“‘Cymbeline’, it seems to me, is the most extraordinary play that Shakespeare ever wrote. How does he do it? Staggering!”


Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


Let’s end with this from Garber:

7-the-tail-end-of-a-group-hug-act-5-scene-5-cymbeline-july-28-2013“Imogen/Fidele’s double identity as woman and boy, Briton and Roman, resurfaces in the climactic political scene of the play (5.6), a scene not unlike the revelation scene in Twelfth Night in the way it manages the surprising disclosure of gender and the discomfiture of the supposed boy’s male patron. Imogen, after waking in Wales to find what she thought was the body of her dead husband, h as fled to join the Roman army. Her patron is the defeated Roman general Lucius, who asks as his one boon from Cymbeline that the life of his page boy (‘a Briton born’ be spared:

     Never master had

A page so kind, so duteous, diligent,

So tender over his occasions, true,

So feat, so nurse-like…


In true romance fashion, Cymbeline finds that something in the ‘boy’ jogs his memory: ‘I have surely seen him./His favour is familiar to me’ (5.6.92-93). Indeed, he finds, as he says to the ‘boy,’ ‘I love thee more and more,’ and he urges ‘Fidele’ to make any request. Imogen replies in the language of riddling disclosure that these scenes so often provoke. The man she looks at, she tells the King, is ‘no more kind to me/Than I am to your highness, who, being born your vassal,/Am something nearer’ (112-114). Belarius, looking on, thinks he recognizes the true identity of the page: ‘Is not this the boy revived from death?’ he asks, aside, and Arviragus replies, again in tones that evoke the recognition scene in Twelfth Night, ‘One sand another/Not more resembles that sweet rosy lad/Who died, and was Fidele. What think you?’ ‘The same thing alive,’ concurs the more matter-of-fact and less poetic Guiderius (120-123). But Pisanio sees a different truth: ‘It is my mistress./Since she is living, let the time run on/To good or bad’ (127-129). The revelations now come thick and fast. ‘’Fidele’ demands to know how Iachimo got the diamond on his finger. Iachimo confesses the whole story of the boasting contest, including the incident of his spying in her bedchamber. Posthumus, suddenly revealed as present, declares his identity (‘I am Posthumus,/That killed my daughter’ (217-218)), bursts into a panegyric for his ‘dead’ wife (‘O Imogen!/My queen, my life, my wife, O Imogen,/Imogen, Imogen!’ (225.227)), is interrupted by the page, whom he does not (of course) recognize, strikes her, and is corrected by the percipient and faithful Pisano (‘O my lord Posthumus,/You ne’er killed Imogen till now’ (230-231)). The denouements in the final scene also include the story of Cloten’s ignominious death, the Queen’s perfidy in the making and distribution of poison, the true identities of the sons and their Welsh ‘father,’ Posthumus’s heroism when he was disguised as a soldier in the war, and, of course, the meaning of the Soothsayer’s riddle.

This variegated cast of characters, some seeming to derive from chronicle history, some from pastoral or romance, others, by their depth of rhetorical spleen, from tragedy, is brought together in a plot and a set of landscapes that reflect this mixture of genres. Myths are the dreams produced by a culture. As was the case with Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, and will be the case with The Tempest, classical mythology becomes for this play a mediating deep structure, enabling the playwright to link lyric and dramatic, pagan and Christian, ‘Renaissance’ and ‘early modern.’ In turning away from mimesis, from the direct imitation of a human action, toward epiphany and transcendence, Shakespeare as also turning toward creation myths and stories of metamorphosis – stories that, like those in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, were much more widely read and recognized in his own time than they are in ours.

The settings of Cymbeline range from Britain and Rome, familiar loci from the history plays, to a ‘green world’ of magic, music, caves, and hills that is the world of Wales. In earlier Shakespeare plays, ‘Wales’ was associated with figures like the mystical chieftain Owen Glendower (Owain Glyndwr), the last Welshman to claim the title of Prince of Wales, and with music, magic, poetry, and the Welsh language. By the time of Cymbeline Wales could serve as a romantic backdrop, with suitably masquelike topographical features (caves and mountains), for a story of adventure, loss, and rebirth. As with the wilderness settings of the earlier comedies, this Welsh terrain seems to provide a space for what the anthropologist Victor Turner called ‘antistructure,’ the salutary and temporary breakdown of hierarchies and identities. It is in ‘Wales’ that a princess can pass herself off as a page boy, and an alternative family of ‘father,’ ‘sons,’ and their (now dead) ‘mother,’ Euriphile, can constitute itself against the real but foolish and fallible royal family. The action of the play, as we have already seen, will involve the recognition by the court world of its (redeemed) identities in the world of Wales, and the reintegration of the two worlds as one by the play’s close.

