For further information on the critical and stage history of Cymbeline, see SC, Volumes 4 and 15.
Traditional scholarship on Cymbeline has treated such questions as the genre of the play, its relation to other Shakespeare plays, its historical background, and what many critics consider to be its inconsistent structure. While twentieth-century criticism continues to address these themes, modern scholars have also focused on issues such as the relation of language to drama, the influence of myth and psychology on Shakespeare's works, and the role of women and their relationships to various male figures.
Increasing attention has been given to the character of Imogen. Some critics, such as E. A. M. Colman, have studied Imogen's portrayal as it is revealed through her language and the language of those around her. Colman has examined the syntax in Cymbeline, concluding that although Imogen is portrayed as a clearsighted character, her speech reveals that she is unaware of the constraints placed upon her by her father, family, and society. Refuting earlier criticism castigating Shakespeare's dialogue as faulty, Maurice Hunt has argued that Shakespeare carefully crafted the dialogue to accompany the dramatic structure of the play. Coburn Freer has also analyzed the play's language, contrasting the characters of Imogen and Iachimo by comparing their speeches. While Iachimo is "the master of [his] speeches," using words to confirm his self-regard and the opinions he has of others, Imogen's speeches help her discover her own ideals and find her role in society.
Imogen's relationships with Cymbeline and other male characters is a theme often studied in current scholarship on Cymbeline. Charles K. Hofling, for example, has explored Shakespeare's own background and assesses its influence on the main characters of the play and their interrelationships. Building on the earlier psychohistorical work, he suggests that the relationship and final reconciliation of Cymbeline and Imogen reflects Shakespeare's own relationships with his mother and daughter. Other scholars have focused more explicitly on the father-daughter relationship between the characters of Imogen and Cymbeline. John P. Cutts has argued that Cymbeline, while appearing to be dominated by his wife, is actually in control of the plot and characters of the play and acts vicariously through Imogen, whose behavior and values end up mimicking his.
The father-daughter relationship in Cymbeline has also been explored in terms of another theme undertaken by modern scholarship, that of the discrepancy between man's inner nature and outward appearance. Joan Hartwig has contended that Cymbeline's position as king serves to force people into unnatural behavior. Thus Posthumus' behavior contradicts favorable reports of him, and Cloten becomes a parody of Posthumus in speech and physical characteristics. Imogen, as the king's daughter, becomes a pawn who has a deeper understanding than any of the other characters, but must behave in ways that conform to the inverted world Cymbeline has created. Many modern critics have addressed similar themes, concluding that the dramatic structure, language, and characterization of the play are more complex than earlier criticism allowed.
Joan Hartwig (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Cymbeline: 'A Speaking Such as Sense Cannot Untie'," in Shakespeare's Tragicomic Vision, Louisiana State University Press, 1972, pp. 61-103.
[In the essay below, Hartwig contends that while Cymbeline is characteristic of Shakespeare's tragicomedies, it has an unprecedented complexity stemming from shifting perspectives and the juxtaposition of reality and illusion.]
To move from Pericles to Cymbeline is to move from majestic simplicity to bewildering complexity. Cymbeline has three basic plot lines, but each of these has many subsidiary plots and their interweaving is more intricate than the two plot lines in Pericles. First, there is the suit for the hand of Imogen, which includes Iachimo's "wager" and Cloten's "revenge" as well as Posthumus' banishment and return. A second plot concerns the lost sons of Cymbeline and their abductor-guardian Belarius; and the third is the separation and reunion of Britain and Rome. Furthermore, the chorus of Pericles, so artlessly open in the figure of Gower, becomes more integrated into the dramatic action in Cymbeline, although the choral speeches remain artificially obvious. For example, the Gentlemen of the opening scene supply the necessary background of Posthumus' lineage, the marriage of Imogen and Posthumus, and the earlier loss of the king's sons in set speeches that do not try to disguise their expository function (I.i.29-64).1 Shakespeare has joined several conventional frameworks in Cymbeline, too, making the play more complicated in terms of audience expectations than Pericles. The earlier play is built primarily upon the romantic legend of a wandering hero who discovers that life's adversities have a benevolent purpose. Cymbeline also uses the romantic convention of the young hero banished from his homeland who finally returns to claim his heritage; but, in addition, Cymbeline incorporates the conventions of the history play and of the pastoral. Each of the three main plots, in fact, is a vehicle for one of these conventions: the romantic plot of New Comedy revolves about the Posthumus-Imogen relationship; the history play concerns the Britain-Rome controversy; and the pastoral conventions manifest themselves in the situation of Cymbeline's lost sons. Aside from this fusion of traditional expectations, characterization is more complex in Cymbeline than in Pericles. Posthumus fails to sustain his trust in Imogen and he suffers for his weakness; whereas Pericles suffers without commiting a sin. Because Posthumus errs, his heroic nature undergoes serious qualification. The censure which his lapse of faith and subsequent order for Imogen's murder incur is somewhat allayed, however, by the presence of Cloten who becomes a parodic surrogate for Posthumus both in life and in death. The interweaving of this triad of characterizations (Posthumus-Imogen-Cloten) is much more subtle and complicated than anything in Pericles.
Despite its greater complexity, Cymbeline resembles Pericles in its tragicomic action. Even though the main characters have a more intricate dramatic relationship, both Posthumus and Imogen undergo a reduction to "nothing" similar to Pericles' apathy before the restorative vision. Their settled sense of the world is dislocated and they rebuild their perspectives to include a much larger world than they had previously known. Cymbeline has also a great stress on artifice, and the mingling of tragic and comic "pleasures" has the same kind of effect as in Pericles. The sense of wonder in the final scene differs in several respects, but it is achieved through the double awareness of the characters and of the audience, all of whom are simultaneously involved in and removed from the staged illusion. Cymbeline, thus, shares with Pericles the chief characteristics of Shakespeare's tragicomic vision, but it displays a greater complexity of materials used to create that vision.
The discrepancy between man's true nature and his outward appearance, a theme developed to some extent in Pericles, becomes the dominant concern in Cymbeline. In the opening scene, the Gentlemen announce the problem: "You do not meet a man but frowns" (I.i.l). Cymbeline's anger is reflected in the faces of his subjects, but they are secretly glad that Imogen has married Posthumus rather than Cloten.
