So There’s My Riddle, One that’s Dead Is Quicke

In the spring of 1611 Simon Forman, the Elizabethan doctor and magus, made notes upon the productions he had seen recently. He was among the thousands at the Globe who had gone to performances of Macbeth, Cymbeline and a brand-new play entitled The Winter’s Tale. Of Macbeth Forman principally noted the supernatural events and the prodigies. It seems from his account that the most extraordinary and effective scene was that in which Banquo’s ghost appears at the banquet. The witches obviously had a sensational effect, too, but from Forman’s account it is clear that they were played as “3 women feiries or Nimphes,”1 perhaps by the boy actors. Forman made a professional note to himself when he observed “Also howe Makbetes quen did Rise in the night in her slepe, & walke and talked and confessed all, & the doctor noted her wordes.”2 Forman also watched Cymbeline, for which he gives a bald summary of events; the spectacle of “a cave” impressed itself upon his imagination, so it must have been a striking effect somewhere within the “discovery space” of the stage. Forman is circumspect about The Winter’s Tale, although it is clear that the character who most entertained him was Autolycus “the Rog that cam in all tattered like coll pixci.” The part was no doubt played to great effect by Robert Armin, and led to Forman appending a note to “beware of trustinge feined beggars or fawninge fellous.”3

Shakespeare had been writing The Winter’s Tale in the preceding year, and its overwhelmingly pastoral setting has suggested to some critics that he wrote it at New Place in Stratford. The same reasoning would suggest that he wrote The Tempest while temporarily residing on an island in the Mediterranean. The Winter’s Tale is a play that could have been performed at the Blackfriars playhouse as well as the Globe; since they remained open for ten months of this year, 1611, it is likely to have been presented at both the indoor and outdoor theatres. The elaborately staged drama is crowned by the ultimate scene in which the supposed statue of Hermione is miraculously restored to life in front of her astonished husband and daughter. It is an exhilarating theatrical moment. Shakespeare may have previously seen it in action at two royal events. During the king’s entry into London in 1604, and during his opening of the New Exchange in 1609, statues also stirred into life and spoke. It may in fact have been one of the boys from the King’s Men who performed the feat at the New Exchange. Once Shakespeare had seen it, however, he had to use it.

The play was closer to a musical comedy than any previously written by him; there are six songs, five of them sung by Armin as Autolycus, with Robert Johnson as the very likely composer of the music. One song demands a trio. There are also two elaborate dances, by satyrs and by shepherds, which would have been closer to masque than popular folk dance. Music would also have been heard as the enchanted statue begins to move. It is perhaps indicative of the play’s appeal that it was performed at court on an unprecedented six occasions. It was better than a masque. It was a full-scale entertainment, drama and ritual all in one. Yet, as Forman suggests, it also pleased the great crowds at the Globe. Many of the scenes relied upon spectacle as much as sense. One long scene, one of the longest in all of Shakespeare’s works, depicts a sheep-shearing festival which becomes an image of timeless popular ritual. And there is the famous stage-direction in the third Act (1309-10):

This is the Chace,
I am gone for euer.
(Exit pursued by a Beare)

The bear was a familiar feature of Bankside, of course, and dancing or performing bears were also very common in the streets of London. But it is doubtful that the King’s Men used or borrowed a real animal from their colleagues in the baiting arena. It would have been more comic to have an actor in a costume. But the sudden and apparently random use of the animal testifies to Shakespeare’s extraordinary grasp of stage business. The appearance of the bear marks the transition in this play from the direst tragedy to the most whimsical comedy, and just such a diversion prepares the audience for the change in pace and tone. The pursuit of the old man by the bear is, of course, terrible and comic all at once. It is a symbol of the play itself.

As in all romances, or musical comedies, the passions in The Winter’s Tale are strident and ill-concealed. The principal themes are of insane jealousy followed by guilt and remorse; the unhappy and separated protagonists are then reunited in a scene of ultimate forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a play that induces happiness, and awakens hope, in its spectators. It is perhaps not coincidental that it was performed on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, and then again after the catastrophic death of James’s elder son and heir. The Winter’s Tale was something of a public benefit, a device to remove mourning. In this play the human and the natural come together, in the great ongoing rhythm of life itself. The poetry of the dialogue follows the natural fluencies and hesitations of thought itself; it is instinct with the life of the mind.

The principal source of the play is Robert Greene’s prose romance Pandosto, from which Shakespeare takes much of the material for his first three acts. It will be remembered that Greene was the author who, just before his death, had attacked “Shake-scene” inGroats-worth of Witte. Among other charges he accused him of plagiarism. Now, eighteen years later, Shakespeare was extracting matter from the dead man’s most popular work, making the whole plot more fanciful and more unreal. He may have permitted himself a moment of satisfaction. And then he called it a winter’s tale, an idle story, an old fable, a fireside extravagance. Shakespeare was not a sentimental man.

