miranda playing that ancient game of royal strategy, chess (444, 5.1.171ff). Even Sebastian must admit that this is “A most high miracle” (444, 5.1.177).

The game itself seems to entail some contention between the two lovers, with Miranda accusing Ferdinand of making tricky moves on the chess board: “Sweet lord, you play me false” (444, 5.1.172). This possible act of cheating would seem to transition Ferdinand out of the play’s dream world (in which he has played the romance quester in a short space) and initiate him into the guileful realm of politics and statecraft, but his reaction to the sight of King Alonso suggests he has lost none of his innocence or loyalty—he is wonderstruck, exclaiming, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful” (444, 5.1.178). He knows he is not yet the king of Naples, but he is overjoyed to see his father still living. So Ferdinand and Alonso are reunited, and Miranda’s turn comes to marvel at the sight before her: “Oh, brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (444, 5.1.183-84) Alonso is very pleased with the match, and, by way of a question, Gonzalo pronounces Prospero’s long-ago exile from Milan a dynastic fortunate fall: “Was Milan thrust from Milan that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (445, 5.1.205-06)

Ariel has brought the Boatswain and Ship’s Master into Prospero’s presence, and they relate how they beheld with wonder the vessel they thought they had lost forever: “Our royal, good, and gallant ship …” (423, 5.1.240) now stands ready for service as before. King Alonso’s desire for the particulars of this miraculous affair is brushed aside for the moment by Prospero, for there’s still the matter of Caliban and his wicked overlords to settle. Ariel has set them at liberty to face judgment, and the first result is general merriment since all three look like perfect fools in the gaudy apparel that Ariel had earlier set out to distract them from their intent to murder Prospero in his cell. Prospero’s inclination is to admit responsibility for Caliban: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (446, 5.1.278-79). What exactly is Prospero implying? By “acknowledge,” does he mean that he will take Caliban with him to Milan and there help him complete his education? That seems unlikely, but of course one can only conjecture vainly about such post-textual matters. In any case, Caliban, afraid almost for his life, admits his error and promises to mend his ways: “I’ll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace” (447, 5.1.296-97). He now knows what Alonso knows: Stefano is no god, but only a “drunken butler” (446, 5.1.280).

Order at last fully restored, Prospero promises to tell his life’s story to King Alonso and his entourage on the eve of departure from the island. The company will travel first to Naples, where Prospero will witness the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, and finally, Prospero will go home to Milan, where, he tells all assembled, “Every third thought shall be my grave” (447, 5.1.313). Given the mostly kind temporality and fortune of the romance universe, this magician-ruler Prospero has been able to cast away his wondrous book and bury his miracle-making staff, respectively (assuming that he has by now done those things as promised), without losing his chance to recover the dukedom he lost. He has learned a costly, lengthy lesson about putting an intensely private desire for knowledge in its place and showing due regard for maintaining the symbolic and material authority that underwrite civic order.

In truth, we can’t know what kind of ruler the renewed Duke of Milan will be, and neither do we know if he truly believes the magic he has given up is worth sacrificing to regain a dukedom he didn’t enjoy governing to begin with. But perhaps that is to be too pessimistic about the play’s conclusion. Prospero’s concluding wishes are of interest in that aside from his final island-based act of freeing Ariel to the elements as promised, what the aged man really desires is not so much to exercise great power again but instead to practice the art of dying well, or ars moriendi, as it’s called in Latin. Ariel’s final burden is to provide “calm seas, auspicious gales” (447, 5.1.316) for the return voyage, and his master’s last command to him is liberation itself: “Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well” (447, 5.1.319-20). The impending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda is full of hope for good things to come. They will, we may presume, carry on in a regenerated social and political environment, as comedy prescribes.

These youngsters’ projected future is important, but the play’s emphasis, most viewers will probably agree, is more firmly on the elder statesman Prospero’s partial recovery of his former glory supplemented by a more mature kind of knowledge, one that more closely honors wisdom than mere intellection or erudition. Prospero, now a frailer but wiser man than he was when Antonio hustled him out of his dukedom, will decorously divide his time between governing Milan and preparing for his own “rounding off” with a sleep. All in all, The Tempest is a perfect romance play, replete with a bittersweet but magnificent ending. A serious potential for tyranny and harsh judgment have given way to seasoned justice, political order, and the greatest measure of personal satisfaction that old age can afford—watching one’s children thrive. In the epilogue, Prospero, leaving his magic behind with the island, dutifully consigns his hopes of reaching Naples and Milan to the justice and imagination of the audience.

Perhaps this makes him seem a diminished man, this onetime magus who has “bedimmed / The noontide sun” (440, 5.1.441-42) and raised the dead. But that is a matter of interpretation. To leave us with the impression of Prospero as the same powerful wizard he was at the play’s beginning, we might suggest, would be to deny the ultimately humanizing touch of one of Shakespeare’s finest romance or tragicomic plays. It may be asking too much of this moody, brilliant play to expect that Prospero will emerge from it sublimely happy. His Epilogue ends on a penitent yet hopeful note. Any happy ending will depend on the good will of Shakespeare’s, audience. This is to end where we began: with a simple expression of trust in the late-invented romance genre’s capacity to capture what fines itself down to “the real,” to what matters.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Endnotes


[1] Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985).

[2] The Greek passage runs, τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν, tlēton gar Moirai thumon thesan anthrōpoisin). Perseus Project, Tufts U. Accessed 1/21/2024. http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0012.tlg001.perseus-grc1:24.22-24.63

[3] A Renaissance humanist education was supposed to be convertible into active virtue. As Sir Philip Sidney writes in his 1580-81 treatise, “A Defence of Poesie and Poems,” the aim of learning is “well doing” and not merely “well knowing.” Project Gutenberg. Accessed 1/21/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1962/1962-h/1962-h.htm

[4] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. 662-63. The Norton Shakespeare editors also refer to Simon Magus. See Romances and Poems 388-89.

[5] We should also note another passage that seems neutral on the issue of what exactly Prospero was studying back in Milan; see 401, 1.2.89-92, where Prospero describes himself as “neglecting worldly ends”; he says further that he was “all dedicated / To closeness [secrecy] and the bettering of my mind / With that which, but by being retired, / O’er-prized all popular rate….” Here, it’s hard to see that he’s suggesting anything but that his erudition went far above the heads of Milan’s ordinary citizens. On the whole, Shakespeare seems content to allow the exact nature of Prospero’s studies to remain somewhat vague.

[6] The relative merit of the two life-paths was the subject of much debate during the Renaissance, and is well memorialized in Thomas More’s Utopia as well as by Milton’s poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” Renaissance education was intended to make a person fit for public life, for a life of active virtue—it was about developing one’s capacities to the fullest extent.

[7] Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare after All. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. The Tempest, 852-53.

[8] Garber, Marjorie, idem. Garber refers on pp. 854-55 to several modern works, including José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel and El Mirador de Próspero, Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, Roberto F. Retamar’s Calibán, W. H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, and films such as Forbidden Planet and Prospero’s Books.

[9] Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, any edition. See Chs. 17 (XVII), 19 (XIX).

[10] Garber, Marjorie, idem. 858-59.

[11] Montaigne, Michel. The Essays of Montaigne, Done into English by John Florio. The Tudor Translations, ed. W. E. Henley. Edinburgh, 1892. Accessed 1/21/2024. https://resources.warburg.sas.ac.uk/pdf/ebh610b2456140A.pdf.

[12] Garber, Marjorie, idem. 863-65.

[13] It would make sense if Antonio were also scheming to replace Alonso with Sebastian so as to gain better terms tribute-wise for Milan.

[14] Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 2006. 3.253-319.

[15] Ceres created winter by leaving her fields to search for Proserpine, and a deal was eventually struck with Jupiter’s intercession: Proserpina would dwell on earth for half of every year as the goddess of Spring, and live with Pluto in the Underworld for the other half.

[16] As the Norton editors point out (See Norton Romances and Poems, pg. 436), the old-fashioned “fancy s/f” typography of the manuscript means that the word “wise” could also be rendered “wife.”

[17] The tropical flavor of the island, as the Norton editors (see Norton Romances and Poems, pg. 391) and others have pointed out, probably comes from Shakespeare’s familiarity with a circulating manuscript that related the story of one of the ships involved in setting up the Virginia Company’s Jamestown, Virginia colony. In a hurricane in 1609, Governor Thomas Gates’s ship ran aground on an uninhabited island in the Bermudas. Gates had to act decisively to quell a potential rebellion amongst the survivors and make his way to Jamestown, where similar problems required his attention. See the Strachey account among the “Of Interest” links at the top of this document.

[18] Ovid. Metamorphoses. Transl. Arthur Golding. U. Michigan Library, Early English Books Online. Accessed 1/21/2024. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A08649.0001.001. See from “I haue compelled streames to run cleane backward….”

[19] One would like to know where exactly Prospero performed such a miracle as to force graves to open and cough up their resurrected dead. But the play isn’t going to answer that question, so it’s probably naïve to ask.

[20] Benson, Sean. “The Resurrection of the Dead in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature (Vol. 61, Issue 1). Marquette University Press, Fall 2008.

The Winter’s Tale

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 315-86).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Greene’s Pandosto, the Triumph of Time | Pandosto, mod. English (Oxford)

Act 1, Scene 1 (315-16, Camillo recounts the childhood closeness of Polixenes and Leontes as well as their subsequent friendship in adulthood, and praises Mamillius for his effect on the kingdom of Sicilia.)

We hear how Polixenes of Bohemia and Leontes of Sicilia grew up together. Understandably in terms of the romance pattern, these two kings who already share an idyllic bond grounded in childhood memories seek to extend that bond into the present time. They are happy, but they desire to be happier still. Leontes’s counselor Camillo, however, also describes the aftermath of their upbringing in a way that is clearly meant to be affirmative but that also introduces a note of necessary ambivalence. The original affection of the two men, he says, “cannot / choose but branch now” (316, 1.1.20-21), and their subsequent relationship has been through intermediaries: “their / encounters, though not personal, hath been royally attor- / neyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, / that they have seemed to be together though absent” (316, 1.1.22-25). To “branch” is to grow and flourish, but the metaphor also implies distance and differentiation, which in turn intimate the potential, and perhaps the inevitability, of a certain degree of alienation between the two men, and the fact that they live far from each other and communicate through underlings further suggests such potential.

We are told that Leontes’s son Mamillius has an almost magical effect upon the kingdom’s subjects that evokes the romance pattern’s grand cycles of birth, death, and rebirth: the boy “makes / old hearts fresh” (316, 1.1.33-34) and even overcomes the desire of the very old to die. It seems that the child is special in a way that ought to point towards the happy futurity of Leontes’s royal line. Up to this point, then, all seems well: the noble characters of this play are “living their best lives,” as we might say nowadays. But this is a romance play, a tragicomedy, so we know that some destabilizing event is bound to usher in a change that will bring suffering and loss in its train.

Act 1, Scene 2 (316-28, Polixenes decorously turns down Leontes’s entreaty to extend his nine-month stay, and describes for Hermione how close he and Leontes were as boys; Hermione charms Polixenes into staying; Leontes is immediately stricken with searing jealousy at her success in persuading his friend, and after insulting Mamillius’s patrimony, he orders Camillo to kill Polixenes; Camillo remonstrates against Leontes, then feigns compliance with his order, but warns Polixenes to leave at once.)

Leontes tries to get Polixenes to stay another week in Sicilia, but Polixenes turns him down. The way he does so turns out to be problematic: he says to Leontes, “There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’th’world / So soon as yours could win me” (317, 1.2.20-21). Leontes then enlists his queen Hermione, who places her charms at the king’s service. She tells Polixenes that when Leontes visits Bohemia in turn, “I’ll give him my commission / To let him there a month behind the gest / Prefixed for’s parting” (317, 1.2.40-42). For some reason, she feels it necessary to reaffirm her great love for Leontes immediately thereafter: “I love thee not a jar o’th’ clock behind / What lady she her lord” (317, 1.2.43-44). The continuance of the exchange seems like innocent flirtation, but it is not difficult to see how a determined interpreter could make it sound otherwise. Shakespeare seems to have been familiar with Machiavelli’s work, and as we know from that author’s analysis in The Prince, rulers who cultivate a reputation for honesty will have an easier time duping people when they really need to.[1]

While conversing with Hermione, Polixenes memorably describes himself and Leontes as boys in pastoral terms: “We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’th’sun / And bleat the one at th’other” (318, 1.2.67-68). Polixenes obliquely introduces the subject of mature sexuality in response to Hermione’s question about who was the “verier wag” (318, 1.2.66) of the two men when they were children: “We knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing nor dreamed / That any did” (318, 1.2.69-71). The following lines make it clear that the context is implicitly sexual, and Hermione picks up on this with a little innocent flirtation, accusing Polixenes of denigrating women as “devils” (319, 1.2.82). These comments may constitute the spurs to Leontes’s jealousy, which begins to appear as early as the line, “At my request he would not [stay]” (319, 1.2.87). Evidently, Leontes is not entirely delighted with Polixenes’s claim that if his old friend couldn’t convince him to stay, no one could, and now he has given in to the lighthearted, if solicited, pleadings of Hermione. It’s as if he’s not simply angry at Hermione’s potentially flirtatious conduct, he’s jealous of her effectiveness with Polixenes. Is there some competition implied here between Leontes and Hermione for the attentions of Polixenes? It’s a plausible interpretation of the scene, especially since Renaissance cultures still promoted the classically based notion of friendship between men being of a higher sort than the love between male and female.[2]

When we move from talk to a combination of talking and gesture between Polixenes and Hermione, things go from bad to worse: in the previous conversation, it isn’t entirely clear if Leontes hears everything that passes between Hermione and Polixenes. Most productions show Leontes discussing papers or some such thing while his wife entreats the King of Bohemia, and towards the end, Leontes must ask, “Is he won yet?” (318, 1.2.86), as if he has been standing off to the side and giving them some privacy. If so, that mixture of public-spirited “command performance” and private intimacy is destructive for Hermione, who can’t win either way. Leontes points out that it took him fully three bitter or “crabbèd” months to win his wife’s hand in marriage (319, 1.2.102), and now Hermione has won over Polixenes in a few moments of banter. Worse yet, she compares her successful suit to Polixenes to her courtship with Leontes: “I have spoke to th’ purpose twice,” she says. The first time was to get a husband, and the second was to win the presence of a friend, at least for a time (319, 1.2.106).

It’s logical to suppose that Hermione and Polixenes now hold hands and speak or stand apart, and this rattles Leontes more than he can bear: “Too hot, too hot” (319, 1.2.108), he complains, and describes their bodily actions as “paddling palms and pinching fingers, / … and making practiced smiles / As in a looking glass; and then to sigh …” (319, 1.2.115-17). It’s hard to tell whether all of these gestures are supposed to be taken as faithfully described or as the exaggerations of a heated, fearful mind; either way, Hermione’s state is now perilous even though she doesn’t yet know it. We can’t miss it, however, since Leontes abruptly, if obliquely, asks Mamillius whether he is his father’s son (319, 1.2.119-20).[3]

Queen Hermione’s interaction with Polixenes probably seems innocent to us, just like Desdemona’s dalliance with Michael Cassio in Othello. Still, if we put ourselves in the mindset of first-time viewers, might we not share Leontes’s uncertainty? We don’t know Hermione well at this point, even though, as we will understand upon slightly better acquaintance with her speech and bearing, she is only behaving generously towards her husband’s dear friend, following Leontes’s lead in using her charms to win a longer stay. In any event, this first scene at the edge of happily ever is shattered by Leontes’s abrupt change in passions:[4] he sees Hermione holding hands, chatting nicely, possibly whispering, and so forth, with his old friend, and is stricken with insane, uncontrollable jealousy. Jealousy stems from a disturbance in one person’s object-relation to another person. This powerful passion almost certainly inhabits, even haunts, all intimate relationships. We treat affection like a scarce good, almost in an economic way, and fall to rationing it as we do with other noble and charitable ideals. The “other” is transfixed as something permanent, stable, unchangeable, and then when that standard seems in danger of not being met, we become enraged. Even though there are some possibly ambivalent words and gestures to be processed in the current scene, there is no need for plot devices or long backstory work to show where jealousy comes from: it often presents itself as if from nowhere, in real life as well as in literature.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that there’s no implied or potential history behind what we see in the first act of The Winter’s Tale. If jealousy is like a disease, it makes sense to point out that a person may not become symptomatic until the malady is well under way, and then the “presentation” of the disease may seem sudden and dramatic. (Perhaps in that sense jealously is like some forms of cancer that only manifest symptoms when the underlying disease is grievously advanced.) There may be an implied sense of competitiveness between Leontes and Polixenes from their youth up, one that would account in part for the strange spell of depraved jealousy that comes over Leontes. Or it may be that for whatever reason, Leontes was never really sure of his wife’s deep affection, and thus he was primed to fly into the jealous rage that causes everyone involved so much anguish.

In any case, once the madness strikes Leontes, jealousy becomes a filter for everything he sees. He categorizes himself as a confirmed cuckold: “Many thousand on ’s / Have the disease and feel’t not” (322, 1.2.205-06), and thanks to his misplaced passion, he misreads and reinterprets all Hermione’s actions as evidence of wickedness and everything everyone else does as corroboration of that wickedness. Camillo must be dishonest now because he can’t see what Leontes believes he himself sees (323, 1.2.242-49ff); Mamillius must be illegitimate; Hermione’s innocent words and actions are doubtless pure deception, and the child whom Paulina will set before his eyes at 2.3.65-66 (pg. 336) seems to him to bear no resemblance to himself. Leontes’s perceptual and interpretive apparatuses have become warped or “diseased” (to use Camillo’s term at 324, 1.2.297). The king becomes “his own Iago”[5] and shares Othello’s absoluteness and incapacity to deal with uncertainty: “Is whispering nothing?” he asks Camillo (324, 1.2.284). As Iago says in Othello, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ.”[6] Hermione must be either a saint or a whore; for Leontes, there is nothing in between, and any uncertainty about the matter is unwelcome.

No matter what Portia tells us about mercy in The Merchant of Venice,[7] the quality of some charitable affections is forced and fragile, or hemmed in by conditions. Cordelia’s understanding of love in Act 1 of King Lear may sound brittle and cold, but it’s probably accurate from the perspective of a young woman who will soon  embark upon her career as a member of the ruling order in Lear’s ancient Britain.[8] As Cordelia sees things, we ration love: more for one person may mean less for others because in practical terms, love must be portioned out in units of time devoted to the beloved. When Cordelia marries, as she says, her aristocratic husband will take a certain amount of her love, which means that her father the king will get less of it. Here in Sicilia, there isn’t enough love available to sustain an economy of affection between Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes.

Still, all isn’t lost: Leontes’s inner corruption seems unable to corrupt others: Camillo stays true to Hermione, and therefore to Leontes. He pretends that he will honor Leontes’s mad request to murder Polixenes (212, 1.2.335-36), but he refuses to poison this good man, with whom he agrees regarding the destructive effects of jealousy. Instead, Camillo informs Polixenes of Leontes’s intention to have him killed (213, 1.2.413) and helps him get away from Sicilia without delay. Camillo offers no hope of changing Leontes’s mind (214, 1.2.424-31), and Polixenes is surprisingly generous in his thoughts about his old friend: “This jealousy is for a precious creature,” Polixenes acknowledges, and given the great power of the man who is acting on that jealousy as well as his belief that his dearest male friend has betrayed him, it’s imperative that the king of Bohemia vacate the scene at once (328, 1.2.449-60).

There will be a cure for the distrustful absolutist Leontes, as we shall see later on: he must learn to see people once again as they really are, and stop allegorizing them as emblems of sin. The importance of the eye, and of vision, is emphasized in Renaissance perceptual theory (though the sense of hearing is also considered vital),[9] and common sense suggests to us how fundamental the sense of sight is for our understanding of the world. To borrow from the Gospels’ metaphoric resources, “But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!”[10] Just now, everything has turned dark and demonic for Leontes, King of Sicilia.

Act 2, Scene 1 (328-33, Leontes stridently accuses Hermione of adultery and she is led off to prison; Antigonus tries to set him straight and fails; Leontes has commanded a trip to Apollo’s oracle, expecting confirmation.)

Mamillius, asked for a story, sets the scene by telling the attending women and Hermione, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (329, 2.1.26). But the sad tale of Leontes and Hermione prevents him from telling it: obsessed, Leontes says he has “drunk and seen the spider” at the bottom of the cup (329, 2.1.46), and he goes on to accuse and order the arrest of Hermione as a treasonous adulteress, with no real hope of defense (331, 2.1.104-06). Hermione maintains her composure, saying “This action I now go on / Is for my better grace” (331, 2.1.122-23). As so often, the good are scarcely capable of defending themselves when evil or misprision furiously besets them: they don’t have the same resources available to them as those who have no scruples about morality or whose sensibilities have been corrupted by unhealthy, excessive passions. Hermione’s claims of innocence, it’s easy to see from this preliminary interaction, will stand no chance when the time comes to endure the proto-Stalinist show trial that Leontes has planned for her.

Next follows a discussion in which another counselor (like Camillo earlier) tries to set Leontes straight, to no effect: Antigonus tells the king, “You are abused, and by some putter-on / That will be damned for’t” (331-32, 2.1.141-43). But Leontes is set upon publicly declaring his wife unfaithful, and his final move in this scene is to report that he has sent his assistants Cleomenes and Dion to Apollo’s temple to consult the god’s oracle.[11] It is now time to take the matter public.

Act 2, Scene 2 (333-35, Paulina determines to bring Hermione’s newborn daughter into Leontes’s presence.)

Paulina confers with Emilia: Hermione’s newborn daughter should be brought before Leontes. “We do not know / How he may soften at the sight o’th’ child” (334, 2.2.40-41), she tells Emilia, and it isn’t hard for Paulina to convince the jailor that there’s no danger in it for him to let her leave with the child.

Act 2, Scene 3 (335-40, Mamillius falls ill; Paulina confronts Leontes with his child; Leontes orders Antigonus to expose the infant outside Sicilia; Apollo’s answer is on the way: Hermione will have her show trial.)

Leontes continues to stew in his jealous anger. He can’t get to Polixenes or Camillo, but he can burn Hermione at the stake as a traitor (335, 2.3.7-9). Mamillius has taken ill, and Leontes puts it down to the boy’s knowledge of “the dishonor of his mother” (335, 2.3.13). The proposed punishment of Hermione may seem unthinkable to us, but the Elizabethan-Jacobean public would have found it all too true-to-life. In that period, the traditional punishment for treason was beheading for the nobility or, for the less exalted, hanging, drawing, and quartering. The heads of traitors lined London Bridge so that visitors might see them and take the terrifying lesson to heart: offend the sovereign, and you will die horribly.[12]

Paulina enters with the newborn child and is active and confrontational in dealing with Leontes, who tries to place the blame for the embarrassing encounter on Paulina’s husband Antigonus: “What, canst not rule her?” (336, 2.3.46) to which Antigonus answers, “When she will take the rein, I let her run …” (336, 2.3.51-52). The other characters at court aren’t corrupt; they’re just passive. Hermione is unable to deal with Leontes’s madness because she is the alleged cause and object of it, so a third party like Paulina is vital. She will keep the clock ticking so that romance time can work its magic: there will be time and opportunity and good will enough to avert entire tragedy. And more than that, as we’ll see, Paulina’s careful, clever disposition of affairs is itself a big part of the play’s “magic.”

The present scene has some comedy in it, with two powerful men unable to hold off the onslaught of Paulina, who even accuses Leontes of treason to his face: “he / The sacred honor of himself, his queen’s, / His hopeful son’s, his babe’s, betrays to slander…” (337, 2.3.83-85). She later calls him a tyrant (338, 2.3.115-20), which further enrages him. In comedy, the angry father or senex iratus is a straw man: consider Duke Frederick in As You Like It, who threatens death and injury all around but ends up looking ridiculous and then transforming suddenly in the Forest of Arden.[13] There’s also Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: this bullheaded father threatens his daughter Hermia with dire penalties for refusing to marry Demetrius, the suitor he has chosen for her. In the end, Egeus’s irrational obstacle-making comes to nothing.[14] But in romance drama, there must be legitimate potential for a tragic turn, and that is what we have been witnessing here in The Winter’s Tale.

Leontes has already declared the infant to be “the issue of Polixenes” (337, 2.3.93), and his only thought is to cast both his wife and child into the traitor’s fire (338, 2.3.133). With Paulina pushed out the door and Antigonus accused of abetting her, the assembled lords kneel to bring Leontes to his senses, and at last he relents: “Let it live” (338, 2.3.156), he says, though the following line “It shall not neither” makes it clear that the resolution isn’t benign. The king’s final offer is as follows: Antigonus is to take the child and “bear it / To some remote and desert place” (225, 2.3.174-75), leaving its survival or death to chance. Leontes sees this as symmetrical justice since the child came to him initially “by strange fortune” (339, 2.3.178), and so “chance may nurse or end it” (339, 2.3.182). Leontes’s decision at this juncture, though by no means benign in its intent, opens up the potential for the partially redemptive operations of romance time to begin working. We may recall that shipwrecked Viola’s best decision in Twelfth Night was to commit her cause to the play’s comic perspective regarding time. This is a similar moment in The Winter’s Tale, even though little “Perdita,” as she will subsequently be known, has no idea what’s happening: the decision is made for her by Leontes, a man who doesn’t mean her well, and it is carried out by one who does, Antigonus.[15]

Finally, Leontes announces that his messengers are coming back soon with the oracle of Apollo’s pronouncement. As for Hermione, says Leontes, “as she hath / Been publicly accused, so shall she have / A just and open trial” (339-40, 2.3.202-04). His promise rings hollow since he is clearly in no doubt about the verdict.

Act 3, Scene 1 (340, Cleomenes and Dion are returning with the answer from Apollo’s oracle.)

Cleomenes and Dion have done their job and now have the sealed response of Apollo’s oracle. They are returning to Sicilia and hoping the answer will be for Hermione’s good.

Act 3, Scene 2 (341-46, Hermione defends herself at trial; Leontes disrespects the oracle; Mamillius’s death shocks Leontes back to his senses; Hermione faints and Paulina pronounces her dead; Paulina confronts Leontes, who vows to visit his son and wife’s shrine daily: this will be his penance, his “recreation.”)

Leontes, meet our modern conspiracy buffs! The accusation against Hermione read by the officer is preposterous: she stands accused of “high trea- / son, in committing adultery with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, / and conspiring with Camillo to take away the life of our sover- / eign lord the King …” (341, 3.2.13-16). Hermione’s self-defense is noble, but she hasn’t a prayer of success since this is a show-trial worthy of the paranoid Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, or Hitler’s captured justice system during his Nazi Regime’s tenure in Germany.[16] She loved Polixenes in just the way that Leontes demanded, she says, and as for Camillo, he is “an honest man” whose departure from the court is mystifying to her (342, 3.2.60-64, 72-74). Hermione’s quality shines through when she defies Leontes’s threat of death: “Sir, spare your threats. / The bug which you would fright me with I seek” (342, 3.2.89-90) and simply calls for the reading of Apollo’s judgment (343, 3.2.113-14).