But not a courtier,
Although they wear their faces to the bent
Of the king's looks, hath a heart that is not
Glad at the thing they scowl at.
This is the first of many dissembling countenances, but an important one. The king and his subjects do not feel the same way about the marriage of Imogen and Posthumus. Discord in the kingdom results from the enforced separation of the marriage partners. The harmony which a royal marriage of the king's only remaining child should effect is broken by the king's banishment of Posthumus; the dissembling looks of his lords, who are aware of Posthumus' superiority to Cloten, are a sign of the split between king and kingdom. The First Gentleman evaluates Imogen's two suitors candidly:
First Gent. He that hath miss'd the princess is a thing
Too bad for bad report: and he that hath her
(I mean, that married her, alack good man,
And therefore banish'd) is a creature such
As, to seek through the regions of the earth
For one his like; there would be something failing
In him that should compare. I do not think
So fair an outward, and such stuff within
Endows a man, but he.
Sec. Gent. You speak him far.
First Gent. I do extend him, sir, within himself,
Crush him together, rather than unfold
His measure duly.
This hyperbolic praise is immediately suspect, as the Second Gentleman indicates, but the arresting aspect—and a point that makes the praise hyperbolic—is that Posthumus seems as good within as he is outwardly fair. Such an evaluation is high praise indeed in a world which has grown used to discrepancies between the inner natures and outward appearances of men.
As the First Gentleman continues to present the history of Posthumus' lineage and birth, the Second Gentleman becomes so convinced that he must "honour him, / Even out of your report" (54-55). By this point, the death of Posthumus' father between his conception and birth and the death of his mother giving him birth have established Posthumus symbolically as the figure upon whom the life-from-death theme centers in the play. Posthumus' fame is known not only in Britain but in Rome as well. The guests in Philario's house speak of Posthumus' reputation in less worshipful tones (I.v) and so provide a balance for the hyperbole of the opening scene.
Iach. Believe it sir, I have seen him in Britain; he was then of a crescent note, expected to prove so worthy as since he hath been allowed the name of. But I could then have look'd on him without the help of admiration, though the catalogue of his endowments had been tabled by his side and I to peruse him by items.
Phil. You speak of him when he was less furnish'd than now he is with that which makes him both without and within.
French. I have seen him in France: we had very many there could behold the sun with as firm eyes as he.
Iach. This matter of marrying his king's daughter, wherein he must be weighed rather by her value than his own, words him (I doubt not) a great deal from the matter.
French. And then his banishment. Iach. Ay, and the approbation of those that weep this lamentable divorce under her colours are wonderfully to extend him; be it but to fortify her judgement, which else an easy battery might lay flat, for taking a begger without less quality.
Iachimo's doubt that Posthumus could be as worthy as his reputation makes him seem characterizes Iachimo more than it does Posthumus; even so, his doubt polarizes the First Gentleman's assurance and suggests that the truth lies somewhere between the two evaluations. Philario's use of the word "furnish'd" suggests that acquiring the king's daughter in marriage has increased Posthumus' appearance of worth to match his inner nature. Iachimo immediately picks up the point and turns it to Posthumus' disadvantage, a comment which increases the distance between Philario's open-natured hospitality and Iachimo's capacity for distorting appearances. Still, the idea of Imogen as a furnishing carries preparative weight for the wager which follows. In agreeing to test Imogen's pure spirit, Posthumus unwittingly gives evidence that he views her as an object to be possessed rather than as a person to be known by her own identity. The wager which symbolizes his limited perspective fits appropriately into a scene which qualifies his good report. From this point, the central action in the play concerns Posthumus' growing inwardly to match his noble outward appearance.
Posthumus' reported worth is entwined with Imogen's esteem of him in both of these scenes. Iachimo's recognition that Posthumus' marriage to the king's daughter weighs greatly in his favor (I.v.14-25) echoes the First Gentleman's most convincing proof of Posthumus' worth:
To his mistress,
(For whom he now is banish'd) her own price
Proclaims how she esteem'd him; and his virtue
By her election may be truly read
What kind of man he is.
As heir apparent, Imogen's "price" is absolute without the additional force of her own worthy nature to support her value. As she herself recognizes, the fact that she is the only heir to the throne makes her price more important than her desires are.
Had I been thief-stolen,
As my two brothers, happy: but most miserable
Is the desire that's glorious. Bless'd be those,
How mean soe'er, that have their honest wills,
Which seasons comfort.
If brothers: [Aside] would it had been so, that they
Had been my father's sons, then had my prize
Been less, and so more equal ballasting
To thee, Posthumus.
Both of these speeches express Imogen's wish to realize her true nature—always in conjunction with Posthumus—together with her understanding that her role as Cymbeline's daughter forces a discrepancy between her inner and outward natures. The latter speech occurs when she has disguised her appearance in order to seek Posthumus. She knows that he has ordered her murder, but she also knows that her identity is merged with his. Her recognition that she is, against her will, a pawn in Cymbeline's world, which is also the world she has to live in, pathetically underlines the use of her as an object in the wager between Iachimo and Posthumus. Her reputation, however, is the thing wagered upon, not her inner nature, although Posthumus assumes there is no difference. The outward Imogen is all that Posthumus knows as yet, but insofar as her inner nature depends upon him, the inner Imogen is inextricably limited by her "report." She must give the lie to her appearance, finally, in order to save the value of her real identity from destruction.
The wager grows out of a circumstance similar to one that Posthumus had encountered during earlier travels in France. He had, on a former occasion, been about to duel in defense of his lady's honor when a Frenchman, who is now a guest in Philario's house, had persuaded the two rash men to desist. Posthumus' testiness on the subject is immediately apparent when he bristles at the Frenchman's implication that the matter was too slight to risk death over. Iachimo, quick to notice Posthumus' vulnerability, inquires further into the cause of the proposed duel, and cynically avows that perfection in ladies is a state unknown in this world. Posthumus takes the bait and is drawn into the wager easily enough, despite his statement that his lady's virtue "is not a thing for sale, and only the gift of the gods" (I.v.87-88). Philario protests with the voice of reason that the wager rose too suddenly and should be left to "die as it was born" (125), but Iachimo pushes and Posthumus bends, putting up the ring which he has sworn he would wear on his finger "while sense can keep it on" (I.ii.49). Obviously his reason has given way to his pride of purchase for that which cannot be bought.
