Act Two, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Determined to win his bet, Iachimo asks Imogen to safeguard a large trunk which he (surprise!) hides in, coming out as she sleeps and stealing her bracelet. Returning to Rome, he presents it to Posthumus as proof that she has slept with him.
Because Imogen is more resilient than Iachimo had hoped, because he realizes that his attempts to win her failing badly, he switches course (unbelievably according to Bloom, although I see him as doing what he needs to do), and convinces Imogen that he was merely testing her, to see whether her “affiance/Were deeply rooted” (1.6.164-5), that she agrees to keep in her inner chamber the fateful trunk. As soon as she is asleep, he sneaks out – the first of the play’s daring moments of visual stating. Reaching for her bracelet (a gift from Posthumus), he cackles gleefully that they are both undone, “’Tis mine,’ he whispers,”
and this will witness outwardly,
As strongly as the conscience does within,
To th’ madding of her lord. On her left breast
A mole, cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I’th’ bottom of a cowslip. Here’s a voucher
Stronger than ever law could make. This secret
Will force him think I have picked the lock and ta’en
The treasure of her honour.
This too-innocent visible evidence – not just the bracelet but the marks on Imogen’s own body, oh-so-voyeuristically noted – will condemn her to Posthumus. It is difficult not to think, as Shakespeare himself must have thought, back to his early poem The Rape of the Lucere and another guiltless heroine who is undone when a man forces himself into her private chamber. And to Hero. And to Desdemona. And to ask why Shakespeare’s heroines are always guiltless and his heroes such gullible fools?
Before getting into more of the play proper, I’d like to start with this from Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, which I think gives us an interesting perspective from which to view not only Cymbeline, but The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest as well:
“Somewhere or other Aldous Huxley makes the interesting suggestion of an anthology of last works, or better, late works. Samson Agonistes of Milton, for example, Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, the last quarters of Beethoven, Verdi’s Falstaff, the late paintings and etchings of Goya. Age doesn’t enter in. Shakespeare was only 45 when he wrote Pericles and Cymbeline, Beethoven died at the age of 57. On the other hand, Verdi was 80. The works must be definitely different. The last works of Pope or Ben Jonson don’t qualify – they are not a definitely different kind of thing. The difference mustn’t be because of the failure of artistic power – Wordsworth, for example, wrote little of value after 1816. Other people, like Rossini and Rimbaud, just decided to stop writing – they have no late works. The difference must be a chosen difference, a choice made by the artist in light of approaching death and the end of his career.
The characteristics of such late works include, first, a certain indifference to their effect either on the general reading public or on critics. There must be no sign of a wish either for popularity or for an artistic perfection that is designed to reap critical acclaim. Late works also have a kind of obscurity that is different from that of a young artist. A young artist has an original vision that is strange and will seem strange to his audience. Secondly, he lacks the technical practice to put the vision across. He also has a wish to shock, which is a way of becoming related to his audience. There is a desire to be (a) popular and (b) epatant. In late works, the strangeness comes not from a given vision, but from an acquired vision. Eliot says in “Four Quarters”
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered…
Old men out to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion…
The writer of late works is sometimes shocking out of his indifference as to whether he shocks or not. It must not be a lessening of artistic power. Our difficult must not be due to that, nor should the strangeness be due to that either. The work’s strangeness must be intentional or because the author doesn’t care. Nor is there a wish in late works for big, spectacular, purple effects. There is an enormous interest in particular kinds of artistic problems loving worked out for themselves, regardless of the interest of the whole work.
Some of the best things in late works come not in climaxes, but in bridge passages, in little points. Their virtues are virtues for the real connoisseur, they’re not immediately apparent. Act V, scene iv of Cymbeline, the masque with Jupiter, for example, always shocks respectable critics, who find the writing so bad that they can’t it’s by the Shakespeare who wrote the surrounding verse in the play. But the verse of one of the spirits, who comments on Jupiter’s ascension, is remarkable:
The marble pavement closes; he is enter’d
His radiant roof. Away! and, to be blest,
Let us with care perform his great behest.