Apollo’s oracle tells Leontes that he is jaw-droppingly wrong and that he must recover what he has thrown away: “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, / Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent / babe truly begotten; and the King shall live without an heir / if that which is lost be not found” (343, 3.2.130-33). Leontes dismisses the oracle’s words, saying “There is no truth at all i’the oracle,” (343, 3.2.136). Evidently, his ears fail him just as his eyes did. With this impious declaration, Leontes has reached the nadir of his madness: defying the gods never ends well for the brotoi, the dying generations of humankind.[17]

The announcement of the death of his son Mamillius snaps Leontes out of his state of error, but he must live with the consequences of what he has done (343-44, 3.2.140-42). Leontes has thrown away his identity along with Hermione and Perdita, who are both a part of him, and now Mamillius is gone. Leontes finally realizes his error: “Apollo’s angry, and the heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice” (344, 3.2.143-44). But there’s more sorrow in store for him when Hermione faints at the news of Mamillius’ death and is herself pronounced dead by Paulina (344, 3.2.145-46). What follows is an anguished confrontation with Paulina, who insists that Hermione is indeed gone (345, 3.2.200-04) but who also seems moved by Leontes’s overwhelming sorrow at his error. Of this, she says only, “What’s gone and what’s past help / Should be past grief” (346, 3.2.229-30). Leontes forms his plan for the future; the joint tomb of his wife and son will be his daily haunt: “Once a day I’ll visit / The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there / Shall be my recreation” (346, 3.2.235-37).

There will be serious consequences to reckon with from here on out: Hermione is now effectively placed in a state of suspended animation, so far as Leontes and the audience are informed. Leontes will have only an image, a shrine, for years to come. His depraved obliviousness to Apollo’s truth-saying has ensured this result. Leontes (like Lear and Cymbeline) has thrown away his identity, and he can’t snap his fingers and get it back. That he recognized his error the instant Apollo’s wrath supposedly struck down his son has made self-recovery and redemption possible, if not quick. Paulina, in spite of her sometimes harsh words and attitude, will assist Leontes in his long time of penance, which will include frequent visits to the shrine of the woman he has wronged.

Act 3, Scene 3 (346-49, Antigonus dreams of Hermione, exposes Perdita, is eaten by a bear; a shepherd discovers the child with gold; he and his son plan good deeds and a secure future.)

While traveling by ship to Bohemia, Antigonus dreams of Hermione, who informs him that his end is near and gives him instructions on where to leave the child and what to name her: Perdita, which in Latin translates to the feminine gender of “the lost one.”[18] Antigonus is now convinced that Hermione is dead. He thereupon suffers the full consequences of his own failure to resist Leontes’s culpable behavior, which is implicit in dream-Hermione’s language: “For this ungentle business / Put on thee by my lord, thou ne’er shalt see / Thy wife Paulina more…” (347, 3.3.33-35). Act 3 ends on a note of savagery and tempest: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” But it also ends with great promise for the future. In this romance play, Antigonus’s exit is Perdita’s entrance into a brave new world. As the old shepherd says to his son, “thou mett’st with things dying, / I with things newborn” (348, 3.3.103-04). The gold Antigonus has left behind will become “fairy gold” (349, 3.3.112) for the shepherd who discovers the “Blossom” (347, 3.2.45—Antigonus’s farewell term) Perdita, and a new world will open up for this rustic character and his son. As we move into Acts 4-5, we will witness the power of romance time to heal rifts, clear up delusions, and make things partially right. Antigonus will not share in the recovery, and there is genuine loss in that (most of all for him and his wife Paulina) because after all, he has made a decent attempt to preserve Perdita from Leontes’s wrath.

Act 4, Scene 1 (349-50, Time brings us forward sixteen years and sets us down to see the rest of the play: Perdita is now a young woman.)

A chorus player speaks as “Time” to tell us that he is within his rights to turn the clock forward some sixteen years, to the span when Perdita is no longer an infant but a beautiful young woman, supposed by all to be the daughter of the shepherd who found her and secretly courted by Polixenes’s son, Prince Florizel. The choral pronouncement may remind some of Shakespeare’s use of old John Gower (his medieval source for Pericles, Prince of Tyre), who says at the beginning of Act 4 in that play, “Only I carry wingèd Time, / Post on the lame feet of my rhyme….”[19] In any case, Time here is content to stay with the present, leaving subsequent revelations to play out as they may: “let Time’s news / Be known when ‘tis brought forth” (349, 4.1.26-27).

Perhaps this manner of treating time seems unrealistic. But then, if indeed Shakespeare’s romance plays feature a representational strategy that aims at a higher degree of realism than either tragedy or comedy, perhaps we can experience time’s passage in a way that cannot be captured by neoclassical demands for fidelity to the so-called “unity of time.” Especially for older people, many years may seem to have raced by in an instant. One is reminded of landmark events in world history or even in one’s personal history, and is perpetually surprised to hear the closing line, “such-and-such happened twenty years ago to the day.” Call it a trick of memory, but this astonishing experience of temporality is by no means uncommon, and it may be useful to refer to the philosopher Henri Bergson’s notion of lived or subjectively experienced time, la durée, as opposed to a more objective, standard sense of time, which has to do with deadlines, absolute dates, and so forth.[20]

Act 4, Scenes 2-3 (350-53, Camillo’s desire to return to Sicilia is frustrated by Polixenes, who is gathering intelligence on his absent son Florizel: Polixenes and Camillo will disguise themselves and visit the shepherd; Autolycus gives us his resume, robs the shepherd’s son, and plans to crash the sheep-shearing festival.)

In 4.2, Camillo longs to return to Sicilia after the long gap that Time has just indicated, but Polixenes won’t grant his wish (350, 4.2.13-16). He is more intent on finding out what his son Florizel has been up to lately, and to that end, he determines to pay a visit in disguise to the shepherd and “have some question” (351, 4.2.45) with him. For Camillo, then, the sixteen-year gap has been one of growing frustration, of nostalgia for his native land.

Autolycus, who enters at 4.3 declaring himself presently “out of service” (351, 4.3.14), is a human woozle—he’s a trickster, an opportunist, a businessman who deals in stolen linens (351, 4.3.23).[21] He is hardly the worst character in Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s hard to deny that he is from one angle a parasite on the generous psychic economy of the play’s rustics, whose festivities he will soon invade with his bawdiness and commercialism. Even here, before the springtime celebration, he manages to rob the shepherd’s son by feigning victimhood and denouncing one “Autolycus” (himself) as the fellow who robbed him: a man of shady devices and dubious career (353, 4.3.87-92). Still, there’s something positive in Autolycus in spite of his intentions, as his remark about the coming of spring suggests: “For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale” (351, 4.3.4). Even if he has his own selfish purposes for the transformation, he hails the coming of spring and new life. In this capacity, Autolycus will have a role in the bittersweet comic resolution of the play’s final two acts.

Act 4, Scene 4 (353-73, Florizel courts Perdita; Polixenes talks “literary criticism” with Perdita as she presides over the spring festival: is nature or artifice better? Dancing comes before and after; Autolycus commandeers the festivities; Polixenes exposes Florizel and issues threats over the prospective marriage; Camillo promises to help Florizel; Florizel exchanges clothing with Autolycus; Autolycus plays the courtier to dupe the shepherd and his son, whom he will bring to Florizel’s ship, not to Polixenes as they wish.)

This scene, one of the longest in any of Shakespeare’s plays, begins with the courtship between Prince Florizel and Perdita. The young man is confident in his good intentions, while Perdita shows considerable anxiety about dressing up and acting a part beyond her station: “Even now I tremble / To think your father by some accident / Should pass this way …” (354, 4.4.18-20). To which anxiety, Florizel asserts the universality of disguising oneself in erotic pursuits: “The gods themselves, / … have taken / The shapes of beasts upon them” (354, 4.4.25-27). Her fears aside, Perdita will be “mistress o’th’ feast” (355, 4.4.68) at the old shepherd’s insistence.

Polixenes and Camillo soon show up in disguise and strike up a conversation with this queen of the festivities.[22] Perdita and Polixenes engage in a bit of combined horticultural talk and literary criticism, a discussion about the emblematic significance of certain flowers (“streaked gillyvors,” or multicolored carnations) and ultimately about the respective merits of artifice and nature. The critical frame gestures towards the idea that Perdita herself is the “graft” that mends the rustic society surrounding her: she is a beautiful work of art rooted in nature’s processes. Polixenes insists that careful gardening is natural art: “This is an art / Which does mend nature—change it, rather—but / The art itself is nature” (356, 4.4.95-97). While Perdita wants to stick with what’s available in her own rustic garden, Polixenes sees no problem with improving what nature offers freely, and like a good Renaissance critic, he calls artifice (the means whereby nature is improved) natural, too.[23]

Perdita, ever the nature-goddess-tending maiden, isn’t convinced (or rather she admits the point, but is unmoved by it), and in the end we can probably say (adapting a thought from Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human) that Perdita is her own best argument, and as natural as the goddess Flora herself.[24] Still, Polixenes’s argument comes off as wise—or at least it would if he didn’t become enraged upon finding out that his son Florizel wants him to allow the mixing of his own aristocratic stock with the common stock of his kingdom.

In Shakespeare’s plays generally, artifice may fairly be described as a natural aspect of human nature: we are at our best when we are accommodated or civilized human beings, not when we are what King Lear mistakenly supposes he sees in Edgar as Poor Tom: “Thou are the thing / itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, / bare, forked animal as thou art.”[25] But this is not King Lear’s impoverished universe; there is more scope for a healthy view of unmixed nature and natural impulse in this pastoral romance. Perdita exudes healthy animality along with her nobility. She embodies a benevolent form of nature, unlike the bear that devoured Antigonus sixteen years back when he was abandoning Perdita on the harsh seacoast of Bohemia,[26] and unlike the form of nature we see in Leontes’s crazed, desperate descent into the hellish abyss of jealousy.

Perdita’s grace is demonstrated by the effect her presence has on Florizel. Her own playful words give just a hint of Ovidian sportfulness (356, 4.4.112-29) where she invokes Proserpina,[27] but modesty at once makes her take it back: “Sure this robe of mine / Does change my disposition” (357, 4.4.134-35). Florizel, however, sees nothing wrong with what Perdita has said, and he tells her, “When you do dance, I wish you / A wave o’th’ sea” (357, 4.4.140-41). Perdita’s is a graceful, immediate presence, and everything she does is art. In her person, art and nature come together without strife.

This harmony in Perdita contrasts starkly with Leontes’s misprision of nature as something base and demonic. At the play’s outset, his ideal woman would not be Hermione living (“Too hot, too hot,” Leontes had said of her at 319, 1.2.108) or Perdita in motion. It would be a statue: something cold, chaste, and dead. Later, to see her “come alive” from an assumed state of stone is part of Leontes’s penance, but also his reward for his long-suffering fidelity after the initial mistake. In the present scene, Perdita has the grace of a statue and the natural vivacity of a living being at the same time: she is artifice in motion. That is what Leontes will need to accept about Hermione to complete his “recreation.” His failure to accord Hermione the credit she deserved as a fully human being rather than as a courtly object caused the play’s sad events. It is clear from the passage quoted above that young Florizel, unlike Leontes, has no trouble perceiving and affirming these qualities in his Perdita: “What you do / Still betters what is done” (357, 4.4.135-36).

As for Autolycus, he is a confirmed rascal, but he also brings in the spring with his songs, flowers, and bright scarves: the servant who announces his presence seems excited, telling the shepherd, “if you did but hear the peddler at the / door, you would never dance again after a tabor and pipe” (358, 4.4.182-83). This same servant is unable to register the bawdy quality of the songs that Autolycus offers his rustic audience, but we may suppose that his naiveté just serves the cause of nature. Perhaps at this point Autolycus, man of disguises and shifts, is providing us a comic contrast to Florizel, who has been courting Perdita in a disguised but honorable fashion. Paulina, too, later uses the arts of deception in a healthy cause, which links her to the trickster of the present scene. The shepherd’s son ends up buying some ballads from Autolycus, and perhaps some other things as well: his love interest in the shepherd girls at the festivities drives him to buy what Autolycus is selling. Much song and dance follows in this scene both before and after Autolycus makes his entrance: first there is “a dance of shepherds and shepherdesses” (358, 4.4.166), and later, there is a “dance of twelve satyrs” (361, 4.4.333).

Trouble soon follows, however, when Florizel demonstrates his commitment to Perdita in front of Polixenes. The old man pretends to go along with his son, but finally asks, “Soft, swain, awhile, beseech you. / Have you a father?” (363, 4.4.383-84), and he does not like the answer he gets. Polixenes has a point: “The father, all whose joy is nothing else / But fair posterity, should hold some counsel / In such a business” (363, 4.4.399-401). Polixenes proceeds to threaten not only the old shepherd but also Florizel and even Perdita with dire consequences (363-64, 4.4.408-11, 416-20, 423-32). As in some of Shakespeare’s comedies, we have run into the classical figure of the senex iratus, the angry old man.[28] Polixenes’s conduct at this point also links him to the Leontes of the first act in that his rashness threatens tragedy for himself and others. It will be his good fortune that the same consequences that beset Leontes do not afflict him. Still, we need not regard Polixenes as entirely ridiculous. In this play, as a Professor Harold Toliver of UC Irvine observes, the old need to be convinced of the worthiness of the new. In comedy, the emphasis is on the perspectives and desires of the young, but in romance drama, the elders’ perspective is usually as valuable, or even more so, than that of the young. This point holds true even though romance quests are partly about reintegration and renewal through marriage between the young. After all—and here Shakespeare departs from Greene’s Pandosto[29]—the present play centers on the reunification of Leontes and Hermione, the older generation. Polixenes feels that Florizel has cast off his royal identity, so the fourth act legitimately involves Polixenes’s dynastic concerns.

In his distress, Florizel turns to Camillo (367, 4.4.483-93), who has a reason of his own for wanting to help: he wants to return to Sicilia: “Now were I happy if / His going I could frame to serve my turn…” (366, 4.4.499-500). The plan for Florizel is to go to Sicilia and claim that he has arrived with his father’s blessing. Camillo reasons that Leontes will be so happy to do him a good turn that he won’t ask questions, and with a little inside information that Camillo himself will provide, the way to Leontes’s good graces will be smooth (366-67, 4.4. 533-46).

While Camillo, Florizel and Perdita are on the way to their ship, they come across Autolycus, who ends up doing them a good turn. As usual the rascal is pretending to be a poor innocent who has fallen upon hard times, and Camillo asks Autolycus to exchange clothing with Florizel, who will now have the disguise he needs to get safely aboard his ship (368-69, 4.4.619-24). To himself and us, Camillo admits that he plans to tell Polixenes about Florizel’s flight, which will rouse the father to chase after his son. The king of Bohemia will, of course, bring Camillo along with him to Sicilia. (369, 4.4.648-53).

Autolycus is now dressed as a worthy courtier since he traded his own rags for Florizel’s finery. All the same, his slippery ethos shows in the line, “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive” (369, 4.4.659-60). In the course of interacting with Camillo and Florizel, he realizes what the young man must be up to, but determines to keep the information to himself. Soon thereafter, the old shepherd and his son cross paths with Autolycus, giving him another opportunity for gain. He plays the courtier with these two peasants, who are thoroughly taken in by his imposture. Autolycus promises to bring the old shepherd and his son to Polixenes to tell his story, which Autolycus easily draws from him: “He must know ‘tis / none of your daughter nor my sister” (372, 4.4.798-99). Autolycus decides to lead these two undiscerning men directly to Florizel rather than Polixenes, the point being to find out whether their revelation poses any hazards for Florizel (373, 4.4.810-20). What Autolycus says is true enough: “If I had a mind to be honest, I see Fortune would / not suffer me; she drops booties in my mouth” (373, 4.4.810-11). Still, while Autolycus is no doubt the play’s resident Lord of Misrule, he is unable to corrupt anyone else, even if he succeeds in cozening some and concealing his identity from others. It seems that the romance world Shakespeare has built is big enough to accommodate rogues like Autolycus. As it will turn out (for so we hear from Autolycus himself), Florizel’s brief illness aboard his ship will keep him from questioning the shepherd and his son, and the story that’s theirs to tell will indeed be told directly to both Leontes and Polixenes in Sicilia, just at the right time and place to do Perdita and Florizel a good turn.

Act 5, Scene 1 (373-78, Paulina makes Leontes promise not to remarry without her consent; Florizel and Perdita arrive, reminding Leontes of what might have been; when Polixenes’s messenger accuses Florizel of disobedience, Leontes takes up his cause.)

Even as Cleomenes is telling Leontes he should forgive himself, Paulina continues to goad Leontes’s conscience: “she you killed / Would be unparalleled” (373, 5.1.15-16). Paulina’s main purpose here is to prevent the king from remarrying without her consent, and she is successful in extracting from him a promise not to do so. Leontes is not to remarry, she insists, “Unless another / As like Hermione as is her picture / affront his eye…” (375, 5.1.73-75). This new wife will of course be older than was Hermione sixteen years ago, says Paulina cryptically.

A servant announces the arrival of Florizel and his young princess (375, 5.1.85-88). Leontes declares, “I lost a couple that twixt heaven and earth / Might thus have stood, begetting wonder…” (376, 5.1.131-32). He apparently means Mamillius along with Perdita—he has cast away the immediate heir to his throne, and sees something of the young man in Florizel, who immediately attempts to deceive Leontes into believing he has arrived with his father’s blessing: “By his command / Have I here touched Sicilia…” (376, 5.1.137-38). This gambit does not go well, however, since a lord enters and announces that “Bohemia… / Desires you to attach his son, who has, / His dignity and duty both cast off…” (377, 5.1.180-82). But this new piece of information gives Leontes a redemptive opportunity to enlist himself in Florizel’s cause, and he agrees to advocate for him: “I will to your father” (378, 5.1.228). Paulina keeps up her role as general scold to Leontes’s conscience, reminding him about the loss of Mamillius (376, 5.1.115-18) and then reproaching him for his remark about Perdita to Florizel, “I’d beg your precious mistress” (378, 5.1.222), to which Paulina retorts, “Your eye hath too much youth in’t” (378, 5.1.224).

Act 5, Scene 2 (379-82, Perdita is revealed as Leontes and Hermione’s daughter; Paulina and Perdita respectively face the loss of Antigonus and Hermione; all eyes turn towards Paulina’s statue of Hermione; Autolycus receives pardon from the newly gentled shepherd and his son.)

We learn from a series of reported revelations that Perdita has at last been discovered to be Leontes’s lost daughter. The old shepherd brought his material reminders and told his story about how he found a little girl who had been abandoned (379, 5.2.3-7). A gentleman declares that it all sounds to him “so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (379, 5.2.27). In other words, it sounds just like an old winter’s tale. Nonetheless, plenty of evidence (material and otherwise) convinces everyone that it must be so (379, 5.2.29-38). There is both joy and great sadness in the revelations given in this scene since Paulina has it confirmed that Antigonus is indeed gone forever, “torn to pieces with a bear” (380, 5.2.60), and Perdita must confront the news that the mother she never saw is dead (380, 5.2.76-85).

But we also hear from yet another gentleman that Perdita is eager to behold the statue of Hermione that Paulina is said to have ordered completed by Giulio Romano (ca. 1499-1546), an actual Italian mannerist painter and architect (but not a sculptor) who worked just before the middle of the sixteenth century.[30] We are told that the statue is so excellent a piece of realism that “they say one / would speak to her and stand in hope of answer” (380, 5.2.93-94). Perhaps Shakespeare had heard of Romano’s famous illusionistic fresco in Mantua’s Palazzo del Tè titled “The Fall of the Giants” (La Caduta dei giganti), a work so skillfully designed that it blended into and seemed to dissolve the building’s architecture.[31] He may also have read in Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects about the epitaph on Romano’s lost tomb in Mantua, which said that the god Jupiter, envious of Romano’s skill as an artist who could make “sculpted and painted bodies breathe,” ordered the man killed.[32]

The last thing that happens in this scene is a piece of comic reckoning and reconciliation between Autolycus and the newly noble shepherd and son. Autolycus reveals to us that he did indeed bring this pair to be questioned by Florizel, but that nothing came of it (381, 5.2.106-15). In spite of himself, Autolycus has done no harm, but now it’s time to beg pardon of these fine rustic gentlemen, ennobled by their happy recounting of Perdita’s discovery. Autolycus implores the old man “to pardon me all the / faults I have committed … and to give me your / good report to the Prince my master” (381, 5.2.138-40). And being gentlemen, how can they refuse? The shepherd’s son has an amusing understanding of what gentility means: “If it be ne’er so false, a true gentleman may swear it / in the behalf of his friend…” (382, 5.2.151-52).

Act 5, Scene 3 (382-86, Hermione the statue appears to come back to life; Leontes is overjoyed; Camillo and Paulina are united: change and loss are accepted, making way for a partial but wonderful reconciliation and recovery.)

What remains to be achieved is the fullest possible recovery of Hermione and her reconciliation with Leontes and Perdita. Hermione must be recognized as the virtuous woman she was and still is. The plastic arts device in The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s excellent references to the power of art to transform perception and passion and to bring about reconciliation, justice, or some other desired end, and its staging here seems entirely appropriate to the romance genre.[33] The “art work” in this case is a living woman who has been liberated and who now frees Leontes from his sorrow. The play’s conclusion amounts to a romance triumph over death no less remarkable for its staged quality. No metaphysical miracle is necessary. Instead, Paulina’s artful and charitable application of what in Autolycus’s hands would be roguish shifts redeems such deception and turns it to account.

Aside from the obvious connection to the story of the sculptor Pygmalion as recounted by Ovid in the tenth book of Metamorphoses,[34] Paulina’s device may profitably be discussed in relation to ancient literary theory: we may recall the famous contest (as described by Pliny in his Natural History, Ch. 36, “Artists Who Painted with the Pencil”), between Zeuxis and Parrhasius over who could paint more realistically. Zeuxis painted some grapes so well that his painting fooled birds, but Parrhasius painted a curtain, and when Zeuxis asked him to draw back the curtain to reveal his work, Parrhasius won the contest since he had fooled Zeuxis himself. The winner knew that seeing was a matter of convention: we see what we look for. The curtain may or may not have been more realistic in terms of technical precision, but it was what Zeuxis was looking for.[35]

Like Parrhasius, Paulina has made her choice of representational strategy carefully: the statue trick she carries out is a matter of canny affective (emotional) staging: the apparent coming-back-to-life of Hermione will again demonstrate to Leontes his error, yet it will also constitute his greatest reward. The king is at first struck by the difference from his idealized, perhaps aestheticized, memory of a youthful wife, and he observes, “Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing / So aged as this seems” (383, 5.3.28-29). But even if Leontes is at first shown what he was probably looking for, the trick doesn’t end there: the statue-device is a spur to his willingness to recognize the full humanity and integrity of his long-lost wife.

Paulina’s deferral of Leontes’s desire for reunion is the last stage of his penance: while he longs to continue viewing the “statue,” Paulina feigns determination to stop him: “No longer shall you gaze on’t, lest your fancy / May think anon it moves” (384, 5.3.60-61). But at long last, Leontes, whose mad jealousy made him “see the object as in itself it really was not” (to adapt a line from Oscar Wilde[36]) and who thereby stereotyped, objectified, even killed Hermione in a sense, must be reintroduced to the real woman, now sixteen years older.

Paulina now promises to work what the audience and the bereaved husband are bound to take for a miracle: “I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend, / And take you by the hand” (384, 5.3.88-89). Hermione is not made of stone. She is a living, breathing human being, one subject to time and free to whisper and touch the hand of a dear friend, for her husband’s sake or for her own. At Paulina’s prompting, Leontes presents his hand as if to play the suitor anew, and Hermione embraces him (385, 5.3.111). All that remains for the finalization of this seeming miracle—for it makes sense to suppose that Leontes deems miraculous the simple ability to see his wife as she is, after so many years of grief and penitence—is a living human voice. So Hermione speaks, explaining that she has remained alive all these years because she knew the oracle had offered hope of Perdita’s continued existence (385, 5.3.121-28). Some may take that explanation as rather pointed, given that her long-absent husband is standing right next to her, but perhaps we are to understand that everyone’s reconciliation is equally important since Hermione has already embraced Leontes. The last item in the play is to unite Camillo and Paulina, who is still half-stunned by the recent news of Antigonus’s demise by bear sixteen years ago. Leontes effects the match without delay (386-87, 5.3.135-46).

It has been said that the solution for Leontes in The Winter’s Tale lies in re-establishing the truth of what he sees.[37] At the beginning of the play, Leontes’s jealousy had blocked the innocent backstory (the personal history between him and Hermione) that should have guaranteed the king’s continued good relationship with his queen. What remained was only the object before him, the body of Hermione. Accepting the truth of what Leontes sees, and what we see, involves not blocking this history, and allowing instead the sense of wonder at another’s goodness to remain intact. This willingness may, in turn, involve knowing or unknowing affirmation of grand forces operating within and without us: the movements of cosmic time, natural process, the maturation that experience should bring. These forces seem to underlie and ratify the fully humanized, organic act of seeing to which we bear witness in this final scene of The Winter’s Tale. Ultimately, Shakespearean romance reorients us towards an attitude of wonder not only at our own follies but also at the depth of our potential for vision and respect for our own and others’ humanity.

Finally, we know that the romance genre tries to take to itself some of the permanence and profundity of the great natural cycles of death and rebirth, decay and renewal. There is something in romance time of Shelley’s “destroyer and preserver” the West Wind,[38] and in a more quiet vein, some readers may recall the unseen but healing operations of “the secret ministry of Frost” in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.”[39] Still, Shakespeare’s romance plays don’t simply sweep away the passage of time or cancel its ravages: romance time offers regeneration, but it also encompasses death and destruction as being necessary.[40] There is a general embrace of the miraculous and the improbable in such plays, but it’s no less true that what has been lost can’t always be recovered fully, and sometimes not at all. Antigonus and Mamillius do not share in the reconciliations and recoveries that constitute the ending of The Winter’s Tale. What the characters get is not “do-overs” in the simplest sense—no straightforward “mulligans,” as golfers would say—but second chances in altered circumstances, following temporal gaps or delays. Events and persons may come full circle, but there is loss and sorrow along the way, leaving even triumphant conclusions with a bittersweet taste.

None of this is to say, however, that the romance plays are anything but ultimately hopeful and uplifting: they offer what may well be the most realistic orientation towards life with its recurrent opportunities and travails—not a proffer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in the lighter of Shakespeare’s comedies; but a kind of wisdom that allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and loss that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous second chances we may receive, however imperfect the outcome. Since Apollo powerfully represents the divine in The Winter’s Tale, it seems appropriate to give him the last word. As he tells the other gods towards the end of Homer’s Iliad, “a steadfast spirit have the Fates given unto men.”[41]

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Endnotes


[1] Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. See, for example, Ch. XVIII. “Concerning the Way in Which Princes Should Keep Faith.” Machiavelli reasons as follows: a prince should make sure that “he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious…. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many….” Trans. W. K. Marriott. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/1/2024..

