Act Four, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: While out hunting, Belarius and his “sons” meet up with Cloten and kill him after he challenges them. Imogen, meanwhile, not feeling well, takes the Queen’s “medicine” provided by Pisanio, and falls into a death-like sleep. Assuming she is dead, Belarius’s “sons” place her alongside Cloten’s headless corpse. (Naturally.) When she awakens she sees what she thinks is her husband’s body, since Cloten is wearing Posthumus’s clothes, and concludes that she has been betrayed. In the meantime, the Romans have invaded. Lucius comes across the mourning Imogen, and take her (him) into his service.
After reaching Wales, Imogen comes across, and is then adopted by, a group of men living wild in the forest (Snow White-like perhaps?), yet, like Duke Senior and his companions in As You Like It, with all the dignity of gentlemen. The two youths, Guiderius and Arviragus, bristle with ‘sparks of nature’ (3.3.79), but neither (of course) is aware of their royal identity. This deception also ensnares Imogen – also in disguise, she has no idea that they are her brothers – and the confusion only intensifies when, feeling ill, she takes the draught that Pisanio had been given by her evil stepmother earlier in the play. In a darker echo of her previous slumber, she immediately falls into a death-like sleep, and Guiderius and Arviragus are left go conclude, sorrowfully, that their newfound fried has died. They address her still body with one of Shakespeare’s simplest but most moving lyrics. “Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun,” Guiderius sings,
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 do love those lines)
Yet of course Imogen/Fidele, still has much of her “worldly task” to do, and the deathly stillness that her brothers invoke is yet, fortunately, still far in the future.
Though she is alive – Imogen – with a faraway husband still certain that she has betrayed him – has not been granted anything close to peace of mind, still less a “home.” The sight that greets her when she awakes from the potion, that of a blood-spattered, headless trunk wearing her husband’s clothes, could really not be more horrible, and makes a ghastly mockery of her desire to be reunited with. “But soft, no bedfellow!,” she starts, lifting the funeral garlands laid by Guiderius and Arviragus from her body,
These flowers are like the pleasures of the world,
This bloody man the car on’t. I hope I dream,
For so I thought I was a cavekeeper,
And cook to honest creatures. But ‘tis not so.
‘Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot of nothing,
Which the brain makes of fumes. Our very eyes
Are sometimes like our judgments, blind. Good faith,
I tremble still with fear; but if there be
Yet left in heaven as small a drop of pity
As a wren’s eye, feared gods, a part of it!
The dream’s here still. Even when I wake it is
Without me as within me; not imagined, felt.
Touching the body, Imogen “feels” what she fears: that it is Posthumus lying next to her. Shakespeare condenses an almost untenable mixture of emotions into one theatrical moment. Cloten had dressed in Posthumus’s clothes in order to rape her, but instead, challenging Guiderius to a fight, he met a most ignoble end. Now Imogen “dreams” (and she will be believe it right up to the play’s final moments) that the body next to her is her husband’s. Stroking his leg, his hand, then, grotesquely smearing herself with his blood, she is fooled – in the same way that Posthumus was fooled before her – by the evidence of her “very eyes,” a mistaking that has been made all the more likely in performance by using the same actor to play both Posthumus and Cloten. Observing all this, Shakespeare’s audiences may well feel – the piercing intensity of this moment makes the cliché seem oddly fresh – that they don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or both.
“We next see [Cloten] wandering around in Wales, well pleased with his disguise – ‘How fit his garments serve me!’ (IV.i.2-3): they are suitable – and they fit. He is still relishing his coming revenge – ‘Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be off.’ (IV.i.16-17). As luck, and the play, would have it, it is his head which is off within the hour, he having run into Guiderius and made the mistake of treating him contemptuously as some soft of outlaw mountain criminal. At which provocation, the rightful heir to the throne quite fittingly despatches and then decapitates the vile pretender. Which in turn leads to what must be the strangest scene in Shakespeare. Imogen is thought dead (she has taken Pisanio’s potion which is, in fact, a safe sleeping draught), and the two young princes lay her out for what seems like some sort of Celtic, pre-Christian burial – the body on the earth, strewn with herbs and flowers. At the instigation of Belarius – ‘He was a queen’s son, boys’ (IV.ii.244) – they bury the body of Cloten in the same way, laying it next to Imogen. They leave – and, of course, Imogen soon wakes up, understandably dazes, still half in a dream. But then she sees the body.
