Cymbeline, King of Britain

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

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

Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 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 Filario 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 since we have 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 is the virtuous obverse of Edmund of Gloucester—not that he’s illegitimate, but his less than royal lineage makes him persona not grata at Cymbeline’s court.  Imogen’s vocabulary is much more expansive, however, than Cordelia’s—she fights back spiritedly when the King puts her suitor down as a “basest thing” (pg. 224, 1.1.125) and banishes him.  Cymbeline, she says, has failed to realize that bringing the two of them up together might lead to this situation, and he will not recognize merit as anything but a property of noble birth.  Looking forwards, however, we will find that in Cymbeline law and custom only seem implacable; in truth, they can be revoked with a change of heart, a word.  Lear’s decrees are not reversible in time to do anyone good, but Cymbeline’s are.  The analogue of the faithful servant Kent in Lear would be the wronged and initially spiteful but ultimately loyal Belarius, who will return Cymbeline’s long-lost sons to him when he least expects it. 

None of this is to suggest that Cymbeline is on a par with the masterpiece King Lear—indeed, critics such as Harold Bloom have insisted that Cymbeline is deliberate self-parody, repeating in a tired manner any number of silly plot devices that the Swan of Avon may have become too fond of over the years: a foolish but somehow still magnificent sovereign; a decapitation (whee!); a preposterous violation of the so-called unity of time; identity switches / 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 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.  Of course, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about: even if the critics are correct that in Cymbeline the Bard is making fun of his worst tendencies, the results are still wonderful.  That would be true even if only for Imogen’s sake: she is a memorable heroine who rises above the dramatic environment in which Shakespeare has placed her.

We are told that Cymbeline adopted the orphan Posthumus and raised him as a close servant (pp. 221-22, 1.1.28-42).  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; namely, that Posthumus is a far worthier match for his daughter than Cloten, the aristocratic oaf of a son belonging to Cymbeline’s new queen: “not a courtier—/ … / … hath a heart that is not / Glad of the thing they scowl at” (pg. 221, 1.1.12-15), meaning the frustration of Cloten and the banishment of Posthumus.  As for that 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 for a moment: “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 Filario, a friend of his deceased father (287, 1.1.96-99).  Imogen and he exchange tokens of their love: she gives him a ring, and he gives her a bracelet (287, 1.1.113-124).  But the young man must be gone in haste when Cymbeline storms up and declares him “Thou basest thing” and his daughter a “disloyal thing” (287-88, 1.1.126, 132).  But of course, Imogen is by no means disloyal.  In fact, her main virtue is her loyalty towards Posthumous, and through the adventures she undertakes she only reconfirms what was already inside of her.  In the romance world, adventure and happenstance turn out to have magic properties, or 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), Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus Leonatus sets the play’s tone and centers its action: the reigning passion is loyalty.  Imogen shows herself to be as strong as her imperious father when she defies his will as follows: “Sir, / It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus. / You bred him as my playfellow, and he is / A man worth any woman…” (288, 1.1.144-46).  These are not the words of a pushover in the face of royal prerogative. 

As for the departure of Posthumus, it is not without some drama when Cloten tries to engage the banished husband in a sword fight, but nothing much comes of it (289, 1.1.161-64).  As we shall see, this departure profoundly alters 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 or quality or happy situation until you are threatened with its loss.  Alienation is one of the main ways we discover what we 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.

Act 1, Scene 2 (289-90, 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.  It is not difficult to see what is eating away at Cloten: “that she should love this fellow and refuse me!”  (290, 1.2.22)

Act 1, Scene 3 (290-91, 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” (291, 1.3.36-38).  With regard to the metaphor she employs, in romance, if winter comes, spring can’t be infinitely 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, though he acts like the stark north wind, will eventually give way and assent to the play’s harmonies and reconciliations.  The question is, how much will be lost before he comes round to that orientation?

Act 1, Scene 4 (291-94, Giacomo draws Posthumus into a quarrel over the comparative value of Italian women and Imogen, and lays down a “trial of virtue” wager: Posthumus’ ring for Imogen’s compromised honor)

Giacomo introduces himself to us, and we quickly realize that Posthumus learns little from experience.  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 exactly the same argument, except that now the ladies for comparison are Italian.  This clever man needles Posthumus, “I have not seen the most pre- / cious diamond that is, nor you the lady” (292, 1.4.64-65).  In other words, he mocks Posthumus for positing 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” (293, 1.4.114-15).  Posthumus makes 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 (294, 1.4.141-43).

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.  Posthumus isn’t an evil character, but from our modern perspective, we may well question his judgment.  As Albany says in Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (Norton Tragedies 757, 1.4.325).  For all his protestations about her innocence, Posthumus’ 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” (Matthew 6:13)  It’s hard to argue with a statement like that.  In modern times, we call what Posthumus does “entrapment.”  And then there’s his exhibition of that green-eyed, smothering, all-encompassing monster jealousy.  Iago of Othello pins 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” (Norton Tragedies 473, 3.3.326-28).  Once indulged, such a powerful emotion 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.

Act 1, Scene 5 (294-96, 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 up (294, 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 (295, 1.5.18-20).  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” (295, 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’ fake poison that she hopes the servant himself will swallow, thinking it a remedy.  The queen threatens absent Imogen, who, she says, “Except she bend her humour, shall be assured / To taste of too” (296, 1.5.81-82).

Act 1, Scene 6 (296-301, 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 (297, 1.6.22-24), and the Italian promptly makes 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” (298, 1.6.22).  Giacomo’s wicked suit almost fails when he boldly urges revenge and utters the sentence, “I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure” (300, 1.6.137), which causes Imogen to denounce him outright: “If thou wert honourable / Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue…” (300, 1.6.143-44).  But Giacomo is more than up for the occasion, declaring just as boldly as before that he meant only to test the strength of Imogen’s virtue (300, 1.6.163-65).  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 (301, 1.6.186-94).

Act 2, Scene 1 (302-03, Cloten again puffs himself up, it 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 we find in Cloten.  The confrontation of heightened, opposed absolutes seems characteristic of romance.  Cloten fears losing face, he fears what he calls “derogation” (302, 2.1.40) 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 go, 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 deny 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 stop short the generosity of romance time.  And the “knight” who slays him, as it will turn out, is Guiderius.  Cloten’s destructive lust and self-love are incurable, unlike the less damnable jealousy that besets Posthumus.  The second lord has Cloten “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” just like the imaginary insect in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  The clever queen, he muses, is cursed with a son who “Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, / And leave eighteen” (303, 2.1.52-53).  Well, as they say, talent skips a generation.

Act 2, Scene 2 (303-04, 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” (303, 2.2.12-13).  He notes various ornamentation’s and items in Imogen’s chambers, but most damning of all, he remarks a mole on her left breast (304, 2.2.37).  And if you are in assiduous reader of Shakespeare, by now you will feel perfectly at home betting your life savings 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”(304, 2.2.45).  Giacomo’s brand of evil here consists in foreclosing upon Imogen and Posthumus’ love by means of a deceptive command of fact: 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,” as President Reagan famously called them, but they don’t often matter very much in Shakespearean romance or in the romance world generally. Cymbeline apparently existed around the time of Caesar, and in fact Holinshed mentions him in the Chronicles.  But Giacomo is obviously a Renaissance Italian, one who lives and moves slyly in the age of Machiavelli, which is so far over the top and beyond credibility 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 might as well have been thinking of this play, with its ancient and modern “Italians” greeting one another across what simple logic tells us should be a gap of 1600 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. (“The Four Ages of Poetry,” 1820)

Act 2, Scene 3 (304-08, Cloten orders up 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 heave gate sings …” (305, 2.3.17).  Face to face, the this declares his love for Imogen, and receives for his reply only a measure of her strength: “I care not for you, / And am so near the lack of charity / To accuse myself I hate you” (307, 2.3.103-05).  One is reminded of Fanny Burney’s hilarious journal description of a suitor who just couldn’t understand that his attentions were not welcome ().  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 (308, 2.3.128).  This elicits from Cloten a desire for revenge (308, 2.3.150).  Meanwhile, Imogen’s real concern is that (thanks to Giacomo at 304, 2.2.34) 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” (308, 2.3.142-43).

Act 2, Scene 4 (308-12, 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 Filario and Posthumus trade views on the prospects of the Romans getting the tribute they’ve demanded from Cymbeline (308-09, 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 Filario vainly trying to draw the most substantial account possible from Giacomo: “take your ring again; ’tis not yet won” (311, 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 Machiavellian Iago did with Othello), “prove[d his] love a whore” (Norton Tragedies 474, 3.3.363-64).  And the reaction we get from Posthumus is no better than that of the agonized romantic absolutist Othello: the mole, he avers, “doth confirm / Another stain as big as hell can hold …” (312, 2.4.139-40).

Act 2, Scene 5 (312-13, Posthumus makes outlandishly misogynistic statements: loss of faith in Imogen has shattered him)

Posthumus hits enough misogynistic home runs to make it into the woman-bashers’ hall of fame on the first ballot: “We are bastards all …” (312, 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 …” (313, 2.4.20-22).  He imagines the act of copulation between Giacomo and chaste Imogen, proving only the deranged state of his own imagination (313, 2.4.15-17).  For the moment, at least, he would make fine company for Othello, Leonatus from The Winters’ Tale, or Hamlet in that awful conversation with Ophelia in Act 3, Scene 1.  As for this scene, as Hamlet might say, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t.”

Act 3, Scene 1 (313-15, 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 3000 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…” (314, 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” (315, 3.1.73), 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 (315-17, in separate letters, Posthumus commands Pisanio to kill Imogen and asks Imogen to come to Milford Haven in Cambria, which she immediately 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” (315, 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 her female assistant fetching her “… a riding-suit no costlier than would fit / A franklin’s housewife” (317, 3.2.77-78).

Act 3, Scene 3 (317-19, 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—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…” (318, 3.3.22), 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 …” (318, 3.3.32-33).  Arviragus adds, “our cage / We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird…” (318, 3.3.42-44).  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 back story we need to understand 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.  Needless to say, Cymbeline believed the lie and banished Belarius from Britain (318-19, 3.3.65-70).  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 his futurity and therefore stole by means of Euriphile the king’s 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 (319, 3.3.80-107).  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.  The setting in romance plays tends to be unrealistic, so there’s no need to escape into the magical world to grow and develop and then return to accomplish 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 (319-24, 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 …” (321, 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 (322-24, 3.4.124-79).  Ominously, Pisanio passes the queen’s potion-box along to Imogen, with the innocent advice, “a dram of this / Will drive away distemper” 324, 3.4.190-91).

Act 3, Scene 5 (324-28, 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 (325, 3.5.53-54), who comes under 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 dishonour, and my end / Can make good use of either” (326, 3.5.2-64).  Under Cloten’s pressure, Pisanio pretends to accept his proposal that he should become his servant rather than 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 (327, 3.5.125-26).  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 space…” (327, 3.5.134-35).  This vicious plan will accomplish three objectives: first, he 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 (308, 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 (327, 3.5.139-41).  If you want to top this for intent to commit a host of villainies, I suppose, you would need to go straight to Livy’s History of Rome, where he tells the story of Sextus Tarquinius’ rape of the Roman matron Lucretia, or to Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, where you would meet the self-declared supervillain Aaron the Moor.  And even Aaron sounded like he was making up some of that stuff about digging up dead men and setting them upright at their dear friends’ doors (Norton Tragedies 170, 5.1.135-40).  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.

Act 3, Scene 6 (328-30, 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 respond with surprise when she offers them gold and silver for her dinner.  She claims 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” (329, 3.6.62-63), and both brothers experience something like love at first sight: “I’ll love him as my brother …” (329, 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.

Act 3, Scene 7 (330-30, Lucius is appointed proconsul, i.e. Rome’s general against the Britons)

Lucius is appointed proconsul, with the responsibility of marshaling forces against Cymbeline’s Britons.

Act 4, Scene 1 (331-31, 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 prospective ravishment of Imogen, after which he will “spurn her home to her father” (331, 4.1.16) and expect his mother to smooth things over with Cymbeline.  This character wants to be a villain, but cannot manage more than to appear an over-courtly fop, really a stock character in the Shakespearean canon.  If he had somewhat better manners, his place would be with false courtiers such as Osric and Oswald from Hamlet and King Lear, respectively.  He certainly does not meet the high standards of any of the Bard’s more serious villains.