In this year, too, there were third editions of no fewer than three of his plays—Titus Andronicus, Hamlet and Pericles. These were plays from all the stages of Shakespeare’s career, from the very early Titus to the very late Pericles. He was now being recognised and measured by his total achievement. He could delight the royal family, please the audiences of Oxford, and entertain the great crowds at the Globe. It seems clear, in retrospect at least, that he had reached the very pinnacle of his career. And now he was on everyone’s lips. One author, writing upon the standards of “true writing,” refers to Shakespeare as one from whom “wee gather the most warrantable English.”4 In a letter of 1613 Leonard Digges, the stepson of Shakespeare’s executor, wrote of a “Booke of Sonets which with Spaniards here is accounted of their lope de Vega as in Englande wee sholde our Will Shakespeare.”5 Note that here he is “our” Shakespeare, already treated as a representative of the national literature.

For the winter season in late 1611 he returned to court with two new plays. In the revels accounts there are references, on 5 November, to “A play Called ye winters nightes Tale.” Four days before, “Hallomas nyght was presented att Whithall before ye kinges Maiestie a play Called the Tempest.”6 No significance can be read into the date of All Hallows, 1 November, when the poor would sing for soul-cakes. Yet there remains an air of enchantment, not unmixed with melancholy, about Shakespeare’s last completed play. He would collaborate with other dramatists in future productions, lending his skills and experience to the work of others, but The Tempest has the distinction of being the final work he wrote alone.

As in Pericles and The Winter’s Tale there are large elements of masque and music in The Tempest. It seems very likely that he wrote the play for production in the indoors playhouse of Blackfriars. It is very specifically designed for intervals between the acts, particularly that between the fourth and fifth act, when music would be played. Ariel and Prospero leave the stage together at the end of the fourth act, and then enter together at the beginning of the fifth. This would not have been possible at the Globe, where action was continuous and uninterrupted.

Shakespeare’s imagination was always roused by the sea. It is no accident, therefore, that he was drawn to the recently published accounts of colonial voyages. Two years previously, some colonists on their way to Jamestown, in Virginia, were blown by a severe storm onto the Bermudas. Shakespeare had read their adventures. He had also read a book entitled A True and Sincere declaration of the purpose and ends of the Plantation begun in Virginia as well as Silvester Jourdain’s A Discovery of the Bermudas, otherwise called the Ile of Divels, both published in 1610. He was already acquainted with some of the principal members of the Virginia Company, such as the Earl of Pembroke, and he had ready access to first-hand accounts of mutiny and insubordination among some of the colonists. He read Montaigne’s essay, “Of the Canniballes,” in Florio’s translation. He remembered Marlowe’s Faustus, and his schoolboy reading of Ovid and of the storm in Virgil’s Aeneid. There was a riding-master in London called Prospero. So all these things came together, stirred by the report of a great storm.

The Tempest begins with a great shipwreck with its “tempestuous noise of Thunder and Lightning” and the entrance of the mariners “wet.” From this first scene onward, Shakespeare explores in a wholly practical sense all the possibilities of the indoors stage. It is a play of almost continuous spectacle. There are songs with “solemne and strange Musicke” in a drama that is accompanied by music composed once more by Robert Johnson. The late plays could easily be identified as works “by Shakespeare and Johnson.” The elaborate effects of magic and the supernatural are also accompanied by instruments, as, for example, in the scene where the spirits enter “in seuerall strange shapes, bringing in a Table and a Banket; and dance about it with gentle actions of salutations.”And there was of course now the almost obligatory inclusion of the masque, heralded once more by music and by the goddess Juno’s descent upon the stage. Then enter “certaine Reapers (properly habited:) they ioyne with the Nimphes, in a gracefull dance”until they are dismissed by Prospero with the utterance of some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare (1612-14):

… we are such stuffe
As dreames are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleepe.

Shakespeare has created the most artificial of all plays that becomes a meditation upon artifice itself. The Tempest also has the distinction of using a classical form, with the unities of time and place, for the purpose of conveying completely non-classical, which is to say magical, effects. It is as if he were, like Prospero, writing a lesson in theatrical enchantment. It is sometimes concluded that Prospero is an image of Shakespeare himself, renouncing his “potent art” at the close of a successful theatrical career. But that seems an unwarranted supposition. There is no reason to believe that Shakespeare deemed his theatrical career to be at an end. The model for Prospero might in any case have been Doctor John Dee, the magus of Mortlake (where Shakespeare once stayed) who declared that he had burned his books of magic.

It is also sometimes suggested that at this late date Shakespeare was becoming disengaged from, or disenchanted with, the theatre; but the careful crafting of The Tempest suggests that he was still closely involved in all aspects of the drama. There is no sense of an ending.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!