“We have almost as great an affection for Imogen as she had for Posthumus; and she deserves it better. Of all Shakespeare’s women she is perhaps the most tender and the most artless.”


Act Three, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Bloom:

Imogen_-_Herbert_Gustave_Schmalz“Posthumus, even as an ideogram, is no fun. Shakespeare knew that a play must give pleasure, yet he portrays Posthumus as a very painful character, whose name refers both to having been ripped from a dying mother’s womb and to being the only survivor of a family. What Imogen finds in Posthumus we are not shown, but if Cloten (rhyming with ‘rotten’) is the alternative, that tells us enough. Shakespeare is his own worst enemy in Cymbeline: he is weary of making plays.  [MY NOTE:  Do you think he is?  Or is he just weary of making the same kind of plays?]  The miasma of fatigue and disgust that hovers on the edges of the high tragedies and the problem comedies has drifted to the center of Cymbeline, where Shakespeare cannot bear to murder another Cordelia in the wonderful Imogen. After composing perhaps three dozen dramas, Shakespeare has not exhausted his resources, but he craved distancing from what he was doing. You can say of Cymbeline that nothing works or that everything does, because the play is a large ellipsis, with too much left out; Shakespeare would not bother anymore to put it in.

Posthumus is not a cipher, like Cymbeline, but he is rather too much of a self-parody for us to feel that Iachimo and Cloten are his parodies. What does it mean to parody the self in a nausea of the spirit, a question that returns me to Posthumus’s soliloquy.  [MY NOTE:  See my earlier post on this here.]  The cry of ‘O vengeance, vengeance!’ parodies an Othello who himself had become a parody of the Noble Moor. Posthumus adds to this a graver illness when he yearns to isolate ‘the woman’s part in me,’ a yearning that parodies Lear in his madness yielding to the hysteria passio. Some scholars suggest that Shakespeare casts an ironic eye upon the satirists of his day when Posthumus, hardly a scribbler, vows literary revenge upon women: ‘I’ll write against them,/Detest them, curse them.’ It cannot be accidental that those who detest and curse women are always the lovesick, or the depraves, or insane husbands whose dementia is their horror of being cuckolded. We never feel that Shakespeare himself catches the disease that afflicts Troilus, Othello, Posthumus, Leontes, and many others. And yet Posthumus reads to me as something bordering upon Shakespearean self-punishment.

Authorial self-parody is a defense, one not at all easy to categorize. The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s Cymbeline. Faulkner has too many to list. Through patriotic rant, in Cymbeline Shakespeare shockingly parodies his John of Gaunt, Faulconbridge the Bastard, and Henry V, by assigning the British defiance of Rome in Act III, Scene I, to the wicked Queen and the rotten Cloten. The queen in particular is a Shakespearean self-chastisement for his earlier indulgences in patriotic bombast:

That opportunity,

Which then they had to take from’s, to resume

We have again. Remember, sir, my liege,

The kings your ancestors, together with

The natural bravery of your isle, which stands

As Neptune’s park, ribb’d and pal’d in

With rocks unscaleable and roaring waters,

With sands that will not bear your enemies’ boats,

But suck them up to th’ topmast. A kind of conquest

Caesar made here, but made not here his brag

Of ‘Came, and saw, and overcame:’ with shame

(The first that ever touch’d him) he was carried

From off our coast, twice beaten, and his shipping

(Poor ignorant baubles) on our terrible seas,

Like egg-shells mov’d upon their surges, crack’d

As easily ‘gainst our rocks. For joy whereof

The fam’d Cassiblean, who was once at point

(O giglot fortune!) to master Caesar’s sword,

Made Lud’s town with rejoicing-fires bright,

And Britons strut with courage.


‘Neptune’s park’ is a bit much, and the Queen’s parentheses give away the rest to outrageousness.  The Roman armada’s cracking like eggshells is a fine grotesquerie, and Shakespeare’s irony shows through ‘And Britons strut with courage.’ Shakespeare’s unwholesome mode continues in the next scene, where the faithful servant Pisanio is properly shocked that the wretched Posthumus commands him to murder Imogen, once she has set forth upon the journey to Milford Haven, where Posthumus pretends he will meet her. Each time Imogen speaks in Cymbeline, self-parody stops and the beautiful voice that reinvented the human returns to us:

Miss_Kemble_as_Imogen_London_DL_1787O, for a horse with wings! Hear’st thou, Pisanio?

