ENGL 204 / ENGL 339
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Shakespeare's Four Final Plays:
The Romances

"Romance" was not a generic classification in Shakespeare's time.  The modern term "romance" refers to a new kind of play, a hybrid of comic and tragic elements, developed and popularized by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher between 1607 and 1613 (their Philaster, 1609, is typical of the genre).  At the end of his theatrical career, Shakespeare wrote four such plays which are now commonly grouped together as the Romances:

  • Pericles (1607-1608); not included with SH's works until F3 (1664) 
  • Cymbeline (1609-1610); published in F1 as one of the Tragedies 
  • The Winter's Tale (1610-1611); published in F1 as one of the Comedies 
  • The Tempest (1611); published in F1 as one of the Comedies
Presumably, Condell and Heminges grouped Cymbeline with the tragedies and The Winter's Tale and The Tempest with the comedies because they felt that tragic elements predominated in the former and comic elements in the latter.

Because romances combine both tragic and comic elements, Fletcher called them "tragi-comedies" (a term which he coined in the preface to The Faithful Shepherdess, 1608; see As You Like It background materials for the influence of this play on pastoral comedy).  According to Fletcher, a tragi-comedy "wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy."  Like comedy, romance includes a love-intrigue and culminates in a happy ending. Like tragedy, romance has a serious plot-line (betrayals, tyrants, usurpers of thrones) and treats serious themes; it is darker in tone (more serious) than comedy.  While tragedy emphasizes evil, and comedy minimizes it, romance acknowledges evil -- the reality of human suffering.

Romance is a natural step in describing human experience after tragedy.  Tragedy involves irreversible choices made in a world where time leads inexorably to the tragic conclusion.  In Romance, time seems to be "reversible"; there are second chances and fresh starts.  As a result, categories such as cause and effect, beginning and end, are displaced by a sense of simultaneity and harmony.  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 own actions and choices; in Romance, characters respond to situations and events rather than provoking them.  Tragedy tends to be concerned with revenge, Romance with forgiveness.  Plot structure in Romance moves beyond that of tragedy:  an event with tragic potential leads not to tragedy but to a providential experience.

The providential "happy ending" of a Romance bears a superficial resemblance to that of a comedy.  But while the tone of comedy is genial and exuberant, Romance has a muted tone of happiness -- joy mixed with sorrow.  Like comedies, Romances tend to end with weddings, but the focus is less on the personal happiness of bride and groom (the culmination of an individual passion) than on the healing of rifts within the total human community.  Thus, whereas comedy focusses on youth, Romance often has middle-aged and older protagonists in pivotal roles.  Similarly, while tragedy deals with events leading up to individual deaths, Romance emphasizes the cycle of life and death.  While tragedy explores characters in depth (emphasis on individual psychology), Romance focuses instead on archetypes, the collective and symbolic patterns of human experience.  Compared to characters in a Shakespearean tragedy (or comedy), romance characters may seem shallow or one-dimensional.  But Romance characters are not meant to be psychologically credible; their experiences have symbolic significance extending beyond the limits of their own lives and beyond rational comprehension.  In Romance, the emphasis shifts from individual human nature to Nature.

Romance is unrealisticSupernatural elements abound, and characters often seem "larger than life" (e.g. Prospero) or one-dimensional (e.g. Miranda and Ferdinand).  Plots are not particularly logical (cause and effect are often ignored).  The action, serious in theme, subject matter and tone, seems to be leading to a tragic catastrophe until an unexpected trick brings the conflict to harmonious resolution.  The "happy ending" may seem unmotivated or contrived, not unlike the deus ex machina ("God out of the [stage] machinery") endings of classical comedy (where a God appears at the end of the play to "fix" everything).  Realism is not the point.  Romance requires us to suspend disbelief in the "unrealistic" nature of the plot and experience it on its own terms.

The Conventions of Shakespeare's Romances

Some of the characteristics of SHAKESPEAREAN ROMANCE include:

  • an enveloping conflict (war, rebellion, jealousy, treachery, intrigue) that may cover a large timespan (conflict begun a generation or more before the events of the play) and is resolved at the end of the play
  • happy endings to potentially tragic situations (e.g. apparent resurrection, sudden conversions, etc.);
  • improbable plots; rapid action; surprises; extraordinary occurrences (shipwrecks; disguises; riddles; children/parents lost and found; supernatural events/beings)
  • characters of high social class; rural and court settings; extremes of characterization (exalted virtue and deep villainy)
  • love of a virtuous hero and heroine; "pure" and "gross" loves often contrasted
Look for these Romance elements as you read The Tempest!

Click here for The Tempest Study Guide

Click here for information on Blackfriars Theater and The Tempest

Click here for information on Comedy

Click here for information on Tragedy

Contents of this and all linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1996-2015

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