In Act V, scene iii of Cymbeline there is a similarly remarkable speech of over 50 lines, often cut by directors, that describes Belarius and the royal children fighting alongside of and rallying the British troops:
Three thousand confident, in act as many
(For three performers are in the file when all
The rest do nothing), with this word ‘Stand, stand!’
Accommodated by the place, more charming
With their own nobleness, which could have turn’d
A distaff to a lance, gilded pale looks,
Part shame, part spirit renew’d; that some, turn’d coward
But by example (O, a sin in war,
Damn’d in the first beginners!) gan to look
The way that they did and to grin like lions
Upon the pikes o’ th’ hunters. Then began
A stop I’ th’ chase, a retir: anon
A rout, confusion thick. Forthwith they fly
Chickens, the way which they stoop’d eagles; slaves,
The strides they victors made; and now our cowards,
Like fragments in hard voyages, became
The life o’ th’ need. Having found the back-door open
Of the unguarded hearts, heavens, how they wound!
Some slain before, some dying, some their friends
O’erborne i’th’ vormer wave. Ten chas’d by one
Are now each one the slaughterman of twenty.
Those that would die or ere resist are grown
The mortal bugs o’th’ field.
This is the kind of writing that is not immediately noticeable, but anyone who practices verse writing returns again and again to such passages, more than to spectacular things. They show real technical brilliance applied to something that is not very important in subject matter, but a writer wanting to learn his trade can find out how to write verse by studying them.
In the late works of Shakespeare, there is no real resemblance to the real world of time and place. The recognition scenes are fantastic. There are repeated shipwrecks in Pericles and repeated disguises in Cymbeline. Shakespeare is taking up an entirely primitive form – with choruses, dumb shows, and masques. One might think of a modern writer who, after mastering complex forms, takes up the Wild West. The plays show a conscious exploitation of tricks: asides, etc. Late works appeal to lowbrows and very sophisticated highbrows, but not to middlebrows, even to the aristocrat of middlebrows, Dr. Johnson. Critics to not appreciate the pleasure a writer has in consciously writing a simple form – like the masque in Cymbeline.”
Now, back to Act Two of the play with Tanner, whose reading of the play I’m finding most convincing:
“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. Imogen is in her bed, attended by a lady, about to go to sleep: she turns down the page of the book she has been reading, asks for her taper to be left burning, dismisses her lady, and prays to the gods to protect her from fairies and ‘the tempers of the night’ (II.ii.9). She sleeps; all is peace: and then Iachimo comes from the trunk (which of course was there for safe-keeping). This is the one totally opaque deed in the play, and it should take us, the audience, completely by surprise. This is unusual, particularly in this play where people are given to announcing their intentions. Cunning, plotting villains in particular in Shakespeare, invariably let the audience know what they are planning, perhaps thus to involve us in the somewhat guilty complicit pleasure of enjoying the uninformed discomfiture of their victims. But Iachimo has not dropped us a word nor tipped us a wink. We should be as surprised as Imogen – except that Imogen is asleep, so now we know something she doesn’t know. But that spectacle of the figure of Iachimo silently emerging from the trunk in the nocturnal bedroom may be sufficiently troubling; who knows what comes out at night, within us and without us? It is, at the same time, rather comic – not exactly Box-and-Cox, but that way inclined. We should bear this mixed tonality in mind – particularly, as it happens, in another scene involving another ‘trunk.’
Iachomo’s forty-line soliloquy over the sleeping Imogen is amazing. Everything about the setting and situation suggests and presages rape. Imogen has been reading about the rape of Philomel by Tereus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Iachimo finds the book with the page at which she stopped turned down – Shakespeare showing one of the key sources for his own art on stage, another glimpse into the works, as it were); while Iachimo, in a moment of misplaced solidarity, invokes ‘Our Tarquin,’ whose rape of Lucrece Shakespeare himself had, of course, written about. These were two of the most violent rapes in mythology or history, and they set dire precedents. But Iachimo is gentleness itself, speaking with a hushed reverence and awed appreciation that bespeak a finer sensibility than – so the feeling sometimes goes – an oily little Italian seducer has any right to. He seems initially to be, as it were, stunned into poetry; his first dozen lines are exquisite, quite transcending his usual cynical manipulation of discourse. It seems another voice, from:
The crickets sing, and man’s o’erlabored sense
Repairs itself by rest.