He is at Milford-Haven; read, and tell me

How far ‘tis thither. If one of mean affairs

May plod it in a week, why may not I

Glide thither in a day? Then, true Pisanio,

Who long’st, like me, to see thy lord; who long’st

(O let me bate) but not like me yet long’st:

But in a fainter kind. O, not like me:

For mine’s beyond beyond; say, and speak thick,

(Love’s counselor should fill the bores of hearing,

To th’ smothering of the sense) how far it is

To this same blessed Milford. And by th’ way

Tell me how Wales was made so happy as

T’ inherit such a haven. But, first of all,

How we may steal from hence: and for the gap

That we shall make in time, from our hence-going

And our return, to excuse: but first, how get hence.

Why should excuse be born or ere begot?

We’ll talk of that hereafter. Prithee speak,

How many scores of miles may we well rid

‘Twist hour and hour?


Who could hear this without loving the speaker? And yet the overtones are dark: to wish for Pegasus is to risk the fate of Bellerophon, while the accents of a woman authentically in love beat against our memories of Posthumus’s ghastly soliloquy. As Imogen departs to meet Posthumus, Shakespeare at his play’s midpoint bestows upon us the marvelous theatrical coup of taking us to Wales, where we are placed before the cave of the rugged outdoorsman Belarius and his two adopted sons, the long-ago abducted princes Guiderius and Arviragus, all now known respectively as Morgan, Polydore, and Cadwal. Morgan salutes the glories of the hunter’s life as being preferable to that of the courtier and the soldier, in which he suffered, but the young men are rueful, longing for the unlived life of power and battle. Polydore, heir to Britain though he does not know it, rather fiercely protests the difference between age and youth:

     Haply this life is best

(If quiet life be best) sweeter to you

That have a sharper known, well corresponding

With your stiff age, but unto us it is

A cell of ignorance, travelling a-bed,

A prison, or a debtor that not dares

To stride a limit.


The image of the confined debtor is a dark one for a king’s son, and has the poignance here of a changeling’s fantasy that is no fantasy.  The younger brother Cadwal is more poignant as he de-idealizes the hunter’s life:

     What should we speak of

When we are old as you? When we shall hear

The rain and wind beat dark December? How

In this our pinching cave shall we discourse

The freezing hours away? We have seen nothing.

We are beastly, subtle as the fox for prey,

Like warlike as the wolf for what we eat.

Our valour is to chase what flies: our cage

We make a quire, as doth the prison’d bird,

And sing our bondage freely.


I suppose these laments are refreshing primarily because they have broken through the prevalent mode of self-parody. Morgan’s bitterness, in response, speaks for Shakespeare’s long observation, through his own life and Southampton’s, of the squalors of city and of court.

     How you speak!

Did you but know the city’s usuries,

And felt them knowingly, the art o’ th’ court,

As hard to leave as keep: whose top to climb

Is certain falling: or so slipp’ry that

The fear’s as bad as falling: the toil o’ th’ war,

A pain that only seems to seek out danger

I’ th’ name of fame and honour, which dies i’ th’ search,

And hath as oft a sland’rous epitaph

As record of fair act. Nay, many times,

Doth ill deserve by doing well: what’s worse,

Must court’sy at the censure. O boys, this story

The world may read in me: my body’s mark’d

With Roman swords, and my report was once

First, with the best of note: Cymbeline lov’d me,

And when a soldier was the theme, my name

Was not far off: then was I a tree

Whose boughs did bend with fruit. But in one night,

A storm, or robbery (call it what you will)

Shook down my mellow hangings, nay, my leaves,

And left me bare to weather.


This is purged of self-parody, and surely reflects Shakespeare’s observations of a lifetime. Himself a usurer, he does not exempt his experiential guilt: ‘but I know the city’s usuries,/And felt them knowingly.’ The speech is wonderfully subtle: ‘The art o’ the’court,/As hard to leave as keep.’ Antithetical wisdom takes away with both hands. ‘The fear’s as bad as falling’; ‘fame and honour, which dies I’ the’ search,’ ‘ill deserve by doing well.’ Belarius-Morgan is not a consciousness, unlike Imogen, the reflections can only be Shakespeare’s own. [MY NOTE:  Really?] Amiable relief as these three Welsh hunters are, Shakespeare grants them little individuality [MY NOTE: Wilson Knight would disagree with that.], and Act III, scene iii, works largely as a theatrical surprise.