Act 4, Scene 2 (331-41, Imogen / 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 / Fidele and the brothers lament; alone, Imogen awakens to find the headless body of Cloten dressed as Posthumus, and blames Pisanio; a soothsayer for Lucius interprets portents favorably to Rome; Lucius finds Imogen / Fidele and offers “him” a chance to join up with the Romans)

Imogen is increasingly impressed at this ability she finds here away from Cymbeline’s palace: “what lies I have heard! / Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court” (332, 4.2.32-33).  Arviragus falls more deeply in love with Imogen as Fidele, while Imogen has taken ill sufficiently to try that wondrous potion Pisanio gave her (332, 4.2.37-38).

Cloten arrives on the scene, and Belarius is stricken with fear because he recognizes him as the queen’s son (333, 4.2.66-67).  Only Guiderius is left on the scene to face Cloten, who immediately demands that Guiderius 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” (334, 4.2.124), 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 …” (336, 4.2.177-79).  Guiderius makes what turns out to be an important decision to toss Cloten’s head into the stream nearby (336, 4.2.185-87).

Arviragus soon enters with what seems to be the lifeless body of Fidele / Imogen (336, 4.2.196).  Belarius instructs the young men that they must restrain their contempt for Cloten and give him the burial a member of the royal family deserves (338, 4.2.250-52).  For Fidele / Imogen, Guiderius and Arviragus sing a noteworthy refrain: “Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages …” (338, 4.2.259-60; see 259-82).  The theme of the song is that in the end, even young lovers “must come to dust” (338, 4.2.270).

Now alone next to the headless body of Cloten, Imogen awakens: “A headless man?  The garments of Posthumus?”  (339, 4.2.310) She now blames Pisanio for what she believes to be the murder of Posthumus, on the evidence that the drug he gave her was by no means the cordial he claimed it to be (339, 4.2.328-31). 

A Roman captain informs Lucius that troops from Gaul, or Gallia as this play terms it, and troops led by Giacomo (who is here said to be the Duke of Siena’s brother) have arrived from Italy (340, 4.2.334-43).  A soothsayer portends success to the Romans: “I saw Jove’s bird, the Roman eagle, winged / From the spongy south to this part of the west, / There vanished in the sunbeams …” (340, 4.2.350-82).  Lucius catches sight of the headless body before him and also spies the living Imogen / Fidele.  The upshot of this discovery is that Lucius offers Imogen / Fidele a chance to join up with the Romans (341, 4.2.384), which she accepts with only the proviso that first the body of the man she supposes to be Posthumus must be buried.  So Pisanio’s plan has come to fruition almost by accident, after quite an eventful detour.

Act 4, Scene 3 (341-42, 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, and Cymbeline is isolated in a time of great need (341, 4.3.1-9), as 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” (342, 4.3.45-46).  This is the correct attitude to take for a character in a comic or romance play: trust to time.

Act 4, Scene 4 (342-44, 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” (343, 4.4.21-22).  But his argument falls on deaf ears since Arviragus and Guiderius insist on making their mettle appreciated in the coming fight.  Belarius ends up declaring, “If in your country wars you chance to die, / That is my bed, too, lads, and there I’ll lie” (344, 4.4.51-52).

Act 5, Scene 1 (344-44, 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” (344, 5.1.32-33).

Act 5, Scenes 2-4 (345-45, Posthumus defeats Giacomo, and Cymbeline is captured but rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus; Lucius tries to protect Imogen / Fidele)

Posthumus fights with and disarms Giacomo in the second scene; the Italian immediately feels “heaviness and guilt” (345, 5.2.1).  In the third scene, Cymbeline is captured but instantly rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus who, as they put it, “stand, and fight” (345, 5.3.4).  They are joined in the rescue by Posthumus.  In the fourth scene, Lucius tries to safeguard Imogen / Fidele from the Briton advance.

Act 5, Scene 5 (345-52, Posthumus, disheartened by an interlocutor’s cowardice, turns Roman again and is promptly captured and imprisoned by the Britons: at this point he wishes only for death; Posthumus’ departed relatives beg Jupiter for justice; the god gives them a prophetic tablet to lay on the sleeping man’s chest)

Posthumus describes to a lord the bravery of Belarius and company, 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” (347, 5.5.53-54).  Posthumus is so disheartened by this fellow’s cowardice that he decides to turn Roman again, the better to meet his end since Cymbeline’s troops now have the upper hand (347, 5.5.75-83).  He is promptly captured by those troops and cast into prison, where he meditates on his debt to Imogen (348, 5.5.116-23).

Posthumus’ departed father, mother and brothers appear to Posthumus 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” (349, 5.5.159-60).  Tired of their complaining, Jupiter appears and promises a happy ending after explaining “Whom best I love, I cross …” (350, 5.5.195).  In the end, says Jupiter, Posthumus “shall be Lord of Lady Imogen, / And happier much by his affliction made” (350, 5.5.201-02).  Awakening, Posthumus realizes that a tablet has been placed upon his breast, 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 (351, 5.5.232-37).  When these things are put together in a meaningful relationship, Britain will thrive.  Immediately thereafter, the jailer comes in to tell him he is to be hung: “O, the charity of a penny cord!”  (352, 5.5.258) Posthumus will be brought before Cymbeline before his execution.

Act 5, Scene 5 (352-64, Cymbeline knights Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius; Cornelius reports the queens’ death and her dreadful confessions; Lucius asks that Imogen / Fidele be spared death, but “he” doesn’t reciprocate; Giacomo reveals the source of the ring he’s wearing, and details his villainy; Pisanio names Imogen, amazing Cymbeline and Posthumus; Pisanio and Guiderius explain the death that befell Cloten, forcing Belarius to confess that they’re Cymbeline’s kidnapped sons; Posthumus admits that he’s the valiant soldier who helped rescue the king; Imogen has lost a kingdom but gained two royal brothers; the soothsayer explains the prophecy affixed to Posthumus; Cymbeline pardons everyone, lauds the gods, and agrees to pay tribute to the defeated Romans)

Cymbeline begins this scene by wishing that the 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 (353, 5.6.20).  Cornelius enters and reports that the queen is dead (353, 5.6.25-27).  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 (353-54, 5.6.37-52) in order to secure the throne for her son, Cloten.  But when he went missing, the queen was driven to distraction.  Cymbeline is stunned, but 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” (354, 5.6.62-25).

Lucius the defeated Roman general is brought in, desiring only to spare Imogen / Fidele from the death sentence that must befall all Romans present: “Never master had / A page so kind, so duteous, diligent …” (355, 5.6.85-86).  Imogen surprises Lucius by failing to reciprocate when the king offers her a chance to redeem a prisoner: “The boy disdains me …” (355, 5.6.105), says Lucius almost in disbelief. 

Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus are in turn surprised when they recognize their guest Imogen / Fidele, whom they thought to have died; but now they behold “The same dead thing alive” (355, 5.6.123).  Pisanio recognizes her as well.  Imogen / Fidele’s next move is to demand that Giacomo explain where he got the ring he’s wearing (356, 5.6.135-36), 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: 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 wreck that is Giacomo coming clean about his transgressions (356-357, 5.6.153-208).  But at last, the wily Italian makes himself sufficiently clear: “my practice so prevailed / That I returned with simular proof enough / To make the noble Leonatus mad …” (357, 5.6.199-201).

When Imogen / Fidele pleads with Posthumus, who has interrupted Giacomo to declare himself the greater villain and indeed the murderer of Imogen (357-58, 5.6.214-20), Posthumus strikes the supposed page, prompting a reproach from Pisanio, who at last calls Imogen by her name (358, 5.6.231), 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 “359, 5.6.263-64).  Cymbeline informs Imogen that her stepmother the queen is dead, but not much attention is accorded to that event. 

Pisanio steps in when the king mentions that Cloten is still missing, explaining his device in passing along to Cloten Posthumus’ deceptive letter addressed to Imogen, telling her to make her way to Milford Haven in Wales.  Guiderius adds a simple, “I slew him there” (359, 5.6.287) Cymbeline’s response is not quite what Guiderius was expecting: “thou art condemned” (360, 5.6.299).  This dread sentence, of course, forces Belarius to reveal the rest of the story: “This boy is better than the man he slew …” (360, 5.6.303), which risks enraging Cymbeline.  But the matter is quickly cleared up when Belarius reveals the remarkable information that he had, in fact, with the help of the boys’ nurse Euriphile, kidnapped them after his banishment: “Beaten for loyalty / Excited me to treason” (361, 5.6.345-46).  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 increases the old man’s certainty.

Cymbeline explains to Imogen what this all means for her: “Thou hast lost by this a kingdom” (362, 5.6.373), 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” (362, 5.6.375).  Cymbeline doesn’t quite understand it all, and expresses a desire to hear further details in due time to lessen his wonder (362, 5.6.383-85).

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 (363, 5.6.413-18), Posthumus decides to show mercy: “The power that I have on you is to spare you …” (363, 5.6.419).  That decision, in turn, leads Cymbeline to declare a general pardon for everyone, including the Romans (363, 5.6.423).

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 (363-64, 5.6.443-58).  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” (364, 5.6.477, 479-81).

Nearly all has been set right by the end of the play, with the un-emphasized exception of the death of the queen and her wicked 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 romance, the march of events is not inexorable, and the price of insight and the recovery of one’s identity isn’t death, at least for the characters who matter most.  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 royal absolutism of the final act is pushed aside with a wave of the king’s staff since, of course, Guiderius “just happens” to be Cymbeline’s son.  Iachimo 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.  (The point of romance doesn’t seem to be character development: the characters in Cymbeline transform altogether and as if by magic.)  Generosity is spread all around like butter on hot bread, even to the point of silliness: how, we might ask, could any British king be in such a good mood that he feels like paying tribute to the very Romans he has just beaten in battle?  This final strange twist in the plot is in part a nod to historical fact since, even though they seem to have had a great deal of trouble keeping the island fort locked down, so to speak, they had a permanent impact on English life. 

In the end, Jupiter’s prophecy, which had seemed to be nonsense, turns out to be true.  Generosity reigns over chaos, intelligibility reigns over incomprehensibility.  Jupiter rules, and so does Shakespeare, the artist as romance magician who can bring mellow happiness from anguish and unity from a cascade of improbabilities.  Like romance works of art generally, Cymbeline follows the broad spiritual path of alienation from identity and return to it in a more secure state than ever: romance is for the most part a kindly genre that promotes the magical power of art and adventure to transform the human condition to the maximum extent possible, 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 that is at least largely disposed to fulfill the fundamental desires that give meaning to and ground every person’s time on earth.  The only real bittersweetness in the play’s conclusion—for that is a 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 part somewhat with the young men whom 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 © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Tempest

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Norton Romances and Poems, 2nd edition, pp. 365-425).

Shakespeare’s Romance Mode

In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985), 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” (3).  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, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and 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 people can turn things around, romance is to be distinguished from tragedy and comedy is 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 and could plausibly misuse his powers: death, disorder, and tyranny are real threats in The Tempest, even though things turn out for the best.  To borrow from what I wrote towards the end of my notes for The Winter’s Tale, 

In Shakespeare’s romance plays,What we get is not second chances or “do-overs” in the simplest sense 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.  None of this is to say, however, that the romance plays are anything but ultimately hopeful and mostly 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 partial the outcome.

Act 1, Scene 1 (374-76, A tempest drives King Alonso and his mariners to abandon ship)

The first thing we see is that authority is the matter in question—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 counselor Gonzalo; he has more important things to do at the moment: to the imperious suggestion, “remember whom thou hast aboard” (375, 1.1.17), the Boatswain replies only, “if you can command these elements to silence and work / peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more.  Use your / authority” (375, 1.1.19-21).  The storm, therefore, functions as a great leveling influence, at least at this point in the play.  Still, Shakespeare is not about to ratify anarchy; this is a romance play, and the basis of the social order is about to be scrutinized.  The civil order has broken down and the characters have been compelled by Prospero to the island where things will be sorted out.

