Romancing the Sources: Framing Tales in Hamlet and King Lear

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Polonius commends a visiting troupe of players as “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, [tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,]” (II,ii,396-99).[1]  We chuckle at his list of diverse genres and absurd hybrids.  We do not consider that what actors acted playwrights wrote or question whether Shakespeare wrote hybrid plays.  We should.  Hybrid plays were a commonplace in his time, and Shakespeare was creative in adapting his sources to his purposes.  In most cases, his adaptations did not radically depart from the generic nature of his sources.  But, in the cases of Hamlet and King Lear, they did.  My purpose is to examine Shakespeare’s selection and integration of his primary and secondary sources and to redefine the genre of these plays in terms of the prevalent literary genre in his lifetime.  This undertaking requires a review of genres as they existed and were exploited in Shakespeare’s time as options for his dramaturgy.

The status of dramatic genres during Shakespeare’s career is a muddle of critical terms with no clearly defined boundaries—which muddle permits Polonius’s potpourri.  Virtually no operative critical theory existed before Shakespeare’s birth.  Many earlier dramas, to which the term “gothic” appropriately applies, agglomerate materials from diverse sources, many of romantic provenance.  Secular plays like Clyomon and Clamydes (1570) and Common Conditions (1576) are combinations of predominantly romantic materials and motifs; some morality plays like The Marriage between Wit and Wisdom (1579) are structured as romantic quests; many masques make use of romance motifs and features.  Later dramas, under humanistic influence, adhere to the principles of comedy or tragedy, or accept the continuing practice of mixing materials under the rubric “tragi-comedy.”[2]  Under this influence, Sidney, in The Defense of Poesy (c. 1579), deplores plays which comingle clowns and kings, to no avail.[3]  Other plays received different genre designations, such as “chronicle,” “history,” or even “chronicle history.”  Oddly, despite the profusion of romance materials in medieval and renaissance dramas, the term “romance” infrequently appears to designate the genre of a play, none by Shakespeare.

The First Folio of 1623) adopts a simple taxonomy by dividing the Shakespeare canon into three taxons: comedies, histories, and tragedies.  These taxons are pliable, porous, or imprecise almost to the point of pointlessness.  The notorious instance is Troilus and Cressida, of all Shakespeare’s plays, the most variously classified.  In Q, the epistle to the reader repeatedly refers to it as a comedy, but the title page labels it a history.  In F1, the contents page omits the title, the play falls between the histories and the tragedies, and its title page labels it a tragedy.

The rubrics are hardly better in the cases of the two plays discussed here.  The title pages of Hamlet and King Lear show similar inconsistencies.  The Hamlet title pages of both Q1 and Q2 name the play as “The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke.”  The first text page of Q1 repeats the title; the first text page of Q2 reduces it to “The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”  The contents page and first text page of F1 identify the play as “The Tragedie of Hamlet,” the first text page adding “Prince of Denmarke.”  So both quartos first regard the play as history, not tragedy; the folio, tragedy first and last.  The King Lear title pages of Q1 and F1 also differ significantly.  The title page of Q1 names the play “True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR.”  The contents page of F1 reads simply, “King Lear”; the first text page ramifies the play as “The Tragedie of King Lear.”  Again, the difference between Q1 and F1 is between history and tragedy.


The obvious conclusion is that Shakespeare’s friends, colleagues, editors, and other contemporaries did not concur or much care about genre.  We care, and we should.  For the determination of genre reflects, and represents an interpretation of, the experience of the play.  Get the genre wrong, get much else wrong; misuse the genre, abuse the text.  Never do we come to Shakespeare’s plays without a sense of their genre, for rubrics and titles often include a term denoting genre; rarely do we rethink the customarily assigned genre of any of Shakespeare’s plays.  However, given contemporary inconsistency about genre labels and their effect as filters or prisms of literary perception, as agents of gestalt formation, critics should be careful of their influence to shape their experience of the plays, or suggest or support partial or distorted interpretations.  Naive acceptance of a genre label can lead critics to miss reading or to misread what is there.[4]  So a choice of genre can be an act of faith proscribing or prescribing a response a Shakespeare play.

For better or worse, critics have not thought erratic Elizabethan or Jacobean taxons or rubrics sacrosanct.  From time to time, they have created new taxons or rubrics to address biographical interests, historical issues, or critical problems.[5]  Most have passed into and out of fashion because the taxons showed no shared characteristics or common experience.  Plainly, “occasional plays” label plays according to historical circumstances, not literary considerations.  Troilus and Cressida presents such and so many problems of characterization and classification that critics invented a taxon for it, grouped it with two other roughly contemporary plays in the canon, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure, and labeled them “dark comedies.”  Later, they created a grab-bag taxon of last resort by adding Hamlet to this group and giving it the label “problem plays.”  None of these ad hoc taxons or rubrics has long or widely flourished in critical parlance.