What follows in scene iv is much finer, Imogen being the center. Having read Posthumus’s murderous letter to Pisanio, she suffers a suicidal impulse, but recovers admirably, and agrees to the shrewd plan of yet another Shakespearean double self-parody. Her death will be reported to Posthumus, and disguised as a young man she will go forth, eventually to find service as a page to the Roman general Lucius, whose demand for tribute Cymbeline has refused. Another parodistic recycling is tacked on: Pisanio gives Imogen the wicked Queen’s potion, advertised for seasickness or indigestion, but actually just a powerful sedative. Shakespeare overloads us with plot, but to some purpose: Imogen, for us to know her best, must be reunited with her lost brothers, as part of Cymbeline’s occult design of familial reconciliations. I suspect also that the plot complexities, luxuriantly crowded from now to the end, are themselves a parody, since after Cymbeline Shakespeare will seem as weary of plot as of characterization. The Winter’s Tale has a much simpler design, and The Tempest is virtually plotless.

From Imogen’s assumption of male garb onward, Cymbeline explodes into an excess of plot. The horrible Cloten departs for Milford Haven, maliciously attired in Posthumus’s garments, determined to slay Posthumus and ravish Imogen. She happily stands in front of the Cave of Belarius, where she delights us with one of her best speeches:

I see a man’s life as a tedious one,

I have tir’d myself: and for two nights together

Have made the ground my bed. I should be sick,

But that my resolution helps me: Milford,

When from the mountain-top Pisanio show’d thee,

Thou was within a ken. O Jove! I think

Foundations fly the wretched: such, I mean,

Where they should be reliev’d. Two beggars told me

I could not miss my way. Will poor folks like,

That have afflictions on them, knowing ‘tis

A punishment, or trial? Yes, no wonder,

When rich ones scarce tell true. To lapse in fullness

Is sorer than to lie for need: and falsehood

Is worse in kings than beggars. My dear lord,

Thou art one o’ th’ false ones! Now I think on thee,

My hunger’s gone; but even before, I was

At point to sink, for food. – But what is this?

Here is a path to ‘t: ‘tis some savage hold:

I were best not call; I dare not call; yet famine,

Ere clean it o’erthrow Nature, makes it valiant.

Plenty and peace breeds cowards: hardness ever

Of hardiness is mother. Ho! who’s here?

If any thing that’s civil, speak: if savage,

Take, or lend. Ho! no Answer? Then I’ll enter.

Best draw my sword; and if mine enemy

But fear the sword like me, he’ll scarcely look on’t.

Such a foe, good heavens!


cymbeline helen mirrenThe charm of this is immense, and would enhance a better play than the parodistic Cymbeline, which retains the good taste never to render Imogen a parody. Her own gentle irony, replete with grace under pressure, is directed primarily against herself, yet does not spare her husband, her father, and males in general. Yet what is most wonderful here is tone; Imogen maintains the only distinctive voice in the play. Her concluding ‘Such a foe, good heavens!’ in reference to herself, is the best comic moment in Cymbeline, where the glint rarely abandons Shakespeare’s eye, and yet the almost ceaseless self-mockery rarely induces us to smile. Fortunately, the very next scene cheers Imogen, and her sympathetic audience with her. We know that she is being united with her brothers, though they do not even know that she is a woman. Shakespeare, at last fully himself in this play [MY NOTE:  Or himself in the way Bloom wants him to be?] writes with superb suggestiveness, as the three siblings fall in love with one another, all of them edging near the truth. Imogen’s tribute to the natural courtliness of her brothers reinforces the ceaseless polemic against the nobility that is Cymbeline’s unexpected (and effective) undersong.

Great men,

That had a court no bigger than this cave,

That did attend themselves, and had the virtue

Which their own conscience seal’d them, laying by

That nothing-gift of differing multitudes,

Could not out-peer these twain. Pardon me, gods!

I’d change my sex to be companion with them,

Since Leonatus’ false.