Act 1, Scene 2 (376-89, Miranda learns who she is, and who Prospero was: his story of secret studies, exile and miraculous survival; Prospero explains that his enemies are on the island now due to fortune and active pursuit of the opportunity it 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 sympathetic power of her own—she feels the suffering of those who have been shipwrecked, begging Prospero to keep them safe: “If by your art … you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (376, 1.2.1-2).  But Prospero says that no harm has been done and that the shipwreck was arranged for her sake (376, 1.2.15-16).  The question is, how to come by one’s legitimate identity?  Miranda must learn about her former place in the social order and prepare for her future role, so Prospero begins to inform her by way of posing difficult questions, the first of which elicits some remembrance of childhood attendants in Milan and the second of which, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abyss of time?” (377, 1.2.49-50), draws no further recollections on Miranda’s part.  Prospero must provide Miranda 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.

As Prospero goes on to explain, he is not entirely without blame for his own exile—he devoted himself to the liberal arts, and, “rapt in secret studies,” neglected the needs of his dukedom (378, 1.2.77; see 75-78).  That is why he gave his brother Antonio control.  The upshot of it was, says Prospero, that Antonio learned the ropes of governing and began to consider himself the rightful ruler (378-79, 1.2.102-05).  Prospero’s brother is a Machiavellian of the bad sort, but even so he stands for political realism.  One of Shakespeare’s ideals is that a good ruler must be both magnanimous and active.  In consequence, poet-kings such as Richard II must be deposed as surely as evildoers like Richard III.  Prospero wanted to lead the life contemplative or vita contemplativa to the neglect of the active life, or vita activa.  The relative merit of the two was the subject of much debate during the Renaissance, and is well memorialized in Thomas More’s Utopia.  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.  Prospero seems to have sought knowledge for a much more personal and private reason, one not closely allied with the charitable exercise of power.  Antonio at least understands that a ruler cannot simply keep the name of prince or king or duke and expect the authority to remain with it—that was one of King Lear’s mistakes, and it is also Prospero’s.  To keep the title, you must exercise the power and others must know you are exercising it.  To fail in that regard is to encourage disorder and wickedness.  Antonio apparently schemed with Alonso the King of Naples to get rid of Prospero, which was more than enough wickedness to result in Prospero’s loss of authority in Milan.

As for the status of Prospero as a magician, we are being set up for an important consideration: Prospero has been stripped of civil power by his exile, and he has put on a different kind of power signified by his magic robe.  What kind of power is it that he now possesses?  What is the source of that power?  We should not think that this power will ultimately be self-sufficient since a return to the civil order looms beyond the framework of the immediate dramatic situation.  Furthermore, Prospero understands that he is not an independent actor in his own chance at redemption—he admits that divine providence brought him ashore and that Gonzalo charitably furnished him with rich garments and the books he still values above his dukedom (380, 1.2.160-69).  Prospero will need to learn how to wield the knowledge in these books to get himself back to his former state and do some good for the people, just as he has used it to make life tolerable on the island.

Prospero also admits that an accident or fortune has brought his enemies within his power.  With this fortunate accident, he begins to operate on his own under an auspicious star (380-81, 1.2.178-85). As always, “there is a tide in the affairs of men,” as Brutus says in Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies, ), and Prospero must act now or lose his chance forever.  He is satisfied that the spirit Ariel has done his bidding, appearing as St. Elmo’s Fire (a natural phenomenon) and striking the crew of the King’s ship with madness during the storm.  The aerial spirit has also dispersed the crew about the island, separating them into logical camps.  Ferdinand, the King’s son and the first man to jump ship, is alone, for he above all is to be tested as the future successor to Prospero’s kingdom (381, 1.2.196-225).

For the first time but not for the last, the spirit Ariel chafes to gain his freedom: “Let me remember thee what thou hast promised / Which is not yet performed me” (382, 1.2.244-45).  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 in a pine tree (382-83, 1.2.258-86).  Prospero has made a sort of contract with Ariel to free him from human control at the end of a certain time; that time is very near, says Prospero: there’s just a bit more work to do, and “after two days / I will discharge thee” (383, 1.2.  301-02).  Since Ariel seems to represent imagination or the finer and more sensitive of nature’s powers, we begin to see that the play is in part about how humanity is to maintain control over the natural forces within itself and beyond itself.  Prospero threatens Ariel in a way that suggests potential tyranny: if the spirit does not obey, Prospero lowers, he will “rend an oak, / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (383, 1.2.296-98).  In other words, he will turn into another Sycorax.  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 occasional displeasure of Prospero.

When we first meet Caliban, he is at his hostile best, cursing Prospero but submitting to him because, after all, he must eat his dinner.  Caliban has sometimes been seen as a native set upon by white Europeans.  Shakespeare’s was a great age of exploration, and European countries were busily colonizing and exploiting the New World.  The quest motif—a kind of directed adventurism—is very strong in romance generally (consider Spenser’s The Faery Queen, with its heroic Red Crosse Knight in pursuit of his lady through various lands).  A sense of magic, wonder, and strangeness pervades the romance genre, and indeed exploration is itself matter for exploration, which explains why certain critics writing about The Tempest have seen Caliban’s circumstances in terms of colonial discourse and practice.  This isn’t necessarily 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 as at least in part a thoughtful consideration of how “natives” might process the approach of European cultures, with their imperious claims of superiority and their demands for subordination.

Caliban says firmly that the island belongs to him: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me” (384, 1.2.334-35).  Prospero, however, apparently associates him with the devil, or perhaps with the unregenerate natural man, and heaps contempt upon him: “I have used thee, / Filth as thou art, with human care …” (384-85, 1.2.348-49).  All the same, Prospero admits that Caliban is useful as a servant to him and Miranda: “We cannot miss him.  He does make our fire …” (384, 1.2.314).  It is true that Caliban is controlled by his own appetites as much as by Prospero’s threats and magic, but he is not without ability—his complaints at times are eloquent.  In response to Miranda’s reminder, “I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak” (385, 1.2.356-57), Caliban hits back with the unforgettable lines, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse” (385, 1.2.366-67).  And he was good to Prospero in time of need.  His crime was to try to violate Miranda’s honor—another natural impulse he does not regret: “Would’t had been done!” he exclaims, imagining a race of Calibans got by an unwilling Miranda (385, 1.2.352).  Caliban is not appreciative of the gift of civilization Prospero has supposedly given him.  It’s reasonable to suggest that Prospero is somewhat unfair to Caliban—to say that Caliban is “capable of all ill,” as Miranda does (385, 1.2.356), 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” (385, 1.2.370) as Prospero calls him in allegorical or morality-play fashion.  The things with which Prospero threatens him are entirely natural—pain and suffering—but Caliban is afraid of Prospero because he believes that the old man’s art can control even Sycorax’s male god, Setebos (385, 1.2.375-77).  (Robert Browning’s poem “Caliban upon Setebos” is a fine Victorian character study of Caliban, covering his resentments and religious sentiments as only an eccentric conversation-poet like Browning could do.)

Meanwhile, Ferdinand is enchanted by the music of Ariel and drawn on by it.  Ariel sings that Ferdinand’s father has suffered a sea change into “something rich and strange” (386, 1.2.405).  Of course the song is not true since Alonso has not drowned, but it memorializes the deep transformations wrought by death.  What is the point of bringing up such changes here?  Ferdinand himself says that while he wept for his lost father, the music became audible and calmed both the raging waters and his sorrow (386, 1.2.395-96).  In part, the music is designed to convince the young man that he is alone, that his father is in fact drowned, which of course would make Ferdinand the new king of Naples.  In part, the song seems to distance Ferdinand from his father’s death, perhaps because the trials and transformation he is to undergo on the island leaves him little time to grieve for a royal father lost.

Ferdinand’s central question to Miranda when he meets her is whether she is a virgin: “My prime request, / … is—O you wonder— / If you be maid or no?” (387, 1.2.429-31).  That is certainly a question with institutional significance: he wants to make her his queen.  But Prospero, while inwardly delighted, knows that the prize must not be won too easily and that Ferdinand 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 Machiavellian political intriguers.  Aside from stealing the King of Naples’ title, insists Prospero, “Thou … / … hast put thyself / Upon this island as a spy, to win it / From me the lord on’t” (387, 1.2.457-60).

As for Miranda, she still needs to learn the difference between appearance and reality since she says that the handsome prince Ferdinand could not possibly mean anyone harm (388, 1.2.471-72), even though he has just drawn his sword against Prospero, however ineffectually in despite of the old man’s magic (388, 1.2.469).  She will need to understand this lesson to become a good Neapolitan queen when the time comes.  That she shows promise is obvious from her remark to the remarkably patient 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” (388, 1.2.499-501). 

Act 2, Scene 1 (389-96, Gonzalo entertains King Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian with his naïve utopia; Antonio suborns Sebastian to attempt usurpation of sleeping brother Alonso’s Neapolitan crown, but Ariel foils the attempt and the party go off in search of Ferdinand)

Neapolitan Gonzalo is an honest old counselor, a quality which shows in his trust in providence.  We must “weigh / Our sorrow with our comfort,” he tells his shipwrecked hearers (389, 2.1.8-9).  Gonzalo is also observant—he has at least noticed that their garments are strangely dry, in fact “as fresh / as when we put them on first in Afric …” (391, 2.1.68-69), and we, who know that the shipwreck is mainly Prospero’s doing, are thereby reminded that a certain wizardry is necessary to the founding and maintenance of the social order. 

Alonso despairs over the loss of his son Ferdinand: “what strange fish / Hath made his meal on thee?” (391, 2.1.112-13) but Francisco tells him that the boy may be alive, recounting his heroic attempt to survive.  Gonzalo’s utopian musings follow and seem meant to cheer the king and others.  What Gonzalo offers up is a silly pre-technological 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—” (392, 2.1.154-56; see 147-56, 159-64).  Gonzalo would undo the punishments stemming from original sin: no work, no lowering authority figures to deal with.  Sebastian is right to point out the irony that Gonzalo “would be king” of his imaginary utopian isle nonetheless (392, 2.1.157).  His utopian vision is very fine, but it hardly equals Prospero’s magic and foresight.  Gonzalo is perhaps a little 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.  In any event, Gonzalo is surrounded by people such as Sebastian and Antonio, who do not appreciate his wisdom, such as it is.  Wisdom is separated from rank for the moment, whereas both are required to keep firm order. 

With both Gonzalo and King Alonso fast asleep, the talk between Sebastian and Antonio 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” (393, 2.1.204-05).  Sebastian doesn’t quite follow, so Antonio spells it all out for him: both men believe Ferdinand is drowned, and of course 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” (395, 2.1.256-58).  Antonio openly invites Sebastian to follow his example as usurper of Milan, and the gambit works: Sebastian declares, “As thou got’st Milan, / I’ll come by Naples” (396, 2.1.86-87).  So we have passed from Gonzalo’s false but harmless utopia to potentially lethal political intrigue. 

Antonio, who says to Sebastian of the recent events that saw their shipwreck, “what’s past is prologue” (395, 2.1.249), sees only the operation of random chance in the storm that cause the wreck.  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 tempest; it is a thing of nature brought on by human and superhuman magic.  It is even associated with providence since Prospero himself, by his lights, was steered after his own shipwreck by divine providence.  Antonio mistakenly sees his friends and potential subjects as passive men just waiting to take orders, but his scheme is foiled by Ariel, who warns Gonzalo to “Shake off slumber, and beware” (396, 2.1.300).  With Gonzalo and King Alonso now awake, they all set off to look for Ferdinand (396, 2.1.318-19).

Act 2, Scene 2 (397-401, 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 describing his reaction at the torments Prospero’s spirit-agents visit upon him because of his misbehavior: “For every trifle are they set upon me …” (397, 2.2.8).  When he meets up with Stefano and Trinculo, we will get a chance to see how Caliban perceives the island’s 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” (397, 2.2.16-17). 

