Last things and last plays: eschatology in Shakespeare's romances

Marshall Ann, Cynthia, Department of English, University of Virginia
Kirsch, Arthur, English Language & Literature Dept, University of Virginia
Nohrnberg, James, English Language & Literature Dept, University of Virginia

In Renaissance England people thought more often and more hopefully about the end of the world than we do today. Popular expectations of an imminent Last Day were, for the most part, literal: Christ would descend, the dead would arise and be judged, and the faithful would be led off to a new reign of peace. The events of Doomsday were familiar from the scriptural readings for the Elizabethan Burial Service, they were described in popular religious treatises, and they had received dramatic currency in the medieval mystery cycles, memories of which remained. Shakespeare's last plays, with their recoveries of the dead, their emphasis OB forgiveness, their revelations of patterns of meaning in human life, reflect a humanistic and hopeful view of eschatology. Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest explore the possibility that the dead might not be lost forever, that suffering might not be the final truth of existence.

Hope functions by allowing the future to infect the present; its dramatization thus requires a cosmic viewpoint, such as that taken in Pericles. In performance, the action of Pericles seems random and paratactic, but when the sequence of events is viewed spatially, a pattern manifests itself. There are seven stretches of dramatic action, separated by Gower's choruses or by dumbshows. The thematic action of these seven episodes corresponds to that of the popular notion of the Seven Ages, a medieval historical scheme that drew an analogy between human history and the seven days of creation.

Several critics have cited Cymbeline as the most overtly Christian of the romances. But they have based their nomination on the historical fact of Cymbeline's reign coinciding with the birth of Christ, and the thematic emphasis (itself unremarkable in Shakespearean comedy) on mutual forgiveness. The apocalyptic ramifications of the play have been overlooked: the manifold confusion of plot strands achieves final clarification in the play's last scene, as the purposes and meanings of temporal existence will be revealed on Judgment Day.

In each of the last plays a character believed to be dead is recovered; the awakening of Hermione's statue in The Winter's Tale delivers the greatest dramatic impact because it startles the audience as well as the characters on stage. Part of the scene's power derives from verbal and scenic echoes of the Resurrection plays in the mystery cycles. But Shakespeare secularizes Christian miracle, while retaining its access to wonder. The focus falls on Leontes, who repents and receives grace, rather than on Hermione, who ostensibly survives death. Shakespeare's concern is not with resurrection, which remains a mystery, but with the resulting reunion, which one can understand and hope for.

This concern with reunion after death suggests a basic Christian paradox--that man's deepest hope is to recover what he has lost. The concept of paradise, which signifies both the lost estate of the past and the anticipated reward of heaven, embodies this curious dialectic of loss and recovery. The Tempest's mutual regard for past and future, its suspension of mood between bitterness and hope, indicate that Prospero indeed rules an "island paradise." The Tempest, and the last plays in general, mimic the liminal position of the Apocalypse itself, for they recapitulate the plays that have preceded them while offering glimpses of a world in which all things are changed.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Shakespeare, William -- 1564-1616 -- Criticism and interpretation, Eschatology in literature
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