Her speech hardly pays a compliment to the people either, and safely evades incestuous desire. When we go on to Act IV, Shakespeare seems to have steadied himself, and though the two final acts are even more baroque and parodistic, the edge of bitterness is less evident.”

And I’ll conclude with William Hazlitt:

imogen-400“We have almost as great an affection for Imogen as she had for Posthumus; and she deserves it better. Of all Shakespeare’s women she is perhaps the most tender and the most artless. Her incredulity in the opening scene with Iachimo, as to her husband’s infidelity, is much the same as Desdemona’s backwardness to believe Othello’s jealousy. Her answer to the most distressing part of the picture is only, ‘My lord, I fear, has forgot Britain.’ Her readiness to pardon Iachimo’s false imputations and his designs against herself, is a good lesson to prudes; and may show that where there is a real attachment to virtue, it has no need to bolster itself up with an outrageous or affected antipathy to vice. The scene in which Pisanio gives Imogen his master’s letter, accusing her of incontinency on the treacherous suggestions of Iachimo, is as touch-ing as it is possible for any thing to be:

Pisanio. What cheer, Madam? Imogen. False to his bed! What is it to be false? To lie in watch there, and to think on him? To weep ‘twixt clock and clock? If sleep charge nature, To break it with a fearful dream of him, And cry myself awake? That’s false to’s bed, is it? Pisanio. Alas, good lady! Imogen. I false? thy conscience witness, Iachimo, Thou didst accuse him of incontinency, Thou then look’dst like a villain: now methinks, Thy favour’s good enough. Some jay of Italy, Whose mother was her painting, hath betrayed him: Poor I am stale, a garment out of fashion, And for I am richer than to hang by th’ walls, I must be ript; to pieces with me. Oh, Men’s vows are women’s traitors. All good seeming, By thy revolt, oh husband, shall be thought Put on for villany: not born where’t grows, But worn a bait for ladies. Pisanio. Good madam, hear me–Imogen. Talk thy tongue weary, speak: I have heard I am a strumpet, and mine ear, Therein false struck, can take no greater wound, Nor tent to bottom that.–

When Pisanio, who had been charged to kill his mistress, puts her in a way to live, she says:

Why, good fellow,

What shall I do the while? Where bide? How live?

Or in my life what comfort, when I am

Dead to my husband?

Yet when he advises her to disguise herself in boy’s clothes, and suggests ‘a course pretty and full in view’, by which she may ‘happily be near the residence of Posthumus’, she exclaims:

Oh, for such means,

Though peril to my modesty, not death on’t,

I would adventure.

And when Pisanio, enlarging on the consequences, tells her she must change

–Fear and niceness,

The handmaids of all women, or more truly,

Woman its pretty self, into a waggish courage,

Ready in gibes, quick answer’d, saucy, and

As quarrellous as the weasel–

she interrupts him hastily;

Nay, be brief;

I see into thy end, and am almost

A man already.

In her journey thus disguised to Milford Haven, she loses her guide and her way; and unbosoming her complaints, says beautifully:

–My dear Lord,

Thou art one of the false ones; now I think on thee,

My hunger’s gone; but even before, I was

At point to sink for food.

She afterwards finds, as she thinks, the dead body of Posthumus, and engages herself as a foot-boy to serve a Roman officer, when she has done all due obsequies to him whom she calls her former master:

–And when

With wild wood-leaves and weeds I ha’ strew’d his grave,

And on it said a century of pray’rs,

Such as I can, twice o’er, I’ll weep and sigh,

And leaving so his service, follow you,

So please you entertain me.

Now this is the very religion of love. She all along relies little on her personal charms, which she fears may have been eclipsed by some painted jay of Italy; she relies on her merit, and her merit is in the depth of her love, her truth and constancy. Our admiration of her beauty is excited with as little consciousness as possible on her part. There are two delicious descriptions given of her, one when she is asleep, and one when she is supposed dead. Arviragus thus addresses her:

–With fairest flowers,

While summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,

I’ll sweeten thy sad grave; thou shalt not lack

The flow’r that’s like thy face, pale primrose, nor

The azur’d hare-bell, like thy veins, no, nor

The leaf of eglantine, which not to slander,

Out-sweeten’d not thy breath.