Trinculo and Stefano have their own ideas about paradise—they assume everyone else has perished in the storm, so this island is theirs, so far as they know.  Trinculo meets Caliban, even seeking protection under the clothing of this supposed natural man (397, 2.2.35-36) and later joins with Stefano to turn him into a willing subject on the basis of drink, which seems to be the god of this nascent kingdom.  At least, that’s Caliban’s view: “That’s a brave god, and bears celestial liquor. / I will kneel to him” (399, 2.2.109-10).  Liquor provides shelter for Stefano, just as an ordinary garment serves to clothe Trinculo.  On the whole, this section acts as a parody of the previous scene, which was about the misguided intrigue of Antonio and Sebastian against King Alonso of Naples.  Caliban sees the arrival of these two drunkards as a chance for freedom, as he construes his willingness to serve a new master: “‘Ban, ‘ban, Cacaliban / Has a new master.—Get a new man!” (401, 2.2.175-76)  Prospero, that is, can go get himself a new abjectly fearful servant: Caliban has found new lords more to his liking, and he’s positively overjoyed about it.  This so-called monster, whom Stefano sees as a potential exotic present for an emperor (398, 2.2.65-67), promises to uncover for his new masters “every fertile inch o’th’ island” along with “the best springs” and choicest berries (400, 2.2.140,152).

On the whole, the second act has been about a pair of false attempts to set up a new kingdom over the wreck of the old, with Antonio and Sebastian trying to seize the opportunity to make their own “providence,” and Stefano and Trinculo (along with Caliban) trying to set up their own crazy government.

Act 3, Scene 1 (401-03, Courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda advances; Prospero goes to his book to prepare for his triumph over enemies)

The third act transitions to the more legitimate attempts at self-discovery on the part of Ferdinand and Miranda; this focus will, in turn, gesture towards a regenerated dukedom in Milan, even though the play ends with everyone still on the island.  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 one can set up a fool’s paradise: “The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead, / And makes my labours pleasures” (401, 3.1.6-7).  By his patience, Ferdinand shows the potential for nobility. 

The name “Miranda” means “she who is to be looked upon [with wonder].”  Prospero’s daughter is virtuous, and her virtue is part of the island’s special quality.  Like Adam in Paradise Lost, however, Ferdinand will need some warning not to be overly fond of Miranda’s charms.  The pair have some negotiating to do, and must move from the language of innocent courtship to a permanently enduring union—after all, they are the future of the state, and cannot remain in paradise forever, if indeed one wants to say that’s where they are at present.

Miranda thinks as highly of Ferdinand as he does of her: “I would not wish / Any companion in the world but you” (402, 3.1.54-55).  Prospero blesses the union to himself since he is apparently convinced that Ferdinand and Miranda will prove compatible, but he must not allow premature sexual relations between them to ruin the budding romance.  Language will prove essential to a proper match between the two lovers, and marriage is an institution, not a simple declaration.  Prospero must go back to his books and work up appropriate magic to complete his triumph over his enemies and his own anger towards them for their transgressions.  This will require delaying the courtship he beholds for a little while even as he blesses and furthers it: “I’ll to my book, / For yet ere supper-time must I perform / Much business appertaining” (403, 3.1.95-97).

Act 3, Scene 2 (403-06, 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 lord and master, and chafing at Trinculo’s bad manners and disrespectful treatment of a faithful servant: “How does thy honour?  Let me lick thy shoe. / I’ll not serve him; he is not valiant” (404, 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 …” (404, 3.2.50).  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 …” (405, 3.2.82-83).  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 …” (405, 3.2.101-02). They all serve their own base material desires.  Ariel, however, is looking over them even as they devise their plot (406, 3.2.110), and the would-be ruler ends up following the “monster” Caliban (406, 3.2.145).  Well, Caliban does know his island, which is “full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (406, 3.2.130-31).

Act 3, Scene 3 (407-10, King Alonso’s despair over Ferdinand begins and ends the scene; Prospero nearing the pinnacle of his powers: spirits lay out a banquet for Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian and Ariel, playing 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: “Even here I will put off my hope …” (407, 3.2.7).  Nature seems to have won the battle.  As the banquet is brought by Prospero’s spirits, Sebastian sees only “drollery” (407, 3.3.21), 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 …” (407, 3.3.31-33).  The wonder of exploration is part of romance, and Antonio testifies to his own sense of wonder: “Travellers ne’er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn ‘em” (407, 3.3.26-27).  The banquet itself, and the appearance of Ariel as a harpy, 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 humans that they will suffer famine before they reach their destined home in Italy.

Ariel has set his victims a fool’s banquet, and as he makes it disappear, he explains sternly to these “three men of sin” (408, 3.3.53), some of whom attending are plotting against King Alonso, that they have been driven here to be punished for their sins in exiling Prospero (409, 3.3.69-75).  For this offense, they are threatened with “Ling’ring perdition” (409, 3.3.77), lest they feel “heart’s sorrow” and demonstrate “a clear life ensuing” (409, 3.3.81-82).   Failure would mean a futile repetition of the romance pattern, one stripped of meaning and redemptive quality.  At present, they still think Ferdinand is dead, and Prospero has no intention of telling them otherwise just now.  This is the first of two high points in Prospero’s wielding of power: as he says, “My high charms work, / And these mine enemies are all knit up / In their distractions.  They now are in my power” (409, 3.3.88-90).  Prospero goes off to see Ferdinand and Miranda.  This decision in itself has a powerful effect—Alonso, hearing the very waves, winds and thunder speak “The name of Prosper” (409, 3.3.99), feels bitter remorse at the loss of his son and wishes for death (409, 3.3.100-02).  Gonzalo sends help to keep the “desperate” three from further harm (410, 3.3.104; see 104-09).

Act 4, Scene 1 (410-17, 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 them)

Prospero insists that Ferdinand should not behave like Caliban and spoil the honor of his daughter, lest “discord, shall bestrew / The union of your bed with weeds …” (410, 4.1.20-21).  There is much play here about the value of language—Prospero says Miranda will outstrip all praise (410, 4.1.10), and then says that Ferdinand has spoken fairly and will have his daughter (410, 4.1.13-14).  Ceremony is important for the obvious reason: it is necessary to bless this socially and politically significant union.  Marriage is part of the magic of civilization.  Prospero bids Ariel bring the lesser-spirit “rabble” (an important word here in terms of governance: the lower orders amongst the spirits, so to speak, will help bring order from chaos) so that he may give the young couple a demonstration of his powers: “I must / Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of mine art.  It is my promise …” (411, 4.1.39-41).  Iris, the rainbow-goddess and Juno’s messenger, bids Ceres—the latter a fertility and agriculture goddess—to provide sport with the lovers and offer up her own special gift of abundance in perpetuity and, therefore, a secure future. 

At Juno’s behest, she and Ceres celebrate the marriage contract of Miranda and Ferdinand, and Ceres details the beneficence of nature that she brings” Earth’s increase, and foison plenty …” (413, 4.1.110; see 103-17).  Iris herself tells us that while Venus (goddess of love) and her son Cupid had thought to do some mischief to Ferdinand and Miranda by rendering their love somewhat unchaste, they have failed in that mission, and all is well (412, 4.1.94-95).

Breaking in to this celebration is Prospero’s remembrance that Caliban and his new friends are plotting against him.  But we still have unfinished business, so the celebration is a false ending in accordance with classical comic structure.  Consider lines 148 and following—Prospero sums up what his wizardry has accomplished: he has demonstrated that we are “such stuff as dreams are made on.”  This remark has sometimes been taken as Shakespeare’s farewell speech as a dramatist, even though The Tempest isn’t his last play.  In any case, there is clearly a parallel between art and life to be drawn here: art has much to tell us about life; it is a kind of magic that participates in and lends decorous approval to the necessary activities of civic life and to the fulfillment of individual desire: a key purpose of Prospero’s “show,” in fact, is to bless the future union of Miranda and Ferdinand.  The young prince is delighted with the demonstration, exclaiming, “Let me live her ever!” (413, 4.1.22)

At the conclusion of the show, Prospero remembers that he still needs to deal with Caliban’s wicked conspiracy against the good order of the island and that he must, therefore, get Ferdinand and Miranda out of the way for a while.  In concluding one of the most remarkable and aesthetically pleasing passages in Shakespeare’s work, Prospero says to Ferdinand and Miranda, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (414, 4.1.156-58).  No sooner does he say this than Prospero professes himself an enfeebled, “vexed” old man (414, 4.1.158).  There are, to borrow from the Frost poem, still a number of “miles to go” before that sleep overtakes Prospero, and his magical island is not paradise after all: the consequences of human error, human fallenness if we want the theological overtones of that word, impend even here.  From here it’s on to taking care of business with that rascal Caliban and his arrogant new master Stefano and second-in-command Trinculo.  This means that Prospero is again somewhat tempted to turn tyrant—a possibility at least hinted at in his pronouncement, “I will plague them all, / Even to roaring” (415, 4.1.192-93). 

The scene ends with Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban being hunted down like animals by Prospero’s spirits, now morphed into vicious canines.  And here we are getting near the high point of Prospero’s demonstration of power, the apex of the ultimately benevolent plot he has stirred up by magic and with a little help from Lady Fortune: “At this hour,” observes Prospero, “Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (416, 4.1.258-59).

Act 5, Scene 1 and Epilogue (417-25, Prospero forgoes vengeance: both sets of conspirators trapped, faults named, forgiven; King Alonso reunited with Ferdinand; Boatswain reports ship ready; Prospero will voyage to Naples for Miranda’s wedding, then go home to rule Milan and study the art of dying well; Ariel finally set free)

A main point is that in contrast with plays such as King Lear, in The Tempest insight doesn’t come at the cost of the capacity to act in the world.  Prospero ends by appropriately chiding the lesser group of conspirators, in particular Caliban and Stefano, but he isn’t overly harsh with them.  We are let in on the excellent thoughts whereby he makes his decision in favor of exercising genuine authority rather than playing the tyrant with his now hapless enemies: incensed as he is at their deplorable acts, Prospero recognizes inwardly that “… The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (417, 5.1.27-28).  Virtue, that is, will always prove productive of still greater good, while vengeance is merely destructive and decreative, tending to chaos instead of order.  The sinful men now in his power will again “be themselves” (417, 5.1.32) that they may receive their just reckoning and a chance at redemption.

Awaiting these sinners’ entrance into the enchanted circle he has drawn, Prospero recounts the wonders he has done on the island (417-18, 5.1.33-50) and pledges once and for all to let go of his magic staff and book and the “rough magic” it has made him capable of wielding (418, 5.1.50).  Casting a spell over the senses of his captive enemies with music, he proceeds to name to them their faults: “Most cruelly / Didst thou, Alonso, use me and my daughter. / Thy brother [Sebastian] was a furtherer in this act” (418, 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 (418-19, 5.1.74-79).  But even he is forgiven.

Ariel 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” (419, 5.1.95-96), sings this innocent, natural creature even as he invests a mortal man in robes of state.  King Alonso promptly agrees to forget his insistence on Milanese tribute for Naples (419-20, 5.1.120-21) and asks forgiveness for his complicity in the exiling of Prospero.  The wizard next demands his state back from his usurping brother Antonio: “I do forgive / Thy rankest fault, all of them, and require / My dukedom of thee …” (420, 5.1.133-35). 

King Alonso’s chief care is still, of course, for his lost son (and, by implication, the destruction of his dynastic hopes): “I wish / Myself were mudded in that oozy bed / Where my son lies” (420, 5.1.152-54).  For this despairing monarch, Prospero has one last wonder to reveal: Ferdinand and Miranda playing the ancient game of royal strategy, chess (421, 5.1.170-74).  Even Sebastian must admit that this is “A most high miracle” (421, 5.1.180).  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” (421, 5.1.174).  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, thereby cutting the young fellow down to size somewhat, but King Alonso is nonetheless struck with amazement, exclaiming, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful” (421, 5.1.181).  He and Ferdinand are reunited, and Miranda’s turn comes to marvel at the sight before her: “O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (421, 5.1.186-87)  King Alonso is very pleased with the match, and Gonzalo pronounces by way of a question Prospero’s long-ago exile from Milan a dynastic fortunate fall: “Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (422, 5.1.208-09)

Ariel has brought the Boatswain and ship’s Master into Prospero’s presence, and they tell of how they beheld with wonder the ship 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 are brushed aside for the moment by a happy Prospero, for there’s still the matter of Caliban and his wicked overlords to settle. 