One which has is the taxon with the rubric “romances,” which, at least as far as Shakespeare criticism is concerned, has replaced the traditional term “tragi-comedies.”  Edward Dowden created and named this fourth taxon in the belief that writing these plays reflected Shakespeare’s recovery from “the depths” of the despair prompting his greatest tragedies.[6]  Modern critics have confirmed the taxon for critical rather than biographical reasons.  The question is whether it makes sense and, if so, what sense.

This taxon, as presently constituted, and rubric deserve some consideration, if only for perspective.  It includes five plays: from the First Folio, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and Cymbeline; from the Third Folio, Pericles; from post-Dowden critical consensus, The Two Noble Kinsmen.  Notably, neither Shakespeare nor his associates ever used the term “romance” to refer to any of his plays, and they did not group them together.  With no apparent regard for chronology, the First Folio lists and groups The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale as the alpha and omega, respectively, of the comedies; with its own idea about genre, it entitles Cymbeline a tragedy, and lists and groups it in that taxon.  The Two Noble Kinsmen was regarded as more Fletcherian than Shakespearean for three centuries and not included in the canon until early in the second half of the twentieth century.

Even so, neither their sources nor their features sharply distinguish these romances from other plays in the canon.  With the sole exception of The Merry Wives of Windsor, all of Shakespeare’s plays feature Roman or Mediterranean aristocrats or warriors, or English or northern European nobility and knights.  Thought characteristic of romances are features, varied and numerous, effecting or reflecting the improbable, magical, mysterious, divine, or demonic as well as perverse or strained family relationships.  Such features are extensive in this taxon, but they are not exclusive to it, for they also occur elsewhere in his comedies, histories, and tragedies.[7]  Such features may be operational and central in all of his romances and only ornamental or incidental in some plays in his other genres.  Yet romance devices of various kinds remove impediments or resolve problems not only in his romances, but also in his comedies and, as I argue, tragedies.[8]  Shakespeare critics have accepted a taxon with no definite boundaries.


However, my issues are not whether and how we can distinguish Shakespeare’s romances from his comedies, histories, or tragedies.  My issues are whether romance as critics have customarily defined it, however vaguely or clearly, exhausts its possibilities in the canon and has not precluded others; and whether romance of some kind or other merges with tragedy in Hamlet and King Lear.  Many critics recognize a variety of works to which the term “romance” may apply, and sort, define, and relate them in many ways.  They address works with some common features, if not family resemblances: romances, lays, epics, gestes, chronicles, histories, and lives of saints and sinners.[9]  Shakespeare is not clear when, in “Sonnet 106,” he speaks of reading “in the chronicle of wasted time.”  He could mean history or tragedy, but its elaborate praise of feminine beauty suggests what we would regard as romance.

But what kind of romance?  Shakespeare had many choices.  Received critical opinion identifies four “strands” of romance in the living tradition in the English renaissance: medieval romances, romantic epics like Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and Ludovico Aristo’s Orlando Furioso, Petrarchan poetry, and Spanish and Italian novels and short stories.[10]  Medieval romances emphasize action, especially as it involves issues of governance and succession, with qualifications and legitimacy, respectively, in train.  As the earliest of the strands, English medieval romances alone were not infused with strains of Italian renaissance philosophy and poetry, at least not until very late revisions or adaptations; the later strands were more emphatic in their interest in emotion, an interest which we see as a harbinger of the modern novel.

The common critical assumption is that later strands rather than this earlier strand of romance influenced Shakespeare.  The corresponding historical assumption is that English medieval romances existed between, say, 1100 and 1500, and then expired, leaving faint traces and exerting slight influence in the renaissance.  Indeed, Chaucer and Gower aside, Shakespeare shows little or no debt to, only hints of familiarity with, medieval romances.  But earlier romances continued to be popular throughout the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century.  Until about the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth century, romance was the predominant genre in literary entertainment, and chivalric romance was its predominant subgenre, as bibliographic data in standard reference works detail.[11]  (I use “chivalric” as a better term than “medieval” because it denotes content, not chronology.)  Three romances well-known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, including his audiences—the evidence is multiple entries and repeated publication throughout turn-of-the-century decades—, were Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Guy of Warwick, and Bevis of Hampton.  The latter, by the way, is the source of one of the few direct quotes in all of Shakespeare and, of all places, in the middle of King Lear.[12]