The ignobility of encouraging a test of Imogen's virtue does not occur to Posthumus, and he is only aware of how his own sense of honor has been pricked by Iachimo's boasts. Posthumus' lack of insight becomes even clearer to the audience, however, in the scene which soon follows where Iachimo actually tests Imogen's virtue. When he first views her, Ilachimo perceives that he may be in for a real test of his own power of deception.
[Aside] All of her that is out of door most rich!
If she be furnish'd with a mind so rare,
She is alone th' Arabian bird; and I
Have lost the wager.
There is a verbal as well as conceptual parallel in this evaluation which recalls Philario's comment that Posthumus is more furnished now with that "which makes him both without and within" (I.v), and the meaning of Philario's statement is enhanced by this elaboration. Imogen has a mind as rare as her beauty and being so "furnish'd" she can supply Posthumus with what he may lack in making the inner and outward man the same. That she is more nearly concordant in her inner and outer natures is clear from the manner in which she resists Iachimo's testimony that Posthumus has been false to her in Rome. When Iachimo encourages her to revenge Posthumus' infidelity by allowing him to her bed, Imogen recognizes his utter baseness.
Away, I do condemn mine ears, that have
So long attended thee. If thou wert honourable,
Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not
For such an end thou seek'st, as base, as strange.
Thou wrong'st a gentleman, who is as far
From thy report as thou from honour, and
Solicits here a lady that disdains
Thee, and the devil alike.
Imogen does not hesitate, when her reason distinguishes Iachimo's lies, to discount them as in any way affecting Posthumus' real nature. Posthumus, on the other hand, does not even demand all the evidence that Iachimo has collected to condemn Imogen of infidelity. Her assurance of his goodness and his assurance that she has been false are a measure of the distance that he has yet to travel before he is in fact worthy of her.
When Iachimo shows the stolen bracelet which Posthumus had given Imogen at his departure and which signified her fidelity, just as the diamond ring which Posthumus had put up for the wager signified his, Posthumus immediately assumes the worst has happened.
Here, take this too;
[Gives the ring.
It is a basilisk unto mine eye,
Kills me to look on't. Let there be no honour
Where there is beauty: truth, where semblance: love,
Where there's another man. 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 persuades him to ask for more than this circumstantial evidence, advising patience, but when Iachimo swears he "had it from her arm" Posthumus again relaxes into ignoble doubt. Philario, acting Posthumus' part in defense of Imogen, forces Iachimo to give further evidence of Imogen's guilt and Iachimo reveals his knowledge of the mole under her breast. Despite the seriousness of the consequences of his belief in Iachimo's lies, Posthumus' eagerness to accept them without even reasonable questioning places him in a foolish position, so that when he returns at the end of the scene to deliver his diatribe against women, his excess spills over from a tragic to a comic effect. Posthumus, the fool, does not measure consistently with the image of his worth built up at the play's beginning.
Cloten, the true fool, makes Posthumus' deficiencies as a romantic hero even more apparent when he dons Posthumus' clothes and parodies Posthumus' violent speech with a diatribe of his own (IV.i). Yet by his very violence, which is more gratuitous than Posthumus' bitter reaction to Iachimo's lies, Cloten takes some of the censure away from Posthumus. In fact, Cloten repeatedly "protects" Posthumus' characterization as he absorbs criticism through his excessive and parodic actions. Their characters regularly qualify each other, either in the report of others or in Cloten's conversation, yet they never appear onstage together. In the first scene, during the Gentlemen's discussion of Imogen's choice, the First Gentleman says bluntly enough that Cloten "is a thing / Too bad for bad report" (I.i.16-17). And after Posthumus has appeared onstage and departed, Cymbeline berates Imogen for her choice. She replies with some force that "I chose an eagle, / And did avoid a puttock" (I.ii.70-71). In the wake of Posthumus' noble report and noble appearance, Cloten's report suffers comic diminution. Pisanio adds another facet to Cloten's already clownish characterization when he tells the Queen and Imogen of how Cloten detained the banished Posthumus by drawing upon him. Pisanio states that if Posthumus had not played, but fought, Cloten would have suffered injury. Imogen's anger at Cloten's indecorous action flares.
Your son's my father's friend, he takes his part
To draw upon an exile. O brave sir!
I would they were in Afric both together,
Myself by with a needle, that I might prick
Imogen's scorn for Cloten, which never alters while he lives, expresses itself through comparative means. She implies, as the First Gentleman has, that to yoke Cloten and Posthumus in the same breath, or worse, to join them in any comparison, is an act that disturbs reason. No real comparison is possible: the eagle resembles the puttock only in species.
Thus introduced, Cloten appears onstage with two Lords, who make their distaste for him farcically clear.
First Lord. Sir, I would advise you to shift a shirt; the violence of action hath made you reek as a sacrifice: where air comes out, air comes in: there's none abroad so wholesome as that you vent.
Clo. If my shirt were bloody, then to shift it. Have I hurt him?
Sec. Lord. [Aside] No, faith: not so much as his patience. . . .
Clo. I would they had not come between us. Sec. Lord. [Aside] So would I, till you had measur'd how long a fool you were upon the ground. Clo. And that she should love this fellow, and refuse me!
Sec. Lord. [Aside] If it be a sin to make a true election, she is damn'd.
To tell a prince that he smells bad is a grievous breach of decorum, yet Cloten fails to comprehend it. His refusal to change his shirt unless it were bloody characterizes his oblivious offensiveness. He cannot sense much in the way of social delicacy and he comprehends nothing of the way he affects others. The broadness of the Second Lord's jests is another measure of how far Cymbeline has inverted the proper order of his kingdom and forced a division between appearance and reality. A comic butt is hardly a match for a princess of Imogen's rare understanding.
The next scene in which Cloten and his pair of Lords appear (II.i) reveals further his bad temper at losing, this time at the game of bowls. To express his anger, Cloten has broken his bowl over a spectator's head. Through his comments on the observance of decorum, Cloten shows himself to be even more stupid and childish than he has seemed already. In attempting to observe proper form, Cloten creates self-parody, and, as always, he is oblivious to the foolish impression he makes. "I had rather not be so noble as I am," he says, annoyed because his inferiors refuse to fight with him. He considers it "fit I should commit offence to my inferiors" and inquires if it is "fit I went to look upon" the stranger, Iachimo, who has come to court. The Second Lord again toys with him in some rather broad punning, assuring Cloten that it would be impossible for him to "derogate" himself by any action. The soliloquy which this Lord remains onstage to speak, however, suggests the more serious attitude that informs the disgruntled courtiers' comic dissembling.