[2] With regard to the classical and Renaissance concept of male-male friendship, amicitia perfecta, see the RSC’s article “Friendship in Early Modern England.” Accessed 2/29/2024.

[3] Leontes betrays an intense fear and distrust of female sexuality, a problem that Stephen Orgel covers well in “A Modern Perspective: The Winter’s Tale.” Folger Shakespeare website. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[4] The medical term for the sudden change isaffectio. Wiktionary. Accessed: 3/1/2024.

[5] A point made by Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. “The Winter’s Tale.” 639-61. See 639.

[6] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. 552, 3.3.319-21.

[7] Shakespeare. The Comical History of The Merchant of Venice. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 467-521. See 508-09, 4.1.182-200, where Portia explains that “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

[8] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. See especially 766, 1.1.93-101.1

[9] See, for example, Marsilio Ficino’s Neoplatonic theory of perception, as explained by John Shannon Hendrix in “Theories of Perception in Renaissance Humanism.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[10] See Matthew 6:23. 1599 Geneva Bible. Biblegateway.com. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[11] For a brief history of Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi, see Britannica’s entry “Delphic Oracle.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[12] Elizabethan-Jacobean justice and punishment were often quite severe, even savage by our standards. One brief introduction to the subject is Elizabethan-era.org’s “Elizabethan Crime and Punishment.” Accessed 3/1/2024. A more detailed introduction is available at encyclopedia.com: “Crime and Punishment in Elizabethan England.” Elizabethan World Reference Library.

[13] Shakespeare. As You Like It. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731. See 683-86, 1.3 and 729, 5.4.145-62.

[14] Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 406-53.

[15] With regard to the name “Perdita,” see Antigonus’s phrase “Poor thing, condemned to loss” at 339, 2.3.191; the name means “the lost one” after perditus in Latin. Shakespeare’s verse requires accenting the word on its antepenult: Pér-di-ta.

[16] On Stalin’s Great Purge and Moscow Trials, see Britannica’s entry “Great Purge.”  Regarding Hitler’s perversion of the German justice system, see Encyclopedia.com’s entry “Law and Justice in the Third Reich.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[17] With regard to defying the gods, there are numerous instances of such disastrous acts in pre-classical and classical Greek and Latin literature. Among the most well-known instances is the impious decision on the part of Odysseus’s men to slaughter and eat the Cattle of the Sun-God Helios. For this heedless act, says Homer, they paid with their lives, so that only Odysseus ever makes it back home to Ithaca. See The Odyssey, Book 12.329ff. Trans. A. T. Murray. Perseus Project. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[18] Or, in Italian, “loss” itself.

[19] Shakespeare. The Play of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 150-206). 183, 4.0.47-48.

[20] La durée is Bergson’s concept of an experience of time other than what we call “objective time” (the simple passage of units of time). See The Conversation Blog’s entry or, for a rigorous philosophical discussion of this concept, see the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy’s entry “Henri Bergson.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[21] Woozles are members of the Disney stable of cartoon characters. Weasel-like, slippery creatures, their reason for existing is to steal honey, which makes them the stuff of Winnie the Pooh’s nightmares.

[22] This is a sheep-shearing festival, which is similar to other summer festivals in England. See Internet Shakespeare Editions’ entry “Village Celebrations.” On the wool trade, see History of England.com’s entry on the Wool Trade. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[23] Regarding the debate over artifice vs. nature in horticulture (especially gardening), see Luke Morgan’s article “Garden Design and Experience in Shakespeare’s England” at Monash.edu. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[24] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. “The Winter’s Tale.” 639-61. See 653-54.

[25] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. 805, 3.4.96-98.

[26] This coast is delightfully nonexistent since the real Bohemia is landlocked in today’s Czech Republic.

[27] See Theoi.com’s entry “The Rape of Proserpina.” Accessed 3/1/2024.

[28] The senex iratus is one of several stock characters in Greek and Roman comedy; his role is generally to impose obstacles and make a fool of himself. The miles gloriosus or braggart soldier is another such foolish character—his vanity and ego get him into trouble every time.

[29] In Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, Robert Greene has the King of Bohemia commit suicide in despair over the irreparable harm he has caused to his family. EEBO/U-Mich. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[30] On Giulio Romano, (ca. 1499-1546), see the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Romano and ArtCyclopedia’s entry on Romano. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[31] See Atlas Obscura’s article on “The Chamber of the Giants.” Accessed 3/1/2024..

[32] See Bette Talvacchia, “The Rare Italian Master and the Posture of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.LIT, Vol. 3, #3, 1992.

[33] The “play within the play” device covers some of the same ground—we easily recall its significance in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[34] Ovid. Metamorphoses. Book X. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[35] Jana Přidalová mentions the Zeuxis anecdote in “Symbolic Images of Mimesis, Tromp l’oeil and a Veil in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale,” Brno Studies in English. 2005, vol. 31, issue 1, pp. 175-83.

[36] In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” earnest Victorian critic Matthew Arnold wrote that the imperative of criticism is “to see the object as in itself it really is.” In “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde added “not” to the end of this sentence, thereby reversing Arnold’s judgment. Wilde-Online.info. Accessed 3/1/2024.

[37] I owe this excellent point to UC Irvine Professor Harold Toliver, several of whose courses I was privileged to take during my time at that school.

[38] The Greeks called the West Wind Zephyros; the other three wind gods or anemoi were Boreas the North Wind, Notos the South Wind, and Euros the East Wind.

[39] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Frost at Midnight.” Poetry Foundation.org. Accessed 3/1/2024. See also Percy B. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”

[40] Norton editor Jean E. Howard’s introduction to The Winter’s Tale (303-13) is excellent on key aspects of Shakespeare’s romances. See also Northrop Frye’s The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Rev. ed. Harvard UP, 1978.)

[41] Homer. Iliad 24.49. The Greek runs, τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν, tlēton gar Moirai thumon thesan anthrōpoisin. See Perseus Project’s text of The Iliad. Accessed 3/1/2024.

Cymbeline, King of Britain

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline, King of Britain. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 207-301).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s “Kymbeline” | Boccaccio’s Decameron Day 2.9 | Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, 1589 | Peele’s Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes |

Act 1, Scene 1 (221-25, Cymbeline has banished Posthumus for marrying his daughter Imogen; Imogen rightly distrusts the queen and stands up to her father; she and Posthumus exchange love tokens—a ring and a bracelet, respectively; Posthumus will go stay with  Philario in Rome; Cloten makes an unsuccessful attempt to assault Posthumus.)

An irrational old king vexed with his virtuous but stubborn daughter, surrounded by an untrustworthy royal family—this should sound familiar to anyone who has seen or read King Lear, in which Lear and Cordelia are torn asunder while vulture-like Regan and Goneril gobble up their fortuitously enlarged helpings of British land to rule. Posthumus Leonatus has a problem similar to that of Edmund of Gloucester in King Lear—not that he’s illegitimate, but his less than royal lineage makes him persona non grata at Cymbeline’s court. Imogen’s vocabulary is much more expansive, however, than Cordelia’s stubborn, if honest, repetitions of “nothing”—Cymbeline’s daughter fights back spiritedly when the king derides her suitor with the phrase “basest thing” (224, 1.1.125) and banishes him. Cymbeline, says Imogen, has failed to realize that bringing the two of them up together might lead to this situation, and the situation is worsened by his refusal to recognize merit as anything but a property of noble birth.

Looking forward, however, we will find that in Cymbeline law and custom only seem implacable. In true comic fashion, they can be revoked with a change of heart and a word or two. Lear’s decrees are not reversible in time to do anyone good, but Cymbeline’s are. The analogue of the faithful servant Kent in King Lear would be the wronged but ultimately loyal Belarius, who—having spitefully kidnaped Cymbeline’s two young sons some twenty years previously—returns them to the king when he least expects it, thereby ushering in the play’s happy ending.

None of this is to suggest that Cymbeline is on a par with the masterpiece King Lear. Indeed, Dr. Johnson wrote that pointing out the play’s many flaws would be “to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”[1] In our own day, Harold Bloom has insisted that Cymbeline is deliberate self-parody, repeating in a tired manner certain silly plot contrivances that the Swan of Avon may have become too fond of over the years: a foolish but still magnificent sovereign; a decapitation; a massive violation of the so-called unity of time since the action seems to shuttle back and forth between ancient Britain and Renaissance Italy; identity switches and disguisings sufficient to make a viewer’s head spin; a gender-bending heroine; a presumptuous husband with a potentially lethal Madonna/whore complex; a loquacious villain who does evil—oh, we don’t know why; a foppish aristocratic oaf who stands on his unimpressive masculinity and threatens Tarquin-ravishment against a chaste woman; a potion that induces a death-like coma; an ultra-unlikely family reunion; and a final-act virtual symphony of improbabilities.[2]

Of course, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about: even if the critics are correct that in Cymbeline the playwright is making fun of his worst tendencies, the results are by no means to be despised. That would be true even if only for Imogen’s sake: a memorable heroine, she rises above the dramatic environment in which Shakespeare has placed her. It’s a high-class problem to have, this “rising above,” and as Harold Bloom would be quick to tell us, it’s one she shares with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.[3]

To open the play, we are told that Cymbeline adopted the orphan Posthumus and raised him as a close servant (221-22, 1.1.28-50). Imogen has married the young man only to see him banished by her father the King because of the great gap between the two in rank. It seems as if everyone except Cymbeline can see the truth, which is that Posthumus is a worthier match for his daughter than Cloten, the buffoonish son of Cymbeline’s new queen. The courtiers may not say so to their master’s face, but all of them are “Glad of the thing they scowl at” (221, 1.1.14), meaning the frustration of Cloten in his suit for Imogen’s hand in marriage. As for the new queen, she is a master dissembler who feigns affection for her daughter-in-law while secretly seething at her for failing to accept her son as husband and heir to Cymbeline’s throne. Imogen, however, is not fooled: “O dissembling courtesy!” (223, 1.1.84), she exclaims after speaking with this deceptive woman.

Posthumus informs Imogen that he is about to depart to the home of  Philario, a friend of his deceased father (223, 1.1.97-99). Imogen and he exchange tokens of their love: she gives him a ring, and he gives her a bracelet (223-24, 1.1.109-24). But the young man must be gone in haste when Cymbeline storms in and declares him “Thou basest thing” and his daughter a “disloyal thing” (224, 1.1.125, 131). The king is wrong: Imogen is by no means disloyal. In fact, her main virtue is her loyalty towards Posthumous, and through the perilous adventures she undertakes, she will only reconfirm the excellence that resides within her. In the romance world, adventure and happenstance have magic properties all their own. In a broadly Christian scheme, they turn out to be providential with regard to the discovery of truth and the partial fulfillment of desire. As William Hazlitt suggests in his essay on Cymbeline in Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817),[4] Imogen’s faithfulness to Posthumus Leonatus sets the play’s tone and centers its action: the reigning passion is loyalty. Imogen shows herself to be as headstrong as her imperious father when she defies his will: “Sir, / It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus. / You bred him as my playfellow, and he is / A man worth any woman…” (224, 1.1.143-46). These are not the words of a woman who would submit meekly to an unjust royal prerogative.

As for the departure of Posthumus, there is some drama when Cloten tries to engage the banished husband in a sword fight, but nothing much comes of it (225, 1.1.161-64). This departure will profoundly alter the life of Imogen as well as Posthumus. The romance genre emphasizes the necessity of alienation: you don’t know the value of a person, quality, or happy situation until you are threatened with its loss. Alienation is one of the main ways people discover who they are. The time will come when Imogen herself must leave the court in order to return to it on a firmer basis, after many accidents. In this first act generally, Imogen confirms the quality of her character: what we can expect isn’t so much growth and development on her part but rather confirmation of and insight into what she already is.

None of this reassurance about Imogen’s goodness, it is worth noting, fits neatly within the characters’ tendency early on to define others in terms of untested superlatives and absolutes. Posthumus, for example, swears to Imogen, “I will remain / The loyal’st husband that did e’er plight troth” (223, 1.1.95-96). And at the play’s outset, the first gentleman speaks effusively about Posthumus, reporting him as “a creature such / As to seek through the regions of the earth / For one his like, there would be something failing / In him that should compare” (221, 1.1.19-22).[5] This sort of language says very little about those who are praised, but it says considerably more about the turbulence in Cymbeline’s court. Hyperbolic praise is an instrument Shakespeare uses to expose the hollowness and unsustainability of courtly environments and political dispensations. A healthy society or state can tolerate some degree of linguistic exuberance and even flattery, but when it is wholly dependent on such tendencies, that is a sign that all is not well.

Act 1, Scene 2 (225-26, Cloten preens himself and waxes jealous against the now absent Posthumus while his assistant the second lord cuts him down to size.)

The second scene is a comic introduction to the queen’s villainous son Cloten, who shows himself to us as a puffed up, foppish oaf amply given his comeuppance by a wisecracking second lord who undercuts him throughout, though not in a way that makes Cloten himself aware of the undercutting. It is not difficult to see what is eating away at Cloten: he decries the intolerable fact that his love object Imogen “should love this fellow and refuse me!” (226, 1.2.22) When people tell us who they are, as Maya Angelou used to say, we had best believe them. The laws of Cloten’s being are envy, cupidity, and seething resentment.

Act 1, Scene 3 (226-27, Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus shines: she regrets that their parting could not last longer.)

Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus is touching in his absence, and she relates how her parting from her new husband was interrupted by Cymbeline: “comes in my father, / And, like the tyrannous breathing of the north, / Shakes all our buds from growing” (227, 1.3.35-37). With regard to the metaphor she employs, in romance, if winter comes, spring can’t be far behind: the organicism implied by this metaphor implies the acceptance of loss and death in exchange for the possibility of regeneration and reconciliation. We know that Imogen’s father the king, though he acts like the stark north wind, will eventually give way and participate in the play’s harmonies and reconciliations. The question is, how much will be lost before he comes round?

Act 1, Scene 4 (227-31, Giacomo draws Posthumus into a quarrel over the comparative value of Italian women and Imogen, and lays down a “trial of virtue” wager: Posthumus’s ring for Imogen’s compromised honor.)

Giacomo introduces himself to us, and we immediately understand that he is not given to crediting the grand praise that others have apparently been showering upon Posthumus Leonatus, about whom he says, among other things, “I have seen him in France. We had very many / there could behold the sun with as firm eyes as he” (228, 1.4.9-10).

Whatever we may gather about Giacomo, we also quickly see that Posthumus has learned little from experience in his relatively short life thus far. Immediately after recounting a quarrel he fell into with a Frenchman over the relative qualities of English and French females, he allows Giacomo to tempt him into making the same argument, except that now the ladies for comparison are Italian. This clever man needles Posthumus, “I have not seen the most precious / diamond that is, nor you the lady” (229, 1.4.63-64). In other words, he mocks Posthumus for his naïve ideals about feminine virtue. Giacomo boasts that without much ado he will strip Imogen of her virtue and win the ring her husband wagers: upon only a second meeting with her, he insists, he will take away “that honour of hers which you imagine so / reserved” (230, 1.4.114-15). Posthumus raises the stakes as high as he can, promising that if Giacomo fails in his attempt, he will answer for the insult to Imogen in a duel (230, 1.4.139-45).

As for this “trial of virtue” plot, as Prof. Harold Toliver of UC Irvine pointed out to me years ago, it is a medieval commonplace, probably because of the martyrdom patterns established in Christian narratives. Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale,” which validates the Marquis Walter’s long and painful testing of his wife Griselde, illustrates this penchant for putting female virtue to the test. Posthumus decides to put Imogen’s virtue to a similar test, and allows Giacomo to tempt her. We may well question Posthumus’s judgment: the man’s actions at this point are bound to disappoint us. As Albany says in Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”[6]

For all his protestations about her innocence, Posthumus’s proof-by-temptation scheme seems ethically dubious. Shakespeare’s regard for this old plot device doesn’t seem wholehearted. No less a moral authority than Jesus led his flock in prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”[7] It’s hard to argue with a statement like that. In modern times, we would call what Posthumus does to Imogen “entrapment.” And then there’s his exhibition of that green-eyed, smothering monster jealousy. In Act 3, Scene 3 of Othello, Iagopins down this passion with his lines about Desdemona’s misplaced handkerchief: “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ.”[8] Once indulged, such a powerful feeling admits of no going back, and Posthumus must act upon it. Only the fullness of romance time will allow this situation to be made good, at least to a great extent.

Act 1, Scene 5 (231-33, the queen demands poisonous substances from Cornelius, who gives her a potion that only causes deathlike sleep; the queen gives this potion to Pisanio, whom she attempts to win away from Posthumus; she threatens absent Imogen with death if she does not relent and give in to Cloten.)

Cornelius conscientiously asks the queen what she wants with the “poisonous compounds” she has ordered (231, 1.5.8), and he does not like the answer he receives, which is that she plans to use them on defenseless animals and note the effects the poison has upon them (231, 1.5.18-23). He knows her for what she is, and resolves not to give her what she wants, but rather a simulacrum that will “stupefy and dull the sense a while” (232, 1.5.37). The queen next sets to work on Pisanio, the servant of Posthumus, trying to win him away from his master towards Cloten and giving him a box filled with Cornelius’s fake poison that she hopes Pisanio himself will swallow, thinking it a remedy. The queen threatens absent Imogen, who, she says, “Except she bend her humor, shall be assured / To taste of [the drug] too” (233, 1.5.81-82).

Act 1, Scene 6 (233-38, Giacomo comes to Cymbeline’s court and slanders Posthumus as a playboy; Imogen believes him but is uninterested in repaying Posthumus in kind, so Giacomo pretends he was testing Imogen’s faith in her husband and asks if she will store a chest allegedly containing gifts for Cymbeline.)

By letter, Posthumus recommends Giacomo to Imogen (234, 1.6.22-24), and the Italian promptly makes mostly excellent use of his first conversation with the lady. He paints a picture of a feckless, adulterous Posthumus living it up in Italy, exhibiting the opposite of the chief qualities Imogen thinks he possesses: earnestness and fidelity. He is known, says Giacomo, simply as “The Briton Reveller” (234, 1.6.60). Giacomo’s wicked suit almost fails, first when he overdoes the runup portion of his gambit and Imogen bluntly (and hilariously) asks him “Are you well?” (234, 1.6.49), and then when he boldly urges revenge and utters the sentence, “I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure” (236, 1.6.135). This latter declaration causes Imogen to denounce him outright: “If thou wert honorable / Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue…” (236-37, 1.6.141-42). But Giacomo is more than up to the occasion, protesting boldly that he meant only to test the strength of Imogen’s virtue (237, 1.6.162-64). With the addition of a simple device—namely, a request to store a chest full of plate and jewels meant as a gift for Cymbeline—Giacomo’s diabolical plot is set (237-38, 1.6.184-92).

Giacomo’s assault on Imogen, we should note, is in some ways similar, and in some ways different, from the more famous one detailed by Shakespeare’s source here, the Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy) in Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.57-59. In Livy’s account, the villainous Sextus Tarquinius is said to be “inflamed by the beauty and purity of Lucretia,” and while he tries to seduce the faithful Roman wife of Collatinus with pleadings calculated “to influence a female heart,” in the end he is reduced to making a stark threat to disgrace her by killing Lucretia and placing the body of a slave next to her corpse, thereby tricking the Romans into believing she had been cut down in the midst of adultery.[9] That alone is what convinces Lucretia that there’s no way out of the dire situation, and suicide soon becomes her response. Giacomo’s attempt upon Imogen is also “calculated” in this way, and it fails just as miserably, at least in the most immediate sense.

Giacomo’s calculation, however, is perhaps worse than Tarquin’s in its contemptuous a priori construction of female nature as easily moved to uncontrollable, complicit lust. Even Tarquin probably didn’t quite believe about Lucretia what Giacomo apparently does about his “mark” Imogen. We may recall that Giacomo didn’t initiate his wager with Posthumus because he was “inflamed by the beauty and purity” of Imogen, as Tarquin was smitten by the description of Lucretia (or as Angelo is driven to act against the saintly Isabella in Measure for Measure), but instead because he wanted to prove a cynical, abstract proposition about female humanity. For us today, it’s hard to avoid equating Giacomo’s actions with the most obnoxious sort of “pickup artists” who plague the internet with their macho posing and vulgar assumptions about women as bottomless wells of lustfulness or suckers for a deceptive, fast-talking man. Even as this play has given us so much rhetoric proclaiming various characters’ impossibly high pitch of virtue, Giacomo presents as a comic-book villain: he is a stereotypical “supersubtle Italian,” a sexually predatory Machiavel. This may be another way in which Shakespeare gets mileage from the otherwise risible violation of the “unity of time” in Cymbeline: Giacomo’s sly Renaissance Italian “Rape of Imogen” is cast as something like a parody of Livy’s reverse-heroic or high-villain narrative of the Tarquin prince’s “Rape of Lucretia.” What transpires here may remind some readers of Karl Marx’s witticism that history repeats itself—“the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”[10] It’s a peculiarly mirthless farce, but a farce all the same.

Act 2, Scene 1 (238-39, Cloten again puffs himself up, worries about meeting anyone of lesser rank, including Giacomo; as usual, the second lord mocks him in a witty aside.)

Cloten interprets the actions of others as motivated by what drives him: lust, ambition, and avarice. We often find this oppositional representation of love in romance plays: true and charitable love versus the prideful and empty sort (“cupidity”) that we find in Cloten. The confrontation of heightened, opposed absolutes seems characteristic of romance. Cloten fears losing face, he fears what he calls “derogation” (239, 2.1.40-41) if he condescends to meet the newly arrived stranger Giacomo. He doesn’t want to mix with those below his station. That fear constitutes the law of his being: it makes him tick, so to speak.

This tendency in Cloten is interesting since the play in general emphasizes the inherent goodness of aristocratic characters such as Belarius and his sons Guiderius and Arviragus. Shakespeare is careful not to go too far in that direction, but he doesn’t appear to dismiss altogether the claim that blood bestows nobility, that virtue can in part be inherited. Cloten is rather like the dragon in the old romances—he is the monster who must be slain because he would cut off the quest for reunification and reconciliation, and cut short the generosity of romance time. The “knight” who slays him, as it will turn out, is Guiderius. Cloten’s destructive lust and self-love are incurable, unlike the disturbing but less damnable jealousy that besets Posthumus. The second lord has Cloten “pinned and wriggling on the wall” like the imaginary insect in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”[11] The clever queen, he muses, is cursed with a son who “Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, / And leave eighteen” (239, 2.1.52-53). Well, as they say, talent skips a generation. Sometimes it skips more than that number.

Act 2, Scene 2 (240-41, Giacomo emerges from the trunk he asked Imogen to store in her bedchamber, taking note of ornaments and structure in the room as well as a mole on sleeping Imogen’s left breast; he takes her bracelet.)

It is time for Giacomo to carry out his wicked designs upon Imogen’s happiness. Emerging from the trunk in which he has stowed himself, the devious fellow describes himself in the grand style: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” (240, 2.2.12-14). He notes various ornamentations and items in Imogen’s chambers, but most damning of all, he remarks a mole on her left breast (241, 2.2.37-38). Assiduous readers of Shakespeare will feel perfectly at home betting that Giacomo’s perusal of the book Imogen had been studying will yield him Ovid’s recounting of rape and cannibalistic revenge, “The tale of Tereus”(241, 2.2.45). Giacomo’s brand of evil here consists in foreclosing upon Imogen and Posthumus’s love by means of a deceptive command of the facts: he cheats at his wager with Posthumus, and is able to describe Imogen’s room and her personal characteristics.

It may seem ironic that Giacomo works his wickedness with the aid of facts: they may be “stubborn things,” but they don’t often matter much in Shakespearean romance, or in the romance world generally. Cymbeline apparently existed around the time of Augustus Caesar, and in fact Raphael Holinshed mentions him in the Chronicles.[12] But Giacomo is obviously a Renaissance Italian, one who lives and moves slyly in the age of Machiavelli. This temporal abyss is so extreme that it lends credence to the view of critics who insist that Cymbeline is self-conscious parody. Shelley’s friend the satirist Thomas Love Peacock may have been thinking of this play, with its ancient and modern characters greeting one another across what logic tells us should be a gap of around 1,500 years, when he mocked the Elizabethans for their disregard of the neoclassical unities:

Shakespeare and his contemporaries … used time and locality merely because they could not do without them, because every action must have its when and where: but they made no scruple of deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer. This makes the old English drama very picturesque … though it is a picture of nothing that ever was seen on earth except a Venetian carnival.[13]

Shakespeare’s millennium-and-a-half hop-skip to modern Italy is undeniably bizarre, but just as in his early revenge tragedy, that barbarous masterpiece Titus Andronicus, he seems determined to unsettle any comfortable notions about the grand qualities that supposedly distinguished ancient Rome from every other place and culture on earth, so in Cymbeline he challenges these same notions by means of a deliberately absurd temporal rift between the ancient City and the modern.[14] It is not so much that Shakespeare represents human nature as essentially the same through the ages as that he appears to resist any idea of a rock-solid, foundational Rome upon which to build our conception of history or humanitas. The Eternal City has been reinventing itself from time immemorial, aided by an uncanny ability at once to believe and disbelieve its own self-spun legends.

Act 2, Scene 3 (241-45, Cloten orders a serenade for Imogen, who despises him to his face; her insults provoke him to vow revenge; Imogen is almost frantic with the thought that she has lost the bracelet Posthumus gave her.)

Cloten makes a thoroughly ineffective attempt (if an actual one, unlike Giacomo’s) to win Imogen’s affections. The only good thing that comes of it is the fine air, “Hark, hark, the lark at heaven’s gate sings…” (242, 2.3.17-23). Face to face, Cloten declares his love for Imogen, and receives for his reply a measure of her strength: “I care not for you, / And am so near the lack of charity / To accuse myself I hate you…” (244, 2.3.103-05). One is reminded of Fanny Burney’s witty journal description of a suitor who just couldn’t understand that his attentions were not welcome.[15] But while Cloten may be dense, even he gets the point when Imogen tells him the hair on his head isn’t worth the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus (244, 2.3.128). This scornful flouting elicits from Cloten a desire for revenge (245, 2.3.150-51). Meanwhile, Imogen’s real concern is that (thanks to Giacomo at 240, 2.2.33) she has lost the bracelet given her by Posthumus: “I hope it be not gone to tell my lord / That I kiss aught but he” (245, 2.3.142-43).

Act 2, Scene 4 (245-49, Giacomo returns to Rome and declares victory over Imogen and Posthumus, who unwisely believes him especially because of the bodily “evidence” and denounces all womankind.)

As Philario and Posthumus trade views on the prospects of the Romans getting the tribute they’ve demanded from Cymbeline (245-46, 2.4.10-26), Giacomo enters and triumphantly declares his victory in the contest of female virtue. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of Posthumus’ pitiful performance here, with Giacomo egging him on and Philario vainly trying to draw the most substantial account possible from Giacomo: “take your ring again; ’tis not yet won” (248, 2.4.114). But when Giacomo brings out his supposedly irrefutable evidence—Imogen’s bracelet and that unfortunately noted lovely mole on her breast, the game is up, and Posthumus is quite certain that this wily stage Italian has (as the Machiavellian Iago did with Othello), “prove[d his] love a whore.”[16] The reaction we get from Posthumus is no better than that of the romantic absolutist Othello: the mole, he avers, “doth confirm / Another stain, as big as hell can hold…” (249, 2.4.139-40).