This instance notwithstanding, another easy assumption is that tragedy and romance either do not mix or, if they do, tragedy subordinates romance to its purposes.  This bias deems romance unworthy of tragedy, or the defeated foil of tragedy, with the validity of realism overcoming the vulnerabilities of idealism.[13]  In effect, a principle of neo-classic decorum separates or distinguishes genres and judges them by the nature imputed as inherent in them, with high seriousness deemed superior to high spirits.  Two facts, one philosophical, one historical, debunk this bias.  The modern segregation of idealism and realism is an anachronism if applied to Elizabeth and Jacobean literary expression; in Shakespeare’s day, the golden world of idealism represented a refined extension of the brazen world of realism.[14]  As noted earlier, in early English, or native Gothic, drama, romance preceded and included what neo-classicists, our first literary theorists, later split into tragedy and comedy.  The history of English drama shows the contents of all three genres — romance, tragedy, comedy — and their protagonists — knights, kings, clowns — compatible as they mingle with one another in the Gothic manner.  More, one literary consideration allows romance to dominate tragedy.  The definition of tragedy refers almost exclusively to the protagonist, his defeat, and his death.  Using parts to define wholes commits an act of critical legerdemain.  Synecdoche in literature serves fiction; in literary criticism, it misrepresents the whole.  Since a protagonist is not a play, some skepticism about the “big man” theory of tragedy is due.[15]  To consider romance as predominant is to consider structural motifs and other features derived from romance and defining the context in which the protagonist operates or which shapes the action.

These critical biases blinker an otherwise inclusive and robust term which properly denotes chivalric as well as other kinds of romances.  These biases reflect long-standing and still lingering aesthetic and social prejudices.[16]  Possessed by this limited term of art, Shakespeare critics have looked for and found the influence of the three renaissance strands of romance on his comedies and romances.[17]  Conversely, they have overlooked the presence and the influence of chivalric romance in such obvious places as his English history plays.  After all, the period of chivalric romance overlaps the reign of King John and the reigns of Richard II through Richard III.  But I do not take this easy way; instead, I take the narrow, crooked way to two tragedies based on chronicle history.  I argue that, influenced by the English chivalric romance tradition, Shakespeare, in adapting his chronicle sources, fashioned a hybrid genre, namely, tragic romance: tragedy in the death of the protagonist framed by romance in the vindication of his successor.  This hybrid genre, I believe, does no less than customary justice to the main plots but much more than ordinary justice to the framing tales in both plays.

I take chivalric romance to be a story of adventure which almost always, but not invariably, involves — more usually is merely instigated by — an amatory relationship defined by the conventions of courtly love between a knight and a lady, and ending in social harmony or political stability, or the promise thereof, in fulfillment of an informing and overarching idealism.[18]  Features embodying this idealism are motifs such as single combat, exile and return, the fair unknown, revelation of identity or recovery of place, and restoration of a kingdom to right rule.  These features embody the essential nature of chivalric romance, its inherent, overarching idealism.  Whether we take it seriously or not, the idealism of romance manifests itself in a narrative ending of poetic justice, in which everything comes right in the end; and reveals itself in the transcendent principle of chivalric action: right makes might and prevails.  If we look, we shall find these features, this ending, and this principle where we have least expected them.


Of Shakespeare’s three non-Mediterranean tragedies — Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth — the first two have subplots supplementing their main plots, and the last one has no subplot.  For more than a century, source scholars have reported Shakespeare’s sources in these plays and detailed the materials borrowed from them.[19]  Earlier critics detailed what Shakespeare retained, omitted, elaborated, abridged, rearranged, or altered, in adapting his sources.  Recent critics have descanted on them as contemporary discourses providing cultural, political, and social contexts of his plays.  Scholars and critics alike have offered scant account for these amalgamations.  For the most part, they have been content to regard Fortinbras and Edgar as two-dimensional foils setting off the nobler heights and tragic depths of the protagonists; represent the former as a cloddish soldier engaged in a vainglorious military campaign and the latter as a naive observer of, and platitudinous commentator on, others’ sufferings; and discount or disregard their ascendency to rule as successors to Hamlet and Lear.  Even so, their functions as foils seems superfluous to contrast with, and thereby intensify audiences’ perceptions of, Hamlet’s inaction and Lear’s agonies — the stuff of tragedy.

The titles — The Tragedy of Hamlet and The Tragedy of King Lear — indicate a genre of the plays, identify their protagonists, and prepare audiences for dramatic actions leading to their deaths.  The brevity of the titles necessarily omits reference to the little-known stories of Fortinbras father and son, and of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar and Edmund.  Whatever the reason may be—and it may be the gestalt formation of the genre label—source scholars and literary critics have missed two overlapping facts unique to, and paramount in, these plays, and omitted a reasonable explanation of what effects the incorporation of subplots has on their structure or significance.  One, each play adapts a story as a subplot to frame its plot, with the resulting frame-picture structure qualifying the perceptions of the protagonist and of the play as a whole.  Two, each subplot provides a successor to the protagonist, with the sequence suggesting the time-worn cliché “the king is dead; long live the king.”

