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Restoration of harmony in Shakespeare's last plays.


The writing of this essay is influenced by the fact that English literature has been phased out in many schools in Lesotho, especially at high school level. The implication of phasing out the subject is that students miss out on many life-experiences they could have learnt through the study of literature in all its genres. Novelists and playwrights deduce meaning from everyday experiences and And a way in which to educate society, either through humour or tragedy expressed in their stories.

In the last plays Shakespeare demonstrated a positive outlook towards life and human nature generally. His earlier writings, such as the tragedies, were written with a defeatist disposition, similar to Sigmund Freud's psychological theory, psychoanalysis, which states that errors committed in the early development of a child influence the entire adult human development (Meyer, Moore & Viljoen, 2003). Both Shakespeare's tragedies and Freud's psychoanalysis theory show that the errors one makes in his/her early life are dangerous and irreparable. However, in the last plays which are otherwise called romances, people are trusted to have the power to change and repair their wrongs when given enough room and time. The last plays can be compared to another psychological theory, namely Carl Rogers's 'person-centred theory' (Meyer, Moore & Viljoen, 2003, p. 363) which maintains,' ... people are aware of their positive and negative attributes, that the constructive will triumph over the destructive.' So Shakespeare in the last plays emphasises a person's role as the designer of his or her life.

Exploring the concept harmony in Shakespeare's last plays

Shakespeare, as a playwright, was concerned with various issues in human life. He examined the Elizabethan belief in the order or chain of being. His focus was on the notion of whether kings are endowed with divine right to rule, by God, regardless of their weaknesses, or whether a weak king should be overthrown. The idea is broadly explored in the history plays. History plays ask a serious question: who should be the ruler; the king, or any sensible person strong enough for the duty?

The idea transcends history plays to tragedies, which expatiate upon human weaknesses leading to their destruction. Tragedy shows human nature as blind to its shortcomings, leading to a prolonged physical or mental suffering, ending with the hero's death. Shakespearean comedy, on the other hand, laughs at the foibles of human life. It views life in a simple and humorous manner. Cheadle (1977, p. 56) writes, 'Shakespearean comedy affirms that despite the muddle of human intentions and human aspirations, misunderstandings can be cleared up.'

Romances are neither history plays, tragedies nor comedies. They were a new kind of drama Shakespeare wrote. Tragedies reveal the seriousness of human life ending in utter destruction. Likewise, the last plays employ a serious mood, however, in them, as Swinden (1973, p. 155) expounds, 'situations that threaten dismay and disaster invariably resolve themselves into concord and harmony.' That is, the romances end in a note that is different from that of tragedies. Sutherland (1939, p. 166) summarises the differences between these two types of drama as he says that the crimes in the final plays, unlike in the tragedies, do not triumph. They fail. And the criminals are forgiven and reconciled to their opponents; they are not killed like Macbeth, Edmund, and Claudius. The curtain falls on life and the discovery of the lost royal children who are well and alive. In tragedies characters with whom we sympathise, die before the end of the play--Othello, Brutus, Hamlet, Desdemona, Cordelia and Lear. In the romances they live--Posthumus, Imogen, Marina and Perdita. Even if they died or seemed to die, they are miraculously restored to life--Hermione and Thaisa in The Winter's Tale and Pericles respectively.

Moreover, time seems to play an important role in all the romances. The plot structures are governed by a lapse of time; we move from present events to about twelve to sixteen years later, whereupon there is a new beginning which has been generated to compensate for the the long years of suffering. Thus, time is both the destroyer and restorer of human life and Shakespeare also shows the influence of the gods who help to solve crises of human life. Shakespeare in the final plays 'was evidently preoccupied with the way time restores as well as destroys' human life (Swinden, 1973, p. 155).

Equally important, in all the romances Shakespeare exhibits the power of either spirits or gods more than in any other type of drama he wrote earlier. Smidt (1966, p. 433) writes, 'the presence of gods, whether seen or unseen, adds a metaphorical dimension to the play which enhances our sense of cosmic significance.' The events of The Tempest, on the one hand, are directed by spirits, the results of Prospero's magical power. The events in Cymbeline, Pericles and The Winter's Tale are governed by the gods Jupiter, Diana and Apollo respectively. Thus, it can be concluded that 'the gods intervene in human affairs to remedy a situation that has become intolerable ... the cosmos is responsive to individual needs' (Hellenger, 1976, p. 11).

