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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: May 2010

Introduction

Summary

Ordering works by the date of their composition is a common taxonomic principle, evident in the numerical classification of many art forms. The Shakespearean canon is frequently considered chronologically (that is to say, in the order in which it is assumed the plays were written although revision theories can thwart the ostensible simplicity of such an organising principle) and editions of the Complete Works sometimes arrange the plays in such a way. But writing about six plays from a large canon of work, gathered according to the probable date of their composition, would be an odd, indulgent and even pointless activity if the only reason for grouping them was the concluding place they occupied in the chronological output of their author. When does a last period begin? Why not the last eight (which in this case would accommodate Coriolanus and Lear) or the middle six? Grouping 'last' works together is usually predicated on two assumptions: that there is discernible difference from what has gone before, and in that difference is an identifiable progression or change - in style, subject matter and ideas, the use of language or the constituents of the work and, in the case of a dramatic piece, of stagecraft. It has been the fate of the Shakespeare's last plays to have their dates attached to specific biographical readings that identify 'meaning' or account for subject matter in ways that plays from other periods of the author's life have escaped. The persona that has been extrapolated from the art, covering the period between 1608 and 1612, has been characterised variously as religious and mystical, perhaps mentally unstable, probably cynical and disillusioned and with, at its emotional heart, an intense attachment to a daughter (it is never specified which one).