Shakespeare’s dramaturgy in selecting and shaping his sources in these two plays — later, I offer a contrast with Macbeth — discloses authorial decision-making indicating his intentions in, and the genre of, these plays.  If Shakespeare had followed his primary source in writing Hamlet and had followed his primary source as he adapted it in King Lear, he would have written tragedies; in combining primary and secondary sources as he did, he did not write tragedies.  Instead, he wrote plays in which the story of its tragic protagonist is framed by romantic stories of his successors’ exile from, and return to, his proper estate, with the restoration of rightful rule.  Exile-and-return to place and restoration of legitimate government — such are the dominant and concluding motifs in the earliest known and still popular chivalric romances like Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick.  Exploiting this literary heritage, Shakespeare merges the story of “the king is dead,” which argues tragedy, and the sequel of “long live the king,” which argues romance.  The merger of primary and secondary source narratives in a picture-frame dramatic structure results in a paradigm shift, Hamlet and King Lear not as models of tragedies, but of chivalric romances featuring tragic protagonists.  That is, the merger creates, in dramatic form, a hybrid genre in which the flawed protagonists’ deaths are tragic but the worthy successors’ accessions are romantic — or tragic romance.  This genre operates in the usual fashion: it organizes the experience which each play as a whole represents and which it presents in ways shaping the perceptions, guiding responses, and arousing and satisfying the expectations of an audience familiar with the tradition of English chivalric romance and comfortable with the Gothic mixing of romance materials in works denominated as tragedies as well as in comedies.

In Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance, I argue that Shakespeare exploited his audiences’ familiarity with, and enjoyment of, English chivalric romances; and followed Gothic practice in shaping Hamlet and King Lear in ways which reflect the influence of the tradition of English chivalric romance.  Here, I extend the argument by comparing Shakespeare’s adaptation of sources of these plays and contrasting it with his selection of a source of Macbeth, to demonstrate that Shakespeare’s management of his sources reflects a basic principle of his dramaturgy and a basic interest in the issue of succession, one looming large in both chivalric romance and contemporary history.


The name of Hamlet goes back to Icelandic lore; the story of Hamlet finds its way into Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish equivalent of Geoffrey of Monmouth; Francois Belleforest embellishes Saxo’s narrative into the primary source used by Shakespeare.  In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and other works, actual or, in the case of the Ur-Hamlet, reconstructed, critics find sources of the ghost and sundry details.  To all acknowledged minor sources, Shakespeare added an abbreviated background story from elsewhere in Belleforest, of affairs between Denmark and Norway (historically, semi-autonomous regions of one country united in the late fourteenth century and remaining so well after Shakespeare’s lifetime.)  Critics explain this secondary source in terms of contemporary relations between England and Scandinavia.  However, this gloss, glancing at such relations, is not relevant to the dramatic action.  The appropriate question is why Shakespeare added and interspersed so much apparently marginal diplomatic and military activity about Norway and Fortinbras father and son.  Critics interpret this business as showing Claudius’s diplomatic skills or young Fortinbras’s contrast with, even as a foil to, young Hamlet.  If so, Shakespeare took disproportionate trouble to include this story to serve these purposes, the relevance of which to Fortinbras’s succession seems tenuous.

The parallels between Shakespeare’s main source and his play are close until the end.  There the difference is striking.  In Belleforest, Hamlet succeeds in killing his uncle to revenge his father’s murder, assumes the throne, and rules for years until overthrown and slain by an invading prince.  The story is chronicle history, not tragedy.  In the play, Hamlet kills Claudius but is himself killed and dies.  If the play had ended at this point, with or without Horatio’s prayer about flights of angels, it would have been tragedy with ill-digested material.  But it does not end here.  It ends when Fortinbras enters, assumes command, asserts his rights, and gives orders to bear Hamlet’s body out.  The ending may be conventional, but the conventional is not meaningless, yet it goes unexplicated.