As with other Shakespearean romances (and indeed with late tragedies like Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra), the logic of the seasonal cycle is deliberately played off against the pattern of historical and Christian redemption. Posthumus is of a ‘crescent note’ – ‘in’s spring became a harvest’ (1.1.46). Imogen says of her parting from him that before she could give him a parting kiss ‘comes in my father,/And, like the tyrannous breathing of the north,/Shakes all our buds from growing’ (1.3.36-38) – her father is the north wind, and Posthumus is the spring. When husband and wife are reunited at the end of the play, Posthumus takes her in his arms and says, in a magnificent image, ‘Hang there like fruit, my soul,/Till the tree die’ (5.6.263-264). The play has need of these insistent images of fertility, since Cymbeline, like Pericles presides over a wasteland. His queen reverses the pattern of healthy nature by taking flowers and turning them into poison. First his two sons, and then his daughter, Imogen, are lost, so that he is without an heir. Belarius, explaining his change of fortune, explains that he was falsely accused of treason, and was summarily banished from the court. In the past, says Belarius, ‘Cymbeline loved me.’ He recalls:

     Then was I as 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.

(3.3.48, 60-64)

The image is a familiar one, similar, as editors have observed, to a passage in Timon of Athens (4.2.259 ff.), but also to Macbeth’s ‘the sere, the yellow leaf’ and indeed to the famous ‘yellow leaves, or none, or few’ lines from Sonnet 73. By any estimate, natural or biblical, this is a ‘fall,’ and the consequent pattern of low and renewal is acted out on every level of the play, including, significantly, that of riddle and prophecy.

Cymbeline_lPosthumus’s dream, with its vision of Jupiter and of his own father and ancestors, produces as well a scroll that declares:

Whenas a lion’s whelp shall, to himself unknown, without seeking find, and be embraced by a piece of tender air; and when from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches which, being dead many years, shall after revive, be jointed to the old stock, and freshly grow; then shall Posthumus end his miseries, Britain be fortunate, and flourish in peace and plenty.


Since Posthumus’s other name is Leonatus (born of a lion), the riddle seems at first easy to decipher, although the Soothsayer who unravels it is forced into the realm of questionable etymology. (Imogen, as a mulier – ‘wife’ in Latin – is said also to be mollis aer – ‘gentle air’ – an etymology suggested by a number of early Christian writers.) The ‘stately cedar’ is identified as the King himself:


The lofty cedar, royal Cymbeline,

Personates thee, and thy lopped branches point

Thy two sons forth, who, by Belarius stol’n,

For many years thought dead, are now revived,

To the majestic cedar joined, whose issue

Promises Britain peace and plenty.


 Where for Imogen and for Belarius the image of the fruitful or barren tree was a metaphorical description of their own conditions and states of mind, much in the spirit of figurative language in the tragedies, the prophecy or riddle is at once ‘flatter’ and more pictorial, a verbal emblem or rebus. The rebus (literally ‘by things,’ from the Latin res, ‘thing’) may be a particularly useful model here. The word entered English at the beginning of the seventeenth century. William Camden’s Remains Concerning Britain notes, in speaking of people’s admiration of poesies, that ‘they which lackt wit to expresse their conceit in speech, did use to depaint it out (as it were) in pictures, which they called Rebus.’

 This ‘enigmatical representation of a name, word, or phrase by figures, pictures, arrangement of letters, etc.’ (OED) was related to the pictorial emblem, another popular mode in the period. It is when this kind of static visual puzzle is translated into dramatic terms, however, that its relationship to the events and language of romance becomes striking.