The flame o’ the taper
Bows towards her and would underpeep her lids
To see th’ enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure-laced
With blue of heaven’s own tinct.
But this sort of entirely non-prurient wonder won’t get the job done – as he realizes. ‘But my design.’ And he sets about his ‘inventory’ – ‘I will write all down’ – proceeding to itemize the contents of the room and, as far as he can (a mole on the left breast), the details of Imogen’s body. His penetrations and appropriations are entirely ocular. ‘that I might touch!’ he sighs at one point, but he can’t-mustn’t-won’t. the Tarquin he invoked differed exactly here:
His rage of lust by gazing qualified;
Slacked, not suppressed; for, standing by her side
His drumming heart cheers up his burning eye,
His eye commands the leading to his hand;
His hand, as proud of such a dignity,
Soaking with pride, marched on, to make his stand
On her bare breast, the heart of all her land…
(The Rape of Lucrece)
Iachimo can only uses his hands to steal Imogen’s bracelet – a symbolic violation of her chastity, if you will, but still a scopic one. Because, of course, he has come, not for direct sex, but for indirect ‘evidence’: the bracelet – this will witness outwardly,/As strongly as the conscience does within,/To th’ madding of her lord’; the mole – ‘Here’s a voucher/Stronger than ever law could make’ (II.ii.35-7, 39-40, my italics). With these, plus his ‘inventory’ – ‘I have enough’ (II.ii.46) – he returns to the trunk, with the uncharacteristically unconfident lines – ‘I lodge in fear./Though this is a heavenly angel, hell is here’ (II.ii.49-50). Hell is where? In the bedroom? In the trunk? Perhaps in Iachimo himself? Not clear – but certainly, a sudden shiver. The whole astonishing, voyeuristic episode is one which it can be both gripping and unsettling to participate in – as we, fellow intruders in the bedroom, inevitably do.
After a short scene, allowing a break for his return to Italy, Iachimo is back in Rome, boasting to Posthumus of an easy triumph – ‘the ring is won,’ and he means both of them (II.iv.45). His demonstration that he has ‘knowledge of your mistress’ (II.iv.51) – meaning carnal knowledge – falls into two parts. First, drawing no doubt on his ‘inventory,’ he meticulously describes the decorations on the walls of her bedroom, on the chimney or fireplace, and on the ceiling. The main subjects – in tapestry and in sculpture – are Cleopatra meeting Antony on the swelling Nile, and ‘Chaste Dian bathing’ (throw in two silver andirons in the form of ‘two winking Cupids”) – as if the room is brimming with rising eroticism and an enticingly displayed and vulnerable chastity (the golden cherubims on the ceiling seem to come from somewhere else, though I supposed they would be fairly Cupid-like). The main feature, though, is the striking life-likeness of the art:
a piece of work
So bravely done, so rich, that it did strive
In workmanship and value; which I wondered
Could be so rarely and exactly wrought,
Since the true life on’t was
Never saw I figures
So likely to report themselves. The cutter
Was as another Nature, dumb; outwent her,
Motion and breath left out.
Forget the sex – look at the art-work. At the start of Timon of Athens, the Poet says to the Pinter of one of his works:
I will say of it,
It tutors nature; artificial strife
Lives in these touches, livelier than life.
It was a common enough contemporary figure; here it is probably a piece of rank flattery, and thus absurdly exaggerated. But the idea of an art that, as it were, steals a march on nature, goes on better, outdoes or outskills it, clearly haunts or delights Shakespeare during the writing of these last plays, when he must have felt that he had more tricks up his sleeve than lift itself. As it is his pleasure to demonstrate to us.