Shakespeare’s play ends with the end of his slightly limned tale of Fortinbras.  It is the Danish side of this story.  Horatio tells us that Fortinbras senior, acting on pride, challenged Hamlet senior to single combat, wagered Danish lands on the outcome, and lost.  Horatio’s tale about “a Seal’d Compact,/Well ratified by Law, and Heraldrie” (I, i, 86-87) seems excessive protesting on behalf of a knight who once killed his opposite in parley, unchivalrously, lawlessly.  Indeed, the ambiguities of his characterizations of the knights — who acted with “a most emulate Pride” (I, ii, 83)? — sort with equivocations to deceive.  Despite the allegedly ratified terms of the wager, Horatio and Claudius report that Fortinbras junior has rallied forces, and Claudius adds that he first petitioned, to reclaim what his father lost — a threat prompting Denmark’s military preparations.  Later, ambassadors to Norway’s king, Fortinbras’s uncle, report success in winning assurance that his nephew will redirect troops to a campaign against Poland.  In their detailed account, Fortinbras obeys orders for his arrest, accepts his uncle’s reproaches, and pledges to desist from efforts against Denmark — praiseworthy acts transforming his personal cause to political purposes.  Later, Fortinbras leads troops against Poland and requests escort according to terms.  At the end, Osric reports that Fortinbras salutes the English ambassadors — this salute: is it one of courtesy or authority in Denmark or both? — and Hamlet prophesizes him successor to the Danish throne.  All details of this additional narrative link Fortinbras to military and political concerns elsewhere largely subordinated in the play.

No one tells the Norwegian side of the story.  But if we consider its perspective, we can construct a plausible counter-history.  Fortinbras senior engaged a proud, irascible, unchivalrous warrior in single combat and lost his life and his Danish lands.  His dispossessed son, exiled to Norway, seeks revenge and recovery of his birthright, but his uncle dissuades him from war against Denmark.  By happenstance — in romances, not happenstance at all — Fortinbras junior is present to assert his “Rites” (V, ii, 389) presumably reflecting the basis of his “election” (V, ii, 355), which Hamlet prophesizes.  From this perspective, the action in Claudius’s court is behind-enemy-lines activity in occupied and, as in romance, corrupted territory, framed by the exile-and-return motif of a narrative begun before the play opens and ended at its close.

On this telling, the framing tale emphasizes succession, as the main story does not.  The play features both relations between fathers and sons, and, in most cases, political succession from one to the other: Fortinbras senior to both Hamlet senior and his brother, Old Norway; Hamlet senior to Claudius; and Claudius to Hamlet to Fortinbras.  As Claudius “Popt in betweene th’ election and my hopes” (V, ii, 65), that is, between Hamlet senior and his son — unbeknownst to us, the word “election” here foreshadows its more significant use later — so the Hamlet family line illegitimately populated the gap between Fortinbras senior and his son, who lastly but rightly succeeds him.  Since it all comes right in the end, the play is romance from start, before the play begins, to finish.


The story of King Leir or Lear was old and was told many times, from Geoffrey of Monmouth through Spenser and the earlier play King Leir.  Shakespeare followed all previous versions of the Lear story until Cordelia invades England.  In these versions, some chronicle, she wins, restores her father to the throne for several years, and rules after him until her brothers-in-law overthrow her.  In his tragic version, after Cordelia invades England, Shakespeare radically departed from the traditional history of Lear.  Cordelia loses, is slain in front of her father, and Lear dies, of grief and presumably despair.  If tragedy were Shakespeare’s purpose, he could easily have ended the play with Cornwall, strong but bad, slain, and Albany, good but weak, succeeding.

If tragedy were Shakespeare’s purpose—but, obviously, it was not.  His adjustments and additions to his primary source make clear that Shakespeare did not intend to end the play with Lear dead, all lineal heirs dead, and no collateral successors worthy.  His elimination of Cornwall and rejection of Albany as Lear’s successor created the need not only for a successor, necessarily non-lineal, necessarily strong and good, but also for a rationale for his non-lineal succession.  Shakespeare found his successor in the roughly analogous story of paternal dispossession involving two brothers from Sidney’s Arcadia, with the eventual triumph of the deserving son.  The rationale he established is the relationship between Lear and Edgar.

The story of Gloucester and his two sons—a father mistaken in his judgment of his children and children in rivalry or conflict for their share of their patrimony—provides a qualified successor to Lear.  Shakespeare shows Edgar going into internal exile as a proscribed felon; disguising himself in proleptic parody of his brother and concealing his identity; then, as Albany’s chivalric champion, defeating his brother in single combat; revealing his identity and recovering his birthright; saving the kingdom from malevolent rulers; and, in the upshot, accepting the crown to become king.  That single combat valorizes Edgar as it fulfills many romance motifs: fair unknown, exile and return, recovery of the hero’s estate, and restoration of the kingdom to right rule — all in a good knight’s work.  And this ending shows Shakespeare’s purpose: chivalric romance.

In sum, Shakespeare’s merging of chronicle history and chivalric pastoral narrative created a hybrid story and a hybrid genre.  His radical departures from the chronicle history of Lear—reversing the fortunes and fates of father and daughter, and providing Lear with an improved successor, Edgar—show his daring in converting tragedy into tragic romance.  Signifying this conversion is his reassignment of the play’s last lines from Albany in the quarto to Edgar in the Folio.  More daring, in making these radical adjustments to his sources and reassigning lines from earlier to later versions of the play,  Shakespeare put his dramaturgy on the line in relying on Edgar to succeed Lear.

The question must be, why?  Shakespeare’s invention of Edgar as Lear’s successor indicates his increasing insistence of moral judgment in the matter of succession.  In other plays, Shakespeare queries the qualifications of birth and worth in rulers and their successors; in King Lear, Shakespeare is nowhere politically more audacious than in his decision to make succession a matter entirely of worth, not birth.  The play gives no regard to the relative status of its dukes, Cornwall and Albany, and its earls, Kent and Gloucester.  Yet Shakespeare’s audiences knew that, in such a case as the play presents, the son-in-law of the elder surviving elder daughter would customarily succeed a king without male heir, as in the chronicle sources; if he had chosen to exercise, rather than resign, his claim, Albany would have been the next king.  Yet they also saw the closeness of Gloucester and Lear, and would not have overlooked the one fact which, pointedly offered by Regan, tips the balance: Edgar is Lear’s “Godsonne” (II, i, 91).  The fact is not only interesting because the term and the relationship are unique in Shakespeare, but also important because it implies that Lear was responsible for Edgar’s moral and religious instruction.[20]  Implications radiate, two mainly: first, it ratifies Edgar’s platitudes as the wisdom of Lear’s guidance; second, it enables succession, not on birth and noble rank, but on merit and moral authority.  The Duke of Albany suggests as much in urging the Earl of Kent and Edgar, presumptive Earl of Gloucester, to rule jointly.  When Kent declines, Edgar remains, his position justified by a moral authority which is a matter not only of church rite and catechistic rearing, but also of right conduct learned from Lear.

Lear’s importance as the tragic protagonist is neither overlooked nor over-estimated, but the bearing of his experience on the meaning of the play is often misunderstood, notably as the action closes.  Lear has experienced the intensifying ingratitude, insult, and abuse of his elder daughters; has suffered the consequent discomforts of body and disorders of mind on the heath; and, in his madness, has conducted a trial acerbically indicting social injustice of all kinds.  He has regained his wits, repented his sins, and reunited with, and recovered his love for, his youngest and dearest daughter.  Then, suddenly, when he has little life beyond a moment left to him, he witnesses her slain savagely before his eyes.  So, when Lear enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms, he seems a man bereft of everything of love, of life.  His death in agony at her death or in self-delusion that she lives presumably suggests the annihilation of meaning and value.

The presumption is wrong.  Recovered from madness, with its sweeping indictment of all justice, Lear accepts not only the possibility, not only the promise, but also the fact, of chivalric justice.  For, at the end, in reminiscence of his earlier life, he relishes his last deed as a chivalric knight.  When, with the dead Cordelia in his arms, he addresses her, “I kill’d the Slave that was a hanging thee”, he offers them both the comfort, late, small, and cold as it is, that, although he could not avert her murder, he could avenge it — his final act of chivalric justice, as we soon learn.  When a gentleman attests to the truth of his claim, Lear rejoices in an old man’s boast, “Did I not, fellow?/I haue seene the day, with my good biting Faulchion/I would haue made him skip” (V, iii, 276-278).  Speaking with pride in his chivalric prowess, Lear recalls the deeds of his youthful days and, in effect, sanctions what Edgar has spoken and acted in the play, as a chivalric knight doing deeds of justice.  Lear is Edgar’s godfather, not only in church rite and catechism, but also in word and deed.

When he has become an afterthought, forgotten — “Great thing of us forgot” (V, iii, 237) — , then recalled, in the life which no longer needs him nor he it, Lear, former knight and tragic king, dies.  But Edgar, his godson and chivalric knight who has redeemed England, lives on.  So the power to rule England transfers by moral succession.  Without the story of Gloucester and his two sons, the play is chronicle or tragedy; with it, tragic romance.


Something of the basic principle of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy in shaping Hamlet and King Lear appears by contrast with that used in Macbeth.  In it, Shakespeare left well enough alone; he developed his primary source without greatly adding to or altering it.  He was content to follow Holinshed, notoriously in the long scene in the English court; added little; elaborated much; and thereby indicated his concern with succession.  So he reinforced this thematic issue by retaining the return-from-exile motif in the historical narrative and recurrent in English chivalric romance, especially as it emphasizes the son’s, Malcolm’s, preparations to recover crown and country by avoiding his father’s mistake, by testing Macduff to ascertain the reality of loyalty behind its appearance.  Whatever else may be said about Macbeth, its primary source provided a narrative structure which suited Shakespeare’s purposes.  Not so Hamlet or King Lear.