One of the most intriguing things about the way Cymbeline unfolds as a poetic plot is how metaphor is transformed into onstage reality. In looking at Pericles we noticed that some kinds of language typical of romance seemed to be devoid of the intricate, psychologically revealing metaphors and figures of speech so magnificently deployed in the tragedies (Lear’s ‘Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend’; Othello’s ‘one entire and perfect chrysolite’). What happens to these metaphors when they no longer appear as ruminations by a dramatic character? As in a dream, or an animated film, they come to life on the stage. In effect, they change status, moving from images to props (theatrical properties). In Cymbeline in particular this translation of rhetorical language into material elements in the action – and on the stage – has a powerful cumulative effect.  [MY NOTE:  Interesting way of looking at it.]

Consider, for example, the image of the jewel, as predominant in Cymbeline as it was in Pericles. To Imogen, Posthumus is ‘this jewel in the world’ (1.1.92), and she claims to her father that in marrying him she has added ‘a lustre’ to the British throne (1.1.144). Cloten, contending that she should instead marry him, insists, somewhat ironically, that she should choose a husband from among the nobility, and that she ‘must not foil/the precious note of [the crown] with a base slave’ (2.3.115-117). The word ‘foil,’ from the word for ‘leaf’ (and ‘page’), has come to mean a thin leaf of metal placed under a precious stone to set off its brilliance (the frequent use of the word in literary criticism to mean ‘comparison figure to the hero’ comes from this sense of visual enhancement) or, more directly, a setting for a jewel (as in Richard II, ‘Esteem as foil wherein thou art to set/The precious jewel of thy home return’ [Richard II 1.3.255-256]). Cloten, using ‘foil’ as a verb, probably intends another sense, to ‘foul,’ or trample underfoot, although the double sense is clearly present.

But where in Othello or Lear the jewel was used as a simile to point to the purity of the heroine (Desdemona as a chrysolite, or topaz, emblematic stone of chastity; Cordelia’s tears ‘[a]s pearls from diamonds dropped’), in Cymbeline the image almost immediately realizes itself, or, as we say, ‘comes to life,’ in the form of an object. Scarcely twenty lines after she calls Posthumus a jewel, Imogen gives him a diamond ring ‘which,’ she says, ‘was my mother’s,’ and then he gives her a bracelet. Both pieces of jewelry, as circlets, are signs of unbroken purity, and thus by mythological and literary convention equated with sexual chastity. We do not need to know anything about such conventions to make this connection in Cymbeline, however, because Iachimo does it for us, when in Rome he challenges Posthumus to wager his diamond against Imogen’s chastity and faithfulness: ‘If I come off and leave her in such honour as you have trust in, she your jewel, this your jewel, and my gold are yours.’ (1.4.134-135). His phrase ‘she your jewel, this your jewel’ may serve as a shorthand description of the technique of the play.

A similar pattern occurs with the most familiar stage item of all, the garment or costume. Imogen tells Cloten scornfully – and carelessly – that to her Posthumus’s ‘meanest garment’ is far more dear than Cloten and his professed love. (2.4.128). Again, of course, she means this as a figure of speech, and as a simple insult. Before long, in this dark fairy tale of a play, Cloten has acquired a garment belonging to Posthumus and worn it into the woods, there intending to ravish Imogen and then to kill her. When he is himself slain by Guiderius, Imogen will awaken next o the headless corpse dressed in her husband’s clothes and believe herself a widow.

We hear repeatedly from Belarius that the King’s sons exhibit qualities of nobility. Although they live in a cave, where they are daily constrained to stoop, and thus to remember their humble situation, ‘their thoughts do hit/The roofs of palaces.’ The description is metaphorical and psychological: the young men aspire to heroism or greatness. But when Belarius send them out hunting, he also has them act out, physically, the difference between his status and theirs:

Now for our mountain sport. Up to yon hill,

Your legs are young; I’ll tread these flats…


Again the action of the play becomes an emblem of its subject. Likewise, the early figurative description of Posthumus’s perfection (‘He sits ‘mongst men like a descended god’) seems almost to predict and to elicit the later stage action, when a real ‘descended god,’ Jupiter, comes to instruct him. (5.5). [NICE POINT!]

This exchange between metaphor and stage ‘reality’ or materiality is linked with one of the central themes of this play, and of the romances considered as a group, and that is the pervasive theme of ‘seeming,’ of taking the outside for the inside, as Imogen did when she misread the body of Cloten, dressed in Posthumus’s clothes, for Posthumus. The strong sense of ‘seeming’ here includes not only the familiar, and sometimes flabby, dyad of appearance and reality, but also timely and more particular issues like theft, counterfeiting, and other modes of deception and displacement. Cymbeline thought the Queen was ‘like her seeming’ he says (5.6.65), because she was beautiful and because she flattered him. Both her looks and her words deceived. Cloten and Cymbeline both learn not to take the rustic appearance of Guiderius at face value; Cloten is killed by the young man he dismisses as a ‘rustic mountaineer,’ and Cymbeline will ultimately recognize him as his long-lost son and heir.

