William Shakespeare

The Mixture of Styles in Shakespeare's Last Plays: The Winter's Tale and The Tempest

by Liz Lewis
Stanley Wells claims that Shakespeare, who 'remained a restless experimenter to the end of his career', wished in the last plays to 'synthesise disparate elements in a manner that allows each to exert its energy'. In such plays as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest Shakespeare combines a mixture of comic and tragic styles, incorporating elements of both romance and realism in a manner which differs distinctly from the style of his earlier plays.

Technically speaking, both The Winter's Tale and The Tempest adopt a comic style, with the 'bad' characters being punished, and all strife reaching the comic plane of resolution at the end. However, although all suffering is overcome, in neither play can we find harmony restored in the way that is usual in comedy. In The Winter's Tale, for example, the reconciliation of Hermione and Leontes ends not on a note of joy, but on a reminder, through Leontes regretful words, of their separation and the time wasted:


Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand and answer to his part
Performed in this wide gap of time since first
We were dissevered. [V.iii.188]

In The Tempest too the final reconciliation of Prospero and Antonio has none of the vitality of comic harmony in it. Even in the words of forgiveness which Prospero speaks there is a note of blame:

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault [V.i.158]

Resolution is diluted by the lingering reminder of earlier discord, so that the general effect of the plays is far more bleak than would be typical of a comedy.

Furthermore in these last plays Shakespeare resolves not to adhere to the rule of comedy that no one should die. For example Mamillius, the cherished child of Hermione and Leontes, dies tragically due to grief for his mother's disgrace, his grieving sickness intensifying and growing like a cancer, along with the sickness of his father's jealous mind. The distressing impression created by this episode is a far cry from what we would expect from a comedy. This element of tragic form intensifies the moral condemnation of Leontes's behaviour in a way which a purely comic style could not.

The jealous rage of Leontes, in The Winter's Tale, and his subsequent treatment of Hermione, and Perdita, along with Hermione's feigned death, are also reminiscent of tragedy.

So too in The Tempest the plot can be viewed as matching perfectly the typical Elizabethan revenge tragedy, up until the point where Prospero and Miranda are banished on the sea. Bradley claims that we can categorise a play as a tragedy when a person of high rank suffers a fatal fall and experiences exceptional suffering. Prospero's neglect of his duties due to his 'being transported/ And rapt in secret studies' [1.ii.96], and Leontes's jealousy, followed by their consequent suffering, could thus by this rule suggest that the plays were tragedies.

When we compare the heroes' suffering with, for example, that of Lear or Macbeth, however, we cannot but be struck by the difference in their effect on us as an audience or reader. Aristotle, in his Poetics, claimed that tragedy aimed 'to arouse the emotions of pity and fear in such a way as to effect that special purging and relief (catharsis)'. Surely then by this standard these plays do not fit the tragic pattern. The heroes themselves seem to adhere more to the comic rule than the tragic in being realistic only in externals, and in essence more like 'types'.

To compare Leontes's jealousy with, for example, Othello's, illustrates this point. Although Leontes's jealousy is realistic in itself - as in the paranoid delusions, 'is whispering nothing? / Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses? / Kissing with inside lip?' [1.ii.339] - it seems to me to emerge conspicuously suddenly, and to be completely motiveless. Such absence of motivation is surely more commonly a feature of romance than of realistic tragic style; the effect on us being far less consuming than that which a straightforward tragedy would evoke. Such a mixture of styles can indeed prove elusive for an audience to absorb. The detachment which the comic style allows means that we must search harder for the more serious moral messages of the tragic theme. We are forced to work at understanding the play as opposed to merely absorbing what is presented to us.

This point between two styles to which Shakespeare brings us in his last plays, with for example the characters poised just on the brink of death, is neither comedy nor tragedy, or, both comedy and tragedy. This has led modern critics to categorise the last plays as 'Tragi-comedies'.

According to Greenblatt a feature of the tragi-comedies is that they expect us 'to imagine a turn of events against the evidence of our senses'. The statue scene in The Winter's Tale is one of the best examples of this. After believing that Hermione is dead, we must believe that she has been living for sixteen years in hiding, and that she now willingly parades herself as a statue before the husband and daughter she hasn't seen for so long, so that Paulina can stage her resurrection. We must furthermore believe that art can be a convincing enough assimilation of nature for us to be surprised that art turns out after all to be nature!

The effect of a style similar to that of pantomime on an Elizabethan audience, accustomed to plays such as Hamlet and Macbeth, must indeed have been great. For a modern audience too such scenes subvert our expectations. We must first accept that the play is not true to life, and thus allow the style of romance to draw us in. Indeed, the very title of the play prepares us for the romantic implausibility which the play is to contain. With this adjustment to the romantic style achieved we can accept the highly improbable events that will finally lead to the reconciliation towards which the play proceeds. For example Perdita's meeting - by 'chance' - with Florizel, the son of Polixenes, and of course the highly implausible event of Perdita being sent to her own father's house in order to wait out the rage of Polixenes over the marriage.

In The Tempest too we are presented with elements of romance, complete with the unrealistic location of a magical island, inhabited by the unlikely characters such as the magical spirit Aerial, and implausible events such as the survival of Prospero and Miranda in their insubstantial vessel against all the odds of the tempestuous winds. Despite this romantic style of presentation, however, the overall effect of the two plays is not on the whole unrealistic. This is because Shakespeare combines a mixture of realism with the romance, so that we are able to believe the unbelievable.

