Act One, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
“Cymbeline begins with a conversation at court between two unnamed gentlemen, one a stranger, thus allowing Shakespeare to foreground the play. We are told that King Cymbeline had two sons, both abducted from their nursery some twenty years before and not seen since. His remaining child, Imogen, a daughter and heir to the throne, has declined the advances of her stepmother’s loutish son, and instead had secretly married the worthy Posthumus, an orphan brought up with her as a king’s ward. Furious at this disobedience, Cymbeline (a cipher throughout the drama) banishes Posthumus, provoking Imogen’s characteristic lament:
There cannot be a pinch in death
More sharp than this is.
Cloten, the wicked Queen-stepmother’s nasty son, whose name admirably suggests his clottish nature, is introduced to us as a noisome braggart. So far, we could be in any corrupt royal court, like that of James I, Shakespeare’s patron. Now, suddenly, we move to contemporary Rome, where the vicious Iachimo meets the exile Posthumus, and wagers that he has the Italian art to seduce Imogen. Improbably, Posthumus accepts the bet, which stems from Iachimo’s general estimate of womankind: ‘ If you buy ladies’ flesh at a million a dram, you cannot preserve it from tainting.’ We are given no time to wonder at Posthumus’s folly before we are back in Britain, where the wicked Queen, proleptic of Browning’s woman poisoner, believes she has obtained a death draught for Imogen, though it is merely a sleeping potion because of a doctor’s sensible distrust of so obvious a Wicked Stepmother.
What, besides Imogen, keeps us attentive, Shakespeare must have known, but I cannot account for it. The egregious Iachimo (who should be played only by the late Danny Kaye) shows up at the British court, denounces Posthumus to Imogen as having been unfaithful to her in Rome, and offers himself to the princess as the means to her revenge betwixt the sheets. Shakespeare, who knows how impatient his audience is becoming, has his little Iago shift course when Imogen threatens to inform Cymbeline of this attempted assault. The audience can only blink in astonishment when Iachimo changes tactics and insists that he was only testing Imogen, out of his supposed esteem for Posthumus. Since Imogen suddenly begins to accept the varlet’s overpraise of her exiled husband, we might suspect that Imogen is mindless, or that Shakespeare is sublimely confident that we will accept any nonsense form, which is almost true. [MY NOTE: Compare this with Tanner, who wrote, “This confrontation of Iachimo and Imogen is one of Shakespeare’s great scenes – never more piquant adversaries, with such different resources to draw on! Never mind the looming war between Rome and Britain, this – however you care to name its contesting qualities or virtues or skills or powers – is the battle at the soul of the play, to be shortly followed by what must be a unique scene in Shakespeare…”] We are given the absurd Trojan Horse strategy, when Iachimo urges Imogen to keep safe for him, in her bedchamber, a trunk supposedly containing precious gifts for the Roman emperor, but that actually will hold the bouncing Iachimo. When Imogen consents to this nonsense, we wrongly decide that she is beautiful though dumb, and rightly decide that Shakespeare’s new motto might well be ‘Outrage, outrage, always give them outrage!’
Before Iachimo pops out of the box to survey the sleeping beauty and her chamber, it is useful to slow down and ask, Does Shakespeare get away with this? We could be back in the Plautine Comedy of Errors, or forward with the late Zero Mostel in the equally Plautine A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Does Cymbeline only lack more music, and an all-but-nude chorus line? Doubtless some director will attempt it, but is Cymbeline, then, a kind of a zany romance, akin to the peculiarly effective erotic comedy in Twelfth Night? No one, at least since Swinburne, would consider Cymbeline a play as eminent as Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s twelve to fifteen or so masterworks.
Everything about Cymbeline is madly problematical, as Shakespeare, in a willful mood, evidently intended. Iachimo and Cloten are comic villains, Posthumus is a husbandly dolt, and Cymbeline is thickheaded enough to deserve his tiresomely wicked Queen. Imogen out to be in a play worthier of her aesthetic dignity, but Shakespeare seems to troubled to give her the context she deserves, at least in the first two acts. Grotesquerie swirls about her, and yet Imogen remains always the sublime, antithetical to the grotesque. Radically experimental, Shakespeare establishes what might be a new mode of drama in Cymbeline, one we have trouble recognizing, since his remaining plays do not resemble it, and our modern theater has nothing like this juxtaposition of aesthetic dignity with the absurd. We have had absurdist dramas in profusion, but the protagonists tend to be as grotesque as their contexts, even in Pirandello. The enchanting Imogen, with whom Hazlitt and Tennyson fell in love, is not possible upon our stages.”
