The First Folio separates Shakespeare’s plays into three genres: tragedy, comedy, and history. In the centuries following the publication of the Folio, some scholars found these three categories insufficient to describe all the plays. In the nineteenth century, the critic Edward Dowden suggested a fourth genre category: romance. Today, scholars use the term romance to describe three of Shakespeare’s plays. The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were designated comedies in the First Folio, and the third, Cymbeline, was originally designated a tragedy. Two plays that scholars believe Shakespeare co-wrote, Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen, are also generally classified as romances. All of the plays now classified as romances come from the end of Shakespeare’s career. Following the composition of several of his most famous tragedies, Shakespeare returned to the genre of comedy. But the comedies he penned in his final years as a playwright were marked by significant variations in tone as well as elements of mysticism and magic. These deviations provide the basis for these plays’ recent reclassification as romances.
Scholars have primarily adopted the term “romance” to account for the way Shakespeare’s late plays blend elements of comedy and tragedy. Some of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies exhibit plot devices that could just as well belong in tragedies, but the tone of those plays remains relatively lighthearted. For instance, both Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream open with conflicts between fathers and daughters about preferred suitors. But whereas the overall tone of Othello is defined by cynicism, suspicion, jealousy, and rage, in Midsummer fairy magic leads to a forest romp that’s amusing despite being full of conflict. By contrast, the romances tend to follow comedic conventions, while also exhibiting a darkness of tone more characteristic of tragedy. Consider The Tempest. The early modern classification of this play as a comedy derives from the fact that the play’s various conflicts resolve in a happy ending and the promise of a future marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda. Yet the play also features tragic elements. The threat of death hovers over much of the action in the play, starting with the catastrophic tempest. The play includes two subplots involving plans to assassinate Alonso and Prospero, and these plans echo the original plot against Prospero’s life in Milan years before the events at hand.
In addition to the blending of comedy and tragedy, the romances also introduce elements of magic and mysticism that did not previously play a major role in Shakespeare’s plays—except, of course, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But in contrast to the amusingly disruptive fairy magic in Midsummer, the kind of magic Shakespeare employs in the late plays has a darker tone, as when Prospero uses his magic to act out a sustained revenge plot. Even more important than explicit magic, however, is Shakespeare’s conjuring of a kind of mysticism in which highly unrealistic and sometimes overcrowded plots yield improbably happy endings. Both The Tempest and Cymbeline have a variety of plots and subplots that all seem like they will lead to violence and discord, yet somehow resolve with peace. Other magical and mystical elements in Shakespeare’s romances include a scene at the end of The Winter’s Tale where the statue of the long-dead Hermione comes to life, as well as the appearances of the Roman god Jupiter in Cymbeline and the angel Ariel in The Tempest.