- Shakespeare’s Late Style, and: The Staging of Romance in Late Shakespeare: Text and Theatrical Technique
The late plays of Shakespeare, with their unique poetic style and irregular dramatic form, have proven to be a challenge for scholars and artists alike. Why did Shakespeare begin to write romances? Is “romance” even an accurate term to use when categorizing these plays? Why did Shakespeare alter his poetic style so dramatically at such a late point in his career? These are some of the predominant questions that drive late-Shakespeare scholarship. Two recent publications, Shakespeare’s Late Style by Russ McDonald and The Staging of Romance in Late Shakespeare by Christopher Cobb, offer in-depth explorations of these questions as well as some intriguing [End Page 160] answers. While the authors approach this subject using two completely different methodologies, the conclusions they draw are relatively similar. Both McDonald and Cobb argue that Shakespeare’s unique stylistic and formal choices were purposeful and necessary in order to have a certain desired effect: to make spectators identify as closely as possible with characters inhabiting highly theatricalized worlds.
Russ McDonald approaches these plays by examining the minutiae of Shakespeare’s language and dramatic structure in order to make broader claims about style and genre. In his introduction, he reviews late-Shakespeare scholarship and argues that his study is different, because he begins “with microscopic units such as syllables and lines” (2), and then moves outward. Before examining these finer points of language and syllable, however, in chapter 1, McDonald looks more closely at Shakespeare’s tragic plays written just prior to this final period, concluding that these plays already illustrate Shakespeare’s changing attitude toward language, the representation of women, and the very nature of theatre itself. Turning his attention to those “microscopic units” in chapter 2, McDonald examines Shakespeare’s use of elision to achieve a kind of “radical compression” whereby complex ideas are packed into very few words (77). Chapters 3 and 4 look more closely at the syntax of the late plays, arguing that the sentence structure of this late style is often initially confusing, but ultimately rewarding to spectators who trust the playwright to deliver a clear meaning. McDonald carries this theme of rewarding audiences with a poetically pleasing style through to chapter 5, where he looks at Shakespeare’s use of repetition, highlighting the playwright’s masterful use of such poetic devices as assonance and consonance.
McDonald draws several different conclusions regarding the style and genre of these late plays. Throughout the book, he endeavors to establish direct connections between Shakespeare’s complicated style of poetry and the complicated dramatic form of romance. He suggests that the wandering events of the play are as unpredictable as the shapes of the sentences used to tell the story, and that both sentence and plot may best be viewed as a journey: “[the] shape and result of the travels in the romances are useful for thinking about the progress of the audience through the dramatic action and, more specifically, about its difficult journey through the verbiage” (145). This journey also reflects Shakespeare’s renewed interest in the possibilities of language, as he “invites the audience to relish the words themselves, not only for their power to illuminate but for their power to delight” (250). Given their heightened theatricality, the desire to delight must surely have been a motivating factor in the construction of these late plays. According to McDonald, “this commitment to unreality bespeaks Shakespeare’s new and positive view of illusion, his rededication of himself to the power of fantasy and frank theatricality” (180).
McDonald concludes that the genre of romance had inherent values that appealed to Shakespeare at this point in his career. Shakespeare uses cultural judgment against romances to his advantage, since he is clearly “mocking their reputation, and yet at the same time insisting on their value” (232), for instance in...