Generally speaking, children seem to be the major focus in the romances in that all of the latter deal with the discovery of lost royal children. These children also influence, to a large extent, the recreation, regeneration, reconciliation and harmony through their innocence and love, which end in marriage. However, none of the romances can be called a comedy because, as Swinden (1973, p. 177) states, 'none of these plays is very funny.'

In the last plays maturity is contrasted with youth. Maturity breeds corruption and death while 'youth is conceived as a power; as a renewer of life and antagonist to death' (Knight, 1947, p. 177). For example, in The Winter's Tale Leontes' aggression and self-inflicted pain is contrasted with his son's innocence and playfulness. At the end of the play Leontes' daughter Perdita and Polexine's son Florizel bring about reconciliation between the two kings through their love and marriage. Similarly, in The Tempest Ferdinand and Miranda reunite their fathers Alonso and Prospero respectively, through their true love. Equally important, in Cembeline, if it was not for the boys Belarius had kidnapped and raised, Cymbeline would hardly forgive and welcome Belarius back in his kingdom. Accordingly, had Marina in Pericles not been discovered mysteriously, Pericles--her father--was heading towards self-destruction by over-meditating on his misfortunes. Thus, it could be concluded that children in all the last plays bring about recreation, regeneration and harmony at the end of the plays.

Like Othello, The Winter's Tale is the study of evil brought about by sexual jealousy. Othello's jealousy, on the one hand, is caused and motivated by his ancient, Iago. Leontes' evil, conversely, is intrinsic, unmotivated and further disapproved by his trusted lord Camillo. Both plays deal with the royal men who erroneously think they have been made cuckold by their trusted friends. A further parallel can be drawn between Hermione and Paulina, on the one hand, and Desdemona as well as Emilia, on the other. However, Paulina outperforms Emilia in her personality, because she does not at some point connive with her husband to sell her mistress's reputation. She rejects evil from the onset and does not hesitate to oppose the King himself with the truth she has about her mistress. Although the plays share similar tragic patterns and characters, The Winter's Tale ends in discovery, regeneration and reconciliation, not in death.

As The Winter's Tale begins, there is harmony. Leontes, King of Sicilia, is enjoying a visit of his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. As the latter gives thanks to the King and Queen of Solicia, Leontes--without effect--urges him to prolong his stay. However, the Queen with her simplicity manages to convince Polixenes of the necessity to extend his visit. That short episode is evidence enough to arouse jealousy so strong in Leontes that he thinks Mamillius, his elder son, and the child in Hemione's womb are not his. However, he has no proof, as West (1993, p. 520) states, 'Leontes has absolutely no real cause for believing that he is a cuckold." What he has is a plain statement to his wife "at my request he would not" (1.ii.89). Leontes further builds his illusions on Camillo's words when he says Polixenes agreed to prolong his stay 'to satisfy your highness, and the entreaties of our most gracious mistress' (1.ii.232-3). Then Leontes manifests his jealousy in his furious reply to Camillo, satisfy? Then, entreaties of your mistress? Satisfy? Let that suffice' (1.ii.234-5).

Hermione is violated by Leontes who is jealous. Polixenes escapes his death with Camillo to his kingdom, Bohemia. Hermione is imprisoned by her husband who sends two lords, Cleomenes and Dion, to summon judgement from the oracles of Apollo. Hermione gives birth to a daughter who is stolen and thrown away at the coast of Bohemia by Antigonus, at the king's orders. Hermione is proved innocent, Mamillius their son dies and the Queen is taken off on the verge of death. Leontes undergoes a long process of reformation and repentance.

Sixteen years later, the daughter--Perdita--who was found at the coast by a shepherd, falls in love with Florizel, Polixenes' son. Polixenes, disdainful of Perdita's supposed social background, disapproves of his son's marriage with her. The two lovers escape from Bohemia to Sicilia where Perdita is restored to her true father. Camillo and Polixenes, persuing the lovers, are reconciled with Leontes off stage. A complete scene of restoration of harmony is shown by the reunion of Hermione, who has been kept as a statue, with her husband. Leontes asks for forgiveness from both Camillo and Polixenes when he says, what! Look upon my brother! Both of pardons, that e'er I put between your holy looks my ill suspicion' (v.ii.147-9).

