By Dennis Abrams
Even now, no one is quite certain exactly why Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s final comedies (if that’s truly what it is), was included in the list of “Tragedies” in the First Folio, but if it was a mistake, it was at least a fortuitous one. Nearly everyone who has written about – or seen – or thought about – the play has noticed that it’s haunting, bittersweet qualities are perhaps closer to true tragicomedy than anything else Shakespeare wrote. And, although its historical background is esoteric (to say the least), and its plot famously labyrinthine (again, to say the least) — Shakespeare drew on a number on a hodgepodge of courses, something that irritated Samuel Johnson to no end – in the right hands (or with the right reader), Cymbeline can be an immensely moving as well as theatrically persuasive play, however you’d care to categorize it.
The series of breathtaking revelations that bring this late comedy (or romance, or tragicomedy, or…) to a close reflect the Jacobean vogue for intricate plots (the play was written in 1610 or 1611), but also, I think, demonstrates Shakespeare using the improvisatory qualities of his art more freely and brilliantly than ever before.
Cymbeline seems to have been inspired by a short entry in Holinshed’s Chronicles, describing the reign of “Kymbeline.” At first glance it is difficult to understand why: Cunobelinus (Cymbeline) was a relatively obscure British king who ruled over much of southern England at around them time that August Caesar was putting together the finishing touches on his Pas Romana. As Holinshed tells the story, just about the most remarkable event that happened during the reign of Cunobelinus had nothing whatsoever to do WITH Cunobelinus – it was the birth of Christ. So, what actual history Cymbeline does retell is incidental to its story, at least for modern audiences – the trials and serious tribulations of the heroine Inmogen (or Imogen, as she is spelt in the First Folio and elsewhere) and her new husband Posthumus Leonatus take center stage.
But in this seeming patchwork of a play, the story itself is not easy to follow. After Posthumus becomes convinced that Imogen has been unfaithful to him, she runs away in disguise to the forests of Wales, where she undergoes a rather bizarre series of confusions: first, falling into a death-like sleep when she mistakenly drinks a magic potion by mistake, then waking to discover, much to her dismay, a headless corpse wearing her brother’s clothes. While in the country, she has been taken in by kindly hunters who are in fact – though none of them know it as of yet – her own brothers, stolen years earlier by a disgruntled courtier and raised in ignorance of their royal blood.
But of course, the truth will eventually come out, when everyone (Posthumus included) returns to Cymbeline’s court, where Shakespeare contrives a jaw-dropping finale to top all jaw-dropping finales, in which a remarkably (and captivating) sequence of revelations and reunions are plucked, hair-breath, from disaster.
The play was seen by astrologer Simon Forman (who attended several of Shakespeare’s plays) and it was certainly seen on the stage before September 1611. It was probably finished by autumn of 1610 – shortly before The Tempest.
The play’s historical substance, concerning Cunobelinus (Cymbeline) came from Holinshed’s Chronicles, the major source for all of Shakespeare’s history plays; while other details of Cymbeline’s notoriously knotted plot derive from Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) and the anonymous play The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1559).
The Folio of 1623 provides the only authoritative text.
“A difficult play to stage, at least in our time, Cymbeline puzzles as frequently as it enchants. Romantic critics were greatly moved by it, and, as a belated representative of that critical tradition, I too am fascinated by this ornate drama. Hazlitt and Tennyson fell in love with Imogen, who almost alone in Shakespeare’s late dramas is represented with something of the inwardness that had been the playwright’s greatest strength. Caliban, in The Tempest, indeed has his curious complexities, but he is only half-human, if that, despite the absurd recent tendency to render him as an ideological rebel, a supposedly black freedom fighter. Principal figures in Shakespeare’s romances tend to be baroquely wrought in ways we do not yet wholly understand. Leontes in The Winter’s Tale begins as what we now call as ‘case history,’ rather like Edmund Spenser’s Malbecco, ‘who quite/Forgot he was a man, and Jealousy is hight.’ Shakespeare’s anti-Faust, Prospero, is somewhat veiled from us (and himself) as long as he is the master of his hermetic art. When he breaks his staff and drowns his book, he deepens, but the play ends, and we can only surmise the personality of the restored ruler who will return to Milan, where every third thought shall be his grave. In Cymbeline, Imogen’s husband, Posthumus, holds back from an inwardness that might deluge him, and remains a borderline figure, always on the verge of self-overhearing.