The yellow Iachimo gives another thus, when he steals into her bed-chamber:


How bravely thou becom’st thy bed! Fresh lily,

And whiter than the sheets! That I might touch–

But kiss, one kiss–Tis her breathing that

Perfumes the chamber thus: the flame o’ th’ taper

Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids,

To see th’ enclosed lights now canopied

Under the windows, white and azure, laced

With blue of Heav’ns own tinct–on her left breast

A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops

I’ the bottom of a cowslip.

There is a moral sense in the proud beauty of this last image, a rich surfeit of the fancy,–as that well–known passage beginning, ‘Me of my lawful pleasure she restrained, and prayed me oft forbearance,’ sets a keener edge upon it by the inimitable picture of modesty and self-denial.

The character of Cloten, the conceited, booby lord, and rejected lover of Imogen, though not very agreeable in itself, and at present obsolete, is drawn with great humour and knowledge of character. The description which Imogen gives of his unwelcome addresses to her–‘Whose love-suit hath been to me as fearful as a siege’–is enough to cure the most ridiculous lover of his folly. It is remarkable that though Cloten makes so poor a figure in love, he is described as assuming an air of consequence as the Queen’s son in a council of state, and with all the absurdity of his person and manners, is not without shrewdness in his observations. So true is it that folly is as often owing to a want of proper sentiments as to a want of understanding! The exclamation of the ancient critic, ‘O Menander and Nature, which of you copied from the other?’ would not be misapplied to Shakespeare.

The other characters in this play are represented with great truth and accuracy, and as it happens in most of the author’s works, there is not only the utmost keeping in each separate character; but in the casting of the different parts, and their relation to one another, there is an affinity and harmony, like what we may observe in the gradations of colour in a picture. The striking and powerful contrasts in which Shakespeare abounds could not escape observation; but the use he makes of the principle of analogy to reconcile the greatest diversities of character and to maintain a continuity of feeling throughout, has not been sufficiently attended to. In Cymbeline, for instance, the principal interest arises out of the unalterable fidelity of Imogen to her husband under the most trying circumstances. Now the other parts of the picture are filled up with subordinate examples of the same feeling, variously modified by different situations, and applied to the purposes of virtue or vice. The plot is aided by the amorous importunities of Cloten, by the tragical determination of Iachimo to conceal the defeat of his project by a daring imposture: the faithful attachment of Pisanio to his mistress is an affecting accompaniment to the whole; the obstinate adherence to his purpose in Bellarius, who keeps the fate of the young princes so long a secret in resentment for the ungrateful return to his former services, the incorrigible wickedness of the Queen, and even the blind uxorious confidence of Cymbeline, are all so many lines of the same story, tending to the same point. The effect of this coincidence is rather felt than observed; and as the impression exists unconsciously in the mind of the reader, so it probably arose in the same manner in the mind of the author, not from design, but from the force of natural association, a particular train of feeling suggesting different inflections of the same predominant principle, melting into, and strengthening one another, like chords in music.

The characters of Bellarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, and the romantic scenes in which they appear, are a fine relief to the intrigues and artificial refinements of the court from which they are banished. Nothing can surpass the wildness and simplicity of the descriptions of the mountain life they lead. They follow the business of huntsmen, not of shepherds; and this is in keeping with the spirit of adventure and uncertainty in the rest of the story, and with the scenes in which they are afterwards called on to act. How admirably the youthful fire and impatience to emerge from their obscurity in the young princes is opposed to the cooler calculations and prudent resignation of their more experienced counsellor! How well the disadvantages of knowledge and of ignorance, of solitude and society, are placed against each other!

Guiderius: Out of your proof you speak: we poor unfledg’d

Have never wing’d from view o’ th’ nest; nor know not

What air’s from home. Haply this life is best,

If quiet life is best; sweeter to you

That have a sharper known; well corresponding

With your stiff age: but unto us it is

A cell of ignorance; travelling a-bed,

A prison for a debtor, that not dares

To stride a limit.

Arviragus: What should we speak of

When we are old as you? When we shall hear

The rain and wind beat dark December! How,

In this our pinching cave, shall we discourse

The freezing hours away? We have seen nothing.

