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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 17. Last group: Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest

Last come the famous three: Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, where no idle fancy has seen “the calmed and calming mens adepta” of which one of all but the greatest of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Fulke Greville, speaks in a great passage of prose. The first and second were seen by Simon Forman, an astrologer of the day, in 1610 and 1611; The Tempest was certainly performed in 1613, and may have been written one or two years earlier—a theory which makes it not a late play at all is absurd and rebutted by the whole internal evidence. But internal coincides with external in allotting the three to the latest period possible: the versification supporting the general tone, and the intense romantic influence corroborating both. In respect of construction, however, there is a remarkable difference between Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, on the one hand, and The Tempest, on the other.

Cymbeline has by some been reproached with being, and by others regretfully admitted to be, the loosest and most disorderly play in Shakespeare. Not only does he take his largest romantic licence of neglecting unity of time and place—to that the reader must long have been accustomed. Not only does he mix plots and interests with the most insouciant liberality, as if he were making a salad of them. But he leaves his materials, his personages, his incidents, at a perfect tangle of loose ends. Still, the interest is maintained, partly because of the actual attraction of many of his episodes; partly because of the exquisite poetry which is showered upon the play in every direction; but, most of all, because of the perfect charm of the character of the heroine. That Shakespeare has equalled Imogen is certainly true; but he has never surpassed her, and he has never repeated or anticipated her.

Perhaps there is nothing more remarkable in these three plays, even among Shakespeare’s work, than the extraordinary beauty—both in phrase, passage and scene—of their separate parts. The word beauty is used advisedly. Here, in Cymbeline, for instance, fault may be found—irrelevantly, perhaps, but not ungroundedly—with construction, with connection of scenes and so forth. But those who look, not at the skeleton, but at the body, not at the mathematical proportion of features, but at the countenance, will hardly be disturbed by this. The two Imogen and Iachimo scenes; the whole episode of Belarius and his supposed sons; the miraculous song dirge which Collins, though he made a pretty thing of it, merely prettified—these are things impossible to conceive as bettered, difficult to imagine as equalled, or approached.

The Winter’s Tale has something, but less, of the same sublime neglect of meticulous accuracy of construction; it has, perhaps, a more varied interest; it has even more lavishness of poetical appeal. The “sea coast of Bohemia” is nothing; but the story, merely as a story, is certainly more romantic than dramatic. There is no character that approaches Imogen; for Perdita, exquisite as she is, has no character, properly speaking. The jealousy of Leontes, though an interesting variant on that of Othello and that of Posthumus, not to say on that of Master Ford, has a certain touch of ferocious stupidity, which Shakespeare probably intended, but which is not engaging. Hermione, admirable so far as she goes, is not quite fully shown to us; and, though Paulina is a capital portrait of what Ben Jonson declared his own wife to be—“a shrew but honest”—she does not go far. Autolycus, perhaps, is the only figure who fully displays the Shakespearean completeness. But the fascination of the play is quite independent of these knots in the reed. The abundance of it—the cheerful beginning and sombre close of the first Sicilian scenes; the partly tragic opening and pastoral continuation of the Bohemian; the tragicomedy and coup de théâtre of the end—is very great. But the suffusion of the whole with quintessenced poetry in the fashion just mentioned is greater. It appears chiefly in flash of phrase for the first three acts till the great storm scene at the end of the third, with the rather severe punishment of Antigonus and the contrasted farce of the shepherds. But, in the fourth, where comedy and romance take the place of farce and tragedy, and especially in Perdita’s famous flower speech, it overflows; and there is plenty of it in the fifth. Had Greene lived to see this dramatising of his story, he might have been more angry than ever with the upstart crow; if, as sometimes, though too seldom, happens, his stormy spring had settled into a mellow early autumn, he ought to have been reconciled.

But, while the charms of Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale appear in even greater measure in The Tempest, this astonishing swan song is open to none of the objections which, from some points of view, may lie against them. It is almost regular, so far as “time” is concerned; its violation of “place” is very small, being confined to the limits of one little island; and its “action” though, of course, of the English multiple kind, can be plausibly argued to be almost single in its multiplicity. The working of the spells of Prospero on all the important members of the shipwrecked crew in their diverse natures, qualities and importance—for correction on Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian (though these last two were probably incorrigible); for trial and reward on Ferdinand; for well deserved plaguing on Stephano and Trinculo—might have given more pause to Aristotle “if he had seen ours,” as Dryden says, than anything else. The contrast of Caliban and Ariel is almost classical in conception, though ultraromantic in working out. The loves of Ferdinand and Miranda at once repair and confirm according to justice the acquisition of Milan by Naples, which has been unjustly accomplished before the opening. In the management of the supernatural, too, Shakespeare once more shows that unique combination of power and economy which has been noted. But he has not, because of this extra expenditure—if, indeed, it was an extra expenditure—of trouble, in the very least stinted the outpouring of beauty on individual character, scene, passage, phrase or line. Ariel and Caliban among super- or extra-natural personages, and Miranda even among Shakespeare’s women, occupy positions of admitted supremacy. Prospero is of extraordinary subtlety; the butler and the jester are among the best of their excellent class. It is curious that this play makes a kind of pendant to Much Ado About Nothing in the nearness with which comedy approaches tragedy, though the supernatural element relieves the spectator of the apprehension which, in the other case, is not unjustified. The inset masque, too (to which there is a faint parallel in Cymbeline), is a remarkable feature, and adds to the complicated, and yet not disorderly, attractions of the piece. But these attractions are all-pervading. The versification, though in part of Shakespeare’s latest style, is of his best, in song and dialogue alike, throughout; and there are curious side interests in Gonzalo’s citation of Montaigne, and in other matters. But the main charm is once more in the poetry, to which the prose adds not a little. The vividness of the storm; the admirable protasis of Miranda and Prospero; Ariel, whenever he speaks, and Caliban not seldom—give this charm, while Prospero himself is always a master of it. Indeed, in the great parallel with Calderon of “life’s a dream,” led up to by the picture of the vanishing universe, it reaches one of the “topless towers” of poetry. To refuse to see an actual leave taking in this perfect creation with its (to say the least) remarkable prophecy of the “burial of the book” is, surely, an idle scepticism, considering the weight of positive evidence of all kinds which supports the idea. At any rate, if it were not the last, it ought to have been; and, though there are too many instances of non-coincidence between what ought to be and what is, we need hardly lay it down as a rule that what ought to have been could not be. The Tempest is not all Shakespeare: only all Shakespeare is that. But it may, at least, be pronounced a diploma piece of Shakespeare’s art.