Cymbeline is a very uneven play, with much in it that can seem hasty or even perfunctory. Yet all of it does seem Shakespeare’s, and sometimes we hear unmistakable overtones for his personal dislike for the London of 1609-1610. Russell Fraser may overstate this when he observes that ‘in Cymbeline, the gap narrows between the playwright and his player,’ but no biographer of Shakespeare matches Fraser at bringing the man and the work together, and unsavoriness hovers on the margins of the romances, though it rarely dominates. Something, though, is askew in Cymbeline, more than in the subsequent Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Dr. Johnson, perhaps annoyed by intimations of Shakespeare’s perturbed spirit, famously dismissed Cymbeline:
‘The play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogue, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system lf life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.’
Johnson was both right and wrong: the incongruities are blatantly there, but they are more than usually deliberate, even for Shakespeare. It does jar us when Posthumus is exiled from ancient Britain to Renaissance Italy, but Shakespeare wants us to remark his freestyle audacity, his improviser’s freedom from the scruples that sank without trace Ben Jonson’s laborious tragedies. Jonson, in his Preface to the Quarto publication of The Alchemist, stressed the ‘great difference between those that…utter all they can, how ever unfitly, and those that use election, and a meane.’ It was an old quarrel between the two friends and rivals, and Shakespeare’s response in Cymbeline was to utter all he could, more than ever, with sublime disregard for Jonsonian ‘Election.’ Nothing fits, anything goes in this wild play, where Shakespeare really does seem to let himself range. That may be why Imogen (happily) got away from Shakespeare and carries us back to his richly inward characters, even though Cymbeline is not that kind of a play.
But what sort of play is it? My question does not concern genre, since mature Shakespeare almost always is beyond genre. Though we classify Cymbeline with the other ‘late romances,’ it does not share much with The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, let alone with Pericles. Imogen has little in common with Marina, Perdita, and Miranda, beyond her restoration (with two brothers to boot) to her father at play’s end. There are wonders enough in Cymbeline, and yet it is not a drama built upon wild surmise. No one in our century (myself included) think that it is as eminent a work as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, Shakespearian masterpieces. Though it abounds with self-borrowings from earlier plays by Shakespeare, it scarcely resembles Othello, to which it owes most, particularly in its ‘little Iago,’ Iachimo, a mere trifler compared with the more-than-Satanic greatness of Othello’s destroyer. Part of the fascination of Cymbeline is the reader’s (and playgoer’s) sense that something is wayward about this drama; it will not abide a steady contemplation. One cannot even be certain that it behaves like a play: the plot is a chaos, and Shakespeare never bothers to be probable. Nor can we say how Imogen found herself in the world of the villains Cloten and Iachimo, who exist on a different level of representation from her mimetic realism. Perhaps Shakespeare was in a contrary mood and decided that the time he would please himself, and yet others were then pleased as well. Cymbeline is more a dramatic poem than it is a play, and more than any other stage work by Shakespeare it seems to insist implicitly on the autonomy of the aesthetic. That may be why its Rome is at once ancient and modern, and its Britain both Jacobean and archaic. Shakespeare had wearied of history, even as he had come to the end of both comedy and tragedy.”
Nor what ensues, but have a fog in them
That I cannot look through
It is no act of common passage, but
A strain of rareness.
Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.
‘You do not meet a man but frowns.’ So begins this extraordinary play, classifiable, if at all, rather helplessly as a tragical-comical-historical-pastoral-political romance. There are more frowns to come – frowns of worry, frowns of anger, but mainly frowns of incomprehension as, increasingly, ‘perplexity’ overcomes the participants in the myriad, mixed actions. The ‘fog’ which centrally engulfs the heroine, Imogen, settles variously on them all, until they cannot see to see – to borrow Emily Dickinson’s powerful formulation. In no other play do so many characters seem so blind. ‘I am amazed with matter’ cries the bemused King (IV.iii.28): ‘I remain perplexed in all,’ laments a bewildered servant. There is a bit of a war in the play (there is a bit of everything in this play), during which:
friends kill friends, and the disorder’s such
As War were hoodwinked.
When War is blundering around blindfolded, and disorder itself seems to be, as it were, losing its grip, then you have a mess indeed. ‘Confusion thick’ – and thickening, seems to be the order-disorder of the day (V.iii.41). ‘How comes these staggers on me? cries out Posthumus, near the end (V.v.233), and by this time everyone, including the audience, is feeling dizzy. If ever a conclusion was calculated to affect all concerned with a thrilling vertigo, it is the astonishing last scene of this play – compositionally one of Shakespeare’s greatest tours de force – during which (according to a critic with a head for numbers) no less than twenty-five plot complications are untied in less than five hundred lines. There is nothing else like it.
