The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act V in five scenes
Before we cut to the chase, Shakespeare presents us with a stupendous battle between the Britons and Romans. Unhistorical though it is, we may imagine this as happening in the 30s of the 1st century CE, when Cunobelinus was indeed a mighty king of Britain. The place isn’t specified, but it’s implied that this notional battle is near Milford Haven. Though it was well known as a deep-water harbour — George Owen, a local man, called it “the most famous port of Christendom” in 1603 — in choosing this port Shakespeare may have had in mind Henry Tudor: the future Henry VII, who landed here in 1485, mustering more troops on his way to Bosworth Field before taking the crown from Richard III. The outcome here, however, is rather different.
This is a complex plot, made more so because we have several individuals who are not as they seem. Shall I list them all?
Posthumus, who appears in the first scene bitterly regretting his order to Pisanio to murder Imogen, mourns over the ‘bloody handkerchief’ that is ‘proof’ of the done deed. He is in Roman armour, but shrugs that off to assume the semblance of a poor British foot-soldier, hoping to die in the confusion of battle.
Iachimo enters next; he is disarmed but spared by Posthumus. He is apparently not the blackguard we took him for because he now has guilty feelings for betraying Imogen and cheating Posthumus.
While the battle rages in Scene ii and fortunes change (Cymbeline is first captured and then rescued) Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus — still under the guise of humble Cambrian mountain men — are busy defending a narrow defile, rather in the manner of Horatius Cocles on the bridge defending Rome when she would be abandoned by cowardly troops:
“Two boys, an old man twice a boy, a lane | Preserved the Britons, was the Romans’ bane.”
In the next scene they are joined by Posthumus, turning the course of battle from defeat to victory; however, he still wants to die, so confusingly reverts to a Roman identity and is captured, along with the luckless Caius Lucius. In prison he has a dream (in an episode very much like a court masque) in which his deceased family plead with Jupiter for his life; waking, he finds a tablet with a cryptic message. After some brave gallows humour he gets hauled up, still incognito, before the victorious Cymbeline in his tent, where all the major players are now assembled.
In the final scene all is finally revealed and any remaining masks both physical and psychological are torn off. We hear that the Queen has died offstage, distraught at the loss of her son, but not before a deathbed confession revealing how wicked a stepmother and wife she was — and how she too can change her colours, albeit rather late in the day. Cymbeline, on Lucius’ pleadings, spares his faithful page, whom the Cambrians recognise as the ‘dead’ Fidele, whom only Pisanio knows is Imogen in disguise. Fidele innocently asks how Iachimo obtained the ring he wears, and the repentant Italian publicly confesses all. The bewildered Cymbeline — “Does the world go round?” he quizzically muses — in rapid succession discovers his dead child is not dead, his missing sons not missing, his son-in-law a hero and not a golddigger, the Queen’s physician a cunning man and his exiled general innocent of all charges. Imogen and Posthumus joyfully discover each other both very much alive and Pisanio a loyal servant; and the whole company find out that Posthumus is favoured by the gods to presage a period when “Britain [shall] be fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty” — well, at least till Cunobelinus dies in 40CE and Claudius instigates the four-centuries-long Roman occupation of Britain. That’s all good then.
So much for the synoptic commentary. Next post — timed for the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism, on April 26th — I will try to return to my triple mantra for reviews: elucidate, evaluate and … entertain. In the meantime, take a gander at Lizzie Ross’ blog where yesterday she looked at Act V.