A question of genre

Ah, these last four plays: The Romances (or Tragi-Comedies)…Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest (and if you’re wondering about that order, check out this posting from our discussion of the last play). How does The Tempest fit this?

Back when we were at the beginning of the genre and we were discussing the placement of Pericles we noted that 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.

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 The Tempest: complicated plot (ok, maybe, but the complexity really feels to have happened before the beginning of this play); unnatural situation (magic, Caliban…so yeah); quickly moving action (everything–and that’s not a whole lot–takes place in a single afternoon…but ask anyone who’s seen a bad production, the action within the play doesn’t exactly speed by); exotic locale (the island); noble character (Prospero? but how noble? or are we talking Gonzalo here?); exalted language (yup).

So, The Tempest: tragicomedy, I guess.

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 seem to massage Fletcher’s definition and defining elements: tragic start of play moves to a happy ending (nope, the “tragic” aspect is definitely twelve years before the play), reunion (nope, they were never apart, unless we’re talking about the reunion of Prospero and Gonzalo), supernatural appearances–primarily of pre-Christian gods (yup…remember that wedding masque), a mix of court and pastoral (no, unless you want to count Caliban/Trinculo/Stephano as pastoral).

So, The Tempest: more tragicomedy than romance… but even the tragicomedy placement is not solid.

But maybe that works in the viewing of this play (in the eyes of many, including Trevor Nunn) as more experiment than play.

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