Ariel is commanded to set them at liberty to face judgment, and Prospero’s initial move is to admit responsibility for Caliban: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (423, 5.1.278-79).  Afraid almost for his life, the miscreant admits his error and promises to mend his ways to obedience: “… I’ll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (424, 5.1.298-99).  He now knows what King Alonso knows: Stefano is no god, only a “drunken butler” (423, 5.1.280).  Order at last fully restored, Prospero promises to tell his life’s story to King Alonso and his people on the eve of departure from the island.  The company will voyage 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” (424, 5.1.314).

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, without losing his chance to recover the dukedom he lost.  He has learned a costly, lengthy lesson about putting an intensely private and insatiable desire for knowledge in its proper place and showing due regard for his responsibility to maintain the symbolic and material authority that underwrites civil order.  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 man really desires is not so much to exercise great power again as a younger man might, but instead to practice the art of dying well, or ars moriendi, as it’s called in Latin.

Ariel’s final charge is to provide “calm seas, auspicious gales” for the return voyage (424, 5.1.318), and his master’s last command to him is liberation itself: “Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well” (424, 5.1.321-22).  The promise of things to come is this impending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda, who will, we may presume, carry on in a regenerated social and political environment.  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 ever could.  Prospero, now an 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, this 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.  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.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Winter’s Tale

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. (Norton Romances, 2nd ed. 191-271).

Act 1, Scenes 1-2 (202-03, Camillo recounts the childhood closeness of Polixenes and Leontes as well as their subsequent growing apart in royal adulthood; Camillo praises the life-affirming powers of Mamillius)

We hear how Polixenes of Bohemia and Leontes of Sicilia grew up together.  But Camillo also describes the aftermath of that upbringing in a way that could be interpreted ambivalently.  The original affection of the two men, he says, “cannot / choose but branch now” (203, 1.2.20-21), and further, that 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” (203, 1.2.22-25).  We are also told that Leontes’ little son Mamillius as an almost magical effect upon the kingdom’s subjects; the boy “makes old / hearts fresh” (203, 1.2.33-34) and even overcomes the desire of the very old to die.

Act 1, Scene 2 (203-15, Leontes stricken with jealousy when Hermione succeeds in getting Polixenes to stay; Camillo feigns compliance with Leontes’ order to kill Polixenes, but warns him to leave at once)

Leontes tries to get Polixenes to stay another week in Sicilia, but Polixenes begs off.  The way he does so turns out to be unfortunate: he says to Leontes, “There is no tongue that moves, none, none in the world / So soon as yours, could win me” (204, 1.2.20-21).  Leontes then enlists his queen Hermione, who places her charms at the king’s service.  So 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” (204, 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” (204, 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 should know from that Italian author, to paraphrase, “They deceive most easily who have a reputation for never deceiving.”  No, you just can’t trust people you can trust—they’re the worst kind!)  Polixenes brings up the subject of mature sexuality in response to Hermione’s question about who was the “verier wag” (205, 1.2.68) of the two men when they were children: “We knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed / That any did” (205, 1.2.71-73).  The following lines make it clear enough that the context is sexual, and Hermione picks up on this with a little innocent flirtation, accusing Polixenes of denigrating women as “devils” (205, 1.2.84).  These comments may constitute the spurs to Leontes’ jealousy, which I think begins to appear as early as the line, “At my request he would not [stay]” (205, 1.2.89).  Evidently, Leontes is not entirely delighted that Polixenes told him 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 a bit of competition implied here between Leontes and Hermione for the attentions of Polixenes?  It’s at least 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. 

When we move from talk to talk and gesture combined, 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: towards the end, he has to ask, “Is he won yet?” (205, 1.2.87), as if he’s been standing off to the side and giving them a bit of privacy.  If so, that mixture of public-spirited “command performance” and private intimacy is most unfortunate for Hermione, who just 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 (206,, and now Hermione has won over Polixenes in a moment.  Worse yet, she herself compares her successful suit to Polixenes to her courtship with Leontes: “I have spoke to th’purpose twice,” she says, the first time to get a husband, and the second to win the presence of a friend, at least for a time (206, 1.2.108-10).  It’s logical to suppose that after this, Hermione and Polixenes hold hands and speak or stand apart, and this rattles Leontes more than he can bear: “Too hot, too hot,” 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 …” (206, 1.2.110, 117-19).  I don’t know if 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 a bit obliquely, asks Mamillius whether he is his father’s son (206, 1.2.121-22).

Hermione’s interaction with Polixenes probably seems entirely innocent to us, just like Desdemona’s dalliance with Michael Cassio in Othello.  Or maybe it doesn’t—after all, if we’re putting ourselves in the mindset of first-time viewers, might we not share a bit of Leontes’ uncertainty?  We don’t know Hermione from Eve.  We know based on an entire reading or viewing of the play that she is in fact simply behaving generously towards her husband’s dear friend, following her husband’s lead in using her charms to win a longer stay.  This scene at the edge of happily ever after is soon shattered by Leontes’ abrupt change in passions (the medical term for the sudden change would be affectio): he sees Hermione holding hands, chatting nicely, possibly whispering, and so forth, with his old friend, and is stricken with a bout of 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 speech and gesture to be processed in the present scene, there is generally 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, I suppose it makes sense to point out that a person may not become symptomatic until the malady is well under way.  I’ve suggested already that there may be an implied sense of competitiveness between Leontes and Polixenes from their youth up, one that may account in part for the strange spell of depraved jealousy into which Leontes falls.

In any case, jealousy becomes a filter for all Leontes sees once the madness strikes him.  He categorizes himself as a confirmed cuckold: “Many thousand on’s / Have the disease and feel’t not” (209, 1.2.207-08), 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 a “traitor” now because he can’t see what Leontes believes he himself sees (209, 1.2.241-43; see also 210-11); Mamillius must be illegitimate; Hermione’s innocent words and actions are pure deception, and the child Paulina will set before his eyes at Act 2.3.65-67 seems to him to bear no resemblance to himself.  Leontes’ perceptual and interpretive apparatuses have become warped or “diseased” (to use Camillo’s term at 211, 1.2.297).  The king becomes his own Iago and shares Othello’s absoluteness and incapacity to deal with uncertainty: “Is whispering nothing?” he asks Camillo (210, 1.2.287).  As Iago says in Othello 3.3, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (Norton Tragedies 473, 3.3.326-28)  Hermione must be either a saint or a whore; 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, the quality of some charitable affections is forced and fragile.  Cordelia’s understanding of love in King Lear may be brittle-sounding and cold, but it’s probably accurate.  In a sense, we ration love: more for one person may mean less for others.  And here in Sicilia, it seems there isn’t enough to go around to make a sustainable economy of affection between Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes.  One doesn’t like to mention such unsettling things: Oscar Wilde was no doubt correct when he said that more than half of modern life depends on what one shouldn’t read.

The merciful thing is that Leontes’ inner corruption seems unable to corrupt others: Camillo stays true to Hermione, and therefore to Leontes.  He pretends that he will honor Leontes’ mad request to murder Polixenes (212, 1.2.335-36), but he refuses to poison this man, with whom he agrees regarding the destructive effects of jealousy.  Instead, Camillo informs Polixenes of Leontes’ 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’ mind (214, 1.2.424-31), and Polixenes is surprisingly lenient in his thoughts about his old friend, considering how he has been treated: “This jealousy is for a precious creature,” he acknowledges, and given the high 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 Polixenes void the scene at once (414, 1.2.451-60).  There will be a cure for the distrustful absolutist Leontes, however, 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 is emphasized in Renaissance perceptual theory (though the sense of hearing is also considered vital), and indeed 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, “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!” (Matthew 6:22, KJB)  Just now, everything has turned dark and demonic for one Leontes, King of Sicilia.

Act 2, Scene 1 (215-19, Leontes 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 sets the scene by telling the attending women and Hermione, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (215, 2.1.27).  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 (216, 2.1.47), and goes on to accuse and arrest Hermione as an adulteress, with no real hope of defense (217, 2.1.105-07).  Hermione maintains her composure well, saying “This action I now go on / Is for my better grace” (217-18, 2.1.123-24).  As so often, the good are scarcely capable of defending themselves: they don’t have the same resources available to them as do those who have no scruples about morality or whose sensibilities have been corrupted by unhealthy, excessive passions.  Hermione’s claims of innocence stand no chance against her husband’s energetic “guilt show.”

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” (218, 2.1.143-44).  But Leontes is set upon publicly and willfully declaring his wife unfaithful, and his final move in this scene is to report that he has send his assistants Cleomenes and Dion to Apollo’s temple to consult the oracle, and it is now time to take the matter public.

Act 2, Scene 2 (219-21, Paulina determines to bring Hermione’s newborn daughter into Leontes’ 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” (220, 2.2.42-43), 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 (221-27, Mamillius ill; Paulina confronts Leontes with his child; Leontes orders Antigonus to expose 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 (221, 2.3.4-9).  Mamillius has taken ill, and Leontes puts it down to the boy’s knowledge of “the dishonor of his mother” (221, 2.3.13).

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?” to which Antigonus answers, “When she will take the rein I let her run …” (222, 2.3.51).  The other characters at court aren’t corrupt; they’re just passive.  Hermione is unable to deal with Leontes’ 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 partial magic: there will be time and opportunity and good will enough to avert entire tragedy.  The 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 honour of himself, his queen’s, / His hopeful son’s, his babe’s, betrays to slander …” (223, 2.3.84-86).  She later calls him tyrant (224, 2.3.115-21), which further enrages him.  In comedy, the angry father or senex iratus is more or less 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 changing suddenly in the Forest of Arden.  But in romance drama, there must be legitimate potential for a tragic turn, and that is what we have been witnessing here.

Leontes has already declared the infant “the issue of Polixenes” (223, 2.3.94), and his only thought is to cast his wife and child into the traitor’s fire (224, 2.3.134).  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” (225, 2.3.157), though the following line “It shall not neither” makes it clear that the resolution isn’t necessarily benign.  The offer is as follows: Antigonus is to take the child and “bear it / To some remote and desert place” (225, 2.3.175-76), leaving its survival or death quite to random chance.  Leontes sees this as symmetrical justice since it came initially “by strange fortune” (225, 2.3.179) to him and so “chance may nurse or end it” (225, 2.3.183).  At least Leontes’ 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 go to work.  We may recall that shipwrecked Viola’s best decision in Twelfth Night was to commit her cause to the play’s comic time.  This is a similar moment in The Winter’s Tale, even though, of course, little “Perdita,” as she will subsequently be known (see Antigonus’ “Poor thing, condemned to loss” at 226, 2.3.192; Perdita means “the lost one” in Latin), has no idea what’s happening: the decision is made for her by a man who doesn’t mean her well (Leontes), and carried out by one who does, Antigonus. 

Finally, Leontes announces that his messengers are coming back soon with the oracle of Apollo’s pronouncement.  As for Hermione, “as she hath / Been publicly accused, so shall she have / A just and open trial” (226, 2.3.203-05), though Leontes is hardly in doubt about the verdict. 

Act 3, Scene 1 (226-27, 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 (227-32, Hermione defends herself at trial; Leontes disrespects the oracle; Mamillius is dead, and Leontes comes to his senses, Hermione faints and Paulina pronounces her dead; Paulina confronts Leontes, who vows to visit his son and wife’s shrine daily: penance, “recreation”)

Leontes, meet our modern conspiracy buffs!  The accusation against Hermione read by the officer is preposterous: she stands accused of “high treason / in committing adultery with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and / conspiring with Camillo to take away the life of our sovereign / lord the King …” (227, 3.2.13-16).  Hermione’s self-defense is noble, but of course she hasn’t a prayer of success since this is a show-trial worthy of the paranoid Soviet dictator Stalin.  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 (228, 3.2.60-64, 72-74).  Hermione’s quality shows through when she defies the threat of death: “Sir, spare your threats. / The bug which you would fright me with, I seek” (229, 3.2.89-90) and simply calls for the reading of Apollo’s judgment (229, 3.2.113-14).

