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Shakespeare, Shakespeare's last plays, romance plays


From time to time literary critics have claimed that Shakespeare's undisputed last plays—Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest—are, to varying degrees, concerned with the main characters' learning experiences. These claim range, for example, from Stephen Orgel's aargument that adversity schools Alonso and Prospero in humility to Northrop Frye's assertion that education provides the means for the protagonists of the last plays to recover some sort of paradise. In other words, critics over the years have claimed in different ways that the last plays are either educational or epistemological romances. And yet no one, to my knowledge, has tried to explain why Shakespeare was inclined to make dramatic romance so especially concerned with various and complex ways of knowing. In this essay I argue that Shakespeare, in his last plays, established a kind of play—a "romance of knowing"—previously not seen in a fully articulated form on either the Elizabethan or the Jacobean stage. In fact, in establishing this new kind of play, Shakespeare was adapting a hybrid genre created by sixteenth-century nondramatic writers. Criticism has yet to explain how this hybrid genre developed so that Shakespeare near the end of his career could fit his interest in the limitations and the redemptive potential of human learning with a form ready made for it.