A headless man? The garments of Posthumus?
I know the shape of’s leg; this is his hand,
His foot Mercurial, his Martial thigh,
The brawns of Hercules; but his Jovial face –
except, of course, there isn’t a face. ‘How? ‘Tis gone.’ Where’s the head? Where on earth is the head? The killer might at least have left the head? – one imagines her casting around. (Whatever else this is, it cannot entirely exclude the comical.) Then, with more laments, and execrations for Pisanio and Cloten who, Imogen is sure, have killed Posthumus, she falls on the body, as for one last embrace – ‘O my lord, my lord!’ (IV.ii.332). The Romans approach, Lucius talking to his Soothsayer, when the spectacle makes him stop – ‘Soft, ho, what trunk is here?/Without his top?’ (IV.ii.353-4). I think this brings us close to one, at least, of the centers of this strange play.
Let’s go over the moment. A somewhat dazed, half-awake Imogen finds herself lying next to a headless body wearing Posthumus’s clothes. She not only assumes that it is Posthumus, but identifies the body, part by part, as that of her beloved – yet it is the body of the figure she most abhorred, on which she proceeds to throw herself. What is this telling us? Is it the head alone ( = quality of mind, refinement of intelligence and understanding) which differentiates man from man? (cf. Imogen just previously:
But clay and clay differs in dignity,
Whose dust is both alike.
— how does living clay differ in dignity?) Take off the heads or ‘tops,’ and is there then no difference between Posthumus and Cloten? And didn’t we see Posthumus effectively ‘lose his head’ in Rome, succumbing figuratively to what has overtaken Cloten literally? This point was nicely made by Robert Hunter, who suggested that, since we see the insanely jealous Posthumus adopting the mindless savagery of Cloten, during Posthumus’s two-act absence Cloten provides us with a present parody of him. Others have suggested that the execution of Cloten in Posthumus’s clothes acts as a vicarious or symbolic (or substitute) death of Posthumus’s bad self. However you take it, there is certainly an odd continuity between Posthumus and Cloten; and, despite what looks like their all too obvious oppositeness, a curious kind of heads-and-tails identity. They are never on stage together; and their only reported encounter is a slight skirmish in which neither is hurt (they ‘play’ rather than ‘fight’). The relationship is, I think, more than parodic – though it may well include the warning that if a man loses his grasp on his best self, he may easily relapse into a parody of a human being. Not so different as you might think. And Imogen has been unwittingly involved with an inappropriate ‘trunk’ before – the one containing Iachimo which she ordered to be brought into her bedroom. Thus the poor woman has, variously, spent the night with, and lovingly embraced, the two male ‘trunks’ which were most hateful to her. Can you ever be really sure who, what, you are embracing – what is in anyone’s ‘trunk’?
Imogen also has a potentially troubling relationship with the two young princes in the Welsh mountains. Of course, the exiles treat ‘him’ (she is now Fidele) with all the rural courtesy which displaced courtiers usually encounter – to their surprise – in their pastoral interludes:
These are kind creatures. Gods, what lies I have heard!
Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court.
Experience, O, thou disprov’st report!
So far, this is, conventionally, as it should be. Fidele acts, gratefully, as their ‘housewife’ (they are the hunters), sings to them like an ‘angel,’ and turns out to be a wonderful cook (the point is emphasized – ‘But his neat cookery!’, IV.ii.49 – Shakespeare had no need of the ‘culinary triangle’ if Levi-Strauss to appreciate the importance of cooking methods in signaling culture). This is all domestically harmonious. But the young princes find Fidele very attractive. Belarius reacts to him as ‘an earthly paragon’ – ‘Behold divineness/No elder than a boy’ (III.vi.43-4) – not the first time a Shakespearean heroine is taken for a divinity. The boys react, as it were, more physically:
Were you a woman, youth,
I should woo hard but be your groom in honesty.