That such a crafty devil as is his mother
Should yield the world this ass! a woman that
Bears all down with her brain, and this her son
Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart,
And leave eighteen. Alas poor princess,
Thou divine Imogen, what thou endur'st,
Betwixt a father by thy step-dame govern'd,
A mother hourly coining plots, a wooer
More hateful than the foul expulsion is
Of thy dear husband, than that horrid act
Of the divorce, he'ld make. The heavens hold firm
The walls of thy dear honour, keep unshak'd
That temple, thy fair mind, that thou mayst stand,
T' enjoy thy banish'd lord and this great land!
The soliloquy acts also as a bridge from the low comedy to the awe-inspiring scene in Imogen's bedchamber, where Iachimo gathers signs of her beauty to use in his deception of Posthumus. The divinity which the Second Lord attributes to Imogen is immediately confirmed by Iachimo's description of what he sees: "Though this a heavenly angel, hell is here" (II.ii.50). The admiration which the Second Lord and Iachimo express for Imogen's nature and outward beauty finds its terms in a theological vocabulary. To the Second Lord, Imogen is "divine," and he prays that the "heavens" will protect her honor and the "temple" of her mind. Iachimo describes her very breath as "perfume," an incense for the "chapel" which her chamber seems to him. His own monstrous purpose frightens him as he commits the sacrilege of plundering a shrine. Although he fails to realize that he alone creates the "hell" which "is here," he perceives the monstrous contrast between Imogen, "a heavenly angel," and the lie he intends to give of her.
This awed use of a theological vocabulary to describe the perfections of the human Imogen complements the punning use of it in earlier scenes. Both Imogen and the Second Lord indulge in theological punning in the scenes which reveal their repugnance for Cloten. This word play reverberates against a system of values that involves more than a local crisis in Cymbeline's kingdom: the values concern the spiritual nature of man himself. When Imogen resists her father's advancement of Cloten, Cymbeline accuses her of heaping age upon him when she should repair his youth. She responds that she is senseless of his wrath because "a touch more rare / Subdues all pangs, all fears."
Cym. Past grace? obedience?
Imo. Past hope, and in despair, that way past grace.
Again, when Imogen questions Pisanio about Posthumus' departure, she says, "if he should write, / And I not have it, 'twere a paper lost / As offer'd mercy is" (I.iv.2-4). And when she laments her lack of free choice, Imogen creates a tenth Beatitude: "Bless'd be those, / How mean soe'er, that have their honest wills, / Which seasons comfort" (I.vii.7-9).2 Her loss of Posthumus—though at this point only through physical banishment rather than through his betrayal of spirit, which occurs later—she regards at least metaphorically as a loss of heavenly grace and the possibility of redemption. When the Second Lord jestingly concurs that "if it be a sin to make a true election, she is damn'd" (I.iii.26-27), he pinpoints two problems of perspective. First, according to Cymbeline's inverted order, Imogen is damned—by her choice to live outside of Cymbeline's grace, and by his choice for her to be besieged by Cloten. Second, Imogen herself has substituted Posthumus for the ultimate values her soul can achieve. He is her source of grace, the means to her redemption. She learns, in the course of the play, how great a risk she incurs by this substitution for her own sense of being, and she too finds a more inclusive referent for her own identity. The final goal of romance conventions proves insufficient for her as well as for Posthumus. Such serious issues are only implied by the theological vocabulary, and they are contained by their punning usage. Taken with absolute seriousness, they would push beyond the delicate balance of tragicomedy; but their inclusion through the rhetoric of comedy provides a reminder that Shakespeare's tragicomic vision is firmly anchored in meaningful issues. The use of a theological vocabulary and the spiritual concerns which it implies deepen the characterizations of both Imogen and Posthumus in marked contrast to the surface characterization of Cloten.3
In the very next scene, following Iachimo's enchanted description of the sleeping Imogen, Cloten impatiently says, "If I could get this foolish Imogen, I should have gold enough" (II.iii.7-8). His reduction of Imogen to a foolish girl and to an object of barter comically qualifies his own powers of perception; at the same time, it comments upon the use of Imogen as an object of barter by Cymbeline, by Posthumus, and by Iachimo. All three of these men are drawn into a comic conflation with Cloten at this moment of his imperception. His attempt to "penetrate" Imogen with a morning song further demonstrates his superficial level of understanding. The contrast between the boorish Cloten and the delicate task of the music to appeal to Imogen on his behalf illustrates how art itself can be violated. The aubade has an ideal artistic purpose, to celebrate the morning and love, and its use by appropriately noble romantic characters (such as Romeo and Juliet) realizes its conventional beauties; but used by Cloten, it becomes "too much pains / For purchasing but trouble" (II.iii.89). That it fails is not the fault of the music, as Cloten would interpret it, but the fault of those who promote the music in hopes that it will have an aphrodisiac effect on the "stern" Imogen (II.iii.37).4 This scene modulates the tone between the bed-chamber scene, in which Imogen is described in terms of divinity, and her confrontation with Cloten in which she expresses her distaste for him in vitriolic terms; but it is also a criticism of the improper uses of art.5 The harmony of art results from appropriate human motivations, and perversion here as well as in other actions characterizes Cloten's ineffectual malice.
So far is Cloten from achieving success with his music that Imogen "vouchsafes no notice" (II.iii.41). Still, on the advice of the Queen, Cloten pursues Imogen to her chamber, parodically repeating Iachimo's earlier pursuit of her. Imogen's strained tolerance breaks under Cloten's persistence in his suit and his denigration of Posthumus.
Imo. Profane fellow,
Wert thou the son of Jupiter, and no more
But what thou art besides, thou wert too base
To be his groom: thou wert dignified enough,
Even to the point of envy, if 'twere made
Comparative for your virtues to be styled
The under-hangman of his kingdom; and hated
For being preferr'd so well.
Clo. The south-fog rot him!