Shakespeare uses an extraordinary skill in his transition from one style to another, combining the disparate elements in order to achieve an overall unity. I will discuss two scenes from the two plays in order to illustrate this use of different styles:

In The Winter's Tale the trial scene of the third act is written in the realistic style of the tragic mode, the force of Leontes's accusations against Hermione evoking a sense of injustice in the reader / audience. Hermione's defence is emphatic and pathetic in tone:

. . . my past life
Hath been as continent, as chaste as true,
As I am now unhappy; which is more
Than history can pattern [3.ii.38]

A deep sense of pathos is inherent in the verse. Hermione is quietly, placidly, accepting of her fatal destiny. She is a victim, but a dignified victim. When news of Mamillius's death is brought - with all the urgency usually accompanying news of death in the tragic style - the pathos is intensified still further. The effect on Hermione is apparently fatal - she falls down, and Leontes is later - falsely - told that she has died.

Leontes's realisation of his grave error is equally tragic. The news of the death of his son finally exerts the necessary power over Leontes and brings him to his senses. Immediately he recognises his error and appeals to Apollo for pardon for his 'great profaneness' [3.ii.181].

With the tragic proportions of Leontes's actions established, Shakespeare now guides us onto the somewhat ludicrous account of Antigonus's dream of Hermione visiting him in his cabin at night:

[she] thrice bowed before me,
And, gasping to begin some speech, her eyes
Became two spouts [3.iii.31]

and the equally surprising stage-direction of his being chased towards his untimely end - 'pursued by a bear' [3.iii.67]. We have now reached the realm of romance.

With the tragic message established and the romance element introduced we can enter the pastoral world smoothly, with the knowledge of corruption and pathos to counterbalance the idyllic world of the pastoral. The pastoral style provides us with an antithesis to the realistic but corrupt world of the court, presenting a beautiful celebration of innocence and a new life into which the corrupt deeds of the past must be submerged.

Into this romance style, however, Shakespeare weaves another contradictory style, of realism, in the character of Autolycus, who in his comic rogueries seems wholly out of place in such a setting. After the highly emotional scene in which Florizel and Perdita are found out by Polixenes, Autolycus enters with tales of his robbery, saying, 'Ha, ha! What a fool honesty is' [4.iv.699]. The character of Autolycus serves both to retain the balance of tragedy by dampening the tension, and to subvert the romance with an element of realism which prevents the scene from becoming overly sentimental. Through this mixture of styles Shakespeare strengthens the effect of the scene.

In The Tempest, similarly, we are taken through a series of different styles which combine and compliment each other. The marriage celebration of Ferdinand and Miranda, complete with its spirits, seems at first to be a straightforward romantic celebration of the symbolic marriage of reconciliation; the Masque element heightening the celebration, and with the plentiful riches equalling the richness of the occasion. Juno's song illustrates this:

Honour, riches, marriage-blessing,
Long continuance and increasing,
Hourly joys upon you! [4.i.129]

Ferdinand's delight at such plenty is the delight of a reveller in a utopian world:

Let me live here ever!
So rare a wondered father and a wise
makes this place a paradise. [4.i.147]

It seems as if we have reached the harmonious ending of comedy and romance. But this impression is soon overthrown by another change in style. For through Prospero's sudden, anguished remembrance of the 'foul conspiracy' [4.i.177] of Caliban we are yanked back into the tragic plot; Caliban's plot being a microcosm of Alonso and Antonio's usurpation of Prospero's Dukedom. As this change of tone occurs all traces of the masque vanish 'and / Are melted into air, into thin air; / And, like the baseless fabric of this vision' [4.i.188]. The idealised world of romance and plenty is swallowed up into the corruption which exists in the real world. Harmony, we learn, cannot be achieved through such romantic heights; Prospero tells Ferdinand 'Our revels now are ended.' [4.i.187]. True harmony must be accomplished through a regeneration of the spirit, a freeing of the soul from corruption - symbolised in the freeing of the personified spirit Aerial. Magic and romance must be laid to rest, and resolution achieved through realistic means. Thus in The Tempest the unity is finally achieved through the tragic style.

This theme of renewal and regeneration is the moral message which ties together not only the disparate elements of style, but also the last plays as a whole. The themes of innocence and experience are tied up in this regeneration, the new offering innocent hope for an older, corrupted generation. Miranda and Ferdinand; and Perdita and Florizel, unite the broken relations of their fathers and seal the band of reconciliation. In The Tempest Prospero himself can also be seen to embody regeneration and spiritual development, for through his magic he brings about the repentance of Antonio and Alonso, and the marriage which is to achieve the regeneration.

Through Prospero also, the disparate styles are united. He is the symbolic figure in which the tragic events are rooted, for he is both victim of revenge tragedy and the hero who suffered from a fatal flaw. So too is he the instigator of the play's romance. With his magic wand we find he has caused the shipwreck of the first act, which initially seemed to be rooted in realism.

The mixture of styles in both plays are, then, successfully combined. They work together to produce a unified whole; separately and collectively combing to 'exert [an] energy' which enhances and balances the moral message of Shakespeare's last plays.

Bradley, A.C. Shakespeare and the Globe: Then and Now
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Shakespeare
Wells, Stanley.

© Liz Lewis December 2001

See also: British and Irish drama on film >

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