I’ld bid for you as I do buy.
I’ll make’t my comfort
He is a man. I’ll love him as my brother…
Just as their bearing is royal without their knowing they are princes, so here, their behavior is fraternal without their knowing they are brothers – such are the pleasing ironies of romance. But the certain implication is that if Fidele was a girl – as of course s/he is – their attentions would be a good deal closer. Once again, we have a light skirting, flirting without the possibility of incest. Not, I think, gratuitously, and certainly not pruriently – there is not a hint of any untoward behavior; quite the reverse. But Shakespeare is clearly interested in the imponderable ways in which the sexual impulses are involved in those all important drives which make for family bonds and bondings. If you want to think of sublimation (though the concept seems too crude) – the transforming of the sexual drive into something finer – you may find it in the beautiful dirge the boys speak at Fidele’s ‘funeral’:
Fear no more the heat o’ th’sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages
Fear no more the frown o’ th’ great,
Thou are past the tyrant’s stroke…
(IV.ii.258-65 on to 281)
Though in fact there is more heat, and sun, and frowning still to come for the not-dead Fidele; and tyranny has not yet essayed its last stroke. This is not the Forest of Arden.”
And (with apologies) from Bloom:
With his own sword,
Which he did wave against my throat, I have ta’en
His head from him. I’ll throw’t into the creek
Behind our rock, and let it to the sea,
And tell the fishies he’s the queen’s son, Cloten,
That’s all I reck.
Since we know that the speaker will live to be King of Britain, that probably allowed Shakespeare this audacity, for having the head of a queen’s son thrown to the fishes otherwise might have bothered the theatrical censor. Shakespeare intends the headless corpse of Cloten, clad as it is in Posthumus’s clothes, to be put to excellent use, when Imogen awakens from a deathlike sleep into the delusion that her husband’s remains lie next to her. It seems odd that Imogen could mistake the anatomy of Cloten for her husband’s, but then she is in a state of shock. Grieved, she is carried off, kindly enough, by the Roman general Lucius, and will not speak again until the long recognition scene that concludes the play.
Earlier, believing their friend dead, her bereaved brothers chant over her what could be judged the finest of all the songs in Shakespeare’s plays:
Fear no more the heat o’ the’ sun,
Nor the worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ th’ great,
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke,
Care no more to clothe and eat,
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.
Gui: Fear no more the lightning flash.
Arv: Nor th’ all-dreaded thunder-stone.
Gui: Fear not slander, censure rash.
Both: Thou hast finish’d joy and moan.
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
Gui: No exorciser harm thee!
Arv: Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Gui: Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Both: Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have,
And renowned be thy grave!
Beautiful as this is, it is one of the darkest of elegies, centering on ‘fear no more’ as the only consolation for dying. One of my students remarked that, for her, Cymbeline existed for the sake of this lyric. That it is the finest thing in a peculiarly uneven play, I would grant; it is also a clue to Cymbeline’s ethos, which I find both somber and nihilistic, resembling in this Shakespeare’s Funeral Elegy for Will Peter, composed some two years later, but unfortunately with considerably less aesthetic splendor than is manifested here. Since Cymbeline, like King Lear, takes us back to archaic Britain, Christian attitudes toward immortality are irrelevant, though where in Shakespeare’s plays they do make a difference, I do not know. Since the song ‘Fear no more” is too grand for its context (Imogen merely sleeps), I have no difficulty hearing in it Shakespeare’s own stance toward dying, and regard it as the locus classicus of Shakespeare upon death. The two prime Shakespearean values are personality and love, both equivocal at the best, and here, with all else, they come to dust. This poem is a dark comfort, but its extraordinary aesthetic dignity is the only consolation we should seek or find in Shakespeare.
It is more cheering to move on to Act IV, Scene iii, where Cymbeline is told that the Queen is dangerously ill, mourning the disappearance of Cloten, and to the scene after, where Belarius and the still unrecognized princes vow to join their fellow Britons in the battle against the Roman invaders.”
Posting schedule: My next post will be more on Act IV, Sunday evening/Monday morning, then we’ll hit Act V the Thursday evening/Friday morning after New Year’s. Does that work for everybody?