Imo. He never can meet more mischance than come
To be but nam'd of thee. His mean'st garment,
That ever hath but clipp'd his body, is dearer
In my respect, than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men.
Cloten grasps the insult of "the mean'st garment" and repeats it several times throughout the remaining action of the scene while Imogen directs Pisanio to search for her missing bracelet. Cloten's sense of injury irritates Imogen so much that she offers to satisfy him with a duel. He replies with a threat to tell her father and she leaves, obviously in disgust. Cloten remains onstage to say, "I'll be reveng'd: / 'His mean'st garment!' Well."
With all the power of his one-track mind, Cloten pursues his revenge by wearing Posthumus' garments—though not his meanest ones.6 After several scenes in which he appears, comically, as counselor to the king advising him to defy Rome, and as wretched lover in the Catullian fashion (III.v.71-81), he directs Pisanio to bring him some of Posthumus' garments. Cloten ruminates to himself:
She said upon a time (the bitterness of it I now belch from my heart) that she held the very garment of Posthumus in more respect than my noble and natural person; together with the adornment of my qualities. With that suit upon my back, will I ravish her: first kill him, and in her eyes; there shall she see my valour, which will then be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and when my lust hath dined (which, as I say, to vex her I will execute in the clothes that she so prais'd) to the court I'll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despis'd me rejoicingly, and I'll be merry in my revenge.
The brutality of his intentions for the first time outweighs the comedy of his position and his departure for Milford-Haven sets a real threat into motion. The expression of his enthusiasm to gain his revenge (III.v.159-60) echoes Imogen's eager departure for the same place, where she deludedly thought she would find her loving husband (III.ii.49). Both Imogen and Cloten rush to their imagined fulfillment with energy that finds its answer in death: for Imogen, only in seeming, but for Cloten, in actuality.
From this point on, Cloten and Imogen are symbolically linked because they are both disguised: Cloten wears Post humus' clothes and Imogen wears those of a page. The changes in appearance create odd confusions, but for the audience the inner natures of the characters never alter. Imogen in her soliloquy before the cave of Belarius and the two brothers is very much herself, despite her altered situation (III.vi). She has learned a new perspective—"I see a man's life is a tedious one"—but her reflections on the shifting values of her world show her to be absorbing new experience with her characteristically full understanding. Two scenes later Cloten, alone on the same bare stage near the cave, offers his soliloquy of malice and revenge. He is still puzzling over the problem of why Imogen prefers Posthumus to him: "The lines of my body are as well drawn as his; no less young, more strong, not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike conversant in general services, and more remarkable in single oppositions; yet this imperseverant thing loves him in my despite. What mortality is!" (IV.i.10-16). Imogen's poetic contemplation of possible deception even in poor folk who only give directions (III.vi.8-14) suggests a complexity of perception that renders Cloten's simple assurance comic. In prose, he speaks also of directions he has been given: "the fellow dares not deceive me" (IV.i.27). Her sensitivity to ambiguity in appearances and his oblivion to it join them in a parodic duet which culminates in their common burial.
Having befriended Belarius and the two brothers, Imogen remains behind in their cave while they go out to hunt. Because she feels sick, she takes the sleeping potion that has found its devious way to her from the Queen. No sooner has Imogen retired to the cave than Cloten enters, also feeling "faint" (IV.ii.63). Belarius recognizes him and fears that he must be accompanied by others from the court. Guiderius tells the other two to look for Cloten's "companies" and takes on the irate prince alone. Their exchange is humorous more than foreboding and Cloten manages to seem typically pompous and foolish. Their dialogue (IV.ii.74-100) insists on comparisons, not only between Cloten and his adversary, Guiderius, and between Cloten and Posthumus, whose clothes he wears, but also between what Cloten claims to be—a prince—and what he is—a fool. A few lines later the fool is beheaded, but his power to elicit laughter remains in his "report." Cloten has found concord between his inner and outer natures only as a dead fool. Horror is impossible, even in response to the spectacle of Cloten's head severed from its body. When Guiderius explains the battle, the audience can only nod at the appropriateness of Cloten's end; he had found nothing so "fit" at court.
Gui. 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 fishes he's the queen's son, Cloten,
That's all I reck.
The severed head floating down the "creek" to the sea is strongly reminiscent of the "Death of Orpheus" in Ovid's Metamorphoses (XI, 50 ff.), but with a parodic diminution. Cloten's association with music in the presentation of a morning song to Imogen establishes his perversion of the art. His death and dissolution in this mock-heroic conclusion, which he himself predicted would be Posthumus' fate at his own hands (IV.i.17-18), is an appropriate ending for the fool whose sole effect has been to invert. Cloten, the anti-Orpheus, in death fulfills the purpose he vainly attempted to realize in his life: that is, he assumes the outward nobility he has always claimed he possessed. Without his head, which when attached testified to his lack of reason, Cloten actually differs little from the "noble" Posthumus.
Imogen, upon waking next to the headless body of Cloten dressed in Posthumus' garments, assumes that this is in fact her murdered husband.
The dream's here still: even when I wake it is
Without me, as within me: not imagin'd, felt.
A headless man? The garments of Posthumus?
I know the shape ofs leg: this is his hand:
His foot Mercurial: his Martial thigh:
The brawns of Hercules: but his Jovial face—
Murder in heaven! How?—'Tis gone. . . .
. . . Damn'd Pisanio
Hath with his forged letters (damn'd Pisanio)
From this most bravest vessel of the world
Struck the main-top!
Imogen's confusion of Cloten's body with that of her husband's seems offhand to be an outrageous flaunting of probability.7 Yet the shock of identification of two polarized figures, the fool and the hero, forces the audience to puzzle over its plausibility. Suddenly, all the pretenses to real distinctions which depend on outward form have been exploded. Posthumus, without the distinction of rational perception and rational control of his appetites, might very well be a Cloten. The missing head symbolizes the vast difference between them, yet Posthumus has already displayed his capacity for unreason in response to Iachimo's lies about Imogen.