On the other hand, from Mark Van Doren:
“The separated persons in ‘Cymbeline’ are husband and wife; or, since Posthumus is banished so soon after his marriage to Imogen, lover and lover. And no separation in Shakespeare is attended by so many ills. Slander and poison infect every portion of the air which these pre-Christian Britons breathe; the husband plots the wife’s death and believes it has been accomplished; there is a vast deal of dangerous coming and going; and it takes a bloody war with Rome to bring the suffers close enough together for reconciliation. The action is so complicated that only an expert can remember it. It is too complicated of course for tragedy, where the Folio classified it; and Dr. Johnson, who still considered ‘Cymbeline’ a tragedy, had in so for some reason for writing: ‘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 of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults to evident for detection, and too gross for exaggeration.’ The problem is to explain a certain fascination which the play nevertheless exerts, and to justify the weakness which one may well have for imbecility, if that is the word, so unresisting as to suggest that there was method in it after all. The first thing to do is to remember that ‘Cymbeline’ is not a tragedy. And the second is to see how Shakespeare, coasting the farthest limits of romantic form, turned sensation and coincidence into gold which he could carry home.
Even among the romances, ‘Cymbeline’ is extreme. Its king is meaninglessly stern, banishing the hero with extravagant words:
Thou ‘rt poison to my blood,
and dismissing the grief of the heroine, his own daughter, with this harsh command:
Nay, let her languish
A drop of blood a day; and, being aged,
Die of this folly!
Its queen is sinister in her craft; she brews poison out of innocent violets, cowslips, and primroses (I.v.83), she knows how to make sleep look like death, and she lectures the heroine coldly against grief, ignorant that it can be a medicine too, as Imogen once says (III.ii.33). And her son Cloten, whom Imogen had been ordered to marry instead of Posthumus is, as the villain of the piece, so utterly out of bounds that he becomes a clown; ‘this ass,’ as the lords at court call him, swears horrendously that he will ravish Imogen in her husband’s clothes, but he swears with ‘snatches in his voice, and burst of speaking’ (IV.ii.105-6), and is but a whining parody of Aaron the Moor. The fairy element loses some of its force through being associated with the rigmarole of two princes, sons of Cymbeline, who since their abduction as babes have been brought up in a Welsh cave and yet are princes still; for, as Belarius their abductor says, it is hard ‘to hide the sparks of nature.’ (III.iii.79). And the divine element, pursued to a point where Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting on an eagle, to say that the sleeping Posthumus will be all the happier for his affliction, and to leave on his chest a riddling tablet which once interpreted will make all clear, is perhaps grotesque.
Furthermore, the structure of romance is here fantastically ornate. Imogen, seeking her husband in Wales, passes the very cave where her kidnapped brothers dwell, and of course enters it for food and rest; and this leads on to a scene such as only a virtuoso would attempt – the funeral of a living girl, through to be dead by two boys who had mistaken her for a boy and called her ‘brother’ when in fact, and unknown to them or her, they are her brothers, and princes at that. Nor is this all: for when she wakes from her sleep that looked like death she finds herself lying by one truly dead – the headless Cloten, whom, since he is dressed in her husband’s clothes, she passionately mourns. That the scene is very affecting, and by some miracle of poetry natural, does not for the moment matter. It is certainly fantastic, as the ‘curious mantle’ and the ‘sanguine star’ by which the boys are proved to be princes must be set down as the baggage of romance, and as the multiple recognition scene which requires almost five hundred lines merely to suggest its possibilities – ‘this fierce abridgement,’ says Cymbeline,
Hath to it circumstantial branches, which
Distinction should be rich in…
but not the time nor place
Will serve our long inter’gatories –
might seem to have been designed as a recognition scene to end all recognition scenes, since it has everything in it and more. That the scene is by some double miracle of poetry and humanity moving, and in certain places immensely so, does not altogether answer the epithet extreme.