These details of the decorations are what Iachimo calls his ‘circumstances’ which, he says to Posthumus ‘must first induce you to believe’ (II.iv.61, 63). The word means ‘details’ or ‘particulars,’ but is particularly appropriate since all this is what we would now call (merely) ‘circumstantial evidence,’ not proof. Posthumus, rightly sees it in this way, too. Iachimo could have found out these details in any number of ways without even coming near the person of Imogen, and as far as Posthumus is concerned, Iachimo has lost the wager. Then Iachimo produces the bracelet. Within ten lines Posthumus hands over the ring given to him by Imogen – completely assured, just like that, of Imogen’s infidelity.
The vows of women
Of no more bondage be to where they are made
Than they are to their virtues, which is nothing.
O, above measure false!
Philario again tries, vainly, to introduce a little sense – hang on man, bracelets can be lost of stolen. Posthumus pauses, but Iachimo only has to repeat that ‘I had it from her arm’ (as indeed he did), for Posthumus to revert – eagerly, as one feels – to his conviction of Imogen’s ‘inconsistency:’
No, he hath enjoyed her.
The cognizance of her incontinency
Is this. She hath bought the name of whore thus dearly.
Philario – ‘this is not strong enough to be believed’ (II.i.131) – is wasting his time. ‘’Never talk on’t./She hath been colted by him’ (II.iv.132-3). One feels Posthumus’s perverse pleasure in using coarse language about his wife. Just to make sure – or just to turn the knife – Iachimo describes how much he enjoyed kissing the mole under Imogen’s breast. That really does the trick.
Spare your arithmetic; never count the turns.
Once and a million!
O that I had her here, to tear her limb-meal!
We have seen before in Shakespeare how men will explode into the crudest, most deranged form of sexual jealousy on the smallest amount of (obviously) manufactured ‘evidence’ – which Posthumus will swear amounts to ‘testimonies…proof as strong as grief.’ (III.iv.22-4), while Iachimo later admits it was just ‘simular’ (simulated) proof (v.v.200) – and we are to see it one more, shattering, time, in the next play. As a phenomenon it clearly fascinated Shakespeare; and, as clearly, he saw that there could be in men a deep, masochistic pleasure in the self-torturing thought of infinite (‘once and a million’) sexual betrayal. It is a deeply worrying male proclivity which could have – Shakespeare is often at pains to show – endlessly ramifying destructive consequences.
And now Posthumus is all over the place, having abandoned his better self which was invested in his love for (and trust of) Imogen. He is given a long, incoherent soliloquy, full of gross sexual fantasizing:
Perchance he spoke not, but,
Like a full-scorned boar, a German one,
Cried ‘O!’ and mounted
and spluttering uncontrolled misogyny:
For there’s no motion
That tends to vice in man but I affirm
It is the woman’s part…
All faults that have a name, nay, that hell knows,
Why, hers, in part or all, but rather all.
…I’ll write against them,
Detest them, curse them.
(II.v.20-22, 28-8, 32-3)
That should settle their hash! This, of course, is all furious, flailing, foolishness – a tantrum. Posthumus has become stupid, coarse, out of control. He has nowhere to go, and he disappears from the play. Interestingly though, the next two acts will be plagued by a man who is – stupid, coarse, out of control; and I can assure you that something funny is going on here.
And to continue with Garber:
“The play’s characters exhibit the same range of possibility and impossibility or memetic persuasiveness and emblematic association (as the play itself). Cymbeline, as we have ssaid, is in the opening scenes a doddering and ineffectual dupe, henpecked by his awful queen, and not immediately worthy of tragic identification. The Queen is a stock figure who would become familiar in later fairy tales: the wicked stepmother, like Dionyza in Pericles. Her dominance over the weak King, far less emotionally convincing than, say, Lady Macbeth’s dominance over Macbeth, or Volumnia’s over Coriolanus, is a ‘given’ in the play’s world rather than a gradually perceived psychological effect. Thus both Imogen and the doctor, Cornelius, immediately tell the audience that the Queen is a liar and a fraud. ‘O dissembling courtesy!’ says Imogen (I.i.85), and Cornelius says, simply, ‘I do not like her’ (1.5.33). Among the Queen’s favorite recreational activities is the brewing of poison, which she uses to end the lives of innocent cats and dogs. (Women, and especially mothers, in the late romances of Shakespeare tend to be either alive and wicked, or good and dead; in this play the good dead women include Belarius’s wife, Euriphile; Cymbeline’s first queen and Posthumus’s mother.)