Shakespeare’s dramaturgy in writing Hamlet and King Lear did not leave alone what for him was not well enough.  He chose two chronicle histories of protagonists which would have been easily adaptable to tragedy without other narrative support; however, he supplemented them with stories of knights who are worthy successors of the protagonists.  Shakespeare thereby refashioned chronicle tragedy with chivalric romance to create tragic romance.  Using the Fortinbras and Edgar stories to begin and end — frame the action of — their respective plays, Shakespeare exploits the major chivalric romance motif of political import, the exile-and-return motif, which restores the rightful successor to his place and re-establishes right rule to his country.  However emotional their responses to the protagonists’ deaths, audiences with informed anticipations of, and favorable attitudes toward, chivalric knights and chivalric romance would have had some comfort in expectations fulfilled by rightful successors.  That Shakespeare added and adapted tales featuring the motifs of chivalric romance to shape two of his most powerful plays and thereby to present their political theme, succession — the king is dead, long live the king — should not surprise us.  That he should exploit the tradition of English chivalric romance to write such plays when the issue of succession had loomed, and still loomed, large in his life and large in the lives of his countrymen should also not surprise us.  He wrote of and for his age.



[1] My text is G. Blakemore Evans, gen. ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

[2] According to Madeleine Doren, the idea that romance represented a later amalgamation of tragedy and comedy, or tragi-comedy, “misrepresented the historical process.”  Although tragi-comedy “implied an anomalous mixture of distinctive forms,” “romantic story, neither tragic nor comic in the classical sense, was not a breakdown of these forms but antecedent to them in medieval and early renaissance stage practice.  It was romantic story which, under the influence of inherited conceptions of ancient drama, got pulled about and shaped into the separable forms of tragedy and comedy.”  Thus, romance is both earlier and more inclusive than tragedy.  See Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama.  (1954; rpt. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972), 186.

[3] See Michael L. Hays, Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance: Rethinking Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2003), 13-15.

[4] An example occurs in Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare’s Reading, Oxford Shakespeare Topics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).  Although Shakespeare read more widely than his sources, Miola limits his discussion to them in the context of the conventional genre assignments.  He overlooks not only pertinent hints of, but also explicit references to, English chivalric romances.  His discussion of King Lear ignores the quotation from Bevis of Hampton.  So, in slavish adherence to the conventional, he rules out reading for motifs or materials from other genres.

[5] I have done the same in labeling Troilus and Cressida a “satiric romance.”  See “What Kind of Play Is Troilus and Cressida,” Explorations in Renaissance Culture,  39.2 (Winter 2013): 41-52.

[6] Dowden’s biography makes Shakespeare’s life a romance, like Sir Orfeo, with a descent into and return from the underworld, here, “the depths.”

[7] Such features in Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies include a dreamshow of ghosts in Richard III; reports of natural disorders co-occurring with social disturbances in Julius Caesar; a ghost in Hamlet; talk of witchcraft and a magic handkerchief in Othello; talk of planetary influence in King Lear; the witches, talk of a hallucination, a ghost, and a dumbshow in Macbeth.

[8] The difference between Puck’s potions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Prospero’s magic in The Tempest seems ineffable because one of degree more than of kind, although, if one of degree, of the nth degree.  The common debt of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen to Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” implies both points.  The distinction between earlier comedies and later romances, though blurry, registers difference in seriousness or scope.  The reconciliation of two pairs of lovers and their matrimonial re-absorption into society but roughly resemble the revitalization of marriage, the restoration of family and society in a mended world, or the recovery of right rule.  The complications in the comedies are obstructions, and the action, though suggesting dark consequences, avoids them; in the romances, they are personal dysfunctions or political disorders, not unlike those in the preceding tragedies, like revenge, jealousy, and usurpation, and the action requires potent devices to avert catastrophe.  As Alfred Harbage has noted, “The forces of evil overcome in them [romances] are truly formidable, indeed identical with those appearing in the great tragedies” (William Shakespeare: The Complete Works [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969]), 1257.  If so, the distinction between, or the presumed incompatibility of, romance and tragedy becomes problematic.

[9] Dorothy Everett, “A Characterization of the English Medieval Romances,” Essays on Middle English Literature, ed. Patricia Kean (1955; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), is an older but still helpful effort to make the necessary distinctions.  Simon Gaunt, “Romance and Other Genres,” in Roberta L. Krueger, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance (Cambridge U. P.: Cambridge, 2000), 45-59, is a recent effort to show that that overlapping among these kinds creates a thematic dialectic in the romances.

[10] E. C. Pettet, Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition (1949; London: Methuen, 1970), remains the only, though a flawed, effort at a comprehensive account of this subject.  His discussion provides the traditional and essentially unmodified history of romances in Elizabethan England (pp. 11-35) and this list of strands (p. 12).