Where, then, does ‘Cymbeline’ get its power, for it has power? The answer is the uses to which Shakespeare has put his extremes. In plausibility he was perhaps not interested at all, absorbed as he must have been in the opportunities his plot gave him for saying absolute things absolutely, and for following to its end in Imogen the vision of an absolutely faithful woman – absolutely faithful because absolutely in love. But the heroine of the play cannot be understood before its style, which is the richest and most elaborate of Shakespeare’s styles thus far. The opening speech, by a nameless gentleman of Cymbeline’s court, accustoms us at once to involution:
You do not meet a man but frowns. Our bloods
No more obey the heavens than our courtiers
Still seem as does the King.
The proportion in the second sentence is less obvious than we expected, and leaves us with a sense that we should have listened more closely. The sense will be with us always, whether it is prose we hear:
He was then of a crescent note, expected to prove so worthy as since he hath been allowed the name of;
or whether it is verse, tangling us in excesses of syntax:
I have given him that
Which, if he take, shall quite unpeople her
Of liegers for her sweet, and which she after,
Except she bend her humour, shall be assur’d
To taste of too.
Syntax would seem with this poet to have become an occupation in itself; complex sentences, not to be parsed by thoughtless ears, are his special pleasure. And he takes a further pleasure in making familiar words to unfamiliar work: ‘rather than story him in his own hearing,’ ‘to the madding of her lord,’ ‘when we shall hear the rain and wind beat dark December,’ ‘in simple and low things to prince it much beyond the trick of others,’ ‘my memory will then be pang’d by me,’ ‘to winter-ground thy corse,’ ‘the holy eagle stoop’d, as to foot us.’ This is always the privilege of poets, and Shakespeare has made full use of the privilege before; but he has never been so ingenious at coining verbs. His style is on the stretch. To the brevity of phrase that distinguished ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ are added further brevities, sometimes perverse, and still more nervous tensions. It is the style of a man whose determination is to reach extremes of statement with as few preliminaries as possible. His people are deadly earnest in their exaggeration:
I’ll drink the words you send,
Though ink be made of gall.
Should we be taking leave
As long a term as we have to live,
The loathness to depart would grow.
I am senseless of your wrath; a touch more rare
Subdues all pangs, all fears.
Such boil’d stuff
As well might poison poison!
Why should I write this down, that’s riveted,
Screw’d to my memory?
What shall I need to draw my sword? The paper
Hath cut her throat already.
I had rather
Have skipp’d from sixteen years of age to sixty,
To have turn’d my leaping-time into a crutch,
Than have seen this.
So I’ll die
For thee, O Imogen, even for whom my life
Is every breath a death.
The music of praise has never in Shakespeare been so elaborate. The gentleman of the opening scene says of Posthumus that he
is a creature such
As, to seek through the regions of the earth
For one his like, there would be something failing
In him that should compare. I do not think
So far an outward and such stuff within
Endows a man but he.
And when the second gentleman remarks that this is far praise indeed, the first insists:
I do extend him, sir, within himself,
Crush him together rather than unfold
His measure duly.
Posthumus is not only a sample to the youngest, he is a guide for dotards – he is all that man can be, and the final proof of this is that such a woman as Imogen has elected him husband. Not that the praise of Imogen will always be indirect. Iachimo, setting eyes on her, exclaims to himself:
All of her that is out of door most rich!
If she be furnish’d with a mind so rare,
She is alone, the Arabian bird.
And if he is disingenuous when he tells her that Posthumus sits among men like a descended god (I.vi.169), he will be sincere when in his confession at the end he calls his injured friend ‘the best of all amongst the rar’st of good ones’ (V.v.159-60). Nor will good old Belarius fail of conviction as he deifies Fidele:
By Jupiter, an angel! Or, if not,
An earthly paragon! Behold divineness
No elder than a boy;
or as he anoints the princes whose natural father he can no longer seem to be:
I must lose
Two of the sweet’st companions in the world.
