'The first Essay of a new Brytish Poet'?

in Critical Survey
Penny McCarthy Glasgow University

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The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline, and Pericles have been perceived as constituting a distinct group – ‘romances’ – only since 1874, as Barbara Mowat remarks.1 In the First Folio, the first two of these plays were classified as comedies, the third as tragedy. Pericles, not included in the Folio, never received a classification, but was known anomalously as ‘a play called Pericles’ in both quarto and the Third Folio. I shall argue that Cymbeline is to be seen as neither romance nor tragicomedy, but as an ‘early British History’. Close investigation of the play in relation to the historical section of Loves Martyr (published in 1601) will help to place it not in 1609–1610, but early in Shakespeare’s career. It is anti-Tudor in sentiment, and opposed to James as a prospective king. It subtly promulgates the rule of the Dudleys. The meaning of the contested term ‘British’ is key to this interpretation.

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