A question of genre

Pericles: tragicomedy. Or romance. (and not Gaga’s “Bad Romance”)

But what does that mean?

We know what a history is. Pericles ain’t one.

We know what a tragedy is. Pericles ain’t one, either.

We know what a comedy is. Pericles? Maybe, but it doesn’t feel right.

We know what a “problem play” is (well, sorta). Pericles could be one of those. But still…

So tragicomedy? But–again–what does that mean? One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (and thought to be one of his collaborators in plays like Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, two plays from the same late Shakespearean period that produced Pericles), John Fletcher, in the introduction for a play of his own, provided a kind of definition for tragicomedy:

A tragi-comedie is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie.

OK, so that fits (but then again, it also fits some of our “problem plays”…especially The Merchant of Venice, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure). But the plays that Fletcher subsequently wrote contained some elements that became part of the unofficial definition:

  • Unbelievable (and complicated) plots
  • Situations defying natural explanation
  • Quickly moving action (note not plot)
  • Noble characters
  • Love as thematic element
  • Much use of high and exalted language

So Pericles: complicated plot (and certainly one that ties up loose ends a bit too conveniently–I mean Antiochus and daughter struck by lightning…really?); unnatural situation (Thaisa); quickly moving action (in the first two acts, we get the flight from Antioch, return to Tyre, saving Tarsus, shipwreck in Pentapolis, tournament, and a wedding planned); exotic locale (Antioch, Mytilene); noble character (Pericles); exalted language (Gower).

Pericles: tragicomedy.

But what about romance? The concept of “Shakespeare’s late romances” (and, yes, that’s a thing) has been the subject of much critical exploration and debate. But his last four major plays (and in this, my placement of Coriolanus after Pericles may be generically, if not chronologically, incorrect) seem to massage Fletcher’s definition and defining elements: tragic start of play moves to a happy ending (check), reunion (check check), supernatural appearances–primarily of pre-Christian gods (check), a mix of court and pastoral (check, but here it’s more high-born and low-brow).

I like both terms. You’ll see I used “Romance” in my navigation for the website, but I only did that because I didn’t want to risk “Tragicomedies” messing with the interface on some browsers.

But if I had to make a choice (and I don’t), at this point in the Project, I’d go with Tragicomedies.

Do you have a preference?

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