Apollo’s oracle tells Leontes that he is entirely, jaw-droppingly wrong and that he must recover what he’s thrown away: “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Ca- / millo 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” (230, 3.2.131-34).  He dismisses the oracle’s words, so his ears fail him just as his eyes did.  With this impious declaration, Leontes has reached the height of madness.

The announcement of the death of his son Mamillius snaps Leontes out of his state of error, but he must live with the consequences (230, 3.2.141-45).  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” (230, 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 (230, 3.2.146-47).  What follows is an anguished confrontation with Paulina, who insists that Hermione is indeed gone (231, 3.2.201-05) but who also seems moved by Leontes’ overwhelming sorrow at his error.  Of this, she says only, “What’s gone and what’s past help / Should be past grief” (232, 3.2.230-31).  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” (232, 3.2.236-38).

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.  We will see that Paulina, in spite of her sometimes harsh words and attitude, will assist Leontes in his long time of penance, replete with frequent visits to the shrine of the woman he has wronged.

Act 3, Scene 3 (232-35, Antigonus dreams of Hermione, exposes Perdita, is eaten by a bear; shepherd discovers the child with gold; he and son plan good deeds and secure future)

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, the lost one.  Antigonus is now convinced that Hermione is dead.  He thereupon suffers the full consequences of his own failure to resist Leontes’ 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 …” (233, 3.3.32-35).  Act 3 ends on a note of savagery and tempest: “Exit, pursued by a bear” but also with great regard for the future.  It seems that in this romance play, Antigonus’ exit is Perdita’s entrance into a brave new world.  As the Old Shepherd say to his son, “Thou metst with things dying, I / with things new-born” (235, 3.3.104-05).  The gold Antigonus has left behind will become “fairy gold” (235, 3.3.112) for the shepherd who discovers the “blossom” (233, 3.2.45–Antigonus’ farewell term) Perdita, and a new world will open up for this rustic character.  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 because he has, after all, at least made a decent attempt to preserve Perdita from Leontes’ wrath. 

Act 4, Scene 1 (235-36, Time brings us forwards 16 years and sets us down to see the rest: Perdita is now a young woman)

The Chorus player speaks in the character of “Time” to tell us that he is within his rights to turn the clock forwards 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’ son, Prince Florizel.  The Choral pronouncement may remind some of Shakespeare’s use of old John Gower (his source for Pericles, Prince of Tyre)who says at the beginning of Act 4 in that play, “Only I carry winged Time / Post on the lame feet of my rhyme …” (Pericles 166, Scene 15 or Act 4, lines 47-48).  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” (236, 4.1.26-27).  Perhaps this manner of treating time seems unrealistic; but then, in keeping with my belief that Shakespeare’s romance plays have settled into a representational strategy that may involve a higher degree of realism than either tragedy or comedy, I would suggest that we can actually experience time’s passage much the same way—a way that cannot be captured by neoclassical demands for nearly absolute fidelity to the so-called “unity of time.”  Especially for older people, I suspect (since I find it so in my own experience), the passage of many years often seems to have happened in an instant; at least, that’s the way one remembers it.  When I am reminded of landmark events in world history or even in my own personal history, I am perpetually surprised to hear the closing line, “and that happened twenty years ago to the day” when I thought it had occurred only a few years ago.  Call it a trick of memory, but this experience of temporality is by no means uncommon.

Act 4, Scenes 2-3 (236-40, Camillo’s desire to return to Sicilia frustrated by Polixenes, who is gathering intelligence on absent Florizel: they will visit the shepherd in disguise; Autolycus gives us his resume, robs the shepherd’s son, and plans to crash the sheep-shearing festival)

In the first scene, Camillo yearns to make his return back to Sicilia, but Polixenes won’t grant his wish (236, 4.1.16-17).  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” (237, 4.2.41-42) with him.

Autolycus, who enters at 4.3 declaring himself at present “out of service” (237, 4.3.14), is a woozle—he’s a trickster, an opportunist, a businessman who deals in stolen “sheets” or linens (238, 4.3.23).  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 commercialism and bawdiness.  Even here, before the festivities, he manages to rob the shepherd’s son by feigning victimhood and denouncing one “Autolycus” (namely, himself) as the fellow who robbed him: a man of shady devices and dubious career (239, 4.3.86-91).  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” (237, 4.3.4).  He is a creature who hails the coming of spring and new life.  In this sense, he will have a role in the bittersweet comic resolution of the play’s final two acts.

Act 4, Scene 4 (240-59, Florizel courts Perdita; Polixenes talks “lit crit” with Perdita: nature and / or artifice? Dancing before and after.  Autolycus crashes the festivities; Polixenes exposes Florizel and issues threats over “base” marriage; Camillo promises to help Florizel; Florizel exchanges clothes with Autolycus; Autolycus plays courtier to dupe shepherd and son, whom he will bring to Florizel’s ship, not to Polixenes as they wish)

This scene, perhaps 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’s 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 …” (240, 4.4.18-20).  To which anxiety, Florizel asserts the universality of disguising in erotic pursuits: “The gods themselves, / … have taken / The shapes of beasts upon them” (240, 4.4.25-27).  Anxieties, aside, Perdita will be “mistress o’th’feast” (241, 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.  Perdita and Polixenes engage in a bit of “lit-crit,” a discussion about the emblematic significance of certain flowers (“streaked gillyvors,” or colorful carnations) and ultimately about the respective merits of artifice and nature.  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” (242, 4.4.95-97).  While Perdita wants only what’s available in her own rustic garden, Polixenes sees no problem with improving what nature offers freely.  Perdita, ever the nature-goddess-tending maiden, isn’t convinced, but Polixenes’ argument comes off as wise—or at least if would if he didn’t become enraged upon finding out that his son Florizel would have him mix the aristocratic 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 man,” not what King Lear mistakenly supposes he sees in Edgar as Poor Tom: “Thou are the thing itself: unac- / commodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked / animal as thou art” (Norton Tragedies, 779, 3.4.98-100). 

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 (and delightfully nonexistent, since the real “Bohemia” is landlocked in today’s Czech Republic) seacoast of Bohemia.  Her grace is demonstrated by the effect her presence has on Florizel.  Her own playful words give just a hint of Ovidian sportfulness (243, 4.4.114-29), where she invokes Proserpina, but modesty at once makes her take it back: “Sure this robe of mine / Does change my disposition” (243, 4.4.133-34).  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” (243, 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’ 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 in Act 1, Scene 2) 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’ penance, but also his reward for his long-suffering fidelity after the initial mistake.  Perdita is the statue and the living being at the same time: she is artifice in motion, and is what Leontes must accept.  That may mean we are flawed, but it’s just the way we are, and we must accept it.  Leontes initially could not give Hermione so much credit as a fully human being.  It is clear from the passage quoted just above that Florizel, unlike Leontes, is able to see these qualities in his Perdita: “What you do / Still betters what is done” (243, 4.4.135).

Autolycus is a 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 pedlar at the door, / you would never dance again after a tabor and pipe” (244, 4.4.182-83).  This same servant is unable to register the bawdy quality of the songs that Autolycus offers his rustic audience. 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 as well later uses the arts of deception in a healthy cause, which links her to the trickster of Act 4, Scene 4.  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 into 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” (244, 4.4.167) and later, there is a “dance of twelve satyrs” (248, 4.4.328).

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, a while, beseech you. / Have you a father?”  (249, 4.4.377-78), 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” (249, 4.4.396-98).  Polixenes proceeds to threaten not only the old shepherd but also Florizel and even Perdita with dire consequences (250, 4.4.407-10, 415-19, 422-29).  As in some of Shakespeare’s comedies, we have run into the classical figure of the senex iratus, the angry old man.  Polixenes’ 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 of mine at UC Irvine pointed out, the old need to be convinced of the worthiness of the new.  This point holds true even though romance quests are partly about reintegration and renewal through marriage of the young.  After all (and here Shakespeare departs from Greene’s Pandosto), the present play centers on the reunification of Leontes and Hermione, the older generation.  Polixenes feels that Florizel has cast off his identity, and the fourth act legitimately involves Polixenes’ dynastic concerns.

In his distress, Florizel turns to Camillo (251-52, 4.4.475-84), who has a reason of his own for wanting to help: he wants to make his way back to Sicilia: “Now were I happy if / His going I could frame to serve my turn…” (252, 4.4.496-97).  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 many questions, and with a little inside information that Camillo himself will provide, the way to Leontes’ good graces will be smooth (253, 4.4.  530-48).

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 (255, 4.4.616-21).  To himself and us, Camillo admits that he plans to tell Polixenes about Florizel’s flight , which will of course rouse the father to go after him (255, 4.4.645-51). 

Autolycus’ ethos shows in the line, “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive” (256, 4.4.656).  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, or thoroughly taken in by his imposture.  Autolycus promises to bring the old shepherd and his son to Polixenes to tell his story, which of course Autolycus draws from him: “He must / know ‘tis none of your daughter, nor my sister” (258, 4.4.789-90).  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 (259, 4.4.801-09).  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” (259, 4.4.801-02).  Still, while his 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.

Act 5, Scene 1 (259-64, Paulina makes Leontes promise not to remarry without her consent; Florizel and Perdita arrive, reminding Leontes of what might have been; when Polixenes’ 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’ conscience: “she you killed / Would be unparalleled” (259, 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…” (261-5.1.72-74).  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 (261, 5.1.85-88).  Leontes declares, “I lost a couple that twixt heaven and earth / Might thus have stood, begetting wonder…” (262, 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…” (262, 5.1.138-39).  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…” (263, 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” (264, 5.1.228).  Paulina, we might want to mention, keeps up her role as general scold to Leontes’ conscience, reminding him about the loss of Mamillius (262, 5.1.115-18) and then reproaching him for his remark about Perdita to Florizel, “I’d beg your precious mistress” (264, 5.1.222), to which Paulina retorts, “Your eye hath too much youth in’t” (264, 5.1.224).

Act 5, Scene 2 (265-68, Perdita 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 begs and 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’ lost daughter.  The old shepherd brought his material reminders and told his story about how he found a little girl who had been abandoned (265, 5.2.2-6).  A gentleman declares that it all sounds to him “so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (265, 5.2.26).  Nonetheless, plenty of evidence (material and otherwise) convinces everyone that it must be so (265, 5.2.30-36).  There is both joy and great sadness in the revelations given in this scene since Paulina has it confirmed that her Antigonus is indeed gone forever, “torn to pieces with a bear” (266, 5.2.57), and Perdita must confront the news that the mother she never saw is dead (266, 5.2.74-83).  But we also hear from yet another gentleman that Perdita is more than eager to behold the statue of Hermione that Paulina is said to have ordered completed by one Giulio Romano (see also ArtCyclopedia’s entry on Romano, ca. 1499-1546), an actual Italian mannerist painter who worked just before the middle of the sixteenth century.  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” (266, 5.2.91-92).

The last thing that happens in this scene is a piece of comic reckoning and reconciliation between Autolycus and the newly gentle shepherd and son.  Autolycus reveals to us that he did indeed bring this pair to be questioned by Florizel, but that nothing much came of it (267, 5.2.102-10).  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 relation 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” (267, 5.2.133-35).  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…” (267-68, 5.2.246-47).

Act 5, Scene 3 (268-71, Hermione the statue appears to come back to life; Leontes overjoyed; Camillo and Paulina united: change and loss accepted, making way for a partial but wondrous 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, and its staging here seems particularly appropriate to the romance genre.  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 wonderful for its trickery and staginess.  No metaphysical miracle is necessary.  Instead, Paulina’s artful and charitable application of Autolycus’ 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, Paulina’s device may have affinities with ancient literary theory: we may recall the famous contest (as described by Pliny in Chapter 36, “Artists Who Painted with the Pencil” of his book Historia Naturalis), 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.  That curtain may or may not have been more realistic in terms of technical precision, but it was what Zeuxis was looking for.  Like Parrhasius, Paulina has made her choice in representational strategy carefully: the statue trick she carries out is a matter of careful 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: “Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing / So agèd as this seems” (269, 5.3.28-29).  But even if he is at first shown what he was probably looking for, the “trick” doesn’t end there: it is a spur to his willingness to recognize the full humanity and integrity of his long-lost wife.