The identification of Cloten and Posthumus has been very carefully and pointedly prepared for by Cloten's insistence that there was little physical difference between them. And though the audience tends to disregard the validity of Cloten's insistence upon this point, when the identification occurs, we immediately recognize its truth and proceed to evaluate its implications. It is not, as some critics claim, evidence of Imogen's stupidity, but instead it is a device to enforce the essential perception that outward seeming and inner being have a complex relationship which formulas of any kind tend to oversimplify. The Posthumus of noble and worthy report exists until he is subjected to a test of faith; however, that "noble" Posthumus is not destroyed because he fails the test. The identity of outer and inner worthiness is still possible, but it has to be achieved through adversities that challenge the character's potential worth to awaken and to realize itself.
The death of Cloten and Imogen's confusion of his headless body with Posthumus provide a symbolic and dramatic link to the next appearance of Posthumus onstage.8 Cloten has become a surrogate victim for Posthumus and in his death has absorbed much of the blame which otherwise would still attach to Posthumus' figure. Imogen's lament over what she thinks is Posthumus' body and her bathing her cheeks in his blood (IV.ii.330) cleanses the figure of Posthumus of the worst of his blame, so that when he enters soon thereafter (V.i) the audience is prepared to accept his own lament with sympathy. The fact that Posthumus carries a bloodsoaked handkerchief, sent to him by Pisanio at his command as evidence of Imogen's death, links his lament with Imogen's visually and symbolically. They are both deceived by surrogate victims, but the reality of death makes clear to each of them what true values the other held for them. The evidences of infidelity, which have convinced them that each has been deceived by the other, no longer weigh significantly in their feelings. The more substantial values of their union have clarified themselves and symbolically prepare them for their ultimate reconciliation. With the death of Posthumus, Imogen confronts "nothing." In reply to Caius Lucius' question "What art thou?" she says, "I am nothing; or if not, / Nothing to be were better" (IV.ii.366-67). And Posthumus dedicates himself to "die / For tree, O Imogen, even for whom my life / Is, every breath, a death" (V.i.25-27). Their former identities have been tested by crisis and the surfaces of their natures have been shattered, so that they must rebuild themselves out of core substance.
At this point Posthumus too dons a disguise in order that his true nature will not be hampered by his outward appearance.
I'll disrobe me
Of these Italian weeds, and suit myself
As does a Briton peasant: so I'll fight
Against the part I come with: so I'll die
For thee, O Imogen, even for whom my life
Is, every breath, a death: and thus, unknown,
Pitied, nor hated, to the face of peril
Myself I'll dedicate. Let me make men know
More valour in me than my habits show.
Gods, put the strength o' th' Leonati in me!
To shame the guise o' th' world, I will begin,
The fashion less without, and more within.
The pointed reversal of the final couplet can hardly be missed. Whereas in the first scene of the play the appearance of nobility was the starting point in both Posthumus' report and actions—that is, his actions were directed toward supporting his outward guise—now he will act from inner nobility and force the outward fashion to coincide with the inner man. As in the "rusty armour" episode in Pericles, base appearance will henceforth be associated with noble action and change the "guise o' th' world."
Posthumus is not the only one to suggest that the world's habit of equating noble appearance with noble action is misleading. The two sons of Cymbeline in their wild and savage environment have acted so gently toward Imogen that she remarks: "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!" (IV.ii.32-34). The valiant brothers and Posthumus come together in the battle scene to save Cymbeline from the Romans and together with Belarius they are the talk of the British soldiers (V.iii.84-87) and of the court group.
Cym. Stand by my side, you whom the gods have made
Preservers of my throne: woe is my heart,
That the poor soldier that so richly fought,
Whose rags sham'd gilded arms, whose naked breast
Stepp'd before targes of proof, cannot be found:
He shall be happy that can find him, if
Our grace can make him so.
Bel. I never saw
Such noble fury in so poor a thing;
Such precious deeds in one that promised nought
But beggary and poor looks.
Posthumus has obviously enacted his new principle effectively. He has placed his appearance and his reality under question, and the attempt to reconcile discrepancies no longer begins with the outward form but with inner valor.
The multiplicity of perspectives in the play finds expression concomitantly with the particular verbal stresses on outward and inner natures. Posthumus' awakening from his dream of ancestors and of Jupiter is the dramatic peak of his character's development, and his speech joins together these two complementary themes: the shifting perspectives through which man views the world, and the outward-inner discordancy of human nature. He awakes to find a tablet on his breast, left there by Jupiter "wherein / Our pleasure his full fortune doth confine" (V.iv.109-10).
A book? O rare one,
Be not, as is our fangled world, a garment
Nobler than that it covers. Let thy effects
So follow, to be most unlike our courtiers,
As good as promise.
But then he reads the riddle.
'Tis still a dream: or else such stuff as madmen
Tongue, and brain not: either both, or nothing,
Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such
As sense cannot untie. Be what it is,
The action of my life is like it, which
I'll keep, if but for sympathy.
Posthumus' disgust stems from self-loathing, so that when he prays that the book be as noble within as its cover indicates,9 he is speaking out of his own bitter self-recognition that he has failed to live up to his noble report. His soliloquy which opens Act V expresses his profound sense of guilt and his resolution to dedicate himself to peril, and the three scenes which lead up to his vision of familial shades and of Jupiter increase his despairing self-censure. Aware that he does not deserve reprieve, Posthumus nonetheless hopes that the vision's promise is not false, like the false courtier he has been. The riddle which the "rare book" contains does, in fact, promise his ultimate redemption, and, though he cannot decipher its conceits, he determines to allow it time to fulfill its promises. At least, he will no longer actively seek death.
The lines following his reading of the riddle reveal that Posthumus is undergoing a strenuous shift in perspective. First of all, the dream vision has brought the supernatural realm into direct contact with the natural, suggesting that, though invisible to the normal eye, the two realms may interweave more closely and more frequently than man has assumed. Posthumus suspects that his waking is a continuation of the dream, just as Imogen had suspected when she awoke from her sleeping potion ("The dream's here still" [IV.ii.306]). If not a dream, the content of the riddle is stuff that madmen speak without reasoning about it. But Posthumus recognizes that it is "either both"—a dream merging with reality—"or nothing." The words and reason are at odds, just as the actions of Posthumus' life—being preserved in battle and now promised redemption—are at odds with reason. Because he cannot extract from evident action the causes and their effects, Posthumus accepts on faith that which he cannot rationalize. His bewildering change in perspective has suspended his ratiocinative impulses and it forces him to act out of "sympathy," which need not be defined, but only felt. Had he been true to his "sympathies" for Imogen in the first place, rather than allowing Iachimo's lies to distort the meaning of appearances, Posthumus would not have needed to learn what he now has learned through deprivation.
