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Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage

Myth, Music, and Poetry in the Last Plays

What does it mean to have an emotional response to poetry and music? And, just as important but considered less often, what does it mean not to have such a response? What happens when lyric utterances—which should invite consolation, revelation, and connection—somehow fall short of the listener’s expectations?

As Seth Lerer shows in this pioneering book, Shakespeare’s late plays invite us to contemplate that very question, offering up lyric as a displaced and sometimes desperate antidote to situations of duress or powerlessness. Lerer argues that the theme of lyric misalignment running throughout The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Henry VIII, and Cymbeline serves a political purpose, a last-ditch effort at transformation for characters and audiences who had lived through witch-hunting, plague, regime change, political conspiracies, and public executions.

A deep dive into the relationship between aesthetics and politics, this book also explores what Shakespearean lyric is able to recuperate for these “victims of history” by virtue of its disjointed utterances. To this end, Lerer establishes the concept of mythic lyricism: an estranging use of songs and poetry that functions to recreate the past as present, to empower the mythic dead, and to restore a bit of magic to the commonplaces and commodities of Jacobean England. Reading against the devotion to form and prosody common in Shakespeare scholarship, Lerer’s account of lyric utterance’s vexed role in his late works offers new ways to understand generational distance and cultural change throughout the playwright’s oeuvre.

272 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2018 

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, Dramatic Works

Music: General Music


“Seth Lerer ranges widely and brilliantly on Shakespeare’s last plays, bringing them into sharper focus at a moment—like Shakespeare’s own—when the tensions between the aesthetic and the political are palpable. Learned, informed, elegantly argued, and packed with insights, this is truly an ‘elegy of the imagination,’ a deeply absorbing study that will prove invaluable to all who are drawn to these vexing, haunting plays.”

James Shapiro, author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

“In this evocative study of the late plays as experiments in lyric utterance, Lerer traces the representation of lyric as mediated and embodied performance, a repeatable impersonation, in order to suggest that art’s capacities become for Shakespeare most urgent where poetry fails in its Orphic aspiration to turn, to fix, to transcend, to console. The elusive object of Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage is less Shakespeare’s late style than a whole sensibility caught, movingly, in the time for which elegy stands, gazing back at the remembered changes and forward at the fragility of its own ongoingness.”

Bradin Cormack, Princeton University

“Within the much-explored territory of Shakespeare’s late plays, Lerer’s book will hold a place of its own for the richness of its scholarship and for the delicacy and originality of its readings.  Looking closely at how these plays dramatize the power and limits of lyric voice, he manages beautifully to evoke their strange danger, charm, capaciousness, and doubt.”

Kenneth Gross, author of Shylock Is Shakespeare

"[Lerer's] study of Shakespeare’s last plays begins with Ariel, the performer struggling to maintain his artistic freedom in a power relationship. . . .They are linked by the figure of the courtly or uncourtly musician: Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, the lutenist in Henry VIII, Cloten and the two brothers in Cymbeline, Marina in Pericles, the Jailer’s Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Lerer compares all of them with a real-life equivalent, the composer John Dowland, and sets them in the context of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, especially the story of Ceyx and Alcyone as translated by Golding and retold by Chaucer. . . . [Lerer] transforms his material into “something rich and strange.'"

Times Literary Supplement

"In Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage, Lerer considers the distinctiveness of Shakespeare’s late plays by examining the role of lyric within them. Lerer argues that even as these plays repeat concerns and motifs from Shakespeare’s earlier works, Shakespeare imbues in the later plays the perspective and spirit of the court of James I (who came to the throne in 1603)—that is, a world of spectacle and spectatorship at a time of political and personal uncertainty. In addition to positioning the plays in historical context, Lerer traces the evolving aesthetics of James’s courtly world, in particular the contributions and career of musician John Dowland. . . . Summing up: Recommended."


"Seth Lerer brings to these rich and strange plays, with their contradictory impulses towards topicality, towards the past and towards the beyond, not only a deep knowledge of Jacobean history and culture, but a fine ear. . . . Lerer is alert above all to the cadences of the last plays’ dialogue and to the time-stopping, time confounding moments when their action gives way to song."

London Review of Books

"Lerer weaves a complicated web in his monograph, uniting arguments about lyric, Orpheus and Ovid, the life of lutenist John Dowland, and the publication of the First Folio.. . . Lerer's monograph is a welcome addition to scholarship on Shakespeare's late, musical, and
Ovidian plays."

Theatre Journal

"Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage reads Shakespeare’s staging of lyric art in his final plays as inflected by a sense that dramatic art had suffered a 'loss of purpose, pedigree, or power'...These plays highlight the capacity of lyric to elicit powerful individual emotional responses, without ensuring equally powerful political or social responses. Like the plays Lerer treats, his book pulls together apparently disparate threads into a surprisingly pleasing unity."

Bradley D. Ryner | Renaissance Quarterly

Table of Contents


A Note on Texts, Editions, and Critical Traditions

 1 Myth, Music, and Lyric

 2 An Elegy for Ariel

 3 Poetry and Performance in The Winter’s Tale

 4 Pageantry, Power, and Lyricism in Henry VIII

 5 Aesthetic Judgment and the Audience in Cymbeline

 Epilogue: Lyric Recognition and the Editorial Romance in Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen


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