Act 2, Scene 5 (249-50, Posthumus makes outlandishly misogynistic statements: loss of faith in Imogen has shattered him.)

Posthumus hits enough home runs to make it into the Misogynists’ Cooperstown on the first ballot: “We are all bastards…” (249, 2.4.2), he whines, and then comes the grand slam: “there’s no motion / That tends to vice in man but I affirm / It is the woman’s part…” (250, 2.4.20-22). He imagines the act of copulation between Giacomo and chaste Imogen, proving only the deranged state of his own imagination (250, 2.4.15-17). For the moment, at least, he would make fine company for Othello, Leontes from The Winters’ Tale, or Hamlet in that awful conversation with Ophelia in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. As for this scene, as Hamlet might say, “Go to, I’ll no / more on’t.”[17]

Act 3, Scene 1 (250-52, spurred on by the queen and Cloten, Cymbeline refuses to pay tribute to the Romans.)

The Roman ambassador Lucius delivers Augustus Caesar’s demand for tribute from the Britons, but the queen and Cloten sway Cymbeline from paying the 3,000 pounds Caesar wants. Cloten says arrogantly, “If Caesar can hide the / sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, / we will pay him tribute for light…” (251, 3.1.41-43), and Cymbeline himself, while reminding present company that he spent time at Caesar’s court in his youth, comes round to the idea that failure to resist would “show the Britons cold” (252, 3.1.74), especially because just now the Pannonians and Dalmatians are in open warfare with Roman armies. Cymbeline will not fail to keep up with the barbarian Joneses.

Act 3, Scene 2 (252-54, in separate letters, Posthumus commands Pisanio to kill Imogen and asks Imogen to come to Milford Haven in Cambria, which she at once makes plans to do.)

Pisanio is dismayed at the letter Posthumus has sent requiring him to kill Imogen: “Thy mind to hers is now as low as were / Thy fortunes” (252, 3.2.10-11), he laments. He tries to break this news to Imogen, but only succeeds in rendering her more eager to get to Milford Haven in Cambria than she already was upon reading the deceptive letter Posthumus dedicated to her. Imogen makes her plans, which include a female assistant fetching her “a riding suit no costlier than would fit / A franklin’s housewife” (254, 3.2.76-77). Pisanio’s role is similar to that of the banished Kent in King Lear: while his immediate goal is to protect Imogen, he also keeps Posthumous from doing harm so long as an insane fit of jealousy drives his actions. In this way, he also resembles Cornelius, who refused to give the queen the deadly concoctions she sought. There is a special sort of fidelity that consists in not doing the bidding of a master who has taken leave of his or her senses. It may not be in line with the eighteenth-century Kantian “categorical imperative”[18] that would enforce the keeping of promises no matter the circumstances, but it is rooted in a time-honored sentiment. Authority combined with impulsiveness and immaturity is a deadly combination, and sometimes, stripping away the agency of those thus afflicted is the only way to prevent things from reaching the worst.

Act 3, Scene 3 (254-55, we meet Belarius and his supposed sons Arviragus and Guiderius; Belarius gives us—not the boys—the complete back story as to why they are living in the Welsh countryside; both young men lament their lack of experience.)

Cutting off the king’s issue can be a vicious affair in ancient literature—recall Ovid’s tale of Tereus, Procne and Philomela in Metamorphoses[19]—but in this play things aren’t so bad. Belarius has kidnapped Cymbeline’s two sons and raised them with a healthy distrust of courtly deception, but they subsequently get their chance to prove the nobility that is their birthright. The two young men, Arviragus and Guiderius, are understandably reluctant to accept the limitations Belarius has placed upon them. When he says, “this life / Is nobler than attending for a check…” (255, 3.3.21-22), both of these supposed sons chime in with a rebuttal: Guiderius says of his rough existence, “unto us it is / A cell of ignorance, traveling abed …” (255, 3.3.32-33). Arviragus adds, “our cage / We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird…” (255, 3.3.42-43). Both of them complain of being inexperienced in the wide world and show themselves very impatient to enter it. The narrative that Belarius has fed them does not satisfy anyone but himself, an older man who has already seen too much of that world and paid the price for it.

Belarius provides us with the necessary background information on why he and his two young men are living as hunters in the Welsh countryside, a rough place that always gave even the Romans trouble. It seems that Belarius was taken down by a couple of villains who accused him of treason against Cymbeline on behalf of the Romans. Cymbeline believed the lie and banished Belarius from Britain (256, 3.3.65-69). Once the boys have made their exit, Belarius is free to tell us the rest of the story, which is simply that in his anger against Cymbeline’s injustice, he decided to take away the king’s futurity and therefore stole by means of Euriphile his two male children, whose names are now Polydore (Guiderius, the heir to Cymbeline’s throne) and Cadwal (Arviragus, the younger of the two). Belarius himself is now called Morgan, and the boys believe he really is their father (256, 3.3.79-107). That’s the way he wants to keep it since he has come to regard them as his own sons.

We might note in passing that Wales is hardly a green world of the Forest of Arden type, and that the court from which Belarius was exiled doesn’t appear to have been particularly corrupt, though it is peopled with some disturbing characters. The setting in this romance play is fairly unrealistic in the first place, so there’s no need to escape into a magical world to grow and develop and then return to achieve social reintegration. The main value of the Welsh setting is that it gives Arviragus and Guiderius a martial edge: they are hunters, not shepherds, so when the time comes, they will be admirably prepared to do heroic service against the Roman invaders, which in turn paves the way for them to regain entry to Cymbeline’s court.

Act 3, Scene 4 (257-61, Pisanio reveals the contents of Posthumus’ letter commanding him to kill Imogen; he has a plan to rescue her: she must dress as a young man and enter the service of the Roman Lucius; Pisanio also gives her the potion-box the queen had given him.)

Pisanio takes Imogen part-way to Milford Haven, and at last reveals to her the contents of the letter Posthumus had sent him. Imogen is overwhelmed, and declares herself “a garment out of fashion” that must be ripped to shreds by the owner since it is “richer than to hang by th’ walls …” (258, 3.4.50-51). Pisanio refuses Imogen’s request to run her through with a sword, and reveals his plan to get her out of her predicament: he will deceive Posthumus into thinking that he has indeed killed Imogen. Then she must go to Milford Haven and, dressed as a young man, present herself to the Roman ambassador and general, Lucius, in whose service she may come to a place in Rome not far from where Posthumus is staying (259-60, 3.4.123-79). Ominously, Pisanio passes the queen’s potion-box along to Imogen, with the innocent advice, “a dram of this / Will drive away distemper” (261, 3.4.190-91).

Act 3, Scene 5 (261-65, suspected of helping Imogen escape from court, Pisanio deceives Cloten into expecting to come upon Posthumus at Milford Haven; Cloten sets forth his diabolical plans to murder Posthumus and ravish Imogen.)

The king begins to miss his daughter, and Cloten points the finger at Pisanio (263, 3.5.54-55), who comes in for much questioning. The queen, meanwhile, is spinning her wheels in her usual conspiratorial fashion: of Imogen, she says, “Gone she is / To death or to dishonor, and my end / Can make good use of either” (263, 3.5.62-64). Under Cloten’s pressure, Pisanio pretends to accept his proposal that he should become his servant rather than remain the servant of Posthumus, and Cloten’s first order is to bring him the suit the fellow was wearing when he left to begin his banishment (264, 3.5.124-25). This villain’s plan is to murder Posthumus at Milford Haven, where he believes (in accordance with the original deceptive letter Pisanio gives him) the man is headed. Afterwards, he will compound his evil by sexually assaulting Imogen: “With that suit upon my / back will I ravish her—first kill him, and in her eyes…” (264, 3.5.133-34). This vicious plan will accomplish three objectives: first, Cloten will slake his jealous rage at Posthumus; second, he will pay Imogen back for her contemptuous words to him earlier, where she cast it in his teeth that the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus was worth more to her than the hair on Cloten’s head (244, 2.3.128-30); third, he will obtain his ultimate objective of forcibly making her his wife, kicking her all the way back to Cymbeline’s court (265, 3.5.138-41).

To top this for intent to commit a host of villainies, we would need to go straight to Livy’s History of Rome, where the author tells the story of Sextus Tarquinius’s rape of the Roman matron Lucretia, or indeed to Shakespeare’s own retelling of that story in The Rape of Lucrece. We could even go to Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, where we would meet the self-declared supervillain Aaron the Moor, who brags about digging up dead men and setting them upright at their dear friends’ doors, most likely to mock the key Roman concept of friendship or amicitia.[20] Of course, we need not worry too much since this is Cloten, and Cloten never accomplishes anything he sets out to do. He’s no Tarquin, and neither would he pass a class in basic Machiavelli since he manages to make himself a hated object of contempt.[21] Even so, his loser-status doesn’t make him any less wicked—the crudely literalistic turn of his mind is characteristic of Shakespeare’s nastiest villains.[22]

Act 3, Scene 6 (265-67, Belarius and his charges light upon disguised Imogen eating their food, and give “him” a warm welcome.)

Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius light upon the disguised Imogen eating their camp rations, and they respond with surprise when she offers them gold and silver for her dinner. She claims that her name is Fidele. Belarius tenders her an unexpectedly warm welcome: “Think us no churls, nor measure our good minds / By this rude place we live in” (266-67, 3.6.62-63), and both brothers experience something like love at first sight: “I’ll love him as my brother …” (267, 3.6.69), declares Arviragus. As is usually the case in Shakespeare, we cannot take for granted that the countryside is a less civilized place than the city or the court, and Imogen is pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the same insight. So too with Orlando in As You Like It, when, in search of sustenance for his poor old servant Adam, he stumbles upon the exiled Duke Senior’s rustic circle and is shocked to find that his show of pirate-like ferocity is unnecessary.[23]

Act 3, Scene 7 (267-68, Lucius is appointed proconsul and Rome’s general against the Britons.)

Lucius is appointed proconsul (provincial governor), with the responsibility of marshaling the Roman forces against Cymbeline’s Britons.

Act 4, Scene 1 (268, Cloten admires himself in the mirror and rehearses his evil designs against Posthumus and Imogen.)

Cloten admires himself in the mirror and waxes poetical about his coming destruction of Posthumus and rape of Imogen, after which he will “spurn her home to her / father” (268, 4.1.16-17) and expect his mother to smooth things over with Cymbeline. This character wants to be a villain, but cannot manage more than to appear a pseudo-courtly fop, a stock character in the Shakespearean canon. If he had somewhat better manners, his place would be with dishonest courtiers such as Osric and Oswald from Hamlet and King Lear, respectively—men who are already very far from acting as the renowned author Baldassare Castiglione prescribes in his Book of the Courtier.[24] But as mentioned earlier, even though Cloten does not meet the high standards of Shakespeare’s more serious villains, he is not deficient in their degree of innate wickedness.

Act 4, Scene 2 (268-79, Imogen-as-Fidele is ill and takes Pisanio’s potion; Cloten arrives and is beheaded by Guiderius, to the dismay of Belarius; Arviragus carries in the seemingly lifeless body of Imogen-as-Fidele and the brothers lament; alone, Imogen awakens to find the headless Cloten dressed as Posthumus, and blames Pisanio; a soothsayer for Lucius interprets portents favorably to Rome; Lucius finds Imogen-as-Fidele and offers this stranger a chance to join up with the Romans.)

Imogen is increasingly impressed at the capacity for decency she finds here away from Cymbeline’s palace: “what lies I have heard! / Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court” (269, 4.2.32-33). Arviragus falls more deeply in love with Imogen-as-Fidele, while Imogen has taken ill sufficiently to try the supposedly wondrous potion Pisanio gave her (267, 4.2.37-38).

Cloten arrives on the scene, and Belarius is stricken with fear because he recognizes him as the queen’s son (270, 4.2.64-67). Guiderius is left alone to face Cloten, who immediately demands that he yield to him. Guiderius parries the oaf’s threats and insults expertly, and cuts off his head. Belarius is by no means pleased—he realizes the consequences of killing a Briton royal: “We are all undone” (272, 4.2.122), he tells Guiderius. But to himself, he marvels at the noble nature of both Guiderius and Arviragus: “’Tis wonder / That an invisible instinct should frame them / To royalty unlearned …” (273, 4.2.175-77). Guiderius makes what turns out to be an important decision to toss Cloten’s head into the stream nearby (273, 4.2.182-84).

Arviragus soon enters with the seemingly lifeless body of Imogen-as-Fidele (274, 4.2.194-96). Belarius instructs the young men that they must restrain their contempt for Cloten and give him the burial that a member of the royal family deserves (275, 4.2.245-49).[25] For Imogen-as-Fidele, Guiderius and Arviragus sing a noteworthy refrain: “Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages …” (275, 4.2.257-58; see 275-76, 4.2.257-80). The theme of the song is that in the end, even young lovers must “come to dust” (276, 4.2.274).

When Belarius and the two brothers have departed, Imogen awakens next to the headless body of Cloten, dressed in Posthumus’s clothes: “A headless man? The garments of Posthumus?” (276, 4.2.307) She now blames Pisanio for what she believes to be the murder of Posthumus, on the evidence that the drug he gave her was not the cordial he claimed it to be (277, 4.2.325-28).

A Roman captain informs Lucius that troops from Gaul (“Gallia”) and troops led by Giacomo (who is here said to be the Duke of Siena’s brother) have arrived from Italy (277, 4.2.332-41). A soothsayer portends success to the Romans, declaring, “I saw Jove’s bird, the Roman eagle, winged / From the spongy south to this part of the west, / There vanished in the sunbeams …” (277-78, 4.2.347-51). Lucius catches sight of the headless body before him and also spies the living Imogen-as-Fidele. The upshot of this discovery is that Lucius offers Imogen-as-Fidele a chance to join up with the Romans (278, 4.2.379-81), which she accepts with only the proviso that first the body of the man she supposes to be Posthumus must be buried. Pisanio’s plan has come to fruition almost by accident, after quite an eventful detour.

Act 4, Scene 3 (279-80, the queen is gravely ill, and Cymbeline is desperately isolated; Pisanio is confused about the current state of affairs, but trusts to time and the gods.)

The queen is desperately ill and in a state of madness thanks to the absence of her son Cloten, so Cymbeline is isolated in a time of great need (279, 4.3.1-9): the Romans have now landed in force. Pisanio is in the dark regarding the whereabouts of Posthumus, Imogen and Cloten. His only plan is to fight for the Britons and leave the rest to the heavens: “All other doubts, by time let them be cleared: / Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered” (280, 4.3.45-46). This is the correct attitude to take for a character in a comic or romance play: trust to time.[26]

Act 4, Scene 4 (280-81, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius agree to fight for Cymbeline against the Romans.)

Belarius tries to explain to his courageous charges that it would be unwise to expose themselves by volunteering to fight for Cymbeline because Belarius himself would be recognized: “I am known / Of many in the army” (280, 4.4.21-22). But his realist argument falls on deaf ears since Arviragus and Guiderius insist on making their mettle appreciated in the coming fight. As Jaques says in As You Like It, young men will be “Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon’s mouth.”[27] We may be reminded, too, of Harry Hotspur in . Belarius ends up declaring, “If in your country wars you chance to die, / That is my bed too, lads, and there I’ll lie” (281, 4.4.51-52). The old man does not make the tragic mistake made in the Aesop’s fable about the king who loves his little son so much that he won’t let him leave his lodgings, only to lose the boy to an infection caused by an injury stemming from his extreme frustration.[28] He realizes that he can’t keep the young men he took from Cymbeline away from danger forever. The time has come for them to make their mark on the world, come what may.

Act 5, Scene 1 (281-82, Posthumus believes Imogen is dead at Pisanio’s hands; he will fight for Cymbeline and seek death to honor Imogen.)

Posthumus believes Pisanio’s claim that he carried out his order to execute Imogen, and decides that instead of fighting on the side of the Romans, he will switch over to support Cymbeline and, with any luck, die for Imogen. He describes this transformation in part as a casting off of external appearances: “I will begin / The fashion—less without and more within” (282, 5.1.32-33). This seems like a welcome turn toward self-reflection and a healthy interior state for Posthumus, but he manages to dissipate any good will we may feel toward him by continuing to believe that Imogen was, in fact, unfaithful to him, as appears when he says, “You married ones, / If each of you should take this course, how many / Must murder wives much better than themselves / For wrying but a little?” (281, 5.1.2-5) There’s just something unlovable about a man who works himself up to “forgiving” a woman who has done him no wrong.

Act 5, Scene 2 (282-83, Posthumus defeats Giacomo, and Cymbeline is captured but rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus; Lucius tries to protect Imogen-as-Fidele.)

Posthumus fights with and disarms Giacomo, and the Italian immediately feels “heaviness and guilt” (282, 5.2.1) for his base betrayal of Imogen. In the third scene, Cymbeline is captured but is then instantly rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, who, as they put it, “Stand, stand, and fight” (282, 5.2.13). They are joined in the rescue by Posthumus. Lucius tries to safeguard Imogen-as-Fidele from the Briton advance since, in the fog of war, Roman troops are killing their own.

Act 5, Scene 3 (283-85, Posthumus, disheartened by an aristocratic onlooker’s cowardice, turns Roman again and is promptly captured by the Britons; at this point he wishes only for death, to atone for his offense against Imogen.)

Posthumus describes to a lord the bravery of Belarius and others, and rebukes that same lord for treating his story like fiction: “you are made / Rather to wonder at the things you hear / Than to work any” (284, 5.5.53-55). Posthumus is so disheartened by this fellow’s chatty cowardice that he decides to turn Roman again, the better to meet his end since Cymbeline’s troops now have the upper hand (285, 5.5.75-83). He is promptly captured by Briton troops. Shakespeare’s treatment of the loquacious lord is another instance of his interest in exploring the balance between representing martial action and indulging in the desire to talk about such things, to spin webs of language about the pathos and glory of war.[29]

Act 5, Scene 4 (285-89, in prison, Posthumus reflects on his debt to Imogen. His departed parents and brothers come to him in a dream, and complain to Jupiter about Posthumus’s fate. Jupiter promises them that all will be well, and provides them with a prophetic tablet that the ghosts place upon the chest of their sleeping family member. A messenger arrives and says that Posthumus must be brought into the presence of Cymbeline.)

Cast into prison, Posthumus meditates on his debt to Imogen (348, 5.5.1-29). His departed father, mother and brothers appear to him in a vision as he sleeps. They complain to Jupiter of the wrongs that he has suffered through the villainy of Giacomo, who labored “To taint his nobler heart and brain / With needless jealousy” (287, 5.4.49-50). Tired of their complaining, Jupiter appears and promises a happy ending after explaining “Whom best I love, I cross…” (287, 5.4.71). In the end, says Jupiter, Posthumus “shall be Lord of Lady Imogen, / And happier much by his affliction made” (287, 5.4.77-78). Awakening, Posthumus realizes that a tablet has been placed upon his breast—this is the play’s one apparent instance of the miraculous instead of the merely implausible—and reads a prophecy from it having to do with “a lion’s whelp,” “a piece of tender air,” a “stately cedar,” and branches therefrom. (288, 5.4.108-10) When these things are put together in a meaningful relationship, says the tablet, Britain will thrive. Immediately thereafter, the jailer comes in to tell Posthumus he is to be hung. “Oh, the charity of a / penny cord!” (289, 5.4.135-36) exclaims the philosophical jailer who duly passes the information along. He seems so disillusioned with his job that we might half-suspect he’s floating his résumé in hopes of finding something better. Before his execution, Posthumus will be brought before Cymbeline.

Act 5, Scene 5 (289-301, Cymbeline knights Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius; Cornelius reports the queen’s death along with her dreadful confessions; Lucius asks that Imogen-as-Fidele be spared death, but Imogen-as-Fidele doesn’t reciprocate; Giacomo reveals the source of the ring he’s wearing and details his villainy; after Posthumus strikes Imogen-as-Fidele, Pisanio identifies Imogen, amazing Cymbeline and Posthumus; Pisanio and Guiderius explain the death that befell Cloten, forcing Belarius to confess that they’re Cymbeline’s sons; Posthumus admits that he helped rescue the king; Imogen has lost a kingdom but gained two royal brothers; the soothsayer explains the prophecy; Cymbeline pardons everyone, lauds the gods, and agrees to pay tribute to the defeated Romans.)

Cymbeline begins this scene by wishing that the brave soldier who assisted Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus in rescuing him could be found. This man we know to be Posthumus. But Belarius and his two charges are present, and Cymbeline makes them British knights (290, 5.5.19-22). Cornelius enters and reports that the queen is dead (290, 5.5.25-27). Not only that, but he runs through a litany of dreadful revelations from the dying queen: she never loved Cymbeline but only coveted his power; she pretended to feel affection for Imogen but in fact hated her and planned to poison her; and finally, she intended to poison Cymbeline himself (290-91, 5.5.37-61) in order to secure the throne for her son, Cloten. When the latter went missing, however, the queen was driven to distraction, fell sick, and died. Cymbeline is stunned, but he does not blame himself for being taken in: “Mine eyes / Were not in fault, for she was beautiful; / … nor my heart / That thought her like her seeming” (291, 5.5.62-65). It appears that an ancient, staunchly British king fell victim to the Renaissance Neoplatonist desire to align the beautiful with the good.

Lucius the defeated Roman general is brought in, desiring only to spare Imogen-as-Fidele from the death sentence that must befall all Romans present: “Never master had / A page so kind, so duteous, diligent …” (291, 5.5.85-86). Imogen surprises Lucius by failing to reciprocate when the king offers her a chance to redeem a prisoner: “The boy disdains me…” (292, 5.5.105), says Lucius almost in disbelief. But understandably, Imogen is more concerned about the tale Giacomo can be constrained to tell about how he got the precious diamond ring he now possesses, and so to undo the reputational harm he has done to Imogen herself.

Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus are in turn surprised when they recognize their guest Imogen-as-Fidele, whom they thought to have died; but now they behold “The same dead thing alive” (292, 5.5.123). Pisanio recognizes her as well. Imogen-as-Fidele’s next move is to demand that Giacomo explain where he got the ring he’s wearing (293, 5.5.135-36), and Giacomo confesses that he received it from Posthumus. Cymbeline demands that he explain himself in full, which sparks a comic exchange in which Shakespeare may be making fun of his own tendency towards prolixity, or at least suggesting a lamentable return to the earlier part of the play’s rhetorical excesses. The old king hears the word “daughter” and is on fire to hear the rest of Giacomo’s story, but he proves all but helpless to stop the slow-motion carriage-wreck that is the anguished Giacomo coming clean about his transgressions (293-94, 5.5.153-209). But at last, the Italian makes himself sufficiently clear: “my practice so prevailed / That I returned with simular proof enough / To make the noble Leonatus mad…” (294, 5.5.199-201). By this time, that kind of language passes for pure comprehensibility. Giacomo, as Matthew Arnold cites François Guizot pronouncing sentence on Shakespeare himself, has apparently “tried all styles except that of simplicity.”[30]

When Imogen-as-Fidele pleads with Posthumus, who has interrupted Giacomo to declare himself the greater villain and indeed the murderer of Imogen (294-95, 5.5.213-20), Posthumus strikes the supposed page, prompting a reproach from Pisanio, who at last calls Imogen by her name (295, 5.5.231), to the amazement of Cymbeline and Posthumus alike. When Imogen blames Pisanio for her near-death experience, Cornelius interjects, remembering now to mention one of the queen’s admissions: she had given Pisanio the potion-box, but as we know from near the beginning of the play, Cornelius did not trust her with deadly poison and so gave her only a very strong sedative, one that mimics death. Imogen and Posthumus embrace, and Cymbeline greets her as his child (296, 5.5.263-65). The old king informs Imogen that her stepmother the queen is dead, but not much attention is paid to that event.

Pisanio steps in when the king mentions that Cloten is still missing, explaining his device in passing along to Cloten Posthumus’s deceptive letter addressed to Imogen, which told her to make her way to Milford Haven in Wales. Guiderius adds a simple, “I slew him there” (296, 5.5.286). Cymbeline’s response is not quite what Guiderius was expecting: “thou art condemned” (297, 5.5.297). This dread sentence, of course, forces Belarius to reveal the rest of the story: “This boy is better than the man he slew…” (297, 5.5.301), which risks enraging Cymbeline. But the matter is quickly cleared up when Belarius reveals the remarkable information that, with the help of the boys’ nurse Euriphile, he had, in fact, kidnapped them after his unjust banishment: “Beaten for loyalty / Excited me to treason” (298, 5.5.343-44). Cymbeline’s response is entirely positive since he can see these young men’s quality for himself, and the tokens Belarius is able to provide (a mantle and a mole) only increase the king’s certainty.

Cymbeline explains to Imogen what this all means for her: “Thou hast lost by this a kingdom” (299, 5.5.372), but she does not see the matter that way, preferring instead to dwell upon what she has gained: a pair of long-lost brothers. “I have got two worlds by’t” (299, 5.5.373), says she. Cymbeline doesn’t quite understand it all, and who can blame him? He expresses a desire to hear further details in due time to lessen his wonder (299, 5.5.381-86).

Posthumus is now able to declare that he is the poor soldier who assisted Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius in rescuing Cymbeline, and he calls upon Giacomo to verify his story. When this villain makes plain his sudden change of heart and asks for death once he returns the ring and bracelet he wrongly came by (300, 5.5.411-16), Posthumus decides to show mercy: “The power that I have on you is to spare you …” (300, 5.5.417). That decision, in turn, leads Cymbeline to declare a general pardon for everyone, including the Romans (300, 5.5.419-21).  

The soothsayer rounds off the moment by explaining the prophecy that Posthumus’ ancestors had placed upon his chest: Posthumus is the “lion’s whelp,” Imogen is the “piece of tender air,” Cymbeline himself is the “lofty cedar,” and of course Guiderius and Arviragus are the two branches (300-01, 5.5.434-56).[31] Cymbeline surprises everyone by unilaterally offering to pay the Roman tribute whose refusal had led to the bloody struggle between the two nations, and his final pronouncements are, “Laud we the gods” and “let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (301, 5.5.474, 477-79).[32] This political and military turn of events may seem shocking, but as the Norton editors point out, it probably has to do with Shakespeare’s interest in indulging the increasingly strong desire among the English to see their country as a second Roman Empire, but also to preserve their sense of being independent agents rather than as thralls to the history and image of another powerful nation. Beyond that, as Jean E. Howard suggests in her introduction, a sense of “contingency” pervades the actions and decisions taken in this historical romance.[33]

By the end of the play, nearly everything has been set right, with the unaccented exception of the death of the queen and her mean-spirited, oafish son Cloten. Cymbeline’s wrath was real and his error deep, but the power that had seemed to be so absolute and irrevocable turns out not to be so after all. In a romance universe, the march of events is not inexorable, and the price of insight and the recovery of one’s identity isn’t death. At the play’s outset, Cymbeline’s behavior was as irrational as that of King Lear, but time has given him the gift of coming round to a better perspective on love and life. Even the dread justice of royal absolutism is pushed aside in the final act with a wave of the king’s staff since, of course, Guiderius “just happens” to be Cymbeline’s son. Giacomo is found out as a villain and seems likely to go to the block, but he simply renounces his villainy and is forgiven, so all is well there, too.[34] Generosity is spread all around like butter on hot bread.