Paulina’s deferral of Leontes’ desire for reunion is the last stage of his penance: when he longs to keep viewing the “statue,” Paulina feigns determination to stop him: “No longer shall you gaze on’t, lest your fancy / May think anon it moves” (269, 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 recontextualize a line from Oscar Wilde) 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” (270, 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 (271, 5.3.112).  All that remains for the finalization of this seeming miracle—for 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 (271, 5.3.127-29).  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 the reconciliation of all 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’ bear-demise sixteen years ago.  Leontes effects the match without delay (171, 5.3.136-47).

According to Professor Harold Toliver of UC Irvine in a lecture I attended years ago, the play’s solution for Leontes lies in re-establishing the truth of what he sees.  At the beginning of the play, Leontes’ jealousy had blocked the innocent backstory (their personal history together) that should have guaranteed the king’s relationship with his queen; what remained was only the object before him, the body of Hermione.  Accepting the truth of what Leontes 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 unknowing affirmation of grand forces operating within and without us: the movements of cosmic time, natural process, unconscious maturation.  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 romance in general 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 (the Greeks called it Zephyros; the other three wind gods or anemoi were Boreas the North Wind, Notos the South Wind, and Euros the East Wind), 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.”  Shakespeare’s romance plays don’t simply sweep away the passage of time or cancel out its ravages: romance time offers regeneration, but it also encompasses death and destruction as necessary.  (Norton editor Jean E. Howard’s introduction to The Winter’s Tale 191-200 is excellent on the above aspects of Shakespeare’s romances, and the great myth critic Northrop Frye’s work on the romance genre can hardly go without mention.)  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 we get is not second chances or “do-overs” in the simplest sense 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.  None of this is to say, however, that the romance plays are anything but ultimately hopeful and mostly 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 partial the outcome.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links


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


In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985), 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” (3).  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 and 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, and 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.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, based in part on medieval poet John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (and Lawrence Twine’s prose version of that text, The Pattern of Painful Adventures)andco-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 the romance sub-genre. Despite its rough edges stylistically, it turned out to be very popular on the stage. Wilkins seems to have written the first two acts (the first nine scenes), 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 Scene 11 is magnificent in its dramatic staging and in the beauty of its language, neither of which Wilkins could ever have managed. 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!” (3.1.1-2) This popular play seems to have begun performance around 1607-08, making it a later work in spite of its impossibly messy textual history. (King Lear was performed first in December of 1606, and Antony and Cleopatra around 1607.) It is, however, Shakespeare’s first play in the romance sub-genre, and its characters do not achieve the individuality or power, for the most part, as those in the more well-rounded romance efforts do. All the same, it’s a moving and dramatically effective play, and with its multiple shipwrecks and wonderful turnarounds of fortune, it certainly qualifies as a fine start for Shakespeare on his way to romance-play glory. We’ll spend a few meetings on Pericles, and then move on to The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.


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. Introduction of the incest-theme is blunt, and Gower opens the scene to Pericles.)

The real John Gower (c. 1330-1408), whom Shakespeare and Wilkins have enlisted as their solo chorus speaker, 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 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. 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. I would use the term “ethical universe” to describe the world in which they 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 ev’n of Jove himself” (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 (Ἑσπερίδες) 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, of course, the Trojan War.

In any case, the king’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” (1.1.55). Antiochus seems angry that yet another young challenger has insisted upon competing with him for his daughter’s love. He is at least in this regard 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 she is desperate to escape the clutches of her wicked father? It is impossible to say, but we were told by Gower that over time, habit or custom took over, and they did not feel the sting of conscience.

As for the riddle itself, part of it leads obviously to the life-preserving answer, and part is downright 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 here: “Help us help you help us help you, etc.” The ultimate in that line is the romantic leap into infinite self-consciousness: “I am reflecting on myself reflecting on myself reflecting on myself….” Since none of Pericles’s predecessor knights answered the riddle correctly, I’m going to 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 distorted and screened, but never simply revealed in all its simplicity.

Since I like to go into what I see as the political-theory dimension of Shakespeare’s plays, as I see it, the king’s guilty sexual secret parallels a guilty political secret, one not unrelated to the Platonic dilemma of rulership: he has guilty knowledge of humankind and of the realities involved in keeping control of his realm. He’s daring subjects and foreigners alike to make this knowledge common, knowing that they won’t reveal the taboo from sheer terror. The riddle, then, has to do with the nature of political legitimacy and with the ability to govern, to use one’s authority. 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”). 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.

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” (120). 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 he knows the true secret that 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?” (147) 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. The king decides to temporize and disassemble 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” (173), with the daughter replacing the mother. How right Pericles is we see immediately when Antiochus, 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 anachronism. 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.”

Act 1, Scene 2 (pp. 156-158, Pericles is distressed over the threat to Tyre from his solving the riddle, showing political realism an 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 1-33, Pericles explains how his anxiety about the threat posed by Antiochus grew up on 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 his “pining sorrow” (38) threatens both his own welfare and that of the kingdom. 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 clearly pre-Christian, the place probably still indicates to Shakespeare’s audience that Pericles the traveler is about to undergo a deep 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 just 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 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 will, 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’ governor, altogether desperate: “bring they what they will and what they can, / What need we fear?” (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 Greekish 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 harbourage” (4.99). 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, Prologue (pp. 162-163, Gower explains that Pericles, called home to Tyre by Helicanus, has suffered his first 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” (2.0.57-58).

Indeed, this should remind us that Pericles’ misfortunes throughout the play are not brought on by error or flaw–they’re due to bad luck, or chance. The play is not suffused with the sensibility or ambience of classical tragedy: Pericles has done nothing wrong, has not made a mistake: what Aristotle calls hamartia (ἁμαρτία) 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 an obvious metaphor for the travails of life in all 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.” 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 “reset button” for past woes and felicities alike. It’s the great equalizer in the play: 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” (2.1.4). But soon, he’s in the company of some comic fishermen as they serve one another a helping of their views (in prose, not verse) 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” (2.1.27-28). 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” (2.1.100) are praised by the First Fisherman. 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 the armor. 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 this hope I live” (6.47-48). 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 certainly lacks resources at present; he is dependent for his future upon the outcome of the contest. With regard to the other five men, the mottos they present are rather standard and conventional: none of them is 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” (6.59-60). 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.)

Simonides and Thaisa together constitute a guest-host antidote to Antiochus and his ruined daughter. Everything they do is gracious and appropriately decorous rather than garish or narcissistic. 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 team 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 play? It seems that the protagonist will need a combination of comic energy and openness to experience (a classical value accorded to epic heroes such as Odysseus) along with gravitas and fortitude equal to that of a tragic hero. At this point in the play, Pericles, who has already shown himself capable of considerable audacity as when he pursued the daughter of Antiochus, here 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” (7.44-46).

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” (7.63-64). Yet to herself, she admits that she is very pleased with Pericles indeed. 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 romantic adventurer, a man “looking for adventures in the world” (7.78), even though that doesn’t seem to 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’ 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 it 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 traveling and look for 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 hitched to an unworthy suitor. There seems to be some idea that, as Lysander says in Midsummer, true love should not run too smoothly. Some obstacle, even if it be a contrived one, seems necessary. In the course of this manufactured trial, Pericles shows considerable courage over and above his alarm, while Thaisa stands up admirably towards Simonides.


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’ ship is halfway to Tyre. The prince wonders at the daughter born in such travail, and names her Marina in tribute. He grieves for Thaisa, but, at the superstitious sailors’ insistence, commits her body to the sea in a pitched coffin.)

The eleventh scene reveals Shakespeare’s authentic voice through the cry of storm-tossed Pericles: “The god of this great vast rebuke these surges / Which wash both heav’n and hell…” (11.1-2). This passage, along with Lychorida’s heartrending utterance, “Take in your arms this piece / Of your dead queen” (11.17-18) 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 closest to heart. 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 “Ev’n at the first thy loss is more than can / Thy partage quit with all thou canst find here” (11.35-36), an observation along the lines of King Lear’s complaint that he is “a man / More sinn’d against than sinning” (King Lear 3.2). 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” (11.61-63). After Scene 13, 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 Scene 21.

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 coffin washes ashore in Ephesus, where the physician Cerimon attends to it. He revives Thaisa.)

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” (12.23-25). Cerimon is a true scientist, adept in “the disturbances / That nature works (12.34-35) and in the properties of the natural substances that can remedy them, and he doesn’t much care for honor and suchlike baubles. This is in accord with the principles of the ancient Hippocratic Oath. While we are used 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, I’ve read, medicine had mainly broken free from domination by ritual and religion. (See, for example, Paul Carrick’s Medical Ethics in the Ancient World. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2001.)

It isn’t entirely clear whether Thaisa is actually brought back from death or brought back from what we would call a hypothermic state of unconsciousness; one could argue the case either way, based on Cerimon’s language. How are we to take, for example, “They were too rash / That threw her in the sea” (12.77-78)? Or, “Death may usurp on nature many hours” (12.80)? Or again, “She hath not been entranced / Above five hours” (12.91-92)? The emphasis on how tightly caulked the coffin is with pitch lends itself to a naturalistic interpretation. In any case, Thaisa is alive by the end of Scene 12: she has either been brought back from death or she has had a “near-death experience,” as we would put it today.

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 Clean 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, and 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 just the place.)

This is a very short scene, and in it Cerimon simply 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, 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 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” (15.149) 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 brother-keepers, but Marina stands upon her virgin honor even as they prepare to talk up her chaste condition with prospective customers.)

The 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. 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. 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 “madman” (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 (16.50-54), 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,” Bawd offers first use to him: “Thou mayst cut a morsel off the spit” (16.115).

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” (16.67) and “You shall have the difference of all complexions” (16.70-71). 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 and Company have their work cut out for them.

In truth, to judge from the early part of Pander and Bawd’s conversation, has begun to lose its appeal for them, or at least it has for Pander, who worries about the business’s 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” (16.33), no proper religious mystery sect, nothing hale or holy, as was sometimes held to be the case with ancient temple prostitutes, for example. 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 and his audience (and co-author George Wilkins, who, as a disreputable inn-keeper on London’s Cow Cross Street, may  have actually been in the “flesh trade” himself) 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 inevitably stripped them of their ability to contribute.

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, “I do shame / To think of what a noble strain you are, / And of how coward a spirit” (4.3.22-24). Just as Antiochus’s lives were structured and cut short by a guilty secret, selfish, 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 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. That’s an element 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 the 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” (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. What we are getting in the present play, then, seems like the comic version of Christian ordeal 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” (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 yourself useful by teaching her various arts. She tells him that she can “sing, weave, sew, and dance” (4.6.168), among other honorable talents.


Act 5 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 “sad,” which, as we will soon find out, is quite an understatement. The restless ocean, the πόντος ἀτρύγετος or trackless sea of Homeric lore, 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 completing the realization of 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 travails throughout the play.

In the tragedies, the bedrock of human nature—the “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 (tenuous or deep) one may gain. In the present romance play, the Prince of Tyre has been exiled into himself, 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 richly adorned ship enters Mytilene’s harbor.

At this point in the play, 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 may be. Helicanus informs the governor that Pericles “for this three months hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief” (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” (5.1.35) who just 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!” (5.1.74). Neither music nor the promise of discourse, then, does more than provoke Pericles’s anger. But something in the discourse finally offered catches the prince’s attention, and he blurts out, “My fortunes, parentage—good parentage, / To equal mine…” (5.1.88-89). Marina has dared to place her own sufferings and possibly even her lineage of 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” (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, been just like this maid in all ways? In any event, he tells her, “thou lookest / Like one I loved indeed” (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 point seems rather that no such thing is in the offing: this father and this child are really nothing like the selfish King Antiochus and his much-abused daughter. The selfish and destructive relation between the former pair will not be replicated here, but instead 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 wild liar for her efforts. He learns at 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 seems 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” (5.1.151)—convinces her to continue with 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…” (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 she 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” (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 his joyful address to Marina as “Thou that begett’st him that did thee beget” (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” (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 guide), 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 old Gower follows in my comments on the play’s Epilogue. Lysimachus’s wedding to Marina is still pending, by the way, 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’ temple at Ephesus. Here, Pericles recounts his losses as ordered, and Thaisa faints. But 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 (5.3.40-41), and tells Thaisa, “Oh, come,  be buried / A second time within these arms” (5.3.43-44). This seems like a total, if temporary, overcoming of the dread 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. There is less of the bittersweetness in this romance than in the later ones The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, but it is just as enjoyable.