The benediction of these covering heavens
Fall on their heads like dew! for they are worthy
To inlay heaven with stars.
The language of praise in this play has found its absolute grammar – as, when Imogen hears Cloten call Posthumus a base slave, the reverse language of denunciation comes correspondingly into its own:
Wert thou the son of Jupiter and no more
But what thou art besides, thou wert too base
To be his groom. Thou wert dignified enough,
Even to the point of envy, if ‘t were made
Comparative for your virtues, to be styl’d
The under-hangman of his kingdom, and hated
For being preferr’d so well…
He never can meet more mischance than come
To be but nam’d of thee. His meanest garment
That ever hath but clipp’d his body, is dearer
In my respect than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men.
Imogen is one of the great women of Shakespeare or the world.”
And finally, from Garber:
“Part history, part romance, part revenge tragedy, and part satire, incorporating pastoral themes and lyric songs of an unusual beauty, Cymbeline, King of Britain, is a curious play, presenting one of Shakespeare’s most complicated and hard-to-summarize plots. A quick glance at its twists and turns reveals how close complexity can come to absurdity.
Many of this play’s improbabilities come from Shakespeare’ use of the conventions of the romantic genre, which we have already seen well illustrated in an early play, The Comedy of Errors, in which a shipwreck sunders a family that is then humorously and coincidentally reunited by the end of the play.
The play takes its name from that of the semi-legendary king, Cymbeline, or Kymbeline (the historical Cunobelinus), who ruled Britain at the time of the birth of Christ. Most characters in Cymbeline seem to be indebted, in style and behavior, to the modes of romance or fairy tale; the evil Queen, who will be a literal ‘wicked stepmother’ to the virtuous and ill-used princes, Imogen; the dastardly villain Iachimo, whose roots are in Renaissance Italian intrigue; the faithful but disillusioned courtier who has fled the court and its corruption, and now makes his home in the hills of Wales. But the play is, manifestly, also a history, a narrative of ancient Britain and ancient Rome. [MY NOTE: As you might recall, Tanner doesn’t quite see it like that.]
The flatness of some of the romance characterizations – the ways in which these dramatic characters move through their landscapes like dream figures emblematic of psychological or moral states – seems at times tonally at odds with the historical content. Some literary critics at the beginning of the twentieth-century were inclined to dismiss the play as the work of a has-been, a washed-up playwright with nothing left to say, a Shakespeare so tired of theater that he was, as Lytton Strachey famously remarked ‘half bored to death.’ It then became conventional to describe the play as an ‘experiment’ (however at odds that view might be with the ‘has-been’ argument), a mixed-mode play following a Jacobean fashion for such things. Latterly the period term ‘tragicomedy’ has been resurrected, replacing – as we saw also with Pericles – categories and labels such as ‘last plays,’ ‘late plays,’ and ‘dramatic romance.’ One oddity of the play’s classification is that it was listed among the tragedies in the First Folio, and was given the running title The Tragedie of Cymbeline. Yet the events of the play are ‘happy’ ones by almost any standard of fiction: the cartoonish evil queen and her son are killed, the villain confesses his perjury and repents, the lost children are found and restored to their father and to the land.
There is nothing wrong with calling Cymbeline an experiment, unless by that we mean to undercut its standing as a play worth reading, staging, remembering, and discussing. For this is a play that tackles, and to a large extent solves, an intriguing set of problems about the relationship between political stories and psychological stories, between the state or polity and the subject, and between the political fiction and the dream.