And so much the better, Dr. Johnson would have said,
‘To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system lf life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.’
There is the eighteenth century in full throat. But neo-classicism’s geese are romance’s swans, and the lamentable vices denounced with such juridical relish by the great Doctor can turn into radiant virtues when looked at with a – dare one say it – less blinkered eye. Certainly the play plunges ever more deeply into anarchy, and seems to court the risk of a collapse into chaos. With seemingly quite unrelated plots starting at different points and at different times in Roman Britain, Renaissance Italy and primitive Wales, and the fragmented events spinning centrifugally out of control, it becomes increasingly difficult to see how any of the agents involved might take over the direction of things, or impose some kind of order and inter-relatedness. There is no Duke Vincentio, no Prospero to hand; indeed there is no artificer or organizer (baleful or benign) in sigh. Just this thickening fog. And yet, in what seems like the last few minutes of this very long play, everything is resolved, clarified, unified, without a loose end left behind. Never was a more dazzling feat of tidying-up. Do we thank Jupiter, who puts in a rather bad-tempered, belated appearance, or rather marvel at Shakespeare, who by now clearly does know every trick in the theatrical book – and then some? But if he is pushing back the boundaries of his art – to what end?
The play is extremely rich in material, and some extravagant claims have been made, not justifiably, for the historical and religious significance manifestly attaching to some of its themes. Wilson Knight was right to point out that it exceed any other play by Shakespeare in the fecundity of its classical and mythological reference – it is a work, he says, ‘saturated with religious suggestion’ – and right, too, to maintain that at least part of the purpose of the play is to emphasize the importance of ancient Rome in Britain’s history. These are major matters and I will return to them. But I want to start by trying to suggest something of the distinctive atmosphere of this unique play. Shakespeare is by now a past master at exploiting what Bertrand Evans calls ‘discrepant awareness,’ whereby the audience knows more than some or all of the characters for some or all of the time. We can thus watch them wading ever more deeply into error, or arriving, slowly or suddenly, at true knowledge, with the relevant attendant emotions of horror and joy, anxiety and relief. But in no play do the audience know more, and the participants less, than in Cymbeline. One way to make sure an audience is in the know is for a main plotter, through asides or soliloquies, to keep us informed of his (or her) devices and intentions. Whomsoever else Richard III and Iago trick and bamboozle, they have no surprises for us and, effectively, no secrets from us. For a wonder, this is exactly not the case with the one Iagoish plotter in this play, who gives us our one pure surprise – more of which later. For the rest, neither the play nor the people in it seem inclined to keep any secrets from us; from each other is a different matter. This results in some curious effects, of which I will give three examples.
The unnamed Queen – she is just a generic Bad Queen – asks her physician, Cornelius, to prepare a ‘strange ling’ring poison’ for experimental purposes. In a long aside, effectively to us, he says (I summarize): ‘I can see through this wicked Queen, but I have tricked her. She thinks I have given her a deadly poison. Little does she know that it’s a harmless sleeping draught. I’ve made a fool of her’ (I.v.33-44). Now this is the sort of stage effect most of us will have experienced in pantomime, and one result is to drain the figure of the Queen immediately of all real threat and menace. However nasty she is (very – torturing animals and so on), we know that ultimately she can do no lasting harm. You never feel that about Lady Macbeth. When the male-disguised Imogen is taken by the Romans, she gives the name of the corpse (which she thinks is Posthumus) as Richard du Champ, then offers this aside (I summarize): ‘Actually, I’m lying a bit here, but it’s harmless enough. I do hope the gods will understand – that is if they are listening (IV.ii.377-9). Other Shakespearean heroines make no such apologetic asides about their resourceful inventiveness. Here, it slightly lowers the tension, and makes us a bit more aware of the theatricality of what we are watching. When Posthumus finds himself back in Britain, supposedly obliged to fight on the side of the Italians, he says in soliloquy: ‘Therefore, good heavens/Hear patiently my purpose’ (V.i.21-22). This is really for our benefit as he goes on to explain that he will take off his Italian clothes, dress up as a British peasant, and at least fight for Imogen’s side. This is really rather back-stage stuff, and, again, it makes us aware that, in various little ways, Shakespeare keeps giving us glimpses of the reverse side of the tapestry.
