“Romance” was not a generic classification in Shakespeare’s time. The plays of Shakespeare’s final period (1608-12) are called Romances. In Shakespeare’s own time they were simply classified as tragedies or comedies. These plays are Pericles, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. Perhaps another play The Two Noble Kinsmen also may be included in this group. They are called romances because they exhibit several characteristics of romance literature.
Shakespeare must have written these plays under the influence of his younger contemporaries Beaumont and Fletcher whose tragic comedies were becoming very popular. The masques at the court of James 1 also must have influenced Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s romances are, in fact, neither tragedies nor comedies but are a mixture of both.
Dowden has pointed out that the last plays of Shakespeare reveal sobriety, serenity, and sanity as contrasted with the storm and strain of the tragedies. They supplement the tragedies with their more relaxed atmosphere and are marked by great forbearance, a sense of reconciliation, and forgiveness. However, Lytton Strachey thinks that these plays express a mood of boredom rather than serenity.
Romance is a natural step in describing the human experience after a tragedy. In Romance, time seems to be “reversible”; there are second chances and fresh starts. As a result, categories such as to cause and effect, beginning and end, are displaced by a sense of simultaneity and harmony. The tragedy is governed by a sense of Fate (Macbeth, Hamlet) or Fortune (King Lear); in Romance, the sense of destiny comes instead from Divine Providence.
Tragedy depicts alienation and destruction, Romance, reconciliation, and restoration. In tragedies, characters are destroyed as a result of their actions and choices; in Romance, characters respond to situations and events rather than provoking them. Shakespeare had made use of romance material throughout his career The Two Gentlemen of Verona is based on a famous romance, for instance, and small-scale masques are performed in many plays, while others contain masque-like elements.
The romances of Shakespeare have certain common characteristics. They have motifs common in romance literature such as improbable happenings, separation, wanderings, reunion, and reconciliation. They contain several elements of the tragicomedies made popular by Beaumont and Fletcher. There are only a few memorable characters in these plays Shakespeare has returned to his lyrical style of the earlier plays.
The main characteristics of the Shakespearean romances:
- The scene of these plays is unknown, remote and the setting is imaginary. Cymbeline is set in early Britain and the setting of The Tempest is somewhere in the Mediterranean.
- The happenings are fanciful. There is no logical cause-and-effect relationship. In the light of reason, the events may appear absurd. The feats of magic in The Tempest, the concealment of Hermione for sixteen years in The winter’s Tale, and the abduction of the two sons of Cymbeline would appear unnatural. But in Shakespeare’s world of imagination, these events are delightful.
- Characters are types. They do not have the marked personalities of the characters in the great comedies or tragedies. However, heroines are more memorable than heroes. Miranda, Perdita, and Imogen are lovely but weak. Villains like Iachimo in Cymbeline and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale are not hardened, villains. Even Ferdinand in The Tempest is no match for Benedick or Orlando.
- The supernatural element is predominant in romances. The Tempest and Cymbeline are examples. The Tempest also shows Prospero’s magic and the elusive character Ariel. In The Winter’s Tale, the Delphic Oracle is introduced and in Pericles, the King’s wife Thaisa becomes a priestess in the temple of Diana.
- In romance’s sea is dominant. There is a shipwreck in Pericles and The Tempest. Sea voyages are mentioned in all of them. Sea is the symbol of regeneration.
- The romances are marked by a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. In The Tempest, Prospero forgives his wicked brother Antonio; in Cymbeline posthumous reconciles with Hermione.