CCCym18801880I5-5cs‘Seeming’ is a word that has a largely negative valence in the tragedies and ‘problem plays.’ We have already noticed Hamlet’s ‘Seems madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’’ (Hamlet 1.2.76) and Isabella’s ‘Seeming, seeming!/I will proclaim thee, Angelo’ (Measure for Measure 2.4.150-151). In Cymbeline and in romance more generally, ‘seeming’ is often connected with the experience of wonder and revelation, as, for example, when the awakening Imogen, finding herself untimely buried in the rustic graveyard, exclaims,

The dream’s here still. Even when I wake it is

Without me as within me; not imagined, felt.


So ‘seeming’ has two opposing theatrical connotations: dream, fantasy, and wonder on the one hand, and deception, guile, pretense, and trickery on the other. A major underlying issue in Cymbeline is the question of how to distinguish between them, and this is accomplished by acts of reading and interpretation, including the deciphering of riddles, dreams, prophecies, and signs.

Many editors and scholars have commented upon the apparent disjointedness of this play. But might what seems disunified on one level not have another logic that ties it together? If, instead of seeking the play’s meaning from the plot, one seeks it instead in a logic of repetition, layering, and dream, there is a surprising unity in the persistence of

the image of boxes and trunks;

the question of sacrifice;

the loss, and later recovery, of children by parents; and

the adoption, and later loss, of children by parents.

The most vivid onstage moment in the play is the scene in which Iachimo hides in Imogen’s bedchamber, secreting himself into a convenient trunk. In an earlier scene (1.6), having failed to seduce Imogen through an outright lie, his claim that Posthumus has been false to her, Iachimo proceeds in good satanic fashion to try a different kind of temptation. Having failed to appeal to her lack of faith, he smoothly switches his approach (somewhat in defiance of psychological realism) and convinces her that he has merely been joking, and was testing her to confirm his sense of her virtue. Imogen, won over, now agrees to assist him by storing a trunk that he claims contains jewels and ‘plate’ bought as presents for the emperor. Declaring herself willing to ‘pawn mine honour’ for their safety, and thus equating the jewels with her chastity, she decides to put the trunk in her bedroom, where both are presumed safe. The stage is set for that astonishing scene (2.2) in which Iachimo conceals himself in the trunk, emerges once Imogen is asleep, and takes notes on the appearance of the room and of her body. The scene is thus one of double voyeurism: for Iachimo, and for the audience in the theater.

Imogen retires to bed, then sit up reading until she falls asleep. The book she reads, we discover, must be Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a major reference point for all of Shakespeare’s late romances, since it describes the transformations of men, women, nymphs, and gods into animals, flowers, and stars, thus rendering the cyclical permanent, and the mortal, eternal.

The particular story Imogen has been reading is ‘[t]he tale of Tereus,’ the story of how Philomela was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus. He cuts out her tongue to keep her from telling what has happened to her, but she manages to communicate the truth through the weaving of a tapestry – the production of a truth-telling work of art. Philomela was transformed into the nightingale, who sings her sad tale over and over. The myth, of course, had been used by Shakespeare as a major model for the plot of Titus Andronicus. In a way we could say that Imogen’s reading experience describes a version of what happens in the scene once she falls asleep. A man she does not desire invades her room and violates her. Iachimo does not actually rape her, but he does violate her privacy and her nakedness, and he also takes away with him the bracelet that was Posthumus’s gift, a sign of love and of marital fidelity.

Iachimo compares his silence, as he steals towards her, to that of Tarquin, evoking the story of the rape of Lucrece already told by Shakespeare in the poem of that title. The scenario of the two ‘rapes’ is similar, for in each case a husband boasts of his wife’s virtue and inadvertently inflames the desire of her attacker. Subsequently we learn that the walls of the room are adorned with images of Cleopatra at the Cydnus, when she first met Mark Antony, and also of Diana bathing. Both recall narratives of men beholding consummate female beauty. Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt, was accidentally spied upon by the hunter Actaeon, and, as Ovid tells the story, Actaeon was turned by her into a stag, hunted down by his own hounds, and finally transformed into a flower. Iachimo is clearly an Actaeon figure here, spying on Imogen, later hunted, finally pardoned.

