- Repost of a review first published in April 2014, and now dusted off as we approach the fourth centenary of his death on 23rd April 1616
Scholars suggest that Cymbeline was composed by Shakespeare and an unnamed colleague between 1609 and 1610, and first performed in 1611 — though not appearing in print for a dozen years until the First Folio. I have no competency to discuss which passages are by him and which by his collaborator, so I’ll treat the whole text as though by a single author, whom I shall call … “the Author”. In this final post about the play — marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism on April 26th 1564 — I would like to draw out some of the strands that make up the fabric of the play before discussing its merits as drama.
I’ve already mentioned the use of mistaken identities that the Author employs to great effect here and elsewhere. Sometimes this was for practical reasons, for example youths whose voices had not yet broken played the female characters both as females and as females disguised as males (Imogen pretending to be Fidele). More often it was for the furtherance of plot since drama thrives on the conflict mistaken identities generate. This family tree of Cymbeline’s immediate kin is a reminder of how those alter egos trigger the action (remember, Cloten also dresses in the garb of Posthumus).
I’ve also picked up on some threads that weave through the five acts, successfully binding the fabric of the play into a complete tapestry:
Innocence is a major feature of Cymbeline, starting with the backstory of Belarius’ disgrace brought about by discontented rivals, leading to his exile and his secret abduction of the two young princes, all alluded to in the opening scene. Innocence is of course what characterises Imogen’s role as the Calumniated Wife; whether or not the compositor of the First Folio consistently misread ‘Innogen’ as ‘Imogen’, the former name would certainly give away the heroine’s lack of culpability for the false slander that Iachimo metes out for her, not to mention the inappropriate house arrest ordered by her father the king.
The motif of the missing children, after its passing mention in Act I, is a familiar one — fairy tales abound with them, such as Hansel and Gretel or the Babes in the Wood, and real-life mysteries like the Princes in the Tower are echoed in the news every day. We meet the princes twenty years on in Act III, and they’re revealed at last in the final scene of the play.
The wager over Imogen’s chastity is what overshadows the happiness of the two lovers, with its consequences dominating much of the action until Iachimo’s last minute confession. Parallel with that motif is the concoction that is not what it seems, neither poison nor medicine but drugs to give the temporary appearance of death. The ‘fake death’ motif is used to great effect in a number of narratives — Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae springs to mind — but its employment here, despite being strongly signposted, is only one of the Author’s many plot twists, and not even a major one. Its first mention is to emphasise the Wicked Stepmother theme, and though she only physically appears in Act I, the perturbations her machinations cause are only finally resolved in that last scene.
The play reveals only one completely died-in-the-wool villain. The Queen and Iachimo, at first truly hissable pantomime baddies, partially redeem themselves by recognising their actions were evil, confessing them and gaining some redemption for so doing. Cloten, however, starts off as a lovable oaf, but if he wasn’t so incompetent his determination to visit iniquities on Imogen and Posthumus is horrific and unforgiveable. Until his shocking end he provides a leavening of humour in each act, a role taken over by the gaoler in Act V in a manner reminiscent of Hamlet‘s gravedigger or the porter in Macbeth.
The final strand I want to mention is the subtle use of written material. While there is nothing obvious in Act I (other than the backstory spoken but not read by the First Lord) each subsequent act makes play of something written, whether Imogen’s copy of Metamorphoses telling the tale of Philomel, the letters between Italy and Britain written on wax tablets, or the graven stone tablet from Jupiter that proclaims Posthumus’ destiny. These are a kind of metafiction within the narrative arc of the play and either obfuscate or reveal the truth to the characters, truth that the audience is completely party to. Is it too fanciful to think that the English pronunciation of ‘Cymbeline’ with a sibilant opening may have suggested the sibylline prophecy that is applied to Posthumus?
I’d like to now give a more personal response and assessment of the Author’s play. First, an evaluation: is this a great play? It depends on whether it’s successful in its own terms. It’s not a tragedy, and certainly not in the league of Hamlet, or the tragic history plays; it’s not particularly profound even though it deals with the theme of innocence; it doesn’t challenge moral stances as Measure for Measure, say, does; it’s not a comedy in the modern sense as A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be; and apart from a few lines (such as “Golden lads and girls all must, | As chimney-sweepers, come to dust” in the beautiful song) it contains few quotable quotes. But in its construction it is near perfect, with over-arching symmetry, conflict resolved, injustices righted and loose ends tied up.
As for characters, Imogen is often cited as the perfect Shakespearean heroine. She’s certainly idealised — faithful, beautiful, brave — a joy to act, I’d imagine, for an aspiring star, but is she too perfect? I’d have to see the play in performance to be convinced either way. Of the other ‘virtuous’ individuals, Posthumus is flawed, foolish to accept the wager, intemperate and judgemental when he loses the bet — a difficult role to play if he was to appear sympathetic. The Cambrian ‘mountaineers’ are perhaps too perfect, as Imogen is, while Cymbeline, in the nominal title role, is a background figure. Better, I think, to see these as stock characters in a romcom or black comedy and be wowed by the brilliance of the storytelling.
Cymbeline is not often performed, and its reputation may have dimmed due to infrequent productions. Whether its standing will be improved by its release as a feature film or not remains to be seen, but I’m disappointed that I’ve not yet got round to seeing it live on stage. Whenever that happens I’ll be in a better position to say whether it works as drama or not.
I’m grateful to Lizzie Ross for suggesting this exercise as an excuse not only to mark the current Shakespeare red-letter day but also to examine a play that I was unfamiliar with, and may have remained so for many a year