Cymbeline can usefully be considered a myth of national origin, a play at once historical and romancelike by its very nature and purpose. How did Britain come to be? What kind of a nation was it? Who were its forebears, its originators, its founding fathers and mothers? If we look back over the other plays Shakespeare had been writing in these years, King Lear and Macbeth among them, it seems clear that this question of origin and futurity was a preoccupation of the period. (It turns up with some frequency as a topic in court masques, one of King James’s favorite modes of entertainment). Cymbeline as a foundation myth culminates in the revelation that the spirit of the founder lives on in the present monarch, James I, who – like King Cymbeline – was celebrated as a peacemaker, and who regarded himself, famously, as the heir to the Roman tradition, as well as the successor to the legendary Brutus, the first ruler of Britain. (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain begins with Brutus and names Leir and Cordelia in the list of legendary kings and queens; Cymbeline, ‘chief of the Catevellauni,’ is followed in Geoffrey’s list by Guiderius and then by Arviragus.) This is a play about the way the British and Roman heritages come together in Cymbeline – and, by implication, in James. Thus it follows a pattern familiar from the other English history plays, situating itself in three time periods at once: its historical setting (ancient Britain), its time of writing and initial performance (James I’s Britain), and the time in which it read, produced, and discussed (‘today,’ that all-purpose shifter).
Like King Cymbeline, James had two sons and a daughter, and it is worth recalling that the question of the royal family as a political structure and a model of the state was one of James’s chief concerns as monarch. The presence of heirs supported the idea of an orderly succession, of course, but part of the tension in this play is between the role of king as pater familias, head of the household, and his role as patriarch, head of the state. As a husband and a father Cymbeline is weak and doing; he is willing to marry off his beloved daughter, Imogen, to the wicked (and nameless) Queen’s son, his stepson, the oafish Cloten. But the play corrects this paternalistic error by supplying a better husband, Posthumus Leonatus, and a whole group of surrogate fathers, not only the ghosts of Posthumus’s own father and family, but also the archpatriarch, Jupiter, the king (and father) of the gods. Cymbeline at the beginning of his play is neither a good father nor a good king, but by the end he has come to closely resemble James: he is statesmanlike; he pays tribute where tribute is due; and he is, as James proclaimed himself to be, a ‘loving nourish-father,’ both father and mother to his children and to his land.
One issue at stake at the beginning of Cymbeline, as it was at the beginning of Pericles, is the father’s – and king’s – right to choose his daughter’s husband. The play raises questions related to patriarchy, to absolute monarchy, and to dynastic politics, and it addresses them in a context of romance, dream, and fantasy that helps to craft a solution that is a critique of tyranny. King Lear begins with, among other things, Lear’s refusal to pay Cordelia’s dowry to the Duke of Burgundy (‘her price is fallen’); the King of France takes her without a marriage portion. In Antony and Cleopatra Octavia is the unhappy pawn in a negotiation between Octavius Caesar and Antony. In Cymbeline Imogen not only marries the man she loves, but discovers that he is the ideal political mate. The realization of the fantasy of personal choice becomes the establishment of political orthodoxy.
Yet if Cymbeline is a foundation myth, it is also a family romance, embodying the fantasy of being freed from one’s family and discovering that one is a member of a family of higher standing. Often, in fairy tales or pastoral romances, the orphaned or adopted child is discovered to be a prince or princes – or a wizard, to recall Harry Potter, the most recent family romance. The term ‘family romance’ was coined by Freud, and it covers a wide variety of instances, from megalomania to daydreaming; but as a literary and mythological trope it far predates modern psychology and reaches back to the earliest times of storytelling. In this play the young male hero, Posthumus Leonatus, is – as his name implies – born after his father’s death, then reunited with father and mother in a dream in which his father declares that Jupiter should have been Posthumus’s foster father and shielded him from harm. The two sons of King Cymbeline are also caught up in a pattern of family romance, since the man they think is their father, the Welsh countryman ‘Morgan,’ is actually the courtier Belarius, who stole them away from their real father, the King. Thus, while Guiderius and Arviragus are living out a true family romance in Freud’s sense, Posthumus lives out a family romance fantasy. Bearing in mind the Christological background of the play, we might note that the pattern of Christ on earth is another version of family romance, with Joseph the earthly foster father to a man who would be revealed as the Son of God. The family romance is, in essence, the personal or psychological equivalent of the foundation myth or identity, individual and cultural: Who am I? Who are we? How did I, or we, get to be who and what we are? As so frequently in Shakespeare, the political reading and the psychological reading are not only analogous, but intertwined.