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 rewarded beyond their fondest dreams.)

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 sometime soon.

Finally, John Gower by his ghostly performance throughout Pericles, Prince of Tyre 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”; the concluding song of Feste the wise clown in Twelfth Night: “We’ll strive to please you every day”; Prospero in The Tempest with his plea, “Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails, / Which was to please”;  and Rosalind of As You Like It, with her admission, “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue.” 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 tell what Shakespeare’s friend and dramatic competitor Ben Jonson will call “a moldy tale” in a way that Shakespeare’s modern Jacobean audience can still learn from and appreciate.

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

Cymbeline, King of Britain

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

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


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?


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?


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’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?


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?


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

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. (Norton Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 139-206).


1. In Act 1, Prologue, John Gower sets the stage for us in his prologue: King Antiochus of Antioch lost his wife and is now in an incestuous relationship with his daughter; young Prince Pericles has come to Antioch to take his chances with 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 at this point 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 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 show in giving it?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, we again meet Thaliart, the commoner Antiochus had ordered to kill Pericles. How does Thaliart 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?


7. In Act 2, Prologue, John Gower again acts as chorus for the coming action, and as usual his narration is accompanied by a “Dumb show.” In this or in any of the scenes in which Gower functions as a chorus, in what way does his manner of imparting information impact your understanding of the play?

8. In Act 2, Scene 1, Pericles, having been shipwrecked, washes up on the coast of Pentapolis and encounters some fishermen there. How does he 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 it so important to Pericles?

9. 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?

10. 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 forwards?

11. In Act 2, Scene 5, King Simonides of Pentapolis shows tact and charm in dissembling his strong approval of the brewing 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?


12. In Act 3, Prologue, 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?

13. 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 suspicious 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 Scene 14?

14. 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?


15. In Act 4, Prologue and Scene 1, we find out that Pericles has by now made it back to Tyre, and in Ephesus Thaisa has become a votary of the chaste goddess Diana. The young daughter Pericles named Marina and then left with Cleon at Tarsus is now a young woman, thanks to our passage through time with John Gower. How does Marina understand her current situation, and with what difficulty is she now presented: what’s the cause of Dionyza’s attempt upon her life?

16. In Act 4, Scene 2, as a result of the failed attempt on Marina’s life, the young woman ends up at the mercy of brothel-keepers in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. In Act 4, Scenes 2 and 6, we are let in on the efforts of the Pander, his wife the Bawd and their man Boult’s efforts to acclimate Marina to the role of a prostitute. By what means does Marina get the upper hand not only on them but also on her would-be first customer, the Governor of Mytilene? How does the cumulative effect of these two scenes create a parallel between Pericles’ heroic qualities and Marina’s virtue?

17. 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 principles 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?

18. In Act 4, Scene 4, we hear from John Gower that Pericles has made his way by sea to Tarsus to see what has become of his daughter Marina, whom he hasn’t seen since he left her as an infant in the care of Governor Cleon and his wife 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 firm faith in the gods?


19. In Act 5, Prologue, John Gower tells us that Pericles’ ship has ended up at Mytilene’s harbor during a holiday dedicated to Neptune, god of the sea. Act 5, Scene 1 is taken up with the near-miraculous recovery by Pericles of his supposedly dead child, Marina, who guides him towards recognition of the truth and herself completes the realization of her own identity. How does Marina accomplish this impressive recovery or redemption?

20. In Act 5, Scene 3, Pericles obeys the dream vision of Diana he had towards the end of the previous scene, and makes his way to the goddess’ temple at Ephesus. How does Pericles and Marina’s wondrous recovery of Thaisa (and hers of them) unfold — what makes the necessary mutual recognitions possible? Why is Diana the appropriate goddess to guide the characters towards and preside over the happy romance ending: Pericles, Thaisa and Marina together again, with the addition of Lysimachus of Mytilene as Marina’s new husband?

21. General question: In alignment with a comic temporal sweep and favorable disposition of fortune and the gods, Shakespeare’s romance plays end happily, but they wouldn’t be “romances” if they didn’t involve considerable 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 © 2012, 2023 Alfred J. Drake (Changed to Act/Scene format)

The Tempest

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Norton Romances and Poems, 3rd edition, pp. 387-448).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what kind of “tempest” does Prospero stir up? Explain the resonance of the storm metaphor for this play. For example, what does the storm at the outset of the play do to notions about rank, worth, and so forth, as the characters on board the sinking ship argue with one another?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, how is Miranda positioned as a central character in the play, and what virtues does she appear to possess? How much does she know about her past, and what does she learn about her origins and status in this scene?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Prospero explain his loss of power and exile to Miranda? To what extent does he admit partial responsibility for his own downfall, and to what degree does he find others (his brother Antonio and the King of Naples) culpable?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, what kind of magic does Prospero wield? What seems to be the source of that magic, and to what ends is he presently employing it? Aside from Prospero’s magic, what role does Fortune or Providence (God’s plan) play in the first two scenes?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Prospero treat Ariel and Caliban? What does his treatment of them suggest about his understanding of power and its proper uses? In what sense might it be said that Prospero’s potential for tyranny is on display in this scene?

6. In Act 1, Scene 2, Caliban has sometimes been allegorized by modern critics as an island native facing the onslaught of European colonizers. 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?

7. In Act 1, Scene 2, How does Ferdinand understand his situation after the shipwreck? How does Ariel’s song reinforce Ferdinand’s perceptions? Why does Prospero treat Ferdinand as he does, in spite of his inward delight at Miranda’s admiration for the young man?


8. Act 2, Scene 1, what utopian vision of governance and society does Gonzalo set forth? How do Sebastian and Antonio respond to this vision? Does Gonzalo seem wise? What are his strengths and limitations?

9. Act 2, Scene 1, what course of action does Antonio urge upon Sebastian, brother of Alonso, King of Naples? According to Antonio, what opportunity has the tempest presented to Sebastian, and how should he respond? How does Ariel thwart this evil exhortation?

10. Act 2, Scene 2, how does the comic scene with Trinculo and Stephano complement the previous one with Antonio and Sebastian? Why do Trinculo and Stephano form a natural unit with Caliban?


11. In Act 3, Scene 1, what task has Prospero given Ferdinand? What sort of interaction between Ferdinand and Miranda takes place — upon what is their affection based, and in what manner do they declare that affection? How does Prospero react to their conversation, which he overhears without their knowledge?

12. In Act 3, Scene 2, what action does Caliban urge upon Stephano? What appears to be Caliban’s view of “politics”? In other words, how should power be won, who deserves to win it, and how should it be maintained? What weakness in understanding does Caliban show in this scene?

13. 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 Ariel offer up a banquet and then, appearing as a harpy, make the banquet disappear?

14. In Act 3, Scene 3, how does Prospero describe the sin of King Alonso of Naples? How does he punish Alonso for his role in banishing him? What effect does this punishment have upon the King?


15. In Act 4, Scene 1, what demonstration of his power does Prospero give Ferdinand and Miranda, and why does he offer them this demonstration? Who are Ceres and Iris, and what is the subject of their exchange?

16. In Act 4, Scene 1, Prospero utters his famous remark, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (156-58)? What is the immediate context of this remark in the scene, and how, more generally, does it apply to Prospero’s own magical powers?


17. In Act 5, Scene 1, Prospero seems quite willing to part with his magic at long last. Why so? What has it helped him to accomplish that is perhaps even more important than exposing the faults of his enemies and getting them to promise to restore him to his dukedom?

18. 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 on Shakespeare’s part, with respect to the couple’s island courtship and their prospects for a happy future?

19. In Act 5, Scene 1, what has Alonso learned from his ordeal as a temporarily bereaved father? How does he participate in the play’s successful resolution and setting-to-rights in this final scene?

20. In Act 5, Scene 1, what future lies in store for Prospero’s onetime minions Caliban and Ariel? What power or realm has Ariel symbolized throughout the play, and what life will he enjoy now that Prospero will soon have no further need of him?

21. In the epilogue, what prerogative does Prospero acknowledge as belonging to the audience? In what sense does Prospero here put himself in the situation of his own 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?

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

The Winter’s Tale

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

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


1. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the text represent the onset of Leontes’ jealousy? When, exactly, does he first become jealous? How does he interpret what he sees and hears before and after this onset? How might the first scene be described as a setup for Leontes’ unsettling transformation?

2. What effects does Leontes’ insane behavior have on those around him? How does Camillo in particular handle his predicament? How does his reaction compare to one or more other servants who suffer unjustly at the hands of their masters in Shakespeare’s plays?


3. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Hermione defend herself against the charges Leontes levels against her? How does she compare in this regard to, say, Desdemona from Othello, Cordelia from King Lear, or Imogen from Cymbeline? (You might want to consider also her remarks during the trial scene in Act 3, Scene 2.)

4. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, what role does Paulina play with respect to Hermione? How do her speech and attitude towards Leontes contrast with those of the Lords and of Antigonus, men who wait upon the King?

5. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, what considerations play upon Leontes? How do these scenes chronicle the breakdown of Leontes’ authority in his own court? How does this King’s brand of “tyranny” in wielding power compare to that of either Cymbeline or King Lear?


6. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hermione goes on trial and is absolved by the god Apollo’s unambiguous oracle. How does its reading affect Leontes? What brings the king to express remorse — what cures him of the state he’s been in since jealously first took hold of him, and what resolution does he make? Leontes’ change of heart may seem unrealistic, but in what sense might it be said to ring true?

7. In Act 3, Scene 3, Antigonus deposits the infant Perdita upon the “seacoast” of Bohemia, and 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, and how does the Clown’s relation of it afterwards amount to more than comic relief? In other words, how does the death of this character, combined with the abandonment of Perdita and her discovery by an old Shepherd, move the drama forwards both plotwise and thematically?


8. In Act 4, Scene 1, what powers does “Time” claim with regard to dramatic representation? What does “Time” ask of the play-going audience of Shakespeare’s day or, indeed, of any audience in any age?

9. In Act 4, Scenes 3 and 4, Autolycus enters the play with a song and takes part in the shepherds’ festivities. What ethos informs this character’s actions? What does he do in these scenes, and what effects do his actions have on others? How, if at all, does his presence at the festivities alter your perception of them?

10. In Act 4, Scene 4, Florizel (Polixenes’ son) courts Perdita in a rustic setting. Describe the style of their courting: how do they describe each other’s person and their affection for each other? What are their concerns for the present and their hopes for the future? How does their interaction offer us a “counter-vision” of sexuality, one that opposes Leontes’ dark imaginings about Hermione in Act 2?

11. In Act 4, Scene 4, Polixenes (in disguise) engages Perdita in a conversation about the relationship between artifice and nature. What position does each hold on this relationship — why doesn’t Perdita care for gillyvor flowers, and what argument does Polixenes make against her view? What larger implications does this conversation have for the redemptive role Perdita plays in The Winter’s Tale?

12. In Act 4, Scene 4, Polixenes reveals his true identity and spoils the intended wedding of his son Florizel with Perdita. Why does the King object to this marriage? Explain his concerns in terms of dynastic matters or statecraft. What claims does Polixenes make regarding his rights as a father, aside from these obvious matters of state?


13. 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?

14. In Act 5, Scene 1, how do the newly arrived Florizel and Perdita represent themselves to King Leontes? He does he receive them?

15. In Act 5, Scene 2, how does Leontes learn the true identity of Perdita as his long-lost daughter? How is the conversation between the Shepherd, the Clown, and Autolycus connected to or illustrative of the play’s more significant resolutions in this final act? To what extent does the traditional “rustics versus court-dwellers” argument matter in The Winter’s Tale? Is it central, or are other oppositions, patterns, and themes more important? Discuss.

16. In Act 5, Scene 3, Paulina stages the marvelous (but feigned) transformation of a supposed statue made by the Italian Julio Romano into the living Hermione. Paulina has, of course, known that Hermione was alive all the while. What is gained from the particular manner in which Hermione is revealed to Leontes and the entire court?

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