We are beastly; subtle as the fox for prey,

Like warlike as the wolf for what we eat:

Our valour is to chase what flies; our cage

We make a quire, as doth the prison’d bird,

And sing our bondage freely.

The answer of Bellarius to this expostulation is hardly satisfactory; for nothing can be an answer to hope, or the passion of the mind for unknown good, but experience.–The forest of Arden in As You Like It can alone compare with the mountain scenes in Cymbeline: yet how different the contemplative quiet of the one from the enterprising boldness and precarious mode of subsistence in the other! Shakespeare not only lets us into the minds of his characters, but gives a tone and colour to the scenes he describes from the feelings of their imaginary inhabitants. He at the same time preserves the utmost propriety of action and passion, and gives all their local accompaniments. If he was equal to the greatest things, he was not above an attention to the smallest. Thus the gallant sportsmen in Cymbeline have to encounter the abrupt declivities of hill and valley: Touchstone and Audrey jog along a level path. The deer in Cymbeline are only regarded as objects of prey, ‘The game’s a-foot’, &c.–with Jaques they are fine subjects to moralize upon at leisure, ‘under the shade of melancholy boughs’.

We cannot take leave of this play, which is a favourite with us, without noticing some occasional touches of natural piety and morality. We may allude here to the opening of the scene in which Bellarius instructs the young princes to pay their orisons to heaven:

See, Boys! this gate

Instructs you how t’ adore the Heav’ns; and bows you

To morning’s holy office.

Guiderius. Hail, Heav’n!

Arviragus. Hail, Heav’n!

Bellarius. Now for our mountain-sport, up to yon hill.

What a grace and unaffected spirit of piety breathes in this passage! In like manner, one of the brothers says to the other, when about to perform the funeral rites to Fidele:

Nay, Cadwall, we must lay his head to the east;

My Father hath a reason for’t.

Shakespeare’s morality is introduced in the same simple, unobtrusive manner. Imogen will not let her companions stay away from the chase to attend her when sick, and gives her reason for it:

Stick to your journal course; THE BREACH OF CUSTOM


When the Queen attempts to disguise her motives for procuring the poison from Cornelius, by saying she means to try its effects on ‘creatures not worth the hanging’, his answer conveys at once a tacit reproof of her hypocrisy, and a useful lesson of humanity:

–Your Highness

Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.”

Hazlitt, I think, makes it clear why the Romantics were so in love with Cymbeline. And Cymbeline.

Holiday Schedule:

My next posts will be Thursday evening/Friday morning, on Act Four, then on Sunday evening/Monday morning with more on Act Four.  We’ll look at Act Five over New Year’s week with the same schedule after the 1st – posts onThursday evening/Friday morning, Sunday evening/Monday morning.


And a question for the group.  I’ve been thinking about what to do next after Shakespeare – and it occurred to me that before plunging directly into another series of classics (still to be determined), that it might be a nice break (and highly enjoyable) to do a four-five book survey of one of contemporary literature’s biggest and most important names:  Haruki Murakami.  What do you think?

And finally, to all of you, without whom this whole project would be pointless —  a very Merry Christmas (and Happy Holidays) to you and yours.

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3 Responses to “We have almost as great an affection for Imogen as she had for Posthumus; and she deserves it better. Of all Shakespeare’s women she is perhaps the most tender and the most artless.”

  1. peajayar says:

    I’m up for Murakami. This Shakespeare series has been revelatory. I don’t read all of every post (rather tired of Bloom, but easy to scan on) but have found reading the plays aloud with a friend more or less in sync with the posts has been extremely rewarding – and fun!

  2. Mahood says:

    While I’m still very keen on going with Jimmy Joyce’s Ulysses as mentioned in a previous post a few weeks back, I’d also be happy to go with Murakami – I have one of his books (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), so it would be a good excuse to take it off the shelf and read it.

    As for Bloom…tire of him? Never! Even when I don’t agree with him, I still want to read him!

    • Mahood: Joyce is still very much on the radar, but I thought for everybody (and for me as well I have to admit) a slight break with something more…fun and contemporary would work. I’m thinking we’ll be doing one of the early books, Wind Up Bird, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84 and then wrap it up with his new book which will come out in English early fall next year.

      And I agree with you on Bloom as well — even when I don’t agree with him (as with Cymbeline) I’m still interested in what he has to say.

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