But if we are, if anything, over-informed, the characters suffer from pitifully partial knowledge. True, everyone knows something, his or her little patch as it were; but nobody knows much. As the play progresses, we acquire more and more secrets, while watching the varying ignorance of the participants grow and grow. The character who suffers most from this process is Imogen, as we see from the first act. Firmly defying her blusteringly tyrannous father; coolly taking the measure of her treacherous stepmother (‘Dissembling courtesy!’); treating Iachimo’s insinuations and overtures with superb, well-bred contempt, Princess Imogen is not only by a long stretch the most intelligent (not to say the most attractive) character in the play; she shows herself well qualified to join the ranks of those masterful, independent spirits, Portia and Rosalind. But she isn’t given a chance. Whereas they actively decided to assume male roles, both to give themselves access to areas of experience usually debarred to woman, and to work to revitalize and restore a social order which has gone wrong, the Princess Imogen is advised by her servant to abandon her female identity (‘You must forget to be a woman,’ III.iv.156), and she never masters or makes much of her male role (in the Welsh mountains, she is happiest signing and cooking). Leah Scragg makes the relevant point succinctly: ‘previously a change of identity affords the opportunity to enter the play world on a new footing. In Cymbeline by contrast the opposite is the case, in that the heroine adopts a disguise in order to leave her world rather then enter it.’ Completely in control in the opening scenes until the departure of banished Posthumus, Imogen is thereafter never again fully the mistress of her situation, nor is she a partner in our awareness. She seems to get further and further from us as she enters deeper and deeper into the fog. I might just add here that the phenomenon of things passing out of sight into distances of air (key word) – ships, birds – is another delicate motif, contributing to the atmosphere of the play. As in Imogen’s exquisite lines about how she would have tried to ‘after-eye’ Posthumus’s departing vessel:
I would have broke mine eyestrings, cracked them but
To look upon him till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as a needle;
Nay, followed him till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air
‘Diminution of space’ has an added resonance in a play which brings ancient Britain, Renaissance Italy and wild Wales together in the same plot. And I have a quite unjustifiable sense that Shakespeare would like us to experience this play as somehow taking place at the very periphery of vision, where lands and times and events merge together – and the gnat melts into air.
Imogen, then, is unique in her pitiable plight. Marina experienced life as ‘a lasting storm’; but she pretty quickly masters the brothel, and what she knows she knows, as Pynchon would say. Imogen, To all intents and purposes, knows nothing; and, once she has fled from the hostile court, is entirely at the (honorable) mercy of Welsh outlaws and Roman invaders. “no heroine in the comedies is cast in such a role,’ writes Bertrand Evans, ‘kept unaware so long, ignorant of so many secrets, abused by so many practices, endangered from so many quarters.’ None of which, needless to say, reflects on the character or capacities of Imogen herself. It is just the nature of the world in which she, unhappily, finds herself. She has no one to guide her; as Vincentio looks out for Isabella (Portia and Rosalind simply take over the show). In this world, there doesn’t seem to be any guides (Pisanio does a loyal servant’s limited best; Philario is sensible, and ignored, in Rome). Finally it is only Imogen’s own quick ‘eyestrings’ less than four hundred lines before the end – ‘I see a thing/Bitter to me as death’ (V.v.103-4), i.e. her ring on Iachimo’s finger – which set in train the tumble of revelations and recognitions which so ‘staggeringly’ conclude the play. Of the final scene Evans writes: ‘For us, the experience of the closing scene is that of witnessing the revelation of secrets that have been locked in our minds, and of observing the effects of their revelation upon the persons who have been ignorant of them and to whom they are of most concern…The release of each secret accomplishes a welcome reduction, degree by degree, of the pressure that has been mounting in our minds since error first began to pile on error; one effect of the scene, thus, is the relief of overmuch understanding, painful because it has been unsharable.’ This is part of the special experience of Cymbeline.”
But of course, there’s more to the play – as we can see in this brief excerpt from A.D. Nuttall:
Nor the furious winter’s rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
“I first read these lines when I was about eight years old. They ravished me at once and have haunted me ever since. I knew nothing about Shakespeare. I supposed that if today someone were to ask me, ‘What is the finest lyric poem in the English language?’ I would point to this. And yet I do not understand the lines…”
I can hardly wait to read this one.
Our next reading: Cymbeline, Act One
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning