Genre, pivots, and order: The Winter’s Tale

Now, I don’t know how long it’s been, but as long as I can remember, I’ve thought/been told that the order of the last few plays by Shakespeare, all romances, goes Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest (with the fourth romance, Pericles, preceding Cymbeline’s predecessor, Coriolanus). But now I’m discovering that there are some dissenting views.

Now, you know I love the New Oxford Shakespeare, especially with its Authorship Companion, and it says that the order of Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale should be switched, with this play coming before. Earlier in our discussion, I said the following:

The New Oxford Shakespeare reverses the order of the two, however, with The Winter’s Tale coming out before Cymbeline. They admit, “Stylistically, narratively (loss, separation, reunion, and redemption), and generically (Romance), they seem to have been written in the same period” (Taylor and Loughnane. “The Canon and Chronology.” The New Oxford Shakespeare: Authorship Companion, Oxford University Press. 2017. 579.).

So why place this one first?

Well, Cymbeline has no allusions to Plutarch whereas The Winter’s Tale does. This (among other reasons), they argue, places this play closer to the Plutarch-heavy plays of Timon, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra (579). They take this to mean that as Shakespeare moved further away from those plays, he used fewer and fewer allusions to Plutarch, putting The Winter’s Tale first.

This is not to say, I take the New Oxford’s word on this, just because.

But I do think my ordering should be adjusted with this play preceding Cymbeline. And here’s why…

Look at the four romances. Each full narrative begins (in other words, with backstory if needed), with a male ruler. Who then has a daughter. Who might then be separated from her (or he and she may be separated from something). Who will withstand a jump over a “gap in time.” Only to end the play, by giving her away (or allowing her to stay) in marriage.

In Pericles and this play, we see that “gap in time” take place between the third and fourth acts. In both, the male ruler is separated from his daughter (by his own choice) and his wife (not by his choice, but by assumed death…which may have been caused by a decision he makes). We then follow the daughter exclusively in Act Four, with (all) their (magical) reunion and happy ending in Act Five, with a wedding to follow.

In Cymbeline and The Tempest, I’d argue, that gap in time takes place just before the play begins. In Cymbeline, Belarius kidnaps Guiderius and Arviragus from the court and takes them into the woods of Wales. Some twenty years later, the play begins, with the daughter Innogen still in the company of her father Cymbeline (but not her dead mother). In The Tempest, Antonio usurps his brother Prospero’s rule in Milan, and casts off Prospero and his daughter Miranda, who then land on the island. Some twelve years later, the play begins with the daughter Miranda still in the company of her father Prospero (but not her dead mother).

I think the thematic and narrative differences between the two pairs of play support the change in assumed compositional order (and is consistent with the New Oxford’s more math-based order).

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