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“From strange to stranger”: The Problem of Romance on the Shakespearean Stage


Long scorned for their strange inconsistencies and implausibilities, Shakespeare’s romance plays have enjoyed a robust critical reconsideration in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But in the course of reclaiming Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest as significant works of art, this revisionary critical tradition has effaced the very qualities that make these plays so important to our understanding of Shakespeare’s career and to the development of English Renaissance drama: their belatedness and their overt strangeness. While Shakespeare’s earlier plays take pains to integrate and subsume their narrative romance sources into dramatic form, his late romance plays take exactly the opposite approach: they foreground, even exacerbate, the tension between romance and drama. Verisimilitude is a challenge endemic to theater as an embodied medium, but Shakespeare’s romance plays brazenly alert their audiences to the incredible. When a corpse is miraculously revived in Pericles, a bystander muses, “Is not this strange?” When Time comes onstage to skip the plot of The Winter’s Tale ahead by sixteen years, he defensively admits that the audience might view this gap as a “crime” against the dramatic unities. After hearing that three Britons defeated the entire Roman army in Cymbeline, a lord says, “This was strange chance.” After a string of improbable events in The Tempest, Alonso complains that “they strengthen / From strange to stranger.”

“From strange to stranger”: The Problem of Romance on the Shakespearean Stage offers a novel perspective on these issues by showing how Shakespeare’s romance plays conscientiously revive a dramatic genre that had fallen into disuse and disrepute as an abjuration of the highly coherent and unified dramaturgy that superseded it. Because of its otherworldliness and endlessness, romance was derided by opponents and defenders of imaginative literature as indecorous, incredible, and idle. When combined with drama, which was considered exceptionally suasive and therefore dangerous, romance seemed to its critics to present more than technical problems; it presented ethical problems as well. Although overwhelmingly popular in the early decades of the English playhouses, romance had largely disappeared from the stage by the 1590s as English drama became more sophisticated, unified, and realistic.

Looking at moments in Shakespeare’s romance plays that draw our attention to their generic belatedness and formal strangenesses, this dissertation demonstrates that Shakespeare revives romance as a dramatic genre in order to pose ethical questions about community and representation through apparently technical questions of genre and decorum. I show how Pericles argues for the cultivation of virtue through promiscuous mingling; how The Winter’s Tale pathologizes absolute autonomy—which Sir Philip Sidney famously claims in The Defence of Poesy for the poet and the poet alone—as destructively tyrannical; and how Cymbeline seeks multiplicity and plurality as an alternative to hegemonic unity to fashion the new British empire in relation to Rome. Finally, I explain why The Tempest ostentatiously employs dramatic strategies for unifying a play, only to conclude with Prospero’s gesture of release. Rejecting sophistication, mastery, and hegemonic unity, Shakespeare embraces romance’s expansiveness of time, place, and action, and opens up drama to become more ethically and aesthetically capacious in its representational possibilities.

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