Whatever the mode, the dramaturgy of Cymbeline is hardly a complete break from Shakespearean practice. Elements of this kind of romance have appeared in the tragedies. We have seen, for example, the awakening of Lear, dressed in fresh garments, to the accompaniment of music; the seasonal, mythic, and elemental associations that surround Antony and Cleopatra; and Hamlet’s rejection of the false father Claudius for the greater and lost father, old Hamlet, his journey to England, and his reclaiming of his lot name. Many of the great comedies of the Elizabethan Period, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, were preoccupied with questions of pastoral, of city and country. The acquisition of the small indoor Blackfriars theater in 1608, and the interest of the Jacobean court in the theatrical form of the masque, with its visual pyrotechnics, machines, and ‘wonder,’ may have spurred Shakespeare’s – or his company’s – interest in this kind of theatricality, which seems to a modern audience closer to dream and to the logic of the unconscious than to mimesis, the imitation of speech and action in the real world.
Cymbeline resembles a tragedy not only in the fact that it contains some tragic speech patterns, but also because its plot fulfills and makes explicit a precept implicit in Shakespearean tragedy, the idea of resurrection, regeneration, and rebirth. Cymbeline is another king raised to high estate, who falls, through error (here the same notorious error as Adam’s, putting himself under a woman’s thrall). His daughter, Imogen, fleeing the court disguised as the boy ‘Fidele,’ takes a sleeping potion that – like Juliet’s – counterfeits death; she is twice reborn, once to her discoverers in the cave (who turn out to be her natural brothers, the King’s stolen sons), and again to her father and her husband in the court. The sons, too, are restored, and thus effectively reborn, to their father, who responds: ‘O, what am I? A mother to the birth of three?’ (5.6.369-370). But as a dramatic character, Cymbeline gets off to a slow start, in part, perhaps, because of this persistent problem of genre. In a narrative romance, like Spenser’s Faerie Queene, characters are symbolic and can remain in that mode. They represent Error, or Despair, or the True Church. And their symbolic nature, their one-dimensionalism, is something the reader can accept. This is not true of all characters in narrative romance, of course, but even the most rounded, like Spenser’s knights of Holiness (Redcrosse), Temperance (Guyon), and Chastity (Britomart), retain an emblematic basis. A schematic and therefore slightly parodic account of this can be gleaned from a footnote to the teaching edition of The Faerie Queene:
‘Una…representing Truth, in particular the true faith of Recrosse. In this context, the ‘lowly Asse’ is a symbol of humility…The dwarf may represent common sense, or practical understanding.’
This is a useful gloss for a reading of the text, but if we were to try to imagine the scenario as a play – not a hieratic medieval play but a play designed for the commercial early modern theater – we might encounter difficulties. A set of allegorical equivalences like these tends to produce something more like a cartoon character than a recognizable human individual: Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Wonder Woman. (Each of these, we might note, ahs a ‘human’ other, like Superman’s Clark Kent). Shakespeare’s personae, however linked they might be to familiar allegorical personages and types (the Vice, the Machiavel), had to be characters first and symbols second, with voices and motives that are sufficiently mimetic to sustain an audience’s engagement. In Cymbeline Shakespeare addresses this issue directly. The playwright’s task is to blend dramatic action and tension with romance modes and themes.
The play’s spectators thus find themselves in a world of historical anachronism: The Britons of Cymbeline are ancient Britons, some living in Luds Town (London), some in the forests and caves of Wales, but the Romans seem simultaneously to be living in the time of Augustus Caesar and that of early modern Italy. Iachimo is presented as a devious and scheming Italian, akin to the characters in Ben Jonson’s Volpone or Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. Lucius, the Roman general, is equally clearly a figure who might appear in Antony and Cleopatra or Coriolanus. In his Poetics Aristotle had written that one should prefer a convincing impossibility to an unconvincing possibility. (Poetics, chapter 25), and that is what this conjunction of time periods in Cymbeline produces, once we suspend our disbelief. The play’s dramatic universe is thus able to encompass both the basic subject of Shakespeare’s history plays (the ‘matter of Britain,’ the ‘matter of Rome’ and also the relationship between Renaissance England and Renaissance Italy that is a major feature both of his comedies and of his tragedies.”
More to come…
Our next reading: Act Two of Cymbeline
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.