This essay explores Shakespeare’s qualification of romance conventions as a significant event in Western literary history. It may be seen as part of a sustained challenge to the subordination of somatic and affective sense to intellectual, conceptual significance advocated or assumed by dominant hermeneutic and poetic theories since late antiquity. Shakespeare’s final romances move toward making an ethical sense—one rooted in human constants of embodied responsiveness to others—the source and ultimate judge of literary significance or poetic truth. By making the ethical rather than the metaphysical primary in romance, Shakespeare suggests that receptivity to affective upheaval disrupts ideological consolidations of elite complacency, awakening us to a redemptive sociality that is implicitly experienced by protagonists and audiences together (characters in the course of the action, audiences in the course of mental and bodily reception of artistically rendered action). Shakespeare’s revision of romance, in challenging inherited regulation of what and how literature can signify, dramatizes relations between somatic, affective experiences and social, ethical life that illuminate the role played by human constants in literary communication.

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