[11] Three such works are: Annals of the English Drama 975-1700, 3rd edn., ed. Sylvia Stoler Wagonheim (London: Routledge, 1989); A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475-1640, 3 vols., 2nd edn., eds. W. A. Jackson, F. S. Ferguson, and Katharine F. Pantzer (London: The Bibliographical Society, 1976-1991); and A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London 1554-1640 A. D., 5 vols., ed. Edward Arber (1875-1894; rpt. New York: Peter Smith, 1950).

[12] Both the substance and spirit of chivalric romances, their latter-day adaptations, and new creations or translations infused the neo-chivalric revival of the 1580s and 1590s.  The last third of the century saw the Accession Day tilts; 14 plays explicitly derived from chivalric romances and staged between the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the death of Elizabeth in 1603; and the publication of many chivalric romances, old and new.  See Michael L. Hays, Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance, 27-65.  A revised edition, enlarged with a census of chivalric romances, appears on two websites: and

[13] Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Romance (Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1972), 97-139, stresses precisely this point, especially in his analysis of “Baconian tragedy,” which contrasts the realism of tragedy with the epitome of “unrealism,” or idealism, of romance.

[14] It is one thing to argue that the various features of romance have an augmented and predominant role in Shakespeare’s romances and a diminished or subordinated role in his tragedies; it is another to frame the relationship between idealism and realism as a Hegelian opposition rather than a generalized renaissance or a specifically neo-Platonic segmented continuum between ideal and imperfectly imitative realms.

[15] I do not mean to diminish or devalue tragic protagonists.  I mean only to set them in the larger context of the entire work.  In English as opposed to Greek tragedy, the emphasis is on political, not metaphysical, concerns; on relations with other men, not with the gods.  My approach does not reduce the tragic protagonist absolutely, only relatively, with respect to this context.

[16] Shakespeare critics regard chivalric romance as lacking in skill and sophistication, and thus suitable only for escapist entertainment.  They also associate it, far less with its earlier enthusiasts — kings and queens, knights and their ladies, clerics and clowns — and far more with later readers imagined as people of the lower classes, uneducated people, and especially women and children.  Such prejudices have nothing to do with bibliographical and social facts readily available to Shakespeare critics.

[17] A quick look at the curriculum confirms the effect of these biases.  Most college students, including English majors and graduate students, read few, if any, romances.  If they do, they read one or two works assigned in survey courses or put on reading lists; included for their aesthetic merit, not popular appeal; and ordered by their date of composition.  Such formats tacitly assume that Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, his romances in The Canterbury Tales, and the West Midland poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight typify romance.  Such formats may include Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur — if they do, students usually read only short selections — and omit — so few ever learn about — King Horn, Guy of Warwick, or Bevis of Hampton.  No one differentiates them, the former three as romances of baronial and royal courts, with their emphasis on courtly love; the latter three as romances of town squares and village taverns as well, with their emphasis on chivalric action; and Le Morte D’Arthur as tragic romance setting courtly love and chivalric conduct in conflict, and both against Christian conduct.  So a preference for emotion and aesthetics, not action and ethics, guides curriculum choices.  The two biases together dispense with the kind of romances — namely, chivalric romances — which Sidney commended, not for poesy, but for pertinence to public affairs, about the time when Shakespeare left Stratford for the stage.

[18] Recent Shakespearean criticism ridicules or rejects anything smacking of political idealism in his plays.  It finds the idea that Shakespeare might have endorsed and celebrated established rule, and more generally believed in a morally ordered universe, anathema.  So it discounts or disregards the facts of Shakespeare’s long-time affiliation with a royally preferred acting company and his record of almost entirely trouble-free production in the face of an audience and, in particular, court officials, sensitive to the possibilities of subversive drama.  Politically inspired Shakespearean criticism often distorts readings by making a rejected alternative traditionally defined and framed as one side of a dramatic conflict an expression of subversion.

[19] Recent scholars are Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978); and Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957-1975), especially Vol. VII: Major Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (1973).

[20] Oddly, critics seeking Christian references or analogues in the play or attempting religious, specifically Christian readings of it, have overlooked this word.


Also see “On King Lear,” “Teaching Hamlet: The Play’s The Thing“; “The Presence of the Spoudaios, Spoudaic Potential and the Spoudaic Spectrum in Western Literature From Shakespeare to the Present“; and “Hamlet, The Affective Roots of Decision, and Modernity.”

This article (June 3, 2017) is a second substantial revision of a paper by the same name presented at a seminar on romance at the 33rd Conference (2005) of the Shakespeare Association of America.

Michael L. Hays

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Michael L. Hays is formerly an independent consultant in defense, energy, and environment; a full- or part-time teacher for the past forty-five years under diverse auspices; a civic activist for public education as a columnist and blogger; and a retired independent scholar with his doctorate in English, specializing in Shakespeare.