Did Shakespeare know they were his ‘last plays’? Or his ‘late romances’? The very terms by which scholars habitually refer to Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest, All Is True (Henry VIII) and The Two Noble Kinsmen, all composed between about 1607 and 1613 – between Shakespeare’s 43rd year and his 49th – compound the issue of genre with questions of biography. Given the fates that overtook his colleagues Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd in 1593 and 1594 – the one stabbed to death at 29, the other eventually dying after an extensive and painful interrogation – you could argue that Shakespeare might have felt that he had been living on borrowed time since the age of thirty. Ben Jonson survived into his mid-sixties (having had the good fortune, at 26, to kill the 20-year-old actor Gabriel Spencer instead of being killed by him), but Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher both died in their mid-forties, Francis Beaumont at thirty, while Henry Porter (whose Two Angry Women of Abingdon influenced The Merry Wives of Windsor) may have been still younger when he was killed in a duel by John Day, another playwright, in 1599. John Lyly, who gave up writing for 15 years to concentrate on his unsuccessful career in politics, made it to his early fifties, and John Marston lived to nearly sixty. But Marston relinquished the theatre in 1609 to spend the last 25 years of his life as a priest, perhaps calculating that his chances of being killed by a fellow canon were much lower than the chances of being cut down by a rival scriptwriter or a disaffected leading man. A cheerful recent stained-glass window in an annexe at Christchurch Priory in Dorset nonetheless represents Marston as a bearded and beruffed young man sitting with a balder companion in front of two tankards of ale. Sadly, today’s visual shorthand for ‘morally intense Jacobean playwright who took holy orders’, even in the church where he prayed for a quarter of a century, is just ‘bloke in pub with Shakespeare’. You can have written as many Malcontents and Dutch Courtesans as you like, but nowadays your chief claim to immortality will be that you probably knew the author of The Tempest.
Source: London Review of Books –