But the emergence of Iachimo from the trunk in Imogen’s chamber is also an image of sexual knowledge, and perhaps even of unconscious desire. Imogen, we should recall, was reading the story of Philomela’s rape as she fell asleep. She has been propositioned by Iachimo, and the events that unfold in her bedroom, as she lies asleep on the bed, take the form of a kind of dream, following the pattern of medieval dream visions (which, like Chaucer’s Book of the Duchesse, often begin with a similar scene of reading.) When Iachimo emerges from the trunk and removes her bracelet, he speaks in the language of inside and outside, or ‘seeming’: ‘[T]his will witness outwardly,/As strongly as the conscience does within’ (2.2.35-36). And when he notes intimate details of her body he chortles to himself: ‘This secret/Will force him think I have picked the lock and ta’en/The treasure of her honour’ (2.2.40-42). The ‘treasure of her honour’ is again made equivalent to the treasure in the trunk. The picked lock was a familiar if vulgar image of stolen chastity, as in Much Ado About Nothing. (The image is based upon the mechanics of insertion; today locks and keys are still described as ‘female’ and ‘male’ hardware.) The trunk itself is directly compared to Imogen’s chastity, or ‘honour’; supposed to be locked, it is unlawfully entered by Iachimo. When we are told the precise point in the story where Imogen stopped reading – ‘Here the leaf’s turned down/Where Philomel gave up’ (2.2.45-45) – the rape scene seems complete. Iachimo/Tereus, mixing his myths and his metaphors, has approached the bed of Imogen/Philomela and violated her, taking the sign of her honor, the bracelet.

Thus far, the scenario invites a straightforward psychoanalytic reading; box or trunk corresponds to womb, honor, chastity; both are penetrated and invaded by Iachimo. Especially because the scene presents a literal onstage sleeper, it seems possible to interpret this as a ‘rape fantasy,’ whether we interpret the night scene of visitation as an unconscious wish or fear on Imogen’s part, as a projective fantasy of Iachimo’s, or as a dream scene that belongs to the play rather than to any dramatic character (in effect, the audience’s fantasy rather than that of either Imogen or her attacker). But if we view the same scene from the point of view of mythology rather than of psychoanalysis, we find a slightly different and equally suggestive story.

Imogen has agreed to accept a box that is supposed to contain precious things, like jewels and ‘plate,’ but that instead contains Iachimo, a figure of guile and lust. The delectable box that contains evil is familiar from the story of Pandora, another peerless beauty, who opened a box (in some versions, a jar) and let out all the sins and diseases of the world, leaving in the bottom of the box only hope. (It is fascinating to note that Pandora’s name, which means ‘many gifts,’ is the same as Polydore, the ‘Welsh’ name given to the King’s son Guiderius.) If we take this mythological view of the scene in Imogen’s bedchamber, we can see the relationship of that scene to others in the play that also involve boxes and containers. The Queen also has a box or casket, and since containers in myths and fairytales are ‘female’ symbols, we should not be surprised that both women in this romance-inflected play are associated with them. The Queen’s box, however, is morphologically similar to that of Iachimo: it looks good and contains evil (in this case, the poison of sleeping potion). Pisanio, innocently persuading Imogen to take the box, says,

My noble mistress,

Here is a box. I had it from the Queen.

What’s in’t is precious.


Again a container, supposed to enclose something miraculous and beneficial, is opened in the presence of Imogen, and again what is in it almost destroys her.  [MY NOTE:  Very interesting point – do you all think this is something Shakespeare consciously planned?  Unconsciously?  Is Garber reading into it something that isn’t there?]