The limitations of human vision are under question throughout Cymbeline. To a certain extent, reality depends upon the person who perceives it, and habitual attitudes tend to narrow the individual's vision. In order to achieve a truer perspective of a world which cannot be contained in one fixed point of human view, it becomes necessary to look at the world from different places. Thus, Posthumus sees one reality when he looks from his place of "noble" courtier, but he sees another reality from the position of British peasant. Or again, when he assumes that Imogen is dead at his command, he sees only a man's world where consequences of action seem to be controlled by the man who directs that action. But after his dream vision that incorporates supernatural power and motive into the natural world, Posthumus can see the possibility of his actions being redeemed.
In King Lear (IV.vi.l 1-24, 69-74) Edgar creates a larger world for the blind Gloucester by convincing him that he has survived a fall from a cliff although he remains on the same spot.10 Edgar tells him, "Thy life's a miracle" (55), a point Gloucester has been unable to "see" until he has viewed his life from more than one perspective. Edgar's speeches emphasize that reality is relative to the position from which it is viewed at the same time they stress the limitations of a single point of view. In Cymbeline there are similar speeches.
When Imogen questions Pisanio about the departure of Posthumus (I.iv), she berates him for not having pressed his vision to its limits.
Imo. Thou shouldst have made him
As little as a crow, or less, ere left
To after-eye him.
Pis. Madam, so I did.
Imo. I would have broke mine eye-strings, crack'd them, but
To look upon him, till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle:
Nay, followed him, till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat, to air: and then
Have turn'd mine eye, and wept.
Imogen tries to move beyond the limitations of the human eye in keeping the reality of Posthumus within her necessarily fixed perspective. Of course, this speech is hypothetical, since she was unable to say a proper farewell in the haste of Posthumus' departure. But her intensity, even in hypothesis, points up her sense that the reality of their love depends on their perception of it. And truly enough, when Posthumus ceases to hold his perception of Imogen's goodness and loyalty, the lapse destroys the reality of their love. In terms of the play, however, ultimate reality does not depend on man's perception of it, and his turning away does not actually diminish the nature of what remains unperceived. Thus, Imogen's goodness remains real despite the fact that Posthumus ceases to perceive it.11 The action of his life then becomes a motion toward renewed perception, toward achieving a perspective that contains more than man typically is able to see.
Belarius, too, knows the difference that the position of the human eye makes in the perception of reality. He speaks this caution to his "sons," who are unaware of their noble birth and who long for worlds they have not yet known:
Now for our mountain sport, up to yond hill!
Your legs are young: I'll tread these flats. Consider,
When you above perceive me like a crow,
That it is place which lessens and sets off,
And you may then revolve what tales I have told you
Of courts, of princes; of the tricks in war.
This service is not service, so being done,
But being so allow'd.
Reality depends on perception, but human vision, being limited, may not see all that there is to be seen. Certainly, this has been the case with Cymbeline's banishment of Belarius. Still, Belarius himself has tried to limit the boys' perspective to the world outside of court, giving them only his bias for perceiving that other world. The boys are aware of this, and their desire to expand their vision emphasizes the narrowness of Belarius' well-intended protection of them from the deceptions of the court world. Guiderius says,
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 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 limitations of "country" can be as narrowing for human nature as the limitations of "court." There is little doubt that extending the boundaries of both worlds is the action which the play recommends.
The imagery which Guiderius uses to express his desire for expanded vision—the vision that birds have but that man can only imagine—reiterates a pattern of images that is significant throughout the play. Of the various birds cited, the eagle supposedly has the keenest and most resilient vision, being able to look unblinkingly at the sun without damage to its eyes.12 Imogen likens Posthumus to an eagle early in the play (I.ii.70), but the Frenchman at Philario's house warns that Posthumus' vision may be as limited as that of other men: "I have seen him in France: we had very many there could behold the sun with as firm eyes as he" (I.v. 11-13). Posthumus turns his gaze from the sun which, in the Platonic terms that seem operative here, is truth itself. But there are other eagles in the play which inform the association of Posthumus with the noble bird: Jupiter descends to the stage "sitting upon an eagle" (V.iv) and the Roman soothsayer, Philarmonus, has a vision the night before the battle in which "Jove's bird, the Roman eagle, wing'd / From the spongy south to this part of the west, / There vanish'd in the sunbeams, which portends / (Unless my sins abuse my divination) / Success to th' Roman host" (IV.ii. 348-52). For a while it seems as if the soothsayer's divination has been abused, but at the conclusion of the play, the truth of the vision returns to focus.
The fingers of the powers above do tune
The harmony of this peace. The vision,
Which I made known to Lucius ere the stroke
Of yet this scarce-cold battle, at this instant
Is full accomplish'd. For the Roman eagle,
From south to west on wing soaring aloft,
Lessen'd herself and in the beams o' the sun
So vanish'd; which foreshow'd our princely eagle,
Th' imperial Caesar, should again unite
His favour with the radiant Cymbeline,
Which shines here in the west.
More than a political harmony, the eagle's disappearance into the sunbeams signifies as well the return of Posthumus to the truth of Imogen's goodness. The world which his experience of loss and renewal has revealed to him is one in which the perspective contains the eagle's view: the earth beneath and the heavens into which he soars.