In the end, Jupiter’s prophecy, which had seemed to be nonsense, turns out to be true. Generosity reigns over chaos, and intelligibility reigns over incomprehensibility. Jupiter rules, and so does Shakespeare, the artist as romance magician who can draw mellow happiness from anguish and unity from a cascade of improbabilities. Like romance works of art generally, Cymbeline follows the broad spiritual path of an alienation from identity and then a return to it in a more secure, if by no means permanent, state: romance is for the most part a kindly genre that promotes the magical power of art and adventure to transform the human condition, provided we understand that the losses and sorrows induced by our mistakes cannot simply be wished away or canceled out. Romance represents to us a world largely disposed to fulfill the fundamental desires that give meaning to and ground a person’s time on earth. The only real bittersweetness in the play’s conclusion—for that is a strong feature of romance, too—lies in the king’s understanding of the pain he has caused Imogen and the many years he lost with his sons thanks to his own unjust treatment of Belarius, who, no doubt, must feel sorrow as well now that his revelation leads him to let go of the young men he has come to think of as his own.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Endnotes


[1] Johnson, Samuel. Notes to Shakespeare, Vol. III. Comments on Cymbeline. The Augustan Reprint Society. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15566/15566-h/15566-h.htm.

[2] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. See the essay on Cymbeline, 614-38.

[3] Bloom, Harold. Ibid. The essay on Hamlet, 383-431.

[4] Hazlitt, William. Hazlitt on English Literature: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Literature. Ed. Jacob Zeitlin. New York and London: Oxford UP, 1913. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31132/31132-h/31132-h.htm.

[5] Some of the characters who are so prone to overpraising in this play could stand to read Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of the Inconstancie of our Actions.” In it, the author, as translated by John Florio, writes, “We float and waver betweene divers opinions: we will nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly.” Essays, Vol. 2, Ch. 1. Accessed 2/18/2024. https://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/montaigne/2i.htm.

[6] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. See 783, 1.4.318.

[7] The Gospel according to Saint Matthew 6:13. Bible Gateway. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%206%3A13&version=GNV.

[8] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. See 552, 3.3.319-21.

[9] Livy. Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.57-59. The relevant Latin is, “Tarquinium mala libido Lucretiae per vim stuprandae capit; [11] cum forma tum spectata castitas incitat.” and “Tarquinius fateri amorem, orare, miscere precibus minas, versare in omnes partes muliebrem animum.” Accessed 2/15/2024. http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi0914.phi0011.perseus-eng3:57.

[10] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Accessed 2/15/2024. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/18th-Brumaire.pdf.  

[11] Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In The Waste Land and Other Poems. New York, Vintage Classics, 2021. Pp. 5-11. 

[12] Holinshed, Raphael. The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1587. Vol. 2, pg. 32. The Third Book of the Historie of England. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://english.nsms.ox.ac.uk/Holinshed/texts.php?text1=1587_0155.

[13] Peacock, Thomas Love. “The Four Ages of Poetry,” 1820. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69387/from-the-four-ages-of-poetry.

[14] We might say the same of Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus, which so mingles “barbarian” with “Roman” qualities that the two terms become all but inextricable.

[15] Burney, Frances. From Letters and Journals, “Mr. Barlow’s Proposal.” In Abrams, M. H. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed., Vol. C. pp. 2812-15. Norton, 2006.

[16] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. See 452, 3.3.356.

[17] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. See 398, 3.1.142-43.

[18] Kant, Immanuel. “On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy.” (“Über ein vermeintes Recht, aus Menschenliebe zu lügen” (1797). In Practical Philosophy. Trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge and New York,  Cambridge UP, 1999. 605-16. At issue is Kant’s famous response to Benjamin Constant’s challenging question as to whether it’s acceptable to lie if a killer with an axe shows up at your home and wants to know if your best friend is there. The answer in light of the Kantian “categorical imperative” is No because it’s always wrong to lie; otherwise, the very idea of truth would soon be undermined.

[19] Ovid. Metamorphoses. See Book 6, “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.” Trans. Henry T. Riley. New York & London: George Brill & Sons, 1893. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/21765/21765-h/21765-h.htm.

[20] Shakespeare. The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 145-98. See 170, 5.1.135-40.

[21] See, mainly, Machiavelli’s Chapter XIX of The Prince, titled “That One Should Avoid Being Despised and Hated.” Accessed 2/18/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm#chap19.

[22] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. In Act 3, Scene 7 of King Lear, Lear’s ally Gloucester, when asked why he helped the old king, had said to his tormentors Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes…” (811, 3.7.56-57). Little did he know that at the beginning of the scene, Goneril had already conjured up exactly that image, so Gloucester’s exclamation only spurs Cornwall to turn the image into literal reality at once. What the old lord Gloucester can scarcely imagine, these fiends eagerly turn into a gory event. Similarly, Posthumus isn’t satisfied with simply raping Imogen—he must rape her while wearing Posthumus’s clothessince, after all, she referred to those clothes when she insulted him earlier in the play.

[23] Shakespeare. As You Like It. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731. 695, 2.7.88ff.

[24] Castiglione, Baldesare. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Leonard E. Opkycke. Accessed 2/16/2024.  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/67799/67799-h/67799-h.htm.

[25] Belarius seems to share the attitude of Thomas More’s narrator in Utopia, who in the final chapter of that book (titled “Of the Religions of the Utopians”) questions Raphael Hythloday’s enthusiasm for the communistic utopian society he visited on the grounds that such a society must lack “splendor” and “majesty,” which he calls “the true ornaments of a nation.” See More, Thomas. Utopia. Ed. Henry Morley. Accessed 2/18/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2130/2130-h/2130-h.htm#chap10.

[26] Perhaps the best example of this attitude is the shipwrecked Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In Act 1, Scene 2, after devising her scheme to disguise herself as a young male page and offer her services to the Duke of Illyria, Viola says to her fellow survivor the ship’s captain, “What else may hap, to time I will commit.” Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 743-97. See 746, 1.2.59.

[27] Shakespeare. As You Like It. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731). See 697, 2.7.152-53.

[28] Aesop. Fables. “The King’s Son and the Painted Lion.” Accessed 2/7/2024. https://fablesofaesop.com/the-kings-son-and-the-painted-lion.html.

[29] The back-and-forth battle scenes make much the same point about human actions being fickle and inconstant, dependent more on circumstance than on any purported firmness of character. As in a previous note, see Montaigne’s Essays, Vol. 2, Ch. 1. Accessed 2/18/2024. https://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/montaigne/2i.htm.

[30] Arnold, Matthew. “Preface to Poems, 1853.” Pg. 12. In Poems by Matthew Arnold. London & New York: Oxford UP, 1909. Accessed 2/18/2024. https://books.google.com/books?id=DndNAAAAYAAJ&dq.

[31] Perhaps it’s best to leave aside the fact that this seemingly astute reading depends in part, as the Norton editors point out in a footnote to pg. 300, on a piece of bad etymology.

[32] With more self-consciousness to his credit, Cymbeline might adapt Richard the Third’s much-noted question about his improbable success with Lady Anne (“Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” 393, 1.2.214-15) and ask, “Did ever Roman in this humor go scot-free?” See Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465.

[33] See Norton editors’ footnotes for Cymbeline, Norton Romances and Poems 3rd ed., pp. 213, 216.

[34] Romance, which seems most comfortable dealing with archetypal characters rather than realistic, grounded individuals, need not lean into character development: the characters in Cymbeline transform as suddenly and completely as if they were in some modern work grounded in magical realism. This sometimes happens in comedy as well.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE, BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND GEORGE WILKINS

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Play of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 150-206).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Gower’s Confessio Bk 8| Twine’s Pattern… | Scanlon’s “Apollonius” Plot Summary | Continual Riddle… (New Yorker) | Folger Pub. History

INTRODUCTION TO SHAKESPEAREAN ROMANCE

In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye writes with precision about the defining characteristics of tragic vision; what underlies this vision, he posits, “… is being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation. In the tragic vision death is … the essential event that gives shape and form to life.”[1] By contrast, in Frye’s schema, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear; death does not define life but rather the characters in the romance will have a chance to redeem themselves and the order within which they function. The social order in Shakespeare’s romance plays and comedies borrows from the stability and perpetuity of the great seasonal cycles that literary cultures have envied and invoked for thousands of years.

Shakespearean romance (Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Cymbeline; The Winter’s Tale; The Tempest; The Two Noble Kinsmen) clearly differs from the straightforwardly tragic mode of action and perception, but it isn’t identical with comedy, either. While both comedy and romance depend partly on the renovation of a corrupt social order, often by temporary removal into a green world of nature where magic rules and things can be turned around for the better, romance is to be distinguished from tragedy and comedy in its Janus-like quality, its ambivalence about even the bittersweet endings it supplies. In The Tempest, for instance, we enjoy a felicitous ending with the expectation of a marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda back in Naples and a return to power for Prospero as Duke of Milan. The old wizard shows himself a benevolent ruler on his island and, we presume, he will be equally benevolent when he returns to his Italian duchy. All of that sounds comic enough. Still, it is easy to see that Prospero is potentially a tyrant who could plausibly misuse his powers: death, disorder, and tyranny are real threats in The Tempest, even though things turn out well. 

A key point is that in Shakespeare’s romance plays, we get not simple second chances or “do-overs” but rather second chances in altered circumstances. Events and persons may come full circle, but there is loss and sorrow along the way, leaving even triumphant conclusions with a bittersweet taste. Still, in the end, the romance plays are uplifting. Then, too—and in spite of their fantastical plot twists and settings—they offer what may well be the most realistic orientation towards life with its recurrent opportunities and travails: not a proffer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in Shakespeare’s lighter comedies; but a kind of wisdom that allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and losses that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous second chances we may receive, however partial the outcome. When my father was growing up during the Great Depression, his father used to take him on weekly visits to an ice-cream parlor, and in those bleak times, the son’s choice was “plain, white, or vanilla.” My dad assured me that he enjoyed all three flavors. It took him a good while to figure out that the choice wasn’t quite what it seemed. It’s a silly anecdote from a lifetime ago, perhaps, but the point is that the best romance characters have much the same capacity, much the same grace, to see wonder in things even when they fall short of cornucopia or perfection. And to bear the necessary suffering, as Apollo tells the other gods towards the end of Homer’s Iliad, “a steadfast spirit have the Fates given unto men.”[2]

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, based on the story of Apollonius within the medieval poet John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (and Lawrence Twine’s prose version of that text, The Pattern of Painful Adventures) and co-written most likely with the not exactly reputable George Wilkins (author of The Painful Adventures of Pericles), is the earliest of Shakespeare’s attempts in what we now call the romance genre.[3] Despite its rough edges stylistically, the play turned out to be popular on the stage. Wilkins seems to have written the first two acts, and Shakespeare most or all of the final three acts.

It is easy to tell when we arrive at Shakespeare’s handiwork: the opening of Act 3, Scene 1 is magnificent in its dramatic staging and in the beauty of its language. One can hardly miss the Shakespearean energy of these lines spoken by Pericles during a storm at sea: “Thou god of this great vast, rebuke these surges, / Which wash both heaven and hell!” (176, 3.1.1-2) This popular play appears to have begun performance around 1609, making it a later work in spite of its complicated textual history.[4] It is, however, Shakespeare’s first play in the romance genre, and its characters do not achieve the distinctiveness, for the most part, as those in the more well-rounded romance efforts do. All the same, with its dangerous sea ventures and wonderful turnarounds of fortune, it’s a moving and dramatically effective play.

ACT ONE

Act 1, Prologue (pp. 151-152, John Gower sets the stage: King Antiochus of Antioch lost his wife and is now in an incestuous relationship with his daughter; blunt introduction of the incest theme; Gower points the scene to Prince Pericles.)

The real John Gower (c. 1330-1408), whom Shakespeare and Wilkins have enlisted as their Prologue, was a medieval poet and contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, and the author of the Confessio Amantis, one of the sources for Pericles. For more on Gower’s function in the play, see my comments on the Epilogue.

Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 152-156, Pericles discerns the king’s scandal but decides not to reveal its details in the court’s presence; Antiochus offers him forty days of entertainment, but plots to kill him forthwith; Pericles, wise to this, flees first; Thaliart is sent after him.)

The Norton editors offer useful information about Shakespeare’s interweaving of sources. He borrowed from John Gower himself, but also from medieval Christian accounts involving women condemned to brothels, as well as from ancient Greek romance.[5] The editors also point out that Gower adds a certain medieval quality to the whole affair, thereby keeping us at some emotional distance from the unfolding story, at least for a while. In the end, the play turns out to be effective in terms of its emotional impact. In his book Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes that only the brothel characters come across as authentically human—Marina and Pericles himself, says Bloom, are narratival and moral abstractions.[6] The term “ethical universe” describes the world in which the characters in Pericles live. That is, of course, a feature of many medieval narratives and dramas. The play Everyman, for example, represents the protagonist as moving through just such a grayscape towards salvation.

It may be that Gower’s reference to the medicinal qualities of his tale, his description of it as a “restorative,” fits well with the thesis that from time to time or eventually, value systems need to be restored, renewed. So often in Shakespeare, a society seems to have become a hollow place for hollow men and women, emptied of anything like truly animating moral values and passions. Discourse, language, will play a vital role in the restoration of Pericles to Marina, and in his recovery of Thaisa.

The action opens with Prince Pericles having just arrived in Antioch to take his chances with the king’s guilty riddle, marriage to the king’s beautiful daughter being the prize. Antiochus offers what sounds like the ancient version of a legal disclaimer regarding the trial Pericles is about to undergo. The young man is quite the romance hero at this point, all fired up to put his life on the line for supreme beauty and eros. Antiochus’s arrogance shows already when he refers to his daughter as fit for “the embracements even of Jove himself” (152, 1.1.8). Is he comparing himself to Zeus, i.e. to Jove, who married his own sister Hera? In any case, the young lady is characterized as a wondrous, perfect work of nature.

The girl is also likened to the Hesperides who lived in a garden filled with golden apples. Again, her beauty is supreme, but dangerous and forbidden. Almost everything either Pericles or Antiochus says about her bespeaks this forbidden quality. The myth of the Hesperides is that they were tasked with guarding the golden apples in the gardens commemorating the marriage of Zeus and Hera. A dragon kept them from stealing the apples themselves, but one of the apples makes its way to the destructive scene of the Judgment of Paris. The goddess Strife made one of these apples the prize for judging which of three goddesses was the most beautiful: Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. The outcome of that contest was the Trojan War.[7]

In any case, Antiochus’s daughter is, according to him, quite irresistible. I think we may take as projection both this assertion and the attribution of haughtiness or arrogance to Pericles and his fellow princes who have sought her favors. Pericles professes to take Antiochus’s warnings to heart, and declares himself “ready for the way of life or death” (153, 1.1.55). Antiochus seems angry that yet another young challenger has insisted upon competing with him for his daughter’s love. In this regard, he is a typical Freudian jealous father. The daughter declares that of all the men who have sought marriage to her, she wishes most of all that he should succeed. Perhaps it is cynical to say this, but it is difficult to avoid thinking that she says this to all the applicants. There is something ritualistic about the pronouncement. She must be quite used to this whole rigmarole by now. Should we suppose that she is desperate to escape the clutches of her wicked father? It is impossible to say, but we are told by Gower that over time, habit or custom took over, and neither party to the sin felt the sting of conscience.

As for the riddle itself, part of it leads obviously to the life-preserving answer, and part is confusing or muddled: we can see how Antiochus makes his daughter his wife and himself her husband, but how does he become her son and she his mother? Perhaps the Freudian framework will be of service here: in rejecting his daughter as a daughter, we might say, Antiochus deranges the temporal scheme of his relationship, and opens the door to the family secret that the male child desires his mother first of all. In this sense, every woman he sleeps with is his mother, just as every man the daughter sleeps with is symbolically her father. The glaringly obvious part of the riddle remains unspoken to the king’s face.

In a sense, this is a power play on Antiochus’s part: like a typical bully, he tosses out damning information and double-dares anyone to make it plain in his angry, forbidding presence. When bullies tell obvious lies to their hearers, they are really saying, “I know I’m lying and I know you know that, and you know that I know you know it, etc.” There’s a mise-en-abîme quality to this operation. Since none of Pericles’s predecessor knights answered the riddle correctly, we may assume that even if they did figure out the riddle, they blinked, just as Pericles himself now does. He knows the answer, but it’s taboo to blurt it out. Either way, he’s at grave risk of losing his life. That’s the Freudian interdiction at work: a dark, unsettling truth that may be glimpsed in distorted or screened form, but never revealed in its simplicity.[8]

With regard to the political-theory dimension that we find in many of Shakespeare’s plays, Antiochus’s sexual secret may parallel a secret regarding governance and authority, one not unrelated to the Platonic dilemma of rulership: he has guilty knowledge of human nature and of the realities involved in keeping control of his realm. He is daring subjects and foreigners alike to make this knowledge common, knowing that they won’t reveal the taboo from sheer terror. The riddle, then, aside from its incest dimension, involves the nature of political authority and the capacity to govern. I would remind us of Aeschylus’ carefully articulated renaming and relegation of the Furies to the Eumenides (well-abiding, well-attending, or perhaps even “they who bide their time”).[9] There is also the scandalous truth in Plato’s Republic that it is acceptable for rulers to lie to their subjects so long as the purpose is governance itself, the maintenance of order.[10]

Pericles, upon solving the riddle, is immediately put off at the thought of romance with the king’s daughter. He sees her as a “glorious casket stored with ill” (153, 1.1.78). Antiochus demands an answer, forbidding Pericles to touch his daughter at this point. Pericles addresses the king directly, and seems to say enough to anger him. Pericles shrinks back in fear from doing more than hinting that he knows the true secret the king hides. Essentially, he declares that he knows the truth, but will not make it manifest. It is bold enough that he should say, “And, if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?” (154, 1.1.105) but he will not speak the word “incest.” He will not reveal the scandal itself, but his boldness consists in a species of counter-bullying whereby he makes the king understand that he knows the secret. Pericles himself is a ruler, and is at least in that the equal of Antiochus.

Antiochus doesn’t quite know what to do with this bold foreigner, and offers him forty days of delay, time in which he might yet reveal the secret. But we know that he will not do that, and Antiochus surely has no intention of keeping his word. The king decides to temporize and dissemble by means of decorous entertainment. Pericles sees through this false politeness, and decides to flee from Antioch. He characterizes what the daughter is doing as being like the action of a serpent, “an eater of her mother’s flesh” (155, 1.1.131), with the daughter cannibalizing and replacing the mother. It may be, too, that in “replacing” the mother in this destructive way, the daughter thus abused destroys the mother-principle itself, and since this principle must function together with the patrilineal, patriarchal principal that guarantees the male sovereign’s futurity and royal line, Antiochus’s corruption of his daughter turns her into the means whereby his own political dynasty, his futurity, is destroyed. It is a justly humiliating way for an exalted man to prove that he is not immortal after all.[11]

How right Pericles is about Antiochus’s devious intentions we see immediately when the king, like the stage-villain he is, tells us he plans to kill Pericles as soon as possible, and summons his chamberlain Thaliart. This man is so obedient to the king that he even plans to use a pistol to do the job—an invention still far in the future. Evidently, George Wilkins, who seems to have written the first couple of acts of the play, shares Shakespeare’s penchant for anachronisms. As Thomas Love Peacock writes in his satirical essay “The Four Ages of Poetry,” the Elizabethans “made no scruple of deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer.”[12]

Act 1, Scene 2 (pp. 156-158, Pericles is distressed over the threat to Tyre from his solving the riddle, showing political realism and compassion for his subjects; Pericles tells Helicanus what happened at Antioch, and receives earnest counsel: travel; the prince will sail for Tarsus, and Helicanus will rule in his stead.)

From lines 1.2.1-33, Pericles explains how his anxiety about the threat posed by Antiochus grew upon him until at last it now seems he must do something to relieve it. Pericles understands the logic and realities of power: princes who fail to pass “Machiavelli 101” seldom last long in Shakespeare’s works. Antiochus is quite capable of making good on his need to eliminate the one man who could reveal his guilty secret. The prince also reveals to us that his seeming near-paranoia about the punitive reach of Antiochus is really about the welfare of his subjects, not a dread selfishly felt for his own safety alone.

Pericles demands honesty from Helicanus, who disclaims all pretense of flattery. He tells Pericles that flattery is the last thing he needs, and implies that his disturbed state threatens both his own welfare and that of the kingdom. (157, 1.2.52) Pericles is impressed, and agrees with the sentiment expressed. This is an interesting contrast from the court of Antiochus, where Pericles offered himself counsel of a more Machiavellian nature, advice rendered entirely appropriate due to the quality of Antiochus’s court, which was unhealthy, even deranged. Pericles’s realm, by contrast, is ordered properly, with Pericles a true prince and Helicanus a loyal, capable subject who treats his prince with reverence and honesty.

Helicanus shifts his counsel from patience to travel. He will go to Tarsus, which we might observe with our editors is St. Paul’s city of birth. While the play is set in pre-Christian times, the place probably still indicates to Shakespeare’s audience that Pericles the traveler is about to undergo a spiritual transformation under the pressure of harsh experience. At this point, the reference works at a general level of significance.

Act 1, Scene 3 (pp. 158-159, Thaliart arrives at Tyre to kill Pericles, and reflects on his situation as a servant; Helicanus tells him Pericles has penitently gone traveling, thanks to Antiochus’s disapproval of him; Helicanus and the lords offer to entertain Thaliart before he supposedly returns home.)

This scene is very brief, but it introduces us to Thaliart, who seems like a capable rascal, even if this play offers him no hope of developing into an irrepressible Iago. Thaliart seems like a standard Machiavellian operator: he keeps his eyes and ears open, and rolls with the punches. At Tyre, he at least gets enough information to spin a narrative for Antiochus that might keep an enterprising servant out of trouble. Helicanus easily discerns why this chamberlain has really traveled to Tyre, but he keeps up the appearance of civility.

Act 1, Scene 4 (pp. 159-162, Governor Cleon vents his grief to Dionyza over the plight of once-opulent Tarsus; he greets Pericles’ approach with fear, but greets his arrival with joy when the prince explains that he has come to relieve Tarsus’s hunger.)

It’s worth noting with a look forward that Pericles, when met with such terrible misfortunes, falls silent, but here in the fourth scene, Cleon expresses to his wife Dionyza a strong faith in the therapeutic power of lamentation. Tarsus, it seems, was once a wealthy, prideful city that disdained the very thought of ever needing assistance. Its citizens, suggests Cleon, were more concerned with fashion and the competitive delights of what today we might call “conspicuous consumption” than with anything like mere utility and sufficiency. But those days are gone, and all he can do is hope the advancing fleet means the city no harm. Famine has made even him, Tarsus’s governor, altogether desperate: “bring they what they will, and what they can, / What need we fear?” (161, 1.4.75-76).

Pericles sets Cleon’s mind at ease, telling him that Tarsus’s suffering has been known for a while even as far as Tyre. This is no Greek assault on Troy, says Pericles, but a mission of mercy: he has brought grain to fortify the starving people of Tarsus, and asks only “for love, / And harborage” (161, 1.4.98-99). Cleon offers both in effusively grateful terms, even calling down a curse on himself and his city if Pericles should ever find they’ve broken their bond.

ACT 2

Act 2, Prologue (pp. 162-163, Gower explains that Pericles, called home to Tyre by Helicanus, has suffered a shipwreck, washing up on Pentapolis, where fishermen find him.

Gower promises a full-on morality tale, with Pericles sure to gain from the series of adversities he is about to undergo. On comes the shipwreck, and Pericles drifts until, says Gower, “Fortune, tired with doing bad, / Threw him ashore to give him glad” (162, 2.0.37-38).

Indeed, this should remind us that Pericles’s misfortunes throughout the play are not brought on by error or flaw—they’re due to bad luck, or chance, or perhaps providence. The play is not suffused with the sensibility or ambience of classical tragedy: Pericles has done nothing wrong, has not made a mistake: what in Poetics Aristotle calls hamartía[13] is not in play in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The protagonist has simply run up against the chaotic powers of elemental humanity (Antiochus) and the natural world (the rough ocean with its pulverizing storms).

Act 2, Scene 1 (pp. 163-166, Pericles washes ashore, and accepts his mortality; he meets some fishermen as they describe their country, and they soon tell him of the upcoming tournament for Thaisa’s hand; The fishermen have discovered Pericles’ rusty armor, and he gets them to give it to him for the joust.)

Shipwrecks are metaphoric of the travails of life in the time between the ultimate passage from birth to death. The sea and its storms are an alien realm that threatens to cast all that’s dear to humanity into the void. Until modern times, any kind of prolonged travel was apt to be treacherous and uncertain, with sea voyages probably inspiring the greatest fear of all. In Homer’s Odyssey, the narrator describes the coming on of night with the wonderful line, “The sun went down, and all the world’s paths turned dark.”[14] Even on land, the dark reduces humanity to the level of raw nature. Here in an Elizabethan play, the ocean takes on something like that leveling power, along with a sense of profound uncertainty and violence. The sea is a roadway for the realization of desire, but it is also a place of peril, a resetting track for past woes and felicities alike. It’s the great equalizer in the play in that even princes are subject to its vicissitudes.

Pericles humbly wishes for little but a dry death after his ordeal at sea, saying to the elements, “I, as fits my nature, do obey you” (163, 2.1.4). But soon, he’s in the company of some comic fishermen as they serve one another a prose-helping of their views on relations between the realm’s social classes, the sum total of it being that, like the fishes, “the great ones eat up the little ones” (163, 2.1.28-29). Pericles reveals himself to these rustics, and reduces himself to a key of begging suitable to his plight. He is received kindly, and the fishermen inform him of the upcoming tournament whereby a skillful and fortunate knight at arms will win the hand of Thaisa, daughter of the virtuous King Simonides, whose “peaceable reign and good government” (165, 2.1.100) the First Fisherman praises. When a rusty suit of armor is spied in the nets, Pericles hails its appearance since, he informs the fishermen, it was given to him by his father, and it is such a precious artifact to him that it all but banishes the shipwreck and other losses from his mind. The fishermen gladly turn the armor over to Pericles, and even agree to make him a garment to wear underneath it. They hope to be gainers along with him should he win, but their deed is generous in any case.

Act 2, Scene 2 (pp. 166-168, Pericles reaches the court of King Simonides of Pentapolis and his daughter Thaisa, the antidotes to Antiochus and his ruined daughter; the five knights present their mottos in chivalric sequence, and Pericles, lowly attired and professing only his dependence on Thaisa, wins the joust.)

