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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: September 2012

9 - Shakespeare by the Numbers: On the Linguistic Texture of the Late Plays


If I could write the beauty of your eyes And in fresh numbers number all your graces, The age to come would say ‘This poet lies: Such heavenly touches ne'er touch'd earthly faces’ … Sonnet 17

Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem In gentle numbers time so idly spent … Sonnet 50

SINCE THE late nineteenth century, critics have tried to group some or all of the plays Shakespeare wrote late in his career – Coriolanus, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Pericles (co-authored with George Wilkins), Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen (both co-authored with John Fletcher) – into a single critical category, usually on the basis of thematic, dramaturgical, or linguistic similarities among members of the group. While there is no consensus on which category is most appropriate for such a grouping (designations such as ‘late plays’, ‘romances’, and ‘tragicomedies’ have been proposed), there is nevertheless a persistent feeling among Shakespeare's readers that something distinguishes several of these plays from the others and that this ‘something’ ought to be the object of critical analysis. At times the perception of such a similarity has been so strong that it has led to categorical declarations of the sort made by Gerard Eades Bentley in the mid twentieth century, who asserted that ‘no competent critic who has read carefully through the Shakespeare canon has failed to notice that there is something different [about these plays]’.