Shakespeare’s career finished neither with a bang nor with a whimper, but merely with going through the motions. It’s hard to understand why. Going through his work I get the impression of an ever-active mind, constantly trying out new things. Even as late as Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, he was experimenting with new forms and new ideas. It’s hard to believe that he could have lost interest overnight. And even if he did lose interest, why didn’t he just retire back to Stratford? It wasn’t as if he needed to make a bit more money, after all!
Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he could feel the approach of old age. Maybe he didn’t feel he was up to that immense hard work that is required to give an impression of effortless genius. But perhaps he was still obliged to write a couple more plays – either contractually obliged, or because he had promised a few more and didn’t want to let down his friends. Or, perhaps, he couldn’t quite get rid of the scribbling habit he had acquired over the years. Whatever. And he asked now for a collaborator, for to write entire plays was too much hard work, what with his health not being quite what it was. A good collaborator, mind – someone like John Fletcher, who knew what he was doing – and not that idiot who wrote that first draft of Pericles: Will had worked hard making something out of the latter half of that play, but as for that first half – well, what can you do with such incompetence?
So the collaboration of John Fletcher was arranged. As for the subject – the theatre wanted at least one play to be a celebratory pageant. One can imagine Will thinking about this: “How about a celebration of the victory against the Spanish Armada? There was a revival of patriotism with the twentieth anniversary of that event a few years ago, and people are beginning to feel nostalgic about the dear, departed queen. Or better still, how about a celebration of the birth of Good Queen Bess? That way, you could take a few liberties with history, and no-one in the audience would be old enough to remember. Good – a Henry VIII play it is. As for the others, I really enjoyed Shelton’s translation of a Spanish novel called Don Quixote. Apparently the author is writing a sequel to that – Don Quixote, Part Two (but sequels are never as good as the original – except for my Henry IV, Part Two) – but that first part, I must admit, is very amusing. And there are a few romantic sub-plots in it that could be adapted into pretty decent plays. The story of Cardenio, perhaps. And as for the third play, I have been reading Chaucer again for the first time since I adapted that poem of his for Troilus and Cressida. That was a fine play though I say so myself, but it was too bitter and pessimistic to be a popular success: the public never really took to it. Now, what was that expression I had used in Hamlet? – ah yes, caviar to the general. Well, Troilus and Cressida was definitely caviar to the general. But The Knight’s Tale has possibilities. Let’s see if I can get that Fletcher lad to write up a few drafts, and then maybe I could touch them up a bit afterwards. Now, if only I had the energy to re-write The Tempest as the narrative poem that it should have been in the first place…”
And so we had The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, based on Chaucer’s Knight’s tale. The title of Shakespeare’s last play is reminiscent of the title of the play that was very probably his first – The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Both are about male bonding broken by heterosexual love, a motif that appears frequently in Shakespeare’s comedies. But who could guess from these two uninspired bookends of the quality of the works that had appeared in between?
There isn’t really much to be said for the play itself, although I am reliably informed that it can be made to work well on stage. There is no memorable poetry in it, nor any scene of dramatic power. The scene where the gaoler’s daughter becomes mad in the moonlit forest is quite striking: it recalls Ophelia’s mad scene in Hamlet; and the moonlit woods outside Athens inevitably recalls A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the comparisons are not to the advantage of this play. The subplot with the gaoler’s daughter is stretched out quite pointlessly, while the main strand plods along uneventfully. All very workmanlike and competent, I suppose, but leaving the reader (well, this reader at least) asking “So what?”
But the Bardathon is finished: our revels now are ended. Between the two Veronese gentlemen and the two noble cousins are riches that, even after years of acquaintance, one can barely begin to comprehend. It is just a shame that the series had to end so unremarkably.