The plays of Shakespeare’s final period (1608-12) are called Romances. In Shakespeare’s own time they were simply classified as tragedies and comedies. Shakespeare must have written his tragedy and comedy plays under the influence of his younger contemporaries. Beaumont and Fletcher were very popular. The masques at the court of James I 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 society, 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, sense of reconciliation and forgiveness. However, Lytton Strachey thinks that these plays express a mood of boredom rather than serenity.
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 tragi-comedies made popular by Beaumont and Fletcher. There are only a few memorable than heroes. In these plays Shakespeare has returned to his lyrical style of the earlier plays.
1. The scene of these plays is unknown, remote and the setting is imagery. Cymbeline is set in early Britain and the setting of the Tempest is somewhere in the Mediterranean.
2. The happenings are fanciful. There is no logical cause and effect relationship. In the light of reason, the events 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 two sons of Cymbeline would appear unnatural. But in Shakespeare’s world of imagination these events are delightful.
3. The romances are full of anarchronisms, long lapses of time (as in The Winter’s Tale), wizardry and fantastic voyages (as in The Tempest). These become part of the apparatus of the play.
4. Characters are types. They do not have marked personalities of the characters in the great comedies or tragedies. However, heroines are most 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.
5. Pastoral scenes are a part of the romances. In The Winter’s Tale, Florizel and Perdita are a part of pastoral life.
6. The supernatural element is predominant in the 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.
7. In the romances sea is dominant. There is shipwreck in Pericles and The Tempest. Sea voyage are mentioned in all of them. Sea is a symbol of regeneration.
8. The romances show breakdown of family relationships, separation of family members and their eventual reunion and restoration. In the opening of each play a father looses the offspring through his own folly and at the end the child is restored. This recovery of lost children is a part of the romances. In The Winter’s Tale, Perdita is restored to King Leontes; in Cymbeline the two sons of the king is restored; in The Tempest Fredinand is restored to his father and in Pericles, Marina is restored to her father, the King.
9. The romances are marked by a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. In The Tempest, Prospero’s forgives his wicked brother Antonio; in Cymbeline Posthumous reconciles with Imogen and in The Winter’s Tale, Leontes reconciles with Hermione.
10. In the romances there is an assumption that the events in the world of the play are subject to forces other than normal. There is a sense of magical reason of the errors of action. This assumption helps to enhance the dramatic situation and keeps the audience aware of the mystery of human personality.
A critic has called the romances ‘divine comedies’ because the divine grace imposes its beneficent will on the humans. The romances are ethical and spiritual and are the creations of an older and more sober Shakespeare. As Dowden has pointed out, the one word that interprets Shakespeare’s last plays is ‘reconciliation’, a word ‘over all, beautiful as the sky’.