Two promising boxes, each containing a kind of poison. To the boxes we could now add the cave in which the King’s two young sons are brought up. A cave, too, is an enclosure or container, and a frequent symbol in fairy stories and dreams. Certainly the boys are born, or reborn, from this cave, whether we want to call it a ‘womb’ or not. Their foster mother, the dead and mourned Euriphile (literally ‘good-love’), is everything their stepmother, the living, wicked Queen, is not. So the two boxes encountered in the court, which ‘seem’ beautiful and are deadly (like the Queen herself), are in a way the opposite of the humble cave, which looks unpromising and brings forth unexpected treasure. As Belarius says of the King’s sons,

     ‘Tis wonder

That an invisible instinct should frame them

To royalty unlearned, honour untaught,

Civility not seen from other, valour,

That wildly grows in them, but yields a crop

As if it had been sowed…


The story of Pandora is linked in classical mythology to the figure of Prometheus. Prometheus was the wisest of the Titans; his name means ‘forethought.’ He was often regarded as the intercessor for mankind with the Olympian gods, and as its benefactor. In particular, as Renaissance writers often noted, Prometheus was said to have stolen fire from the heavens and given it to man. The king of the gods, Zeus (the Roman Jupiter), gave Pandora, the first woman, to Prometheus’s less savvy brother, Epimetheus (‘afterthought’), and it was Epimetheus who incautiously allowed the beautiful Pandora to open the fateful box. Prometheus and Epimetheus were literally the ‘creators’ of mankind, fashioning men out of clay, and then – through Prometheus’s intrepid act – endowing them with the gift of fire that made them superior to all other animals. For Renaissance mythographers Prometheus was an emblem of Providence. For Christians, he was also a ‘type’ of Christ, since his punishment for his generosity was to be chained to a rock and pecked by eagles. Iconographically this punishment seemed to writers and artists from Lucian onward to resemble the crucifixion. (Much later, Ralph Waldo Emerson would write, ‘Prometheus is the Jesus of the old mythology.’)

And it was Prometheus who, in another of his contests of wits with Jupiter, negotiated the terms of sacrifice. He took an ox and divided it into two bundles. In one he put the bones, invitingly wrapped up in a package of fat and skin. In the other he put the meat, the flesh and entrails, but hid them in the ox’s stomach. Jupiter, given his choice of bundles, unhesitatingly took the bundle of fat, and was infuriated to find that it contained nothing but bones. The bargain was kept, however. From that time human beings were able to keep the best part of the meat for themselves, and to sacrifice only the bones, skin, and fat. So again Prometheus can be seen to have aided mankind in developing civilization. The device here is the same kind of outside/inside contrast, or ‘seeming’ that pervades the play.

The theme of sacrifice is in fact surprisingly pervasive in Cymbeline. In a comic early scene, the obnoxious Cloten is advised to change his shirt, since his sweaty exercise has made him ‘reek as a sacrifice’ (1.2.2). (The sly digs at him continue into act 2, when, after he disingenuously laments that he could not duel with a lower-born opponent – ‘Would he had been of my rank’ – the Second Lord quips, aside to us, ‘To have smelled like a fool’ (2.1.13-15)). The play ends with an invitation from the King, in gratitude for the return of his children and the coming peace with Rome:

     Let’s quit this ground,

And smoke the temple with our sacrifices.


     Laud we the gods,

And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils

From our blest altars. Publish we this peace

To all our subjects…


Cloten, the false son, is a noble-dressed sacrifice without inner value. The lost sons, in mean country attire, have within them the ‘sparks of greatness.’ When they are returned to their father, they are replaced on the sacrificial altar, as Abraham replaced Isaac, by an acceptable sacrifice of gratitude.

Moreover, this question of sacrifice, and its relationship both to the pattern of ‘seeming’ and to that of parents and children, also connects in a useful and satisfying way with other questions the play invites us to ask: that of the relevance of Cymbeline and his story to Shakespeare and his time. As Spenser and others made clear in their own writing, Cymbeline was perhaps best known as the British king at the time of the birth of Christ:

Next him Tenantius reigned, then Kimbeline

What time th’eternall Lord in fleshly slime

Enwombed was, from wretched Adam’s line

To purge away the guilt of sinfull crime.

Spenser, The Fairie Queene,

Book 2, canto 10, stanza 50

The reign of Cymbeline is a crucial moment, a crossroads in British history and in Christian history. Recognition of the historical specificity only hinted at obliquely in the text may help to explain why the ‘right’ answer appears to be for the King of Britain to pay tribute to Rome. His queen had urged him to assert national independence. But there is biblical precedent. Christ is born in Bethlehem because of a command given by the emperor: ‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’ (Luke 2:1.1). Later, when the Pharisees, hoping to trick him, ask of Jesus, ‘Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?’ he answers, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s’ (Luke 20;22, 25). Likewise Saint Paul writes, in Romans, ‘Render…tribute to whom tribute is due’ (Romans 13:7).