Cloten, the Queen’s own son, is as unappealing as she, although he is as foolish as she is shrewd and shrewish. In the opening scenes of the play he is accompanied by two lords, one of whom flatters him to his face while the other mocks him, behind his back, to the audience. This is an example of Shakespeare’s astonishing and economical facility with framing character, especially in the vein of dramatic satire. Thus when Cloten boasts that one of his fencing opponents could not stand up to him, the Second Lord is right there to tell him, and us, ‘No, but he fled forward still, toward your face’ (1.2.13-14). As Cymbeline’s stepson, Cloten is a parodic quest hero, structurally to be compared both to the King’s real sons and to Posthumus. When we hear of Posthumus in the first scene that his outside exactly matches his inside, that ‘[s]o fair an outward and such stuff within’ distinguishes no other man at court (1.1.23), we are able much later in the play to witness, in Cloten, a wonderful parody of the quest hero’s climactic self-revelation. Dressed in Posthumus’s clothes, flourishing his sword at the King’s son Guiderius, whom he mistakes for a mere rustic mountaineer, he shouts, ‘Thou villain base,/Know’st me not by my clothes?’ and ‘Thou injurious thief,/Hear but my name and tremble’ (4.2.82-83, 88-89). These are the classic tokens of recognition. (Compare Hamlet’s ‘This is I,/Hamlet the Dane,’ or, in King Lear, Edgar’s ‘My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son,’ or even the romance ending of Twelfth Night, where Sebastian and Viola name each other, and Viola’s lover Orisno requests that he might see her in her own clothes, her ‘women’s weeds.’) Yet the clothes Cloten wears in this scene are not his own, and his name, despite the fact that it belongs to a ‘historical’ character found in Holinshed’s Chronicles, related to the Middle English clott (lump, or block of wood), is hardly one to produce fear in its hearers. (Guiderius, who beheads him, will shortly speak of sending ‘Cloten’s clotpoll’ down the stream (4.2.185), and the word ‘clotpoll’ – literally, ‘blockhead’ – also appears in Troilus and Cressida.)
But if Cloten is a travesty of Posthumus, the hero, he is also a parodic version of a familiar pastoral and romance character, the ‘noble savage,’ the man who, lacking nurture, has an innate nobility that does not need to be taught. Described memorably by Montaigne, and later taken up by Rousseau and other Enlightenment authors, such figures (like Spenser’s ‘salvage nation’ and ‘salvage knight’) were regarded as having ‘natural’ manners and graces, uncorrupted by the venality of court or city life. ‘There is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to,’ wrote Montaigne in his essay ‘On Cannibals.’ ‘They are still ruled by natural laws, only slightly corrupted by ours. There are in such a state of purity that I am sometimes saddened by the thought that we did not discover them earlier.’ Montaigne’s famous conclusion was that it was more barbarous to tear a living body apart through torture or to burn a man alive, as was often done by the Inquisition, than it was to eat him dead. The real barbarians were the Europeans, not the ‘cannibals’ of the New World.
Cloten is not a noble savage but the opposite, a savage noble. Despite his courtly opportunities, he remains a boor, and as such he is the contrary of the King’s sons, brought up in rustic Wales, but with the natural manners of the (ideal) court and nobility. Animated by lust and appetite, spiteful, scornful, and ambitious, Cloten is the man his mother wants to put at the head of the British state. His death is like the death of a beast or monster as much as like that of a man. In a way, this unlikable character points toward a figure at once less human and more engaging, the music-loving monster Caliban in The Tempest. Cloten, who lacks Caliban’s excuse, since he is fully human and presumably was brought up at court, is far coarser and more profane, joking of penetration, fingers, and tongues, even as he commissions, in act 2, scene 5, that utterly lovely lyric and aubade ‘Hark, hark, the lark.’ In direct contrast to Cloten, and soon to demonstrate themselves as literally noble savages, are the King’s sons, Guiderius and Cadwal. Their adoptive father, Belarius, who stole them from the court, calls himself Morgan.”