Hellenger's (1976, p. 13) analysis of the play shows nature as 'quick to punish' when one is evil and ready to give and recreate when there is repentance. Leontes is punished for being a jealous tyrant, his wife dies, his son breathes his last, and the kingdom is left without an heir. But he is rewarded for having reformed: the daughter is discovered, while his wife is restored to him 'to repair the damage that has been done' (ibid). Swinden (1973, p. 163) looks at the play from a perception of time, 'time the destroyer is time the preserver.' Leontes at a particular point in time wishes to kill his wife and daughter. The shepherd comes at the right time to save the child's life, and Paulina for a period of time keeps Hermione away from Leontes' murderous jealousy. Then, when Leontes is prepared to handle issues justly, his possessions are restored.

Unlike The Winter's Tale which conforms to the pattern of harmony, violation and restoration of harmony, such simplicity of structure is avoided in the plot synopsis of The Tempest. The play begins in the middle, as Wilson (1966, p. 182) observes, 'in The Tempest the actual catastrophe is at the beginning, and not at the end or in the middle of the play.' There is a tempest in the sea and the King of Naples, Alonso, together with his company, are shipwrecked to the island owned by Prospero. By using a flashback as its style, the play leads us to the scene earlier, when Prospero, the King of a lonely island, was the Duke of Milan--'a prince of power' (1.ii.65).

It can, therefore, be said that at the beginning of the play there was harmony, in that when we first hear of the main character Prospero, he was a reigning duke of Milan and beloved of his subjects. Prospero neglected his kingdom for books. Like Leontes, whose tragic flaw--jealousy--destroyed peace, 'Prospero's tragic fault is his neglect of his primary duties as a ruler for the delights of his study' (Rose, 1958, p. 215). For instance, he says; 'I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness, and the bettering of my Mind. ... In my false brother awaked as evil nature ... he did believe he was indeed the duke, out o'th' substitution.'

Antonio, Prospero's brother, violated the peace and happiness between himself and his brother as well as between his brother and his brother's subjects. Thus, the tempest scene in the play, as Wilson (1966, p. 182) sees it, functions as the image that links us to twelve years earlier, before Prospero was driven adrift with his daughter, Marinda, who was three years old then.

It should be stated that the storm, which brings King Alonso and his subjects to the island, is raised by Prospero, who had increased his knowledge in occult since his exile from Milan. However, his magical powers do not help him channel Caliban's mind. Prospero teaches him language and Caliban uses the same language to help himself in his rebellion, which constitutes a subplot of violation of harmony.

First Caliban needed to rape Miranda as Prospero tells us, 'I have us'd thee with humane care ... till thou didst seek to violate the honour of my child.' And Caliban's response is 'you taught the language and my profit on it is, I know how curse.' As a savage, representative of nature, Caliban is resistant to Prospero's art and he is engaged further in conspiracy when he and his new-found lords, Stephano and Trinculo, vainly attempt to kill Prospero.

Through his occult powers Prospero leads Ferdinand to his cell. Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda. Prospero gives him a task to perform so as to test his sincerity and Ferdinand manages to win Prosero's trust. Later on, Prospero leads Caliban and his group as well as the King and his followers to his cell where a complete scene of reconciliation is portrayed. Alonso discovers his son, whom he thought had been drowned in the shipwreck. Prospero demands his dukedom and forgives his enemies as he says, 'welcome, my friends all ... For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother would even infect my mouth, I do forgive thy rankest fault, all of them: and require my dukedom of thee, which, perforce I know thou must restore.' The play ends in harmony, peace and reconciliation, as Spencer (1948, p. 58) points out that the play shows evil redeemed, 'a rebirth ... the beauty of normal humanity after it has been purged of evil.'

Unlike The Winter's Tale where coincidence of Florizel and Perdita's love brings about reconciliation and harmony, Prospero, like Cymbeline has his enemies at his mercy. In fact, he uses his magic to bring about an ideal community he wants. Swinden (1973, p. 178) summarises Prospero's intention, as he says that Prospero uses the powers to restore himself to his country, reconcile himself to his brother who conversely does not express his remorse: By this Shakespeare shows that humanity does not accept forgiveness and mercy, however, both are needed. Prospero further uses the powers to marry his daughter to the most reputable young man--a prince. Actually, he could have used his occult powers to avenge himself on his enemies, but he uses them for a better purpose: to bring about harmony, to restore peace and happiness between himself and his community.

Cymbeline commences with a dialogue between two gentlemen who expound their views on the marriage of Posthumus and Imogen. They enthusiastically approve Posthumus' personality, contrasting it to that of Cloten, the Queen's son. In their conversation, they also describe Posthumus' ancestry, and report the loss of the King's two sons twenty years earlier. In their discussion another subject broached is Cymbeline's distaste for his daughter's marriage. As a result he banishes Posthumus and imprisons his daughter. Cymbeline, for instance, says to Imogen 'o disloyal thing that should'st repair my youth, thou heap'st a year's age on me' (1.i.132-4).

While in Rome Posthumus agrees with Iachimo to test Imogen's loyalty; Iachimo vainly tries to propose Imogen. He villainously steals into Imogen's bedchamber at night while she is asleep and slips off her arm bracelet to add verisimilitude to his false conviction that Imogen is disloyal and he has made Posthumus a cuckold. He says 'I grant we were to question further; but I now profess myself the winner of her honour, together with your ring' (II.i.51-4).

In court the Queen, Imogen's wicked stepmother, and her son Cloten agree with Cymbeline not to pay annual tribute to Augustus Caesar, who promises to invade Britain if she does not pay it. Cymbeline states that Britain is determined to 'shake off the Roman yoke.' Imogen steals away to wait for Caius Lucius, a Roman general who had brought the message to Wales, so that she could go with him to Rome to see Posthumus. Disguised as a boy, Fidele, Imogen meets her brothers who live in a cave with Belarius. Cloten, intending to go and rape Imogen, meets Guiderius instead, and Guiderius eventually kills him.

The last act of the play centres on the fight between Britain and Rome, ending with the latter country's defeat. In his fight, Cymbeline is assisted by the disguised lord Belarius and the King's two sons. The Queen dies, confessing her misdeeds to the King. For instance, Knight (1947, p. 132) writes, 'she died confessing that her love for Cymbeline and Imogen had been throughout a sham, and she had a horrible poison for both.' The disappearance of Cloten made her desperate because she had intended to make him king.

In Pericles evil characters die, namely Antiochus and his daughter; similarly such characters die in Cymbeline, the Queen and her son Cloten, with the exception of Jachimo who confesses his sin and asks for forgiveness. Then, identities are established, Belarius is reconciled to the king and his sons and daughter are recovered. Imogen is reunited with her husband. Out of happiness Cymbeline promises to pay his annual tribute to Rome despite his victory.

Cymbeline as well conforms to the pattern of harmony, violation and restoration of harmony. The play is similar to The Tempest in its structure in that it uses flashbacks to describe events that took place in the beginning, as it starts in the middle. Like other protagonists Cymbeline made an error 'of suspecting the innocent and trusting the vicious' (Tillyard, 1951, p. 256). The immediate consequence is that he loses two sons, followed by the loss of the remaining daughter, Imogen, whom he had thought of marrying to his stepson, Cloten.

Nature, being both the destroyer and restorer, generates a new birth for Cymbeline with his lost children. During the fight his sons and Belarius save him from being a Roman captive and they help him conquer his enemies. The play, like others, ends in discovery, repentance, reconciliation and harmony between the characters.

Although the play deals with the foolishness of Cymbeline as the King of Britain, Shakespeare makes Posthumus and Imogen central characters. He creates another subplot which deals with human love and the test it undergoes. Posthumus, in the same manner as Othello and Leontes, is tormented by sexual jealousy; 'like Macbeth, he becomes ruthless, like Lear and Oedipus, he suffers from hubris, and like all of these tragic heroes, except Macbeth, he comes to some insight at the end' (Hellenger, 1976, pp. 11-12). He regrets his earlier made decision and Anally he becomes happy to And that Imogen, like Hermione in The Winter's Tale, is not dead. Boorman (1987, p. 237) concludes that 'Posthumus and Imogen are made to offer us much of the truth of human love surviving errors and strains.' Pericles starts in the same way as The Winter's Tale. Events follow each other from the beginning to the end. As the play begins there is peace and happiness between the main character and people he lives with. It actually commences with a speech by the poet, Goer, who tells us of a sinful king called Antiochus of Antioch who is involved in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. He prevents her from getting married by presenting all her suitors with a riddle to solve, the failure of which results in death. Goer's speech also shows that this relationship between Antiochus and his daughter has made the lady's suitors lust for rather than love her, 'made many princes thither frame, to seek her as a bed fellow' (I.chorus.323).

Pericles also commits an error of seeking a lady he lusts for instead of the one he loves. He says, 'you gods, that made me man and sway in love, that have inflamed desire in my breast to taste the fruit of your celestial tree' (I.i.20-22). Knight (1947, p. 37) also writes, 'Pericles' praise is extravagant ... it is the result more of fascination, almost lust, than love, resembling Orsino's passion for Olivia.'

Like other suitors, Pericles' proposal depends on his solving a riddle and failure means death. As the case is, success too, since the riddle concerns the lady's incestuous relationship with her father. Antiochus cannot tolerate his secret to be divulged. Pericles escapes Antiochus' vengeance to his kingdom. While at home he still feels unsettled, so he takes a charity journey to Taursus where he earns the gratitude of its governor Cleon and his wife Dionyza. Upon learning that he is still pursued, Pericles leaves Taursus and he is shipwrecked at the coast of Pentapolis, where he receives general acts of hospitality from the fishermen who gave him food.

In Pentapolis Pericles wins a contest for the King's daughter, Thaisa. They marry. Pericles, later on, is informed that he has to return home within a year because his enemies, Antiochus and his daughter, are dead. Thaisa gives birth while at sea and she faints. Pericles places her in a chest and throws her overboard on the verge of death, only for her to be found at the coast of Ephesus by Lord Cerimon, a skilled physician, who restores her to life. Marina--the newly born--is left with Cleon and Dionynza in Tarsus to grow to womanhood while Pericles returns home. Marina grew to be excellent in education and physical appearance and these provoke feelings of jealousy in Dionyza, whose daughter is less talented and unworthy of admiration. Dionyza vainly engages Leonine to murder Marina, but pirates rescue her only to sell her to a brothel keeper in Mitylene. Marina keeps her virtue as a princess and gets honour and respect for her behaviour as well as talent.

Pericles, who has been told that his daughter is dead, mysteriously recovers her. After his discovery of Marina he dreams of the goddess Diana who directs him to go to Ephesus, where he is reunited with his wife Thaisa. Hoeniger (1963, p. IXXIX) shows Pericles' adventure as that "of love, loss and restoration." Unlike other romances, Pericles does not have the theme of reconciliation; Antiochus and his daughter die and Cleon and his wife suffer the misfortune of their deeds. Moreover, the play is complex in its setting as it starts in Antioch, moves to Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus and Mityline respectively. Leontes showed his jealousy to his friend and wife and wanted to kill them, Cymbeline expelled Belarius and Posthumus, Prospero neglected his duty as a leader for his study. Pericles, on the other hand, did nothing 'physical' but undergoes a long period of undeserved suffering. He runs away from Antiochus, he is shipwrecked, loses a wife in a stormy sea, and loses a child. Finally, he becomes like any other hero, when his possessions are restored to him and the play ends in harmony, not in desperation or death.

Boorman (1987, p. 258) postulates that Pericles can be treated as 'a moral drama in which the characters are to be taken as examples of stock virtues and vices.' Antiochus and his daughter represent lust, Cleon and his wife stand for murderous intent, Cerimon is a symbol of 'learned charity', Helicanus resembles truth, faith and loyalty. Lastly Pericles, Thaisa and Marina resemble virtue preserved from destruction, and they Anally get happy. Indeed all the plays have a moral lesson in that they all show humanity as having weaknesses, but able to solve the latter through love and appreciation of one another, forgiving each other's mistakes as many times as the Bible tells us to.

Generally, all the final plays deal with the loss and discovery of lost royal children. They deal with instances where peace and happiness can be disturbed by making false judgements and taking wrong decisions, and how peace as well as happiness can be restored to humanity after it has repented from its evil.


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Mr. P.A. Mosia has a Master's Degree in Inclusive Education and is a lecturer in Psychology of Education at the National University of Lesotho. His research interests include normal behaviour of learners in schools, services available for learners with special needs, teachers' perception of learners with special education needs, policy developments and practical challenges in inclusive education.
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Author:Mosia, Paseka Andrew
Publication:Nawa: journal of language and communication
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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