ANW_12-13_Cymbeline012.jpg.644x3000_q100We are not told of these Christian associations explicitly in the play. No messenger arrives to announce a miraculous birth. But the call to sacrifice and the promise of ‘peace/To all our subjects’ suggest that the end of Cymbeline is millennial and transcendent. The Pax Romana is at hand. James I described himself as a Roman king, and declared that he ruled, and that kings should rule, in the Roman style of the gods. The conjunction of the historical king, Cymbeline, and the then-reigning king, James, might well have suggested that this new, improved king could preside over a new Pax Romana. Myth, history, and religion here come close together, each providing its own version of allegory. As the Jupiter of this play descends to declare, ‘Whom best I love, I cross, to make my gift,/The more delayed, delighted’ (5.5.195-196).

Cymbeline is full of mythological detail and of Christian references and intimations, yet in spirit remains that of tragicomedy and romance. All the rebirths and regeneration of the play are part of this pattern. There is the apparent rebirth of Imogen, who had been laid out as a tragic sacrifice on the ground, and who woke to a transformed world where dream and reality are one: ‘Without me as within me; not imagined felt’ (4.2.309). A stylized but parallel rebirth is suggested in the situation of Posthumus, whose name implies his ‘fatherless’ state, but who offers himself as a sacrifice in an image of creation as craftsmanship and stamping. ‘For Imogen’s dear life take mine, and though/’Tis not so dear, yet ‘tis a life; you coined it’ (5.5.116-117). Posthumus then falls asleep and is visited by hi mother, father, and brothers in a dream vision, achieving his own version of the family reunion.

For an absolute monarchy like that of King James, there is, potentially, little difference between history and fantasy, politics and power, since the one can be made to be at the service of the other. For a playwright this conjunction can also be fruitful, as Shakespeare demonstrates through the figure of Imogen. Awakening in Wales from her poisoned sleep to find what she thinks is the body of her dead husband beside her, and noticing the flowers strewn on their grave, she says,

These flowers are like the pleasures of the world,

This bloody man the care on’t…


The flowers are the flowers of romance and fantasy; the blood is the blood of tragedy and history.”


And that’s that.  What did you all think?  I found the play fascinating – it seemed as if Shakespeare was testing himself by throwing everything he could into the mix and seeing if he could make it work.  And I think he did.  I tend to agree with Tanner on this one:  “Our pleasure should be tragical-historical-comical-pastoral-romantical; and also, theatrical magical. Cymbeline, it seems to me, is the most extraordinary play that Shakespeare ever wrote.  How does he do it?  Staggering!”

It is, all in all, rather awe-inspiring.


My next posts:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, Sonnet #143, to be followed on Thursday evening/Friday morning by my introduction to our next play, the glorious The Winter’s Tale.

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3 Responses to “‘Cymbeline’, it seems to me, is the most extraordinary play that Shakespeare ever wrote. How does he do it? Staggering!”

  1. Craig says:

    I found it quite enjoyable, although thinking back on it I can definitely see why many consider it a flawed play. In terms of language it lacks the consistent beauty and clarity of Antony and Cleopatra for example, but it has flashes of great poetry. The scene where Jupiter descends is definitely superfluous (I think it was mentioned in a previous post that most productions just drop this, which makes sense, especially for a modern audience), and it’s hard to really understand Posthumus’s supposed merit, although he does pick up in the final act.

    Overall though, as an initial experiment in novel plot/staging effects I’d call it a success. I think I’d enjoy seeing it live, which I suppose is the mark of a good play. Looking forward to comparing it to Winter’s Tale and The Tempest though.

    • Mahood says:

      I’d go along with that, Craig – I got a lot more out of it than I did from some of the other plays that were unknown to me (Pericles, for example).

      And those lines from ‘Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun’ are just great: ‘Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust…’ Famous lines, I know, but they are fantastic.

      • Mahood: Agreed — it’s quite enjoyable, and I think builds on what he was attempting in “Pericles” (I think you’ll see him achieving full no excuses need to be made artistic success in The Winter’s Tale), but for “Cymbeline,” the lyric “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun” are pretty much worth the price of admission.

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