Shakespeare's late plays are usually seen in terms of courtliness and escapism. But the critical tradition has been too decorous. Neither neo-Christian pieties nor high-political allegory can account for the works' audacity and surprise, or the popular investment in both their form andmeaning. Post-structuralist and historicist approaches show the indeterminacy and materiality of language, but rarely identify how particular figures (words and characters) capture and energize contested history. Recent criticism tends to put a pre-emptive 'master-paradigm' above all else; a moresinuous, minutely attentive critical vocabulary is needed to apprehend Shakespeare's turbulent, precise, teeming metaphorical discourse.