And finally, the beginning of William Hazlitt on Cymbeline:
CYMBELINE is one of the most delightful of Shakespeare’s historical plays. It may be considered as a dramatic romance, in which the most striking parts of the story are thrown into the form of a dialogue, and the intermediate circumstances are explained by the different speakers, as occasion renders it necessary. The action is less concentrated in consequence; but the interest becomes more aerial and refined from the principle of perspective introduced into the subject by the imaginary changes of scene as well as by the length of time it occupies. The reading of this play is like going [on] a journey with some uncertain object at the end of it, and in which the suspense is kept up and heightened by the long intervals between each action. Though the events are scattered over such an extent of surface, and relate to such a variety of characters, yet the links which bind the different interests of the story together are never entirely broken. The most straggling and seemingly casual incidents are contrived in such a manner as to lead at last to the most complete development of the catastrophe. The ease and conscious unconcern with which this is effected only makes the skill more wonderful. The business of the plot evidently thickens in the last act; the story moves forward with increasing rapidity at every step; its various ramifications are drawn from the most distant points to the same centre; the principal characters are brought together, and placed in very critical situations; and the fate of almost every person in the drama is made to depend on the solution of a single circumstance–the answer of Iachimo to the question of Imogen respecting the obtaining of the ring from Posthumus. Dr. Johnson is of opinion that Shakespeare was generally inattentive to the winding up of his plots. We think the contrary is true; and we might cite in proof of this remark not only the present play, but the conclusion of LEAR, of ROMEO AND JULIET, of MACBETH, of OTHELLO, even of HAMLET, and of other plays of less moment, in which the last act is crowded with decisive events brought about by natural and striking means.
The pathos in CYMBELINE is not violent or tragical, but of the most pleasing and amiable kind. A certain tender gloom o’erspreads the whole. Posthumus is the ostensible hero of the piece, but its greatest charm is the character of Imogen. Posthumus is only interesting from the interest she takes in him, and she is only interesting herself from her tenderness and constancy to her husband. It is the peculiar characteristic of Shakespeare’s heroines, that they seem to exist only in their attachment to others. They are pure abstractions of the affections. We think as little of their persons as they do themselves, because we are let into the secrets of their hearts, which are more important. We are too much interested in their affairs to stop to look at their faces, except by stealth and at intervals. No one ever hit the true perfection of the female character, the sense of weakness leaning on the strength of its affections for support, so well as Shakespeare–no one ever so well painted natural tenderness free from affectation and disguise–no one else ever so well showed how delicacy and timidity, when driven to extremity, grow romantic and extravagant; for the romance of his heroines (in which they abound) is only an excess of the habitual prejudices of their sex, scrupulous of being false to their vows, truant to their affections, and taught by the force of feeling when to forgo the forms of propriety for the essence of it. His women were in this respect exquisite logicians; for there is nothing so logical as passion. They knew their own minds exactly; and only followed up a favourite idea, which they had sworn to with their tongues, and which was engraven on their hearts, into its untoward consequences. They were the prettiest little set of martyrs and confessors on record. Cibber, in speaking of the early English stage, accounts for the want of prominence and theatrical display in Shakespeare’s female characters from the circumstance, that women in those days were not allowed to play the parts of women, which made it necessary to keep them a good deal in the background. Does not this state of manners itself, which prevented their exhibiting themselves in public, and confined them to the relations and charities of domestic life, afford a truer explanation of the matter? His women are certainly very unlike stage-heroines; the reverse of tragedy-queens.”
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, more on Act Two