In this scene, Simonides and his daughter Thaisa are introduced to us, while Pericles is introduced as the last of a series of knights seeking the hand of Thaisa. What we begin to see is an appropriate courtly spectacle, and what seems to be a healthy relationship between a father and his daughter. This is not a court dominated by secrecy and intrigue. Whatever dark Freudian jealousy may lie within King Simonides is kept firmly where it belongs: beneath the level of consciousness.

Each seeker marches forth on his horse to display his emblem in hopes of success. The king and his daughter will judge the contest partly on the basis of each man’s ingenuity. The first knight, a Spartan, presents as his Latin motto, “Your light is life to me.” The second knight is a Macedonian prince, and his motto translated from the Italian is “More by sweetness than by force.” The third knight comes from Antioch, and his device is “The summit of glory has led me on.” Then comes a knight from Athens, whose device is, “Who nourishes me extinguishes me.” The fifth knight hails from Corinth, and his motto is “Thus is faith to be regarded.”

Pericles is the final contestant, and his appearance is hardly promising, what with his rusty suit of armor and lack of assistants in proffering his device. All he has is “A withered branch that’s only green at top,” and his motto is “In hac spe vivo,” or in English, “In this hope I live” (167, 2.2.43). There is nothing inappropriate about the display and motto of the first five gentlemen, but Pericles is the only one among them whose situation really matches his motto and self-presentation. All he has going for him is hope. He lacks resources at present, and is dependent for his future upon the outcome of the contest. With regard to the other five men, the mottos they present are standard and conventional. None of these men are impoverished and desperate, but rather each is wealthy and privileged. The stakes are not the same for them as they are for Pericles. There is in Pericles’s case, that is, a perfect adequation between symbol and reality, between situation and display.

King Simonides picks up on this fact, and gently rebukes the three fashionable lords with whom he is holding converse, saying, “Opinion’s but a fool that makes us scan / The outward habit for the inward man” (168, 2.2.54-55). They were looking for a precise match between the knight’s attire and his personal worth, but the king sees the more important “match” that lies beyond such facile observation. Pericles goes on to win the contest, thus ending the scene.

Act 2, Scene 3 (pp. 168-171, King Simonides and Thaisa host a banquet for the knights, above all for the champion Pericles; a courtly dance ensues, with asides carrying much of the dialogue.)

Together, Simonides and Thaisa constitute a guest-host antidote to Antiochus and his ruined daughter. Leaving Freudian readings aside for the time being, we see that everything they do is gracious and appropriately decorous rather than garish, narcissistic, or lewd. The knights are equally gracious in their appreciation of the seemingly lowly Pericles.

Pericles himself shows a great deal of humility in this scene, and a certain amount of melancholy as well. It’s as if he can’t help being a bit overshadowed by his previous experience with a kingly father and daughter back in Antioch. In beholding Simonides, he is prompted to thoughts of his own departed father, whom he describes in terms almost reminiscent of Hamlet’s high praise of his father. What kind of protagonist succeeds in a romance of any sort? We might expect that the protagonist would need a combination of energy, boldness, and openness to experience (an ancient value found in heroes such as Odysseus). There are times when something like this might be true. But Pericles, who has already shown himself capable of audacity as when he pursued the daughter of Antiochus, shows a Christian-like degree of humility and patience: “I see that Time’s the king of men: / He’s both their parent and he is their grave, / And gives them what he will, not what they crave” (169, 2.3.44-46). In Shakespeare’s romance plays, this quality of admitting one’s limitations seems to be as important as any other quality we could name.

Both Simonides and Thaisa show themselves to be honest characters, but the conversation between them reveals a certain complexity in their decorous relationship. As the asides indicate, the main characters in this scene are capable of keeping their own counsel even as they engage in fit conversation with others. Simonides seems to be already trying to temper what he must suppose is the passion beginning to stir in Thaisa for Pericles, while Thaisa herself shows a maiden’s regard for her chaste reputation. When the king tells Thaisa to bring Pericles a bowl of wine, she responds hesitantly: “it befits not me / Unto a stranger knight to be so bold” (169, 2.3.64-65). Yet to herself, she admits that she is very pleased with Pericles. These asides are by no means dishonest; they are instead signs of a need to shape appropriate social and romantic outcomes, and to avoid some of the pitfalls of courtship. This is part of the work of society, of civilization itself: honesty does not always require full disclosure of one’s entire intent. Characters who show themselves to be too blunt with their words (think Cordelia and Kent in King Lear) often run into trouble, even though their moral character may be spotless and their intentions good.

Having been asked in classical fashion his birth and purpose here in Pentapolis, Pericles casts himself as quite the knight errant, a man “looking for adventures in the world” (170, 2.3.80), even though that description doesn’t fit his present circumstances well—it wasn’t pure wanderlust that drove him from Tyre to Tarsus and thence to Pentapolis. He was fleeing a political enemy, bringing aid to Tarsus, and then, as he admits to the king, barely surviving a disaster at sea. The king significantly offers gifts and personal friendship to Pericles, then orders up a dance for the still-armored knights. He teases Pericles and Thaisa into pairing off on the dance floor, thereby continuing the decorous pursuit of Thaisa that the now-completed joust began. At last the dancing is done and the hour is late, so it’s time for everyone to take their rest.

Act 2, Scene 4 (pp. 171-172, Helicanus reports to Aeschines that Antiochus and his daughter have been struck by lightning in their chariot; the lords of Pericles’s kingdom are concerned about his absence, and Helicanus puts off for a year their request that he accept the top position; the lords agree to seek out the absent prince.)

The scandal of Antiochus and his daughter is “illuminated” in a terrible way, at least for those in the know already, brought to light by a bolt of lightning that strikes their carriage one day, out of the blue. The foulness of the bodies, says Helicanus, so offended the common people that no one would give the two burial.

There are usually Machiavellian concerns in any Shakespeare play with a political dimension. The lords in Pericles’s realm are beginning to worry that the prince came to a bad end in his oceangoing travels—hardly an unreasonable supposition. The lords know that power hates a vacuum, and an absent prince is bad for them and the whole realm, conducive as such absence is to instability and the threat of foreign invasion. Helicanus is able to put them off for twelve months, but he understands that their patience is not infinite: it’s all he can do to prevent them from anointing him ruler, which of course he swore to Pericles he would never allow to happen. But in the end, the lords agree to go in search of their absent leader. The voyage should keep their energies occupied for a time.

Act 2, Scene 5 (pp. 172-174, King Simonides tells the knights that Thaisa has declared she will remain a virgin for another year, so they depart; the king approves of her actual decision to wed Pericles: he dissembles his approval of the match, but just as quickly brings them together as partners.)

King Simonides briefly dissembles his intention to allow the match between his daughter Thaisa and Pericles, putting on a stormy show for them and even threatening the life of Pericles, but with comical celerity he ends up revealing his true intentions that they should soon be wed. We can connect this scene with Prospero’s gruffness in The Tempest towards young Prince Ferdinand of Naples when he takes an interest in the old duke’s daughter, Miranda. For that matter, there was the comic menace of Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream against his daughter, which Duke Theseus of Athens at first supported and then utterly disregarded. There’s probably some real paternal jealousy involved in the behavior of both Simonides and Prospero, but in truth, neither man is doing more than ensuring as best he can that his daughter doesn’t wind up married to an unworthy suitor. There seems to be some idea that, as Lysander says in Midsummer, true love should not run too smoothly.[15] Some obstacle, even if it be a contrived one, seems necessary. In the course of this manufactured trial, Pericles shows courage over and above his alarm, while Thaisa stands up admirably towards Simonides.

ACT 3

Act 3, Prologue (pp. 174-175, Gower says Pericles’s bride is expecting; report comes to Pentapolis that Antiochus and his daughter are dead and that in Tyre, Helicanus is being pressured to accept the crown; Pericles sails for home with Thaisa, but at the halfway point, his ship runs into a storm.)

John Gower offers a dumb show and a bit of explanation. Thaisa is expecting a child, and Pericles receives from the king a message that Antiochus and his daughter are dead and that the lords back in Tyre are pressuring Helicanus to accept the crown. So the prince decides he must voyage back to Tyre and take care of business. Thaisa insists upon traveling with her husband, and brings along her nurse Lychorida. Pericles soon faces his second storm at sea.

Act 3, Scene 1 (pp. 176-177, Thaisa appears to die in childbirth during a storm when Pericles’s ship is halfway to Tyre; the prince wonders at the daughter born in such travail, and names her Marina in tribute; Pericles grieves for Thaisa, but, at the superstitious sailors’ insistence, commits her body to the sea in a pitch-coated coffin.)

Act 3, Scene 1 reveals Shakespeare’s authentic voice through the cry of storm-tossed Pericles: “Thou god of this great vast, rebuke these surges / Which wash both heaven and hell!” (176, 3.1.1-2). This passage, along with Lychorida’s heartrending utterance, “Take in your arms this piece / Of your dead queen” (176, 3.1.17-18) is unmistakably Shakespearean.

This whole scene is dramatically superb, and what’s more, it may lead us to broaden Coleridge’s claim that Shakespeare’s characters are most universal when they are most fully individuated. Pericles is not the most sharply drawn or particularized of Shakespeare’s protagonists, but at this point his grief and tenderness seem like the universal responses of anyone who has ever lost someone. He even challenges the gods on a point of honor: they take back the good things they give, which is something even lowly humans usually scorn to do. The lines “Even at the first, thy loss is more than can / Thy portage quit, with all thou canst find here” (176, 3.1.35-36), offer an observation similar to King Lear’s complaint that he is “a man / More sinned against than sinning.”[16] Pericles is constrained to deliver up the seemingly dead Thaisa to the stormy sea in a pitch-caulked coffin to satisfy the sailors’ superstition, but his acquiescence is by no means a mark of weakness. He delivers striking elegiac remarks directly to his departed wife: “the belching whale, / And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse, / Lying with simple shells” (177, 3.1.61-63). After Act 3, Scene 3, in which he speaks briefly to Cleon in handing over the infant Marina to that ruler’s care, we will not hear from Pericles again until much later in the play.

Act 3, Scene 2 (pp. 178-180, Pericles sails for Tarsus because his newborn child won’t make it to Tyre in such rough weather; Thaisa’s still-sealed coffin washes ashore in Ephesus, where the physician Cerimon revives her.)

The early-morning conversation between Cerimon and a couple of visiting gentlemen tells us a good deal about the physician: “I held it ever, / Virtue and cunning were endowments greater / Than nobleness and riches” (178, 3.2.24-26). Cerimon is a true scientist, adept in “the disturbances / That nature works” (178-79, 3.2.35-36) and in the properties of the natural substances that can remedy them, and he doesn’t much care for honor or suchlike baubles. This is in accord with the principles of the ancient Hippocratic Oath.[17] While we are accustomed to more or less dismissing the assumptions and practices of ancient medicine, the profession was more respected then than we might suppose. Ephesus, where Cerimon practices, was a Greek city along the Ionian coast in what is now Turkey, and among the Greeks, medicine had mainly broken free from domination by ritual and religion.[18]

It seems reasonably clear that Thaisa is not actually brought back from death, but is rather brought back from a hypothermic state of unconsciousness. How else are we to take, for example, “They were too rough / That threw her in the sea” (180, 3.2.77-78)? Or, “She hath not been entranced / Above five hours” (180, 3.2.91-92)?[19] The emphasis on how tightly caulked the coffin is with pitch lends itself to a naturalistic interpretation. Thaisa is alive by the end of Act 3, Scene 2: she has most likely had what we would call a near-death experience. When we consider how limited the ordinary ancient physician’s means were to cure even conditions that pose few problems for modern doctors, Cerimon’s wise restoration of Thaisa from severe difficulty in childbirth and exposure at sea seems all but miraculous, and the play’s general fairy-tale ambience encourages a feeling of wonder in such cases.

Act 3, Scene 3 (pg. 181, Pericles reaches Tarsus and entrusts Cleon and Dionyza with the princely care and education of Marina; Pericles vows to the goddess Diana that he will not cut his hair until he knows Marina is married.)

Pericles gives Marina, named such, as he says, because of her birth at sea, to Governor of Tarsus Cleon and his wife Dionyza, asking that she be brought up in a manner befitting her true station as a princess. Cleon eagerly approves, and Dionyza promises that Marina will be as dear to her as her own daughter. Nurse Lychorida will stay behind to help raise the child. The pair see Pericles off to the harbor, where he will begin his journey back to Tyre, which threatens to break out into political discord in his absence.

Act 3, Scene 4 (pg. 182, Cerimon asks Thaisa if she remembers anything from her ordeal, but she can recall only being about to deliver a child; she now desires to join the nearest vestal order since she believes she will never see Pericles again; Cerimon says he knows the place.)

In this short scene, Cerimon asks Thaisa what she remembers from her ordeal. She knows she was on board a ship and that she was about to deliver a child, but that is all. She recognizes her husband’s handwriting on the note left within the coffin along with some jewels. Thaisa doesn’t expect ever to see her husband again, so she immediately decides it will be best to sign on with the nearest vestal order. Conveniently, Cerimon has a niece at the Temple of Diana in Ephesus who can serve as her attendant.

ACT 4

Act 4.0, Prologue (pp. 182-183, Marina is now a young woman, thanks to our passage through time with Gower; he says that Dionyza, envious of Marina for stealing praise from her daughter Philoten, plots to kill her, with Leonine as the instrument.)

John Gower again sets the scene for us, this time at Ephesus, where Dionyza is about to betray Pericles by plotting to kill his daughter Marina. The deed takes shape out of Dionyza’s “rare” (i.e. intense) envy for the gifts that allow the girl to outshine her daughter Philoten.

Act 4, Scene 1 (pp. 183-185, Marina grieves at Lychorida’s grave, and Dionyza urges her to take a seaside walk with the servant Leonine; just as he is about to kill her at Dionyza’s prior bidding, pirates abduct her.)

Dionyza is envious, as Gower already told us in his prologue, because Marina wins all the praise that would otherwise go to daughter Philoten. Using the excuse that Marina is discomposed due to her grief over the death of Lychorida, Dionyza sets her servant Leonine the task of cutting the young woman down while they are walking along the shore. She pleads with him to no avail. But just then, pirates conveniently turn up and relieve Leonine of the need to kill Marina. Ironically saving her life, they abduct her. As for Leonine, he is as villainous as one can imagine, in spite of his seemingly soft manners: he lurks in the background, on the off chance that the pirates “will but please themselves” (186, 4.1.98) by raping Marina rather than killing her, in which case he will still have to carry out his murderous commission.

Act 4, Scene 2 (pp. 186-189, The pirates who abducted Marina sell her to brothel-keepers Pander, Bawd, and Bolt in Mytilene on Lesbos; much banter ensues between the brothel-keepers, but Marina stands upon her virgin honor even as they prepare to talk up her chaste condition with prospective customers.)

The Norton editors point out that this scene has a distinctly English feel, and critic Harold Bloom is probably right to suggest in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human that Pander, Bawd, and Bolt are the liveliest and most carefully individuated characters in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.[20] Indeed, they hardly come across as ancient denizens of Tarsus—they seem like a quintessential London pimp, madam, and scout. Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly from the Henry IV plays comes to mind, as does Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure. In any case, Pander and Bawd discuss their trade frankly, lamenting that venereal disease is continually damaging and diminishing their stable of prostitutes and their customers alike. Ironically, their business entails hawking and vending innocence or chastity itself because that—and not simply sexual license—is what sells. Young virgins appeal to the clientele, of course, in part because they’re unlikely to cast the user straight into the maw of syphilis or some other dread STI, but also because so many men apparently fantasize about recovering their own youth and maximum sexual potency by deflowering a young maiden.

In this regard, Bolt is quite important to Pander and Bawd’s success—he operates as a public relations professional, a Jacobean-style “mad man” (after the phrase coined by Madison Avenue advertising agents to describe themselves) whose task it is to sell an image of beauty combined with flawless virtue. We can say “image” because, as we can see, Bolt has no intention of allowing Marina to begin her duties in the chaste condition he’s talking up. After receiving his advertising instructions from Bawd (187, 4.2.52-56), he insinuates that he wants to break in Marina as the newest member of team prostitute: since Bolt, as he puts it, has “bargained for the joint” (188, 4.2.119), Bawd offers first use to him: “Thou mayst cut a morsel off the spit” (188, 4.2.120).

Bawd has her own job to do in convincing the impossibly virtuous Marina that the attractions of her new role in life merit the inconveniences: she tries to sell the young woman on an image of cosmopolitanism and sexual variety. Bawd promises her, “you shall live in pleasure” (187, 4.2.70) and “you shall have the difference of all / complexions” (187, 4.2.73-74). That is, she will experience sex with men from all over the world. None of this claptrap impresses Marina, who peppers the scene with verbal indications that she is more than a match for her disreputable keepers, so Bawd & Co. have their work cut out for them.

In truth, to judge from the early part of Pander and Bawd’s conversation, the business has begun to lose its appeal for them, or at least it has for Pander, who worries about its disreputable standing with gods and men. Bawd pitches in that she has raised eleven illegitimate children born to customers, and Pander reminds her that she has recycled them into the trade as prostitutes. This is no “calling” (186, 4.2.35), no proper religious mystery sect, nothing hale or holy, as was sometimes held to be the case with ancient temple prostitutes. It’s just commerce, like almost everything else, only dirtier and (we can recognize, even if Pander, Bawd and Bolt may not) even dehumanizing. As Shakespeare, his probable collaborator George Wilkins, and his audience must have known, it wasn’t as if humane care and consideration awaited women trapped in this terrible cycle of abuse and then cast out when disease stripped them of their ability to contribute.[21]

Act 4, Scene 3 (189-190, Cleon of Tarsus deplores what Dionyza has done to Marina; Dionyza defends her wicked deed; reluctantly, Cleon goes along with Dionyza’s cover-up.)

Dionyza is a bit like a lesser Lady Macbeth, goading her husband into complicity with her depraved attempt to have Marina killed. As she says to him, “I do shame / To think of what a noble strain you are, / And of how coward a spirit” (189, 4.3.22-24). Just as Antiochus and his daughter’s lives were shaped and cut short by a guilty secret, envious Dionyza and cowardly Cleon will have to live with the knowledge of what she has done. Cleon is what we might call an “accessory after the fact” in modern legal terms, but perhaps his biggest sin is how unheroic and ordinary, even petty, he seems when placed next to characters such as Pericles, Thaisa, Marina, Cerimon, and Simonides, or even the honest fishermen of Pentapolis.

Act 4, Scene 4.0, Prologue (pp. 190-191, Gower says Pericles has sailed to Tarsus to see what has become of Marina, whom he hasn’t seen since her infancy; Pericles is devastated at Marina’s supposed death; in Gower’s telling, he seems to abandon his faith in the gods and yield his course to fate.)

This scene consisting only of Gower’s narration shows Shakespeare acknowledging the need to do psychological and emotional justice to his characters. The main characters in Pericles have been described by some critics as overly universalized and insufficiently particularized, but consider a modern television series like Star Trek. So many traumatic things happen to most of the characters in the space of one or two episodes that if one-tenth of it happened to real-life individuals, they would doubtless slip into a permanent catatonic stupor. But the interstellar show must go on, so they don’t. By contrast, when Pericles thinks he’s lost Marina on top of his loss of Thaisa, he goes numb and becomes listless, vacant. The prince (rather like King Lear at his nadir) really does slip into a profound depression. There’s a great deal of psychological realism in Shakespeare: he isn’t afraid to dramatize a character’s emotional and spiritual breakdown. Pericles apparently becomes unreachable to everyone around him.

Act 4, Scene 5 (pg. 191, Two gentlemen, amazed at their turn towards virtuous living after their encounters with Marina, head for church.)

Two gentlemen, now former clients of Pander and Bawd, share their astonishment at the transformation wrought in them by the angelic Marina.

Act 4, Scene 6 (pp. 192-196, Pander and Bawd try to win Marina to the role of a prostitute, and Bolt tries to ravish her, but she overcomes them with her virtue and conquers Lysimachus, the Governor of Mytilene, too.)

The three brothel-keepers are at their wits’ end as to how they can overcome Marina’s virtue and chastity. The Bawd says, “she would make a puritan of the / devil if he should cheapen a kiss of her” (192, 4.6.8-9). By this point, that scarcely seems an exaggeration. Things only get worse for them in this scene since Marina resists not only the brothel-keepers but the governor of Mytilene, Lysimachus. Well, she does more than simply resist—she transforms them and gets them working on her side. Marina has the poise of a biblical figure such as Daniel in the lions’ den, preserved from harm by his faith in God.[22] What we are getting in the present play, then, seems like the comic version of Christian ordeal and captivity narratives. Marina easily fends off Bolt’s attempt to rape her, and her magic works wonderfully on the rakish Lysimachus, who gives her plenty of gold and promises that if she hears from him again, “it shall be for thy good” (194, 4.6.105). At the end of the scene, Bolt himself dutifully scampers off to find Marina an honest position of just the sort she wants: one where she can make herself useful by teaching various arts. She tells him that she can “sing, weave, sew, and dance” (195, 4.6.168), among other honorable talents.

ACT 5

Act 5.0, Prologue (pg. 196, While Marina makes money for her keepers by honest means, says Gower, Pericles’ black-trimmed ship has been driven by ocean winds to Mytilene’s harbor during a holiday dedicated to Neptune; Lysimachus goes to meet Pericles on the latter’s richly trimmed ship.)

 We have heard nothing directly from Pericles for some time now, and Gower prepares us for our meeting with him again in the next scene simply by calling him “heavy” or sad (5.0.22), which, as we will soon find out, is quite an understatement. The restless ocean, the pontos atrúgetos or trackless sea of Homeric lore,[23] has allowed one further twist in Pericles’ strange odyssey. On the ocean, Pericles has already suffered one outright shipwreck and one costly near-shipwreck, along with a few smooth conveyances. Now he is swept into Mytilene’s harbor at the mercy of the winds, a passive, worn-out traveler rather than a chivalric knight or lord of heroic cast.

Act 5, Scene 1 (pp. 196-203, Pericles miraculously recovers his lost Marina, who guides him towards recognition of the truth, in the process fully realizing her own identity; Pericles has a dream vision of the goddess Diana, who instructs him on what to do next.)

This is perhaps the best time to remind ourselves that while the name Marina means “of the sea” (as Pericles said when he named her during an ocean storm), as a common noun it also means “harbor”: a safe place at which to moor one’s ship. This second meaning is significant here in the play’s longest and most important scene. Marina serves as an inspired guide for Pericles, leading him back from storm and lassitude to a firm grounding in his true nature and identity. She is the harbor for his life’s voyage, as symbolized by many ocean crossings and hardships throughout the play.

In the tragedies, the bedrock of human nature—the “thing itself” in King Lear’s phrase, or at least as close as we can get to it—is someplace one doesn’t want to be for long, if at all. Getting there only leads to disaster, along with any insight one may gain. In the present romance play, the Prince of Tyre has been exiled into the void, and it seems as if the experience leads to something very like madness, not of the howling kind but instead a period of silence and nearly complete loss of self. That is Pericles’s condition as his ship enters Mytilene’s harbor.

At this point, Shakespeare dramatizes a miraculous recovery that seems all the more powerful because of Gower’s and Helicanus’s narrations of the emotional devastation Pericles has suffered. This formulation differs from what we find in Shakespeare’s comedies, in which extreme loss is seldom more than gestured at, not delivered as it is in tragedy. In comic plays, the threat can even border on the cartoonish—think of Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, stormily threatening to have his daughter banished or even executed if she fails to heed his will in marriage matters. For the present romance play, Shakespeare crafts an exquisitely moving recognition scene that depends on, but does not overemphasize, our knowledge of Pericles’s genuine trauma and loss. Pericles was convinced that both his wife and daughter were dead, Thaisa for many years and Marina by very strong circumstantial evidence. Pericles has felt these supposed losses deeply and over considerable time, and now at least his loss of Marina is about to be made whole. How, then, does Shakespeare manage the revelation?

Lysimachus takes a barge to satisfy his curiosity as to who the traveler at harbor in Mytilene might be. Helicanus informs the governor that Pericles “for this three months hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief” (197, 5.1.20-22). Lysimachus has no luck in getting the silent sufferer to speak, but a lord reminds him that there’s “a maid in Mytilene” (197, 5.1.35) who might be able to wring some words from Pericles.

Just when Lysimachus is about to hear Helicanus’s tale about the prince’s sorrows, the lord re-enters with Marina and her maids. The governor praises Marina, admitting that if only she were nobly born, she should be his choice for a wife. The young woman’s one condition for her attempt is that only she and her maids should be in the room with the sufferer. Song and instrumental music have no effect on Pericles, and he rudely “pushes her back,” according to the stage directions just after Marina says, “Hail, sir! My lord, lend ear!” (198, 5.1.74). Neither music nor the promise of discourse, then, does more than provoke Pericles’s anger. But something in the one-way conversation finally catches the prince’s attention, and he blurts out, “My fortunes, parentage—good parentage, / To equal mine…” (199, 5.1.88-89). Marina has dared to place her own sufferings, and possibly even her lineage, on a par with those of the princely stranger.

Pericles comes nearer to his vital recognition soon thereafter, when Marina (whose name he still does not know), responding to a question about her nationality, offers the strange response that she is not “of any shores” (199, 5.1.94). But so far, all he can prove to himself is a likeness to the lost Thaisa in stature, countenance, voice, and stride. Might not his daughter, had she survived, have been just like this maid in all ways? In any event, he tells her, “thou lookest / Like one I loved indeed” (199, 5.1.115-16). Much has been made of this passage as supposedly implying or reinvoking the possibility of incest between the stricken father and his daughter, but the main point seems to be that no such thing is in the offing: this father and this child are nothing like King Antiochus and his much-abused daughter.[24] The selfish and destructive relation between the former pair will not be replicated here, but will instead be replaced by a relationship grounded in genuine, respectful, and chaste love: what in biblical times would be called charitas or charity, not cupiditas or covetousness.

Now Pericles is truly on fire to know this young maid’s parentage, even if she fears she’ll be branded a liar for her efforts in explaining it to him. He learns at 200, 5.1.133 that her name is Marina, and a little below that she is the daughter of a king, and so was her mother. Pericles’s responses to all this seem uncomfortably close to the skepticism that Marina fears will be her reward for telling her tale, but Pericles—daring to believe only that he must be experiencing “the rarest dream” (200, 5.1.151)—convinces her to continue with her astonishing relation, and it all comes to light: how she was left in Tarsus and narrowly escaped death by Dionyza’s plot (though she doesn’t know that Cleon was an accessory after the fact), from thence by express pirate delivery to Mytilene. She leaves out the part of the story that involves a brothel, presumably so as not to distress Pericles still more. Her final pronouncement to him is, “I am the daughter to King Pericles…” (201, 5.1.169).

What is Pericles to do with all this information? He first asks Helicanus for counsel, but the wise counselor simply doesn’t know, and neither does Lysimachus because Marina never revealed her parentage to him, either. At this, Pericles implores Helicanus to strike him physically into his senses: “put me to present pain, / Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me / O’erbear the shores of my mortality / And drown me with their sweetness” (201, 5.1.181-84). These are not only beautiful lines, but revealing ones, too: it seems fitting that the consummate expression of joy from a man who has suffered so much in and because of the sea should involve a metaphor involving the great movements of the ocean itself. Pericles is transformed by this strange knowledge, even reborn, as we can understand from his joyful address to Marina as “Thou that begett’st him that did thee beget” (201, 5.1.185). The last jewel in the revelatory crown is the name of Marina’s mother. At the sound of “Thaisa was my mother” (201, 5.1.200), the truth for Pericles is undeniable and complete.

