- Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing: Authorship in the Proximity of Death
"The attribution of a late phase and a late style," Gordon McMullan writes, "is a way to distinguish a certain elite of artists from the merely productive, to provide a way to make key individuals stand apart from others" (248). For him, the understanding of periods in Shakespeare's development and style can be traced back to Edward Dowden's Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875), prompted by F. J. Furnivall, who had recently formed the Shakspere Society and felt a biography could transform the study of Shakespeare.
Dowden established four periods in the playwright's life, the last characterized by "a certain abandonment of the common joy of the word, a certain remoteness from the usual pleasures and sadnesses of life, and at the same time, all the more, [a] tender bending over those who are like children still absorbed in their individual joys and sorrows" (4l5; quoted McMullan, 53). Dowden called the last plays the "Romances" and noted in his "Literature Primer" of 1877 in regard to Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest that "the spirit of these last plays is that of serenity which results from fortitude, and the recognition of human frailty; all of them express a deep sense of the need of repentence and the duty of forgiveness. And they all show a delight in youth and the loveliness of youthful joy, such as one feels who looks on these things without possessing or any longer desiring to possess them" (60, quoted 53). McMullan maintains that this definition has persisted from Dowden's day until our own and he tests it in other fields: Rembrandt in art (and, later in his study, Paul Klee), and Beethoven in music. "Lateness," McMullan concludes, "is a particularly intense form of individuation. It is profoundly, exclusively author-focussed" (226-27) and can be "a concept creative artists and critics have together established in order to negotiate the proximity of death" (65). It is, therefore, "less a demonstrable phenomenon than a redemptive fantasy of rejuvenation" (62).
But for McMullan this is too easy and too sweeping to bear the weight of evidence. He does find that the last years of his representative artists produce works "marked by a sharp stylistic break, a caesura or rupture in their mode of expression" (35) and he agreees with Russ McDonald (in Shakespeare's Late Style ) [End Page 1414] on the difficulty and intransigence resulting from ellipsis, distillation, deformed phrases, directional shifts, and intricate syntax. But at the same time McMullan is insistently reminded that Shakespeare's late plays were not written in old age. "Shakespeare was not old when he wrote either The Tempest or his share of The Two Noble Kinsmen or, for that matter, when he died. He was in fact only forty-three (give or take six months) when he began work on Pericles, the first of the so-called 'late plays,' and forty-nine when he finished on the Kinsmen middle-aged, certainly" (285). In fact, McMullan gives special attention to King Lear, a play written around 1606, and compares it —the form of a journey, the conflict of father and daughter, the confrontation of old age —as a play related to the late romances.
He suggests, following Gary Taylor, that perhaps some of these attributes are sharpened if the play was revised several years later. McMullan's final chapter is given over to performances of Prospero, most extensively by John Gielgud and Mark Rylance. Their varying interpretations suggest the shortcomings of Dowden's observation.
McMullan's study is dense, thoughtful, self-reflexive, and personal, but it is the first truly comprehensive examination of what lateness and late works can and cannot mean. By placing Shakespeare in the context of his own theater and his own contemporaries, as well as alongside late Conrad (especially Victory), the late Henry James, and Goya...