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Shakespeare & Beyond

The production's the thing: Thoughts on Shakespeare's Romances

Shakespeare romances
Shakespeare romances

Shakespeare’s later plays — Pericles, Cymbeline, The Two Noble Kinsmen, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest — have been referred to since the late 19th century as the Romances. This is not because they’re love stories (though love features in them), but because they’re epic tales filled with every device Shakespeare could think of — music, magic, storms at sea, special effects, masques, huge passages of time, and multiple settings — all in the service of usually redemptive tales of faith and family reunions.

Calling these later plays Romances is easier than calling them what really are: Tragedies with happy endings. As such, as interesting and compelling as they are on the page, they can sometimes be problematic on the stage. Shakespeare’s audience may have been familiar and comfortable with such relatively new early 17th-century fads as tragi-comedy and courtly masques created by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but unless the Romances are handled right, today’s audiences can sometimes get whiplash from what they perceive as a certain tonal inconsistency.

Looking at different stage productions of the Romances can be instructive in terms of understanding what makes them “work”. I’ve chosen two Romances to briefly comment on here: Pericles and The Winter’s Tale.