The end of the first scene in Act 5 is taken up with Pericles’s rapt hearing of the Music of the Spheres (see onsite guide and Sensory Studies’ Music of the Spheres), which flows from the celestial harmony ordinarily imperceptible to mortal humankind. At last, an exhausted Pericles sleeps, only to receive a vision of the chaste goddess Diana. Her command is that Pericles should go to her temple at Ephesus and sacrifice, and when the priestesses are nearby, he is to give an accurate and moving recounting of his sorrowful experiences. The course is set for Ephesus, Lysimachus’s inevitable suit for Marina’s hand is granted even before he can get the words out of his mouth, and all that’s left is the carrying-out of Diana’s instructions for Pericles’s happiness to be complete.

Act 5, Scene 2 Prologue (pg. 203, Gower asks his hearers to imagine the celebration at Mytilene and skip forward to the final scene at Ephesus.)

John Gower again exercises his magical ability to whisk us through time and space to where the characters, and we, need to be. More about Gower follows in my comments on the play’s Epilogue. Lysimachus’s wedding to Marina is still pending since the goddess Diana’s commands must be carried out first.

Act 5, Scene 3 (203-205, Pericles obeys his dream vision of Diana and travels to the goddess’s temple at Ephesus; here, Pericles recounts his losses as ordered, and Thaisa faints; full and mutual recognitions follow all around; Pericles and Thaisa will rule in Pentapolis, while Lysimachus and Marina are bound for Tyre, where they will rule.

While Pericles recounts his tale as ordered by the goddess Diana, Thaisa faints because she recognizes her husband by his voice and appearance. Cerimon steps up to tell Pericles that this priestess is the very Thaisa of whom he has just spoken. The pair embrace joyfully, and Marina, kneeling, is revealed to Thaisa as her now-grown daughter. The transfiguration of Pericles’s attitude to pure joy is evident, and remarkably unalloyed for a romance play: he exclaims to the gods, “your present kindness / Makes my past miseries sports (204, 5.3.40-41), and tells Thaisa, “Oh, come, be buried / A second time within these arms” (204, 5.3.43-44). This seems like a total, if temporary, overcoming of the dreaded power of death, not a bittersweet utterance of the sort we will see in Shakespeare’s subsequent romance plays. Helicanus is duly recognized as a loyal substitute for Pericles, too, and Cerimon is honored for the excellent role he played in reviving Thaisa. Since King Simonides has recently died, Pericles decides that he and Thaisa will be sovereigns in Pentapolis, while Lysimachus and Marina will travel to Tyre and establish themselves on the throne there.

With this conclusion, we are as far as we can get from the selfish, wicked liaison of Antiochus and his daughter at the play’s outset. The frame story of Gower’s Confessio Amantis entails a long recounting of the sins committed by the protagonist Amans (the lover) against Venus, or love itself, so it makes sense that Shakespeare and Wilkins should shape Pericles, Prince of Tyre as a story that moves its protagonist from his initially showy, chivalric pursuit of a terribly flawed companion to the holy, divinely sanctified love of a good woman and his beloved daughter. In Tyre and Pentapolis, two happy, generous, and public-spirited couples will serve at the helm of their respective governments. This is Shakespeare’s basic comedic framework, and it lends the play’s conclusion a sunnier disposition than we might have thought possible.

Epilogue (pp. 205-206, Gower caps off the play by reminding us of his own medieval moralist framework, which has seen the wicked punished and the good richly rewarded.)

Gower points to the distribution of rewards and punishments by the play’s end: the two happy couples, Helicanus, and Cerimon are all recognized as embodiments or emblems of their virtues, with Helicanus praised as “A figure of truth, of faith, of loyalty” (Epilogue 8), and Cerimon for his “learnèd charity” (10). Antiochus and his daughter, of course, died horribly, and so did Cleon and Dionyza for her wicked attempt on Marina’s life and his participation after the attempt. Gower’s final prayer is that the joy that reigns supreme at the play’s end should transfer itself to the audience. The last couplet runs “So, on your patience evermore attending, / New joy wait on you. Here our play has ending” (Epilogue 17-18). There is at least a hint here that as the audience has indulged the theater company’s need for its patience, part of the “new joy” for the audience might consist in an opportunity for them to behold yet another such play as Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

Finally, by his ghostly performance throughout Pericles, Prince of Tyre, John Gower joins the company of Shakespeare’s famous prologue- and epilogue-speakers: among others, the Prologue of Henry the Fifth with his stirring cry, “O for a Muse of fire that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention”[25]; the concluding song of Feste the wise clown in Twelfth Night: “We’ll strive to please you every day”[26]; Prospero in The Tempest with his plea, “Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill or else my project fails, / Which was to please”[27]; and Rosalind of As You Like It, with her admission, “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue.”[28] The general request among such figures is that we, the audience, should do our best to repair the limitations or defects of Shakespeare’s staged representations with our own imaginations and, perhaps just as important, with our charitable spirit, our “patience.”

Still, there is more to these first and last words in Shakespeare’s plays, and all of them repay close attention for the insight they provide regarding the nature and purpose of the theater, the standing of the audience, and other matters. Feste’s song lyric as quoted above can serve as an instance of such insight: he implies something about the value an audience might find in its theater-going experiences. Yes, we must leave the theater when the play is done, but we can always come back another day as “the whirligig of time” (to borrow Feste’s earlier expression) spins round and onward: the theater, then, serves as an inexhaustible wellspring of refreshing departures from the sordidness and tedium of the everyday world. There is not such a tragically permanent scission between “make-believe” and the real as some dour critics suggest there is and ought to be. Perhaps John Gower’s contribution as a speaker of first and last words has been to testify to the enduring power of poetry itself. He has returned to us in ghostly form to help tell what Shakespeare’s friend and competitor Ben Jonson will call “a moldy tale” in a way that Shakespeare’s modern audiences can still learn from and appreciate.


Endnotes

[1] Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985. Pg. 3.

[2] Homer. The Iliad. 24.49; in Greek, τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν, tlēton gar Moirai thumon thesan anthrōpoisin. My translation. Accessed 2/19/2024. http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0012.tlg001.perseus-grc1:24.22-24.63

[3] For the main source text, see John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Bk 8and the “Apollonius” Plot Summary from Larry Scanlon’s “The Riddle of Incest: John Gower and the Problem of Medieval Sexuality” in R. F. Yeager (ed.), Re-Visioning Gower. Asheville, N.C., 1998, pp. 93-128. As for the term “romance play,” the Victorian critic Edward Dowden is usually credited with that coinage. See his Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (Google Books).

[4] By comparison, King Lear was performed first in December of 1606, and Antony and Cleopatra around 1607.

[5] See Walter Cohen’s excellent introduction to Pericles, Prince of Tyre in The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 150-206. Introduction, pp. 139-45.

[6] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. See the chapter on Pericles, pp. 603-13.

[7] See Theoi.com’s account of the Hesperides. Accessed 2/19/2024.

[8] In John Gower’s original of the story, Pericles’s wife isn’t named, and the daughter called Marina in the present play is named by Gower “Thais,” which of course in the play would be Pericles’s wife. That would seem to implicate Prince Pericles himself, at least indirectly or unconsciously, in the same taboo sin of which Antiochus is guilty.

[9] Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1984.

[10] Plato. Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968. See Book 3, 389B-C, where Socrates says, “Then, it’s appropriate for the rulers, if for anyone at all, to lie for the benefit of the city in cases involving enemies or citizens….” The rulers may deal in untruths somewhat, suggests Socrates, in the manner of a doctor prescribing remedies.

[11] The best example of how an ancient poet shows the self-destructive nature of men who mishandle and damage this principle may be Ovid’s telling of the gruesome story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela. Tereus, King of Thrace, marries Procne and has a son by her, but then he is taken with lust for her lovely sister Philomela when (partly at his own devious request) the girl’s father is convinced to allow her to sail back to Thrace with Tereus and visit Procne there. Once in Thrace, the vicious king imprisons and rapes Philomela, then cuts out her tongue so she can’t reveal what he has done. But she embroiders the truth into a tapestry for Procne. The latter woman is enraged at this treatment of her sister, so she kills her own son, Itys, and together the sisters serve up the flesh of Itys cooked in a pot. They present King Tereus with the severed head of the son and heir he has just eaten, and he chases after them in fury. The chase ends with Philomela being transformed into a nightingale, Procne into a swallow, and Tereus into a hoopoe. Ovid’s full tale is more complex than this outline: for example, Tereus’s lust for Philomela is kindled partly by seeing her embrace her father fondly, so here, too, there is an “incest theme” by indirection. See Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 6, Fables 5-6. (Gutenberg). Accessed 2/24/2024.

[12] Peacock, Thomas Love. “The Four Ages of Poetry,” excerpts at The Poetry Foundation. Accessed 2/19/2024. Of course, what the humorous friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley has to say about his romantic contemporaries isn’t much more respectful: he accuses nearly all poets of “raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age.”

[13] The Greek term is ἁμαρτία, a mistake, error, or missing of the mark.

[14] In Homer’s Greek text, the stock phrase is δύσετό τ’ ἠέλιος σκιόωντό τε πᾶσαι ἀγυιαί, dusetó t’ēélio skiontó te pāsai aguiaí. Odyssey 3.397 and elsewhere.

[15] Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Quarto. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 406-53). Pp. 409, 1.1.134.

[16] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. (The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840). See 801, 3.2.59-60.

[17] For a translation of the Hippocratic oath, see https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/topics/greek-medicine/index.html. Accessed 2/19/2024.

[18] See, for example, Paul Carrick’s Medical Ethics in the Ancient World. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2001.

[19] Admittedly, the utterance, “Death may usurp on nature many hours” (180, 3.2.80) may strike some hearers as moving in the opposite direction, but perhaps we should take it to mean instead that a person may appear to be dead for some time and yet not actually be so.

[20] Bloom, ibid. 609-11.

[21] See the Wikipedia entry on George Wilkins.

[22] See the Bishop’s Bible, Daniel 6.1ff. Accessed 2/19/2024. https://textusreceptusbibles.com/Bishops/27/6.

[23] In Homeric Greek, πόντος ἀτρύγετος or ἅλς ἀτρυγέτη (hals atrugétē). In Homer’s oceanic references, there is often a suggestion of vastness, of a body of water that seems to absorb whatever passion one brings to it. For example, at Odyssey 5.84, the despondent Odysseus, trapped with Calypso on her island, is said to be away from the cave he now calls home, staring disconsolately at the empty ocean: πόντον ἐπ’ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων (pónton ep’ atrúgeton derkésketo dákrua leíbon); translated, “he gazed upon the trackless ocean, shedding tears.”

[24] But see note 8 above, concerning Shakespeare’s renaming of Thaisa from Gower’s original. See also note 10, which affines the possibility of a proto-Freudian reading of the incest theme in this play with a taboo that seems to structure some theories of governance.

[25] Shakespeare. The Life of Henry the Fifth. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 790-857. Pg. 791, Prologue 1-2.

[26] Shakespeare. Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 743-97. Pg. 797, Epilogue or 5.1.394.

[27] Shakespeare. The Tempest. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 397-448. Pg. 448, Epilogue 11-13.

[28] Shakespeare. As You Like It. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731. Pg. 730, Epilogue 190.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare. The Two Noble Kinsmen. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. xxx-xx).

Of Interest: RSC Winter’s Tale Page | ISE Page | Shakespeare-Online Sources  

Act 1, Scene 1 (xxx-xx, ….)

Text goes here….

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, third edition, pp. 139-206).

ACT ONE

1. In the Prologue to Act 1, John Gower sets the stage for us: King Antiochus of Antioch lost his wife and is now in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Prince Pericles has come to Antioch to take his chances in solving the riddle in which the king has wrapped up his wicked relations with his daughter, with her hand in marriage as the prize. Explain what you can about Pericles’s approach to life—that is, to fortune, wealth, love and the gods. In what sense might we say that he is the perfect comic protagonist?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what is the wording of the riddle? Is it difficult or easy to solve? Why is the manner of this riddle appropriate to the taboo nature of its content? Why have so many men apparently failed to solve it and lost their lives as a result? Why is Pericles able to solve it, unlike his predecessors in this quest?

3. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, and particularly in the latter, how does Pericles respond to the threat presented to him by his solving the riddle? What qualities as a man and as a potential leader does he show? How do his responses cut against any notion that he is merely a naïve young man—what does he understand about his predicament that shows his potential and even maturity?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, Pericles makes his way back to Tyre and informs Helicanus about what has happened. What counsel does Helicanus give the Prince, and what qualities does this subject of the prince show in giving such counsel? On the whole, what picture emerges of Pericles’s realm, Tyre?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, we again meet Thaliard, the agent whom Antiochus had ordered to kill Pericles. How does Thaliard understand his situation? What principle does he enunciate regarding the relationship between kings and subjects? How does he react to the news from Helicanus that Pericles has gone traveling and is no longer in the kingdom?

6. In Act 1, Scene 4, we meet Governor Cleon and his wife Dionyza of the great biblical city Tarsus. What is their situation? How does Cleon describe it in detail, and what attitude do both he and his wife manifest towards their plight? In what spirit does Cleon greet the coming of Pericles’s well-provisioned fleet of ships and the prince’s generous offer of assistance?

ACT 2

7. In the Prologue to Act 2, John Gower again acts as chorus for the coming action, and his narration is split in two between a “dumb show.” What is the content of the dumb show, and how does it relate to the narration before and after it? How does Gower’s manner of imparting information impact your understanding of the play at this point?

8. In Act 2, Scene 1, Pericles, having been shipwrecked, washes up alone on the coast of Pentapolis. What attitude towards the gods does he immediately strike up? He will soon encounter some fishermen, but first, what kind of conversation are the fishermen engaged in before they discover Pericles? How does the language and lore of their trade figure in the running social commentary between them? What is the point of that commentary—what is their view of their station in life and of the kingdom they inhabit?

9. In Act 2, Scene 1, after introducing himself to some fishermen on the coast of Pentapolis, how does the shipwrecked Pericles set forth his predicament and make his claim upon their assistance? How do they respond to what Pericles requests? Furthermore, what symbolic significance might we attach to the fishermen’s discovery of a rusty suit of armor that washes up along the same stretch of the coast? Why is this discovery of armor so important to Pericles?

10. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, Pericles makes his way to the court of King Simonides and his daughter Thaisa. How do this king’s conduct and speech, along with that of his daughter, contrast with the manner of reception given Pericles by Antiochus and his daughter back in the first scene? In other words, what pronounced difference is there in the guest-host relations Pericles encounters in these two different kingdoms?

11. In Act 2, Scene 4, Helicanus reports that Antiochus and his daughter were struck by lightning while riding in their chariot, but the subjects of the absent Pericles’s realm have more pressing matters on their minds. With what concerns do they come to Helicanus, and how does Helicanus deal with these concerns—what is his plan going forward?

12. In Act 2, Scene 5, King Simonides of Pentapolis shows tact and charm in dissembling his strong approval of the fast-developing romantic match between Pericles, who has by now won the jousting tournament he entered along with several other knights, and the king’s daughter Thaisa. Why does the king so strongly approve? Moreover, why does he at first hide his delight in the match and treat Pericles rather harshly? By this point in Act 2, how does Simonides compare to, and yet starkly contrast with, Antiochus of Antioch in his comportment towards his daughter and Pericles?

ACT 3

13. In the Prologue to Act 3, John Gower fills us in on the latest developments: Pericles’s bride has had a child, the wicked King Antiochus and his daughter are reported dead, and back in Tyre, Helicanus is under pressure to accept the crown. The prince sets sail for home, but runs into a powerful storm. In Act 3, Scene 1, how does Pericles handle the awful loss of Thaisa? How does he shape our future understanding of his newborn daughter: what does he say about her and what is his plan to keep her safe?

14. Textual scholars have suggested that George Wilkins composed the first two acts of Pericles, Prince of Tyre and that Shakespeare wrote the last three acts. Let’s assume that these scholars are correct. In Act 3, Scene 1, what differences in the verse quality and style from the first two acts quickly become apparent? Confining yourself to lines 1-37, list the properties of the language and the dramatization of the action that you find distinctively Shakespearean. What is it about this passage, essentially, that a playwright of lesser genius and skill than Shakespeare would not have been able to equal?

15. In Act 3, Scene 2, we learn that Pericles has made his way through the storm to Tarsus, while Thaisa’s carefully sealed coffin, tossed overboard by superstitious sailors, has washed ashore in Ephesus, where it comes to the attention of the physician Cerimon. What virtues does Cerimon show that link him to the hero Pericles? How does Cerimon achieve the almost miraculous revival of Thaisa: what means does he employ to this end, and what advice does he give Thaisa later in Act 3, Scene 4?

16. By Act 3, Scene 3, Pericles has reached Tarsus and he now entrusts Cleon and his wife with the care of his infant daughter Marina. What are Pericles’s requests to Cleon, and what vow does Pericles himself make to the goddess Diana regarding Marina? What attitude does Pericles manifest towards the realm of the gods in this scene?

ACT 4

17. In the Prologue to Act 4, we find out that Pericles has by now made it back to Tyre and that in Ephesus Thaisa has become a votary of the chaste goddess Diana. The young daughter whom Pericles named Marina and then left with Cleon at Tarsus is now a young woman, thanks to our passage through time with John Gower. What kind of upbringing, according to Gower, has Marina had thus far? What is the cause of Dionyza’s plot to kill her?

18. In Act 4, Scene 1, Dionyza’s agent Leonine is foiled in his attempt to carry out her plot against Marina’s life. How does Shakespeare heighten the drama of this scene? What image of herself does Marina present to us during her conversation with Leonine? What attitude does Leonine take towards his dreadful task? How does he parse his options once a small band of pirates show up and prevent him from carrying out his orders? In the play’s broader context, how should we take this improbable event—is it due to mere chance, divine providence, or some property of the romance universe? Explain.

19. In Act 4, Scene 2, as a result of Dionyza’s failed plot against Marina’s life, the young woman ends up at the mercy of brothel-keepers in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. In Scene 2 we are first let in on the efforts of the Pander (i.e., pimp), his wife the Bawd (a madam) and Bolt to acclimate Marina to the role of a prostitute. How do they talk about their seedy business amongst themselves? What plan do they come up with to accomplish their objective? In particular, what rhetoric does the Bawd employ to try to get Marina to see things her way?

20. In Act 4, Scenes 2, 5, and 6, how does Marina get the upper hand not only on the brothel-keepers but also on her would-be first customer, the Governor of Mytilene, and other prospective johns (the three amazed gentlemen of Scene 5)? Why is she so successful at thwarting such determined purveyors of “the flesh trade” as Pander, Bawd, and Bolt, the last-mentioned of whom is induced to give up his ugly intent to break her will by raping her? Towards what very different commercial venture does Marina end up redirecting his and the others’ frustrated efforts?

21. In Act 4, Scene 3, Governor Cleon of Tarsus wrestles with the unwelcome knowledge of what his wife Dionyza has done to Marina. They both believe Marina is dead. How does Dionyza defend her wicked deed—what principle does she assert that we can take as the opposite of the romance quality of good characters such as Pericles, Thaisa, Helicanus, Cerimon and Marina? Why does Cleon go along with Dionyza’s cover-up?

22. In Act 4, Scene 4, John Gower says Pericles has made his way by sea to Tarsus to find out what has become of his daughter Marina, whom he hasn’t seen since he left her as an infant in the care of Cleon and Dionyza. How does Pericles take the news that Marina has supposedly died—at what resolution does he arrive, and how might we relate or contrast that resolution to his earlier displays of good character and faith in the gods? Why is a “dumb show” an effective way to convey Pericles’s sudden transformation from joyful expectation to utter desolation?

23. In Act 4, Scene 6, Lysimachus, the Governor of Mytilene visits the brothel and assumes that Marina is his for the taking. How does Marina convert him from a customer into an admirer? No doubt this scene strikes many readers and viewers as improbable, a reaction that would not have escaped Shakespeare. What, then, is the point of staging such an implausible achievement as Marina’s conversion of Lysimachus to virtue? How does this concentration on a virtuous woman overcoming the corrupt value-system of a brothel serve the play’s larger thematic interests?

ACT 5

24. In the Prologue to Act 5, John Gower tells us that Pericles’s ship has arrived at Mytilene’s harbor during a holiday dedicated to the sea-god Neptune. Act 5, Scene 1 is mostly taken up with the near-miraculous recovery of Pericles upon recognition of his supposedly dead child, Marina. But before this recovery happens in Scene 1, how does Helicanus convey to Lysimachus the nadir at which Pericles has arrived in terms of his spiritual, mental, and physical condition? Moreover, what does Lysimachus apparently think of Marina at this point—what obstacle bars his consideration of her as a match?

25. In Act 5, Scene 1, by what process does Marina call the lost soul Pericles back to himself? How does he react to her attempt at first, when she plies him with healing music? What first engages his attention after this initial failure? What clues successively emerge regarding Marina’s true identity as Pericles’s daughter, and what information from Miranda finally “seals the deal” between father and daughter in this moving recognition scene?

26. In Act 5, Scene 1, at key points in the recognition scene between Pericles and Miranda, the play’s “potential incest” motif again comes to the fore. How should we interpret its significance where it appears at 5.1.98-104, 115-16, and 185-87? What is it about the interaction between Pericles and Miranda that keeps this potential from becoming a destructive force, as it was with Antiochus and his daughter in Act 1? Does the complex presence of this theme within Pericles diminish the play’s emphasis on the holiness of chaste love relations, or does it instead enhance that emphasis? Explain.

27. Towards the end of Act 5, Scene 1, Pericles, in ecstasy after being securely reunited with Marina, hears “heavenly music” (202, 5.1.220) and is blessed with a dream vision that includes the goddess Diana. Why is he able to hear this music, identified by the Norton editors as “the music of the spheres,” even though others can’t? (Lysimachus seems to be temporizing with Pericles; he is not actually able to hear the music.) Finally, what is the content and purpose of the dream vision that Diana grants him as, exhausted in his joy, he sleeps?

28. In Act 5, Scene 3, Pericles obeys the dream vision Diana granted him towards the end of the first scene in Act 5, and makes his way to the goddess’s temple at Ephesus. How does Pericles’s wondrous recovery of Thaisa unfold—the prince almost immediately clarifies his story and that of Marina, but what, in fact, makes Thaisa’s recognition of her husband possible? Why is Diana the appropriate goddess to preside over the happy ending, in which Pericles, Thaisa, and Marina are together again, with the addition of Lysimachus of Mytilene as Marina’s new husband?

29. In the Epilogue following Act 5, we hear from the ghost of the medieval poet John Gower (1330-1408) for the eighth and final time. Looking back over his appearances and monologues, assess the impact of his presence in the play, both in terms of style and substance. How does his archaic language, bearing, and strong moral investment in an action borrowed mainly from his own Confessio Amantis affect the way we process characters and events as well as the meaning that we draw from the whole play?

30. General question: Thanks to a comic temporal sweep and the favorable disposition of fortune and the gods, Shakespeare’s romance plays end happily, but they wouldn’t be “romances” (from Edward Dowden’s 1875 use of the term) if they didn’t involve genuine sorrow and loss, which is the stuff of tragedy. On the whole, how would you describe the balance in this first of Shakespeare’s romance plays between the sense of loss and the joyous exaltation stemming from recovery and reunion?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

The Winter’s Tale

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. (Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd edition, pp. 303-86).

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Camillo describe to Archidamus the relationship between King Leontes of Sicilia and his old friend King Polixenes of Bohemia? What mood is set, and what expectations are raised, by the brief conversation between these two lords, and by the references they make to Leontes’s son and heir Mamillius?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, what help does Leontes solicit from Hermione in his attempt to get Polixenes to prolong his visit to Sicilia a while longer? In what way, and to what extent, does Hermione’s lively conversation with Polixenes, while innocent and partly focused on his boyhood friendship with Leontes, nonetheless set the stage for the mad rush of jealousy that will soon come over Leontes?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the text represent the onset of Leontes’s jealousy? First, at what point might we say he begins experiencing jealousy, even if only mildly? What additional markers (words, gestures, etc.) soon suggest that Leontes’s affliction is intensifying during and immediately after the “pleading” interaction involving Hermione, Polixenes, and himself?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, after the part of the scene in which Hermione “woos” Polixenes to stay and then exchanges pleasantries with Leontes, how does Leontes’s interpretation of nearly everything he sees and hears change? In particular, what does he begin to think about Hermione, Mamillius, Polixenes, Camillo, and his own newborn child?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Camillo handle the dangerous dilemma that Leontes’s deranged assumptions and irrational behavior now cause for him, as the king’s counselor? How does Camillo try to deal with the enraged king, and then break the dreadful news to Polixenes that his oldest friend wants to have him killed?

ACT 2

6. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Hermione defend herself against the wild and very public charges that Leontes levels against her when they confront each other in the palace? What seems to be the king’s state of mind immediately before and during this distressing confrontation? In particular, what might be made of Leontes’s claim to have “drunk and seen the spider” (329, 2.1.46) at the bottom of his cup?

7. In Act 2, Scene 1, Antigonus, like Camillo before him, is faced with a thoroughly irrational master in Leontes. What is Antigonus’s strategy for turning aside Leontes’s bizarre accusations against Hermione: what strong metaphors and other devices does he employ against the king’s ranting? How does Leontes counter Antigonus? What good does he believe will come from calling upon the oracle of Apollo at Delphi? 

8. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, what necessary role does Paulina play with respect to Hermione and even Leontes? How do her speech and attitude towards the king contrast with those of the lords and of Antigonus, men who wait upon him? At 334, 2.2.40-41, she tells Emilia that she hopes the sight of his newborn child will “soften” the enraged Leontes, but in this she is disappointed. What seems like the best explanation for this failure?

9. In Act 2, Scene 3, Leontes, in response to all the pleading and criticism that come his way, decides that Hermione’s newborn child must be taken “To some remote and desert place” (225, 2.3.175), its survival left to chance. What considerations play upon Leontes in making this terrible decision, and how does Antigonus, who undertakes to carry out the deranged king’s will, construe what has just happened? In spite of the awfulness of Leontes’s decision, in what sense does it seem allied with the play’s ultimately redemptive sense of time?

10. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, how does King Leontes’s brand of tyranny compare to the injustices done by one or two other misguided or authoritarian rulers in Shakespeare’s plays? How do Acts 1 and 2 of The Winter’s Tale testify to the breakdown of the legitimate authority that Leontes so recently wielded? In your view, what exactly has gone wrong, and why is it impossible to fix the problem in a timely manner?

ACT 3

11. In Act 3, Scene 1, Dion and Cleomenes return to Sicilia with what they hope is good news from Apollo’s oracle. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hermione goes on trial and, while she knows the outcome is predetermined, vigorously defends herself before finally declaring, “Apollo be my judge” (343, 3.2.114). What is the basis of her self-defense? To what principle, above all, does Hermione appeal in the face of Leontes’s injustice?

12. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hermione is absolved by the god Apollo’s joltingly unambiguous oracle. What exactly does the oracle say, and how does Leontes at first respond to it? What two events finally cure the king of his jealous derangement and drive him to express remorse? What resolution does he make? While this change of attitude and understanding may seem abrupt, how might it still be said to ring true?

13. In Act 3, Scene 2, what role does Paulina play with respect to the at first arrogant but then abject Leontes? How does she react to what she believes to be the death of Queen Hermione? What does this belief initially lead her to say to the miserable Leontes? How and upon what prompting does she subsequently transform her anger into more merciful speech? Is there perhaps more to this transformation than a simple change of heart? Explain your view.

14. In Act 3, Scene 3, as Antigonus stands on the spot where he will deposit the infant Perdita upon the seacoast of Bohemia (Bohemia, now the western part of the Czech Republic, has no such coast, but no matter that), he relates to us the sad, harrowing dream that came to him the night before, in which an apparition of the supposedly dead Hermione spoke to him. What has she told him, and how does Antigonus interpret her pronouncements? What assumptions does he make about Hermione and about his own present mission as the executor of Leontes’s frightful command?

15. In Act 3, Scene 3, Antigonus, immediately after setting down the infant Perdita on a patch of coast where her survival will depend on fate, himself meets a bad end, as we learn from the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” What justification is there for the fate Antigonus suffers? Does Antigonus deserve his painful demise, or is he, to borrow a phrase from King Lear, “more sinned against than sinning”? Whatever your response, explain the reasons that lead you to make your claim.

16. In Act 3, Scene 3, the rustic clown relates Antigonus’s death in the same way that ancient tragedy made known its harshest events: as offstage occurrences. Does the clown’s narration amount to more than comic relief? Why or why not? How does the death of Antigonus, combined with his abandonment of Perdita and her discovery by an old shepherd, advance the play’s action? Moreover, how does the old shepherd (the clown’s father) understand the meaning of his own discovery of an abandoned child endowed with a letter and a considerable quantity of gold?

ACT 4

17. In Act 4, Scene 1, to what point in the story’s development does the character Time bring us? What power does Time claim with regard to the necessities of dramatic representation, and what does this character ask of the audience? How do you suppose a playwright such as Shakespeare would respond to neoclassical critics who insist on fidelity to the “unity of time” (i.e. who say that a play’s stage time should equal the amount of time that would pass for a similar action in real life)?

18. In Act 4, Scene 3, the itinerant trickster Autolycus enters the play with a song. What is the theme of the twenty-line song he sings, and how does it connect him to the spring festivities of Scene 4? In the prose passage below the song, what rationale does he offer us for the life he leads?

19. In Act 4, Scene 3, Autolycus cozens the shepherd’s son, the clown, stealing the money the young man carries to buy various items for the upcoming festival. Aside from the fact that he is a skillful pickpocket, what do we learn about Autolycus’s sensibilities and ethos from his interaction with the clown and from the quatrain he sings thereafter? How, for example, does he use the terms “virtue” and “vice”? And what might we make of Autolycus’s use of his own name and (perhaps) earlier circumstances during his conversation with the shepherd’s credulous son?

20. In Act 4, Scene 4, Florizel (Polixenes’s son) courts Perdita in a rustic setting. Describe the style of their courting: how do they describe each other and express their affections? What are their concerns for the present and their hopes for the future? What is the source of the difference in perspective that at once becomes apparent between them? Differences aside, how does their interaction offer us a counter-vision of courtship and sexuality, one that opposes Leontes’s dark imaginings about Hermione in Act 2?

21. In Act 4, Scene 4 (line 55ff), the old shepherd encourages Perdita to be bolder in acting the role of mistress of the spring festival (or May Queen) since he fears that she is too bashful to pull it off. How does Perdita “blossom” into the perfect hostess for the occasion? Describe her performance in conversation with the disguised visitors Polixenes and Camillo and consider as well her newly confident manner of courtship with Florizel (disguised as “Doricles” the shepherd). In what sense does she distinguish herself even as she fulfills the duties of her role as hostess to the disguised noblemen around her?

22. In Act 4, Scene 4, part of the flower-driven conversation between the disguised Polixenes and Perdita as mistress of the spring festival concerns the relative standing of artifice and nature (lines 79-103). What positions do Perdita and Polixenes, respectively, hold on the relationship between art or artifice (in the sense of human craft or design) and “nature”? Why doesn’t Perdita care to breed gillyvor flowers (streaked carnations), and what argument does Polixenes make against her view? What larger implications might this conversation have for the redemptive role Perdita plays in The Winter’s Tale?

23. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 182-333), after a dance and a servant’s excited introduction, Autolycus is ushered in and begins peddling his wares to the festival’s participants. Describe the actions and language that together make up his sales pitch: what is he selling, and how does he calibrate his pitch to his customers the shepherdesses Mopsa and Dorcas as well as the clown (the old shepherd’s son) he robbed a little while ago? What drives their interest in Autolycus’s performance?

24. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 334-440), Polixenes, upon witnessing the marriage promise between Florizel and Perdita, forbids the intended wedding. Why does this king (who had earlier spoken so positively about mixing plant stocks) object to the proposed marriage? Explain his dynastic concerns. Moreover, what claim does Polixenes make regarding his rights as a father? Finally, when you have read to the end of Scene 4, explain the simple plot function of this section in which Polixenes instantly turns into the well-worn figure of the senex iratus, or angry old man.

25. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 441-586), as Perdita despairs and Florizel waxes reckless, Camillo sees a way he can help himself even as he assists the two lovers. What is his plan? How will it help him, and how will it help Perdita and Florizel? Why does Camillo believe his plan will be so successful with the grieving King Leontes?

26. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 587-820), how does Autolycus benefit from his encounters first with Camillo, Florizel, and Perdita and then with the old shepherd and his son? How does he intend to profit from each encounter? In addition, how does Autolycus understand the principle underlying his sudden receipt of two unexpected windfalls? If The Winter’s Tale often evokes the regenerative powers of the natural world, what is the role of the rascal Autolycus within the play’s concept of nature?

ACT 5

27. In Act 5, Scene 1, what evolution has Paulina’s relationship with Leontes undergone by this late stage of the play? Why does she continue to trouble the repentant king’s already troubled conscience about what he has done to his wife and child? What promise does she extract from him?

28. In Act 5, Scene 1, how do the newly arrived Florizel and Perdita represent themselves to Leontes? How does he receive them—with pure joy or more bittersweet affection? Explain. What news soon arrives to undermine Florizel’s claim, and how do the interested parties plan to overcome this potentially disastrous development?

29. In Act 5, Scene 1, how, in the play’s broader context of regeneration and redemption, should we interpret the significance of Leontes’s remark in reply to Florizel that if he could have anything he wanted from Polixenes, he would “beg … [Florizel’s] precious mistress” (5.1.222)? What does Leontes’s interaction with Paulina (5.1.223-27) over this remark add to our understanding of this moment in the play?

30. In Act 5, Scene 2, how many of the play’s uncertainties are resolved during the conversation between the three gentlemen as Autolycus listens in? How, in particular, does Leontes learn the true identity of Perdita? Of what quality is his reconciliation with Polixenes after so long an absence? How do these narrative revelations prepare the way for the climactic third scene, in which Hermione is restored to Leontes and Perdita?

31. In Act 5, Scene 2, how is the conversation between the shepherd, the clown, and Autolycus connected to the play’s significant resolutions in this final act? In what sense do the shepherd and the clown now have the upper hand over Autolycus? How does the clown define the term “gentleman” now that he has been elevated to that status? And finally, how does Autolycus deal with his diminished standing towards the end of the play? What mistakes does he acknowledge, and what does he plan to do going forward?

32. In Act 5, Scene 3, Paulina, ever the skillful playwright in The Winter’s Tale, stages the marvelous (but not miraculous) transformation of a supposed statue made by the Renaissance Italian Mannerist Giulio Romano into the living Hermione. Describe the emotional journey through which Paulina takes the remorseful Leontes until she at last summons Hermione back to life, and then persuades her to speak not yet to Leontes but to Perdita. Why is Perdita accorded this privilege of being addressed first?

33. With regard to the end of Act 5, Scene 3, what significance does the statue device hold? What does this device, reminiscent of ancient fables like that of Pygmalion and his beloved statue, explain about the nature of Leontes’s error and his redemption that a less exotic strategy could not have explained so effectively? Even though the statue device is just that—something wrought by Paulina and not a miracle per se—why do the fundamental conditions of dramatic experience lead audiences to process the event as if it were miraculous? In light of the play’s romance themes and interests, in what sense might the ending be said to be miraculous or magical after all?

34. The last point of order in Act 5, Scene 3 is Leontes’s presentation of Paulina, who now knows her husband Antigonus is long dead, with an excellent new husband in Camillo. Now we have two marriages to celebrate, and effectively three since Leontes and Hermione are together again. So The Winter’s Tale ends with happy marriages, as a comedy generally does, thereby effecting the social and individual renewal that seemed so far away at the play’s beginning. Even so, we moderns classify the play as a “romance” for a reason. In what sense does The Winter’s Tale offer us a different sensibility than a rollicking farce like The Taming of the Shrew or a sunny comedy such as As You Like It? What lies beyond the reach of comic recovery in this play: what damage and loss cannot be undone or made whole, even by the wonderful reunion of Leontes and Hermione and the marriage of their beloved child with the son of a dear and equally royal friend?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

The Tempest

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Norton Romances and Poems, third edition, pp. 387-448).

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, Prospero’s spirit-servant Ariel whips up the effects of a tempest. Explain the appeal of the oceanic storm, both as a physical event and as a metaphor for chance, fate or some other concern. Why would a storm at sea or a shipwreck be such an effective, impactful thing to stage for early modern audiences? What risks were associated with travel either by sea or by land in that era and before?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, aside from stage directions and some statements about how to maneuver the ship in the storm, most of what we see and hear involves interaction among a limited number of the characters on board. In particular, what does the wildness of the storm do to preconceived notions about rank, authority, and decorum, as people of high and low station argue with one another about what to do? With regard to the aristocrats, what differences among Gonzalo, Antonio, and Sebastian can you discover, based on their words, actions, and reactions?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how is Miranda positioned as an important character in the play, based on her initial dialogue with Prospero? What virtues of soul and intellect does she appear to possess? What kind of relationship does the dialogue suggest that Miranda has with Prospero? How much does she know about her past, and how does she react to what she learns about her origins and status in this scene?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, Prospero, by way of informing Miranda who she is, must tell her who he once was: the Duke of Milan, Italy. What story does he tell Miranda about how the two of them ended up on a nearly deserted island? How, mainly in the context of political analysis, does Prospero explain his loss of power and his exile? Besides himself, who else does he consider responsible for his misfortunes, and why so?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, in the course of explaining to Miranda why he lost his dukedom and got exiled from Milan, Prospero repeatedly mentions his fascination with certain abstruse studies. What studies is he talking about, in terms of specific references in the play’s text? There will be occasion later in the play to return to the nature of Prospero’s learning and magic, but at this point, to what extent do these studies seem like normal Renaissance humanist pursuits, and to what extent might they be conjectured to go beyond the boundary or normal, permissible learning?

6. In Act 1, Scene 2, how should we characterize Prospero’s interaction with the island-spirit Ariel? How does this spirit describe the present and past services he has done for Prospero, including the spectacular effects of the storm that his master commanded him to create? What is Ariel’s “back story” before he was rescued and set to work for Prospero? What does Prospero’s treatment of him throughout this scene suggest about the exiled duke’s understanding of authority and its proper uses? To what extent is Prospero’s potential for tyranny on display in this scene?

7. In Act 1, Scene 2, Prospero’s conference with Ariel is followed by a very unpleasant encounter with the native-born Caliban. This character has sometimes been allegorized by modern critics as an island native confronting the unwanted attentions of self-entitled, grasping European colonizers. Based on Caliban’s story about who he is and how he came to become Prospero’s “slave” as well as on the opposing narrative of Prospero and Miranda, how do you interpret his situation? What are Caliban’s virtues and vices, and how does he describe himself—his nature, his origins, his rights, his limitations?

8. In Act 1, Scene 2, Prince Ferdinand swims to shore, and soon Ariel sings two brief songs with musical accompaniment to draw the prince further towards land. How does Ferdinand initially understand his situation when he makes it ashore, and how does Ariel’s singing affect him? In particular, what does he make of the song that begins, “Full fathom five thy father lies” (409, 1.2.395ff)? What more can we, the audience, learn by connecting the songs to the play’s action and exploring them thematically?

9. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the first encounter between Ferdinand and Miranda go? What does each think of the other, and on what basis? It’s clear that Prospero is inwardly pleased with the meeting, but how does he nonetheless treat Ferdinand at this point? What is he trying to accomplish by treating him the way he does? How does Ferdinand respond to his predicament once he understands it?

ACT 2

10. In Act 2, Scene 1, what kind and quality of advice does the Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo offer disconsolate King Alonso? How does Alonso respond to this advice? How do Antonio, Sebastian, and Adrian respond to it? Fundamentally, what seems to be Gonzalo’s perspective on what has just happened to them as a group: their seemingly narrow escape from death and their presence now on a far-flung island?

11. In Act 2, Scene 1, Gonzalo’s thoughts about the island lead him to try his hand at philosophizing like Plato, builder of the ideal republic: he constructs a utopian vision of a society and its government for his hearers. What are the main features of this utopia, and what assumptions about human nature underlie it? How do Sebastian and Antonio respond to this noble vision? On the whole, does Gonzalo seem wise and good? What are his strengths and limitations? How, in terms of character and ethics, does he compare to the others in his island group?

12. In Act 2, Scene 1, when Alonso and Gonzalo fall asleep, what course of action does Antonio urge upon Alonso’s brother Sebastian? According to Antonio, what opportunity has the tempest presented to Sebastian, and how should he respond? How does he justify this course of action, which would more or less repeat the treachery he himself practiced against Prospero twelve years ago? What benefit might accrue to Antonio if Sebastian were to follow his plan? How does Ariel thwart the plot for the time being?

13. In Act 2, Scene 2, Caliban reveals his disdain and abject fear of Prospero and his tormenting spirits. Soon, he is observed by the jester Trinculo and the butler Stefano, who have arrived on shore separately. What does each man think of Caliban—who or what do they believe he is? How do they hope to profit from his exotic appearance? In what sense do Trinculo and Stefano form a natural or logical group with Caliban? How does their interaction reflect on or complement the earlier one between the plotters Antonio and Sebastian?

ACT 3

14. In Act 3, Scene 1, what heavy task has Prospero given Ferdinand, and what is the latter’s perspective on his present labors? The affection of both Miranda and Ferdinand deserves the description “love at first sight,” but how do they differ with regard to their respective ways of processing or accounting for that profound, instant feeling? How can both of them be sure of the rightness of their affection?

15. In Act 3, Scene 1, Prospero is apparently listening in on everything that transpires between Miranda and Ferdinand. How does he respond to their conversation, and in particular to what he hears from Miranda, who boldly proposes to the young prince she loves? What complexity of feeling marks Prospero’s responses to the unfolding of the lovers’ dialogue? What accounts for this complexity?

16. In Act 3, Scene 2, what developments take place in the relationship between Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban? What deepens the latter’s dislike of Trinculo and his attachment to Stefano? How does Ariel promote this development? What does the interaction among these three characters suggest about the nature and prospects of their budding conspiracy?

17. In Act 3, Scene 2, what outline for a successful coup against Prospero does Caliban offer Stefano? How does he assess the strengths and weaknesses of his enemy Prospero? What appears to be his primary motivation in wanting to overthrow the old man? On the whole, what appears to be Caliban’s political philosophy, if we may call it that? In other words, how, in Caliban’s view, is power best won, what is it for, and who deserves to wield it?

18. In Act 3, Scene 3, what is the significance of Prospero’s magical stagecraft as he prepares to pronounce sentence against the shipwrecked men who have wronged him—why does he command Ariel to serve up a banquet and then, in the form of a harpy, to make the banquet disappear while Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian look on helplessly? See the classical source of this strange scene (Virgil’s Aeneid, 3.253-319). How does that source elucidate the event that takes place in the present play?

19. In Act 3, Scene 3, Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian have undergone the shock of Ariel’s initial visit in the form of a harpy, that spirit returns in the same form to declare their faults to them. What stern accounting of these men’s sins does he offer, and what course of action does he prescribe for the three men if they seek redemption? What will happen to them if they don’t follow this course? How does Gonzalo assess the effect that the “harpy’s” sentence has had upon the three men? Finally, what effect does this production have on Prospero himself: how does he describe his situation at this point?

ACT 4

20. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero, after apologizing to Ferdinand for his harsh treatment of him and warning the young man to exercise self-restraint before the wedding, tells Ariel that he feels obligated to treat the couple to what he calls “some vanity of mine art” (433, 4.1.41). Provide a brief outline of the masque arranged by Ariel, including some information about each of the divine characters that the spirits portray. What is the basic action of the masque, as enacted by Iris, Ceres, and Juno? What purpose/s does this aethereal display serve?

21. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero utters his famous lines beginning, “Our revels now are ended” and concluding with “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (437, 4.1.148-58). He follows this up with a second, briefer portion that begins “Sir, I am vexed” (437, 4.1.159-63). What is the immediate context of the first part of Prospero’s speech—that is, what spurs him to say it? What seems to be Prospero’s intention towards the young couple in saying what he says? As for the second part of the speech, why is it necessary—why might the first part of the speech not have proved comforting to Ferdinand and Miranda?

22. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero utters his speech beginning, “Our revels now are ended” (437, 4.1.148-58). In previous centuries, this moving passage was often taken as Shakespeare’s personal farewell to the theater. The reading’s fall into disuse stems from the fact that after completing The Tempest, Shakespeare collaborated on three further dramas with John Fletcher: Henry VIII, Cardenio, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Prospero is not Shakespeare, either—he is a fictional character. All this duly acknowledged, might a critic still argue that this speech offers some hint of the playwright’s mature perspective on the value of the dramatic arts, or of his own art specifically? Explain.

23. In Act 4, Scene 1, after the end of the scene’s “masque” portion, Prospero and Ariel meet to hash out what to do with the base conspirators Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban. How has Ariel positioned these three in a way that helps foil their plans? Why don’t they accomplish the murderous deed that would make Stefano king of the island, and Caliban his most devoted subject?

ACT 5

24. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero’s scene-beginning conversation with Ariel moves him to show the higher-class conspirators Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian some mercy. In what way is Ariel instrumental in getting Prospero to soften his stance? What key principle allows Prospero to add intellectual and moral justification to his emotion-based decision to take pity on the longstanding enemies who are now in his grasp?

25. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero says he is at last willing to part with his magic book and staff. The source of his description is Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 7.265-77. What powers does Prospero claim to have wielded? Do any of them seem troubling? If so, why? Moreover, in what spirit does Prospero make his decision to yield his magical powers? Does he seem decisive and content to let them go, or is there some ambivalence or grudging quality to his yielding? Explain.

26. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero gives us his internal, private assessment of Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian (as well as Gonzalo, about whom he thinks only good things and whom he embraces first), and then, when they are more awake, he addresses these three “men of sin” openly. How does this open performance differ in style and substance from the private assessment? Consider in particular Prospero’s public treatment of King Alonso—why is he most generous towards this man, even though he has been seriously wronged by him? As for the guilty Antonio and Sebastian, neither man ever apologizes to Prospero. Does that matter? Why or why not?

27. In Act 5, Scene 1.88-94, we are treated to Ariel’s joyful song “Where the bee sucks, there suck I,” and we know that the time has come for him to gain his freedom. What kind of future can we conjecture to lie in store for Prospero’s longtime assistant? What elements or realms has Ariel symbolized throughout the play, and what life will he enjoy now that Prospero is ready to dismiss him? How does Ariel’s song itself envision the freedom he has sought for so many years, first imprisoned by Sycorax and then pressed into service by Prospero?

28. In Act 5, Scene 1, when Prospero reveals Ferdinand and Miranda to the assembled company, they are playing chess. What is the significance of that choice of game on Shakespeare’s part, with respect to the couple’s island courtship and their prospects for a happy future? How does the elder characters’ carefully staged encounter with the young couple help to settle the reconciliation that Prospero has sought? How are the elders’ perspectives different from those of Ferdinand and Miranda, yet not incompatible with them?

29. In Act 5, Scene 1.205-13, the upright old Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo gives the other characters and us an optimistic gloss on the play’s nearly completed action. To borrow a line from another Shakespeare play, “All’s well that ends well.” To what extent do the mood and substance of the play support Gonzalo’s characteristically cheerful interpretation, which seems to affirm the successful actions undertaken by Prospero to be in alignment with divine providence? Explain.

30. In Act 5, Scene 1, Ariel drives in the base conspirators Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban to face judgment and mockery by Prospero and the other high-born characters. How does Alonso react to his ill-behaved servants Stefano and Trinculo? How does Prospero deal with Caliban, with whom he has a long, bitter history? What, if anything, do you suppose the old wizard’s statement “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (446, 5.1.278-79) might mean for Caliban’s future?

31. In the epilogue following Act 5, Scene 1, what prerogative does Prospero acknowledge as belonging to the audience? In what sense does he here put himself in the situation of his servant Ariel with respect to playgoers? How does the epilogue reflect on the relationship between art and life beyond art, between the representations of a creator and the imagination and attention of a viewer?

32. Finally, with regard to the Epilogue following Act 5, Scene 1, now that Prospero (apparently having cast away his magic book and staff) stands reduced to the level of a rather frail, mortal human being, how should we reconcile his newly diminished status to the life he has lived as a powerful wizard on an enchanted island? To what extent does Prospero’s recovery of his dukedom in Milan make up for the loss? What else has he gained, and to what degree does it compensate him for the loss of his magic?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Cymbeline, King of Britain

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline, King of Britain. (Norton Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 207-301).

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, we are introduced to Cymbeline and Imogen. How does their discord (its causes and the manner of their interaction) compare to that of Lear and Cordelia in King Lear? Moreover, what other similarities and/or differences can you find between the current play’s opening scene and the beginning of King Lear?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, Cymbeline’s Queen converses with Imogen, and we meet the Queen’s son Cloten. In what regard are these two held, and why? What difference between the mother and the son begins to appear even at this early point? But in what sense do they resemble each other as well?

3. In Act 1, Scene 4, how does Posthumus’ “ring wager” come about? What are the terms of the wager between Jachimo and Posthumus? While such a bet no doubt seems unfair and even absurd to modern sensibilities, on what grounds might a medieval or early modern man have defended it?

4. In Act 1, Scene 5, how does the try to advance her plot against Imogen’s match with Posthumus? What does she ask of the doctor, Cornelius, and how does he respond in word and deed? What is the Queen’s use for Pisanio at this point?

5. In Act 1, Scene 6, how does Jachimo attempt to traduce Imogen? What virtues does she demonstrate in responding as she does? Based on all you have seen of Imogen thus far in Act 1, what seems to be the guiding principle by which she speaks and acts?

ACT 2

6. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, what anxieties and ambitions does Cloten manifest in his conversations with the Lords, with Cymbeline and the Queen, and finally with Imogen? How does he understand his own situation at Court and with regard to Imogen, whose affections he covets?

7. In Act 2, Scene 2, what details does Jachimo gather in order to convince Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful? What significance do Jachimo’s classical allusions (to Tarquin, Tereus and Philomela) add to this wicked scene?

8. In Act 2, Scene 4, Jachimo lays out his “evidence” against Imogen’s chastity. What makes the pitch effective as a piece of rhetoric? What weakness in Posthumus does Jachimo shape his unveiling of the evidence to exploit? What general view of women does Posthumus proclaim by the fifth scene?

ACT 3

9. In Act 3, Scene 1, what different attitudes do Cymbeline, the Queen, and Cloten take up towards Augustus Caesar’s demand that the Britons pay tribute? What relationship obtains between Cymbeline and the Roman ambassador Lucius, and what seems to be the underlying reason for this relationship? If you are presenting on this question, please add some very brief background on relations between the Romans and the Britons around the time frame Shakespeare references (one helpful page is Brittania.com’s ).

10. In Act 3, Scenes 2 and 4, how does Imogen react first to the news that Posthumus is in Wales (Cambria) at Milford-Haven and then to the knowledge that he believes she has been false to him? What is Pisanio’s plan to redeem the situation, or at least to avoid the worst that might happen? How does the Imogen react to this plan?

11. In Act 3, Scene 3, we meet Belarius and the two young men he has raised, Guiderius and his younger brother Arviragus. What is Belarius’ story — why was he banished? What sort of life do he and the two young men lead, and in what setting? In what ways do their perspectives on this situation differ? How does this new “Belarius subplot” relate to the main one?

12. In Act 3, Scene 5, how does Cymbeline react to the news that his daughter Imogen has fled the court? What more do we learn about the Queen and Cloten’s respective plans in this scene? In particular, what is Cloten’s rationale for the attempt he plans to make against Imogen?

13. In Act 3, Scene 6, how do Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus receive Imogen, disguised as “Fidele”? How does this reception deepen the contrast already established between the existence these three men lead and the life others lead at the court of Cymbeline?

ACT 4

14. In Act 4, Scenes 2 and 4, how do Arviragus and Guiderius show their “quality” as young men of aristocratic birth? What does Belarius apparently think of this manifestation of nobility, and what concerns him about the bold deed of Guiderius? To what extent does the play as a whole (up to this section) validate the idea that noble birth should be taken as a promise of innate goodness?

15. In Act 4, Scene 2, what happens to Imogen as “Fidele” when she drinks the potion that Pisanio gave her some time ago? When she awakens to find a headless body next to her, what confusions set in that the rest of the play’s unfolding will have to resolve?

ACT 5

16. In Act 5, Scenes 1-3, what role do Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius play in saving Cymbeline and Britain from defeat by the Romans? What motivates Posthumus to join with these three against the Roman army?

17. In Act 5, Scene 4, Posthumus’ departed parents and brothers appear to him in a dream. What is the substance and import of his dream? How do the shades who appear to Posthumus in his sleep address Jupiter, and how does the God respond to their address? What does Posthumus learn, if anything, from the dream?

18. In Act 5, Scene 5, by what means is the identity of Imogen and Posthumus finally revealed to Cymbeline and the others at court? What specific device does Shakespeare employ to accomplish this revelation?

19. In Act 5, Scene 5, what further difficulty does this discovery lead to with respect to Belarius and Guiderius, and how is the new problem resolved? What about the fate of Lucius the virtuous Roman, and the devious Jachimo — what happens to them?

20. Act 5, Scene 5 concludes with Cymbeline’s commands, “Laud we the gods, / And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils / From our blest altars / . . . . Let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (474-79). Contrast the ending of King Lear with the concluding scene of Cymbeline: what makes it possible for the latter play (a romance) to end with forgiveness, concord, and security while the tragedy King Lear ends in crushed hopes and death? What assumptions are operative in Cymbeline that are not viable in King Lear?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake