Rejecting Romance

I sometimes mutter about this, but it’s time to confess it outright: I’m a romance denier. I don’t believe “romance” is a genre of Shakespeare play. And two plays I saw recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival helped confirm this impression for me. One of them is a play we categorize unequivocally as a comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. The other, Pericles, is generally labelled a romance. But seeing them back-to-back drove home their similarities, and drew attention to the ways in which separating the early and late comedies into different generic categories warps our understanding of both.

So first, romances. A critic named Edward Dowden is to blame for using the word for the first time. While we have divested ourselves of most of the nonsense that Victorians made up, for some reason the genre Dowden proposed in his 1875 book has stuck around. Their tragicomic elements, their emphasis on mysticism and redemption, their deus ex machina endings… all of these are pointed to as reasons that romances deserve to be considered a separate genre from other comedies.

Pericles seems to offer proof of this in spades, particularly in OSF’s sublime production, directed by Joseph Haj. The elegant, sweeping production, interspersed with music and dance, neither mocks nor attempts to rationalize its inconsistent tone and improbable series of events, but allows the play to speak for itself. Accepting, as Haj writes in his program note, that “[t]he play is only troublesome if one insists on it behaving like other plays” allows Pericles’ s episodic structure, amazing coincidences, and heightened emotions to accumulate into a fantastical but cohesive world in which the miraculous culminating reunions seem both natural and essential.

The continuing insistence on romance as a genre seems to stem from an effort to explain precisely the strangeness that Haj chose to embrace in his Pericles. But this labeling has led, in my opinion, to a widespread neglect of the fact that all of the supposedly unique elements of a romance are also present in almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies– romances just demonstrate them in a more extreme and concentrated form. And sometimes not even that much more extreme. This was emphasized for me by Lileana Blain-Cruz’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, which I saw at OSF the night after I saw Pericles. 

Productions of Much Ado often seem at a loss as to how to handle the scene where Claudio and the soldiers, as ordered by Leonato, go to Hero’s (fake) tomb to sing a song of mourning and apology to her (not actually) dead body. As my parentheses imply, it’s hard to know what to make of such a long scene of mourning for someone who isn’t actually dead by characters who contemporary audiences aren’t particularly inclined to trust. But Blain-Cruz’s staging of the scene, with Hero herself draped in fabric standing in for her own burial monument, transformed and elevated the scene and song into something just about as mystical as the revelations in Pericles.

Hero behaving as her own statue called to mind at once Shakespeare’s most famous living statue: Hermione at the end of The Winter’s Tale, a character to whom Hero is frequently linked in scholarly criticism. And with good reason. Both are apparently killed by their lover’s irrational jealousy and apparently reborn to renew the union and forgive. Hero’s choice to forgive Claudio is too often dismissed by contemporary artists as not a choice at all, sexist and a bit pathetic, Shakespeare ignoring the complexities he himself has created in favor of a tidy ending.

But the critical and artistic insistence on the difference between comedy and romance has erased the highly mystical transformation that Hero undergoes, one that Blain-Cruz’s staging highlights and the text itself clearly supports. Hero’s response to Claudio’s exclamation that there is “Another Hero!” is not “No, I’m the same Hero,” but “Nothing certainer.” To paraphrase Haj again, by expecting Much Ado About Nothing to act like other comedies (and I think a similar argument can be made about the endings of almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies), Hero’s power to be reborn and forgive, and the agency implied by such a choice– in fact as radical and transformative as Prospero, Hermione, and Imogen’s ability to do the same– is underrated and ignored.

It is easier for Shakespeare’s early comedies and middle tragedies to masquerade as something like naturalistic, but that doesn’t mean that they are. In cordoning off Shakespeare’s most bizarre and mystical plays into a genre of their own, we have ignored the mysticism of the rest of his canon. So many plays hinge on the power of forgiveness, and whether or not such redemption is permitted or even seems possible can often be the biggest difference between comedy and tragedy. By allowing the magical potential of the romance to seep back into the rest of the canon, as these OSF productions do, the familiarity of these plays can be shaken, the easy answers of sharp genre designations rejected.

One thought on “Rejecting Romance

  1. Craig M. says:

    Nicely done. You’re certainly right about the fantastical and the way-too-coincidental being elements of the whole canon, not just the romances. I don’t know much about the romances (which is probably a byproduct of the segregation you’re arguing against) so the link never occurred to me.

    I read Pericles before seeing it at OSF, and I have to admit, I was braced for the worst. But Haj did wonders with that play, and he did create a setting where the mystical and the coincidental become natural and obvious, like the perfect weather on a perfect day. Definitely a highlight of this year’s trip.

    Like

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