As in Pericles, this wider perspective is achieved partially through the blend of modes: tragic threats are contained to an extent by comic presentations, and comic resolutions are qualified by tragic impulses which remain operative. When Iachimo tries to seduce Imogen with his lies about Posthumus' infidelity (I.vii), the threat of evil is real enough, but his presentation of the bad report is comic. Immediately after Imogen welcomes him, Iachimo leaps into a suddenly intense consideration of the madness of men who cannot distinguish between "fair and foul." Imogen is puzzled by his abrupt soliloquy and inquires, "What makes your admiration?" Iachimo, however, seems carried away by the pleasure of making conceits and dwells on images of lust and depravity until Imogen can only surmise that he is ill. Realizing that he is making no progress through this oblique approach, Iachimo sends Pisanio away on a pretext and gains a more intimate audience with Imogen. She changes the subject (so she thinks) to Posthumus' health, and this gives Iachimo his cue. He proceeds to insinuate very bluntly that Posthumus has been making merry with too much boldness in Italy. Iachimo is still building his attack by circumlocution, and Imogen impatiently asks him to come to the point: "I pray you, sir, / Deliver with more openness your answers / To my demands" (87-89). Circling closer to his point, Iachimo waxes prolix with the revelation:
Had I this cheek
To bathe my lips upon: this hand, whose touch
(Whose every touch) would force the feeler's soul
To th' oath of loyalty: this object, which
Takes prisoner the wild motion of mine eye,
Firing it only here; should I (damn'd then)
Slaver with lips as common as the stairs
That mount the Capitol: join gripes, with hands
Made hard with hourly falsehood (falsehood, as
With labour): then by-peeping in an eye
Base and illustrous as the smoky light
That's fed with stinking tallow: it were fit
That all the plagues of hell should at one time
Encounter such revolt.
Imo. My lord, I fear,
Has forgot Britain.
Imogen's restraint in judging Posthumus from Iachimo's report reveals her emotional maturity, and her composure in the face of slander underlines Iachimo's feverish exhilaration in creating his lies. Iachimo's excitement causes him to push too far, however. When he suggests that Imogen "revenge" herself by taking him to bed, she calls out for Pisanio and denounces Iachimo severely, proudly assuring him that he is unworthy even to speak to her on the subject of Posthumus. Iachimo beats a clever retreat and admits that he was merely testing Imogen's affection, and, reversing the content of his prolixity, he eulogizes Posthumus.
Iachimo's pride in his own craftsmanship leads him beyond his goal. The evil which he is dealing in becomes subordinated by the comedy of the audience's seeing the manipulator being manipulated by the art of his craft.13 The theatricality of the scene—in Iachimo's "feigned soliloquy"14—and in Imogen's melodramatic. "What ho, Pisanio!" which she repeats to a servant who never appears—stresses the artifices that are conventional in seduction scenes which involve a subtle villain and a virtuous heroine. Except in melodrama, however, these conventions are not advertised, and it is interesting to note what makes this scene tragicomic rather than melodramatic.
First, the stress on artifice symbolically restates Iachimo's purpose. He, like the playwright, is working with fiction and trying to convince his audience that the fiction is real. Unlike the playwright, Iachimo is here an ineffectual artificer. Second, Imogen reveals her own human frailty in so readily accepting Iachimo's trumped-up excuse that he was testing her. She is flattered that she has passed the test and never considers his impertinence in testing her at all. She is also as flattered by his praise of Posthumus as she had been insulted by his denigrations a moment earlier. Further, she agrees to keep Iachimo's trunk in her bedchamber as an excessive gesture of apology for having suspected Iachimo at all. The virtuous heroine of melodrama would never show such human frailties.
The scenes in which Iachimo tries to convince Imogen and Posthumus of each other's infidelity are parallel, but the results are opposite. Because Iachimo fails to seduce Imogen, we have a momentary hope that he will also fail to pervert Posthumus' imagination. The bedchamber scene (II.ii) intervenes, however, and qualifies this comic expectation. Iachimo's admiration for Imogen's heavenly beauty briefly offsets the power of his evil intentions; at the same time, her beauty magnifies the ugliness of the "evidence" he will use to convince Posthumus. The comedy of Iachimo's failure to realize his plan contains the greatest part of his evil threat in the earlier scene, but the comedy exists conjoined to the tragic potential of the bedchamber scene. These two scenes create a tragicomic expectation—that is, opposite expectations held simultaneously—for Iachimo's approach to Posthumus (II.iv). When Posthumus succumbs, he weights the effect on the tragic side, but the ease with which he falls and the bombastic soliloquy with which he ends the scene readjust the balance. This blend of impulses, and the dramatic relationship of the comic scene to the one in which Iachimo's plan succeeds sustain the comic scene at a level more complex than melodrama.
The Queen is another advocate of evil in the play, more evil in purpose than Iachimo, and therefore excluded from the redemptive conclusion. Her plans which give the impetus to the larger actions of the play are evil in design and selfish in their ends: she wants the power of the crown to continue hers into the next generation. She apparently has Cymbeline well in control, but she wants to insure Imogen's cooperation by marrying her to Cloten. The Queen sets two of the three main plots into motion by convincing Cymbeline to advance Cloten as a suitor to Imogen and to refuse tribute to Rome; and she then functions dramatically to absorb Cymbeline's guilt. His speech on hearing of her death and of her deceptions is moving (V.v.62-68), especially when viewed under the larger construct of the inner-outward discrepancy in human nature which has deceived others in the play. Effective to purge evil from the renewed world at the play's end, the Queen demonstrates throughout the play the manner in which the threat of evil can remain operative even as it is contained in comic representation.
The anxiety which might accompany the Queen's vicious plans to poison Pisanio, and perhaps even Imogen, whom Pisanio serves, is displaced at the same moment it is created (I.vi). The physician Cornelius presents the Queen with a small box containing what she thinks are "poisonous compounds." He asks her what use she plans for them and she dissembles—a habit she has already announced (I.ii.34-37). Pisanio enters and the Queen descends upon her first prey, taking him aside while Cornelius lets the audience know that he has fooled her "with a most false effect: and I the truer, / So to be false with her" (I.vi.43-44). Her actions from this point are comic since she is unaware that her dissembling has been met with even craftier dissembling.15
Nonetheless the Queen's evil purposes cannot be contained only by Cornelius' deception. She shows her power again when she persuades Cymbeline to deny the tribute to Rome (III.i). This threat, even as it is being shaped in her speech, is diminished by the interruption of Cloten, who wishes to second his mother and to terminate her argument. The business of state is no doubt tedious for Cloten. Yet Cymbeline's terse "Son, let your mother end" (III.i.40) injects a comic pattern which qualifies the otherwise serious matter. The Queen's speech, which out of context might be heard as an altogether commendable eulogy of Britain, is thus diminished and placed by Cloten's "second" and the king's reprimand.
The Queen's threats of evil are contained by the comic means through which she is circumvented: in these two instances by Cornelius and by Cloten. Even in her last effort, her death, she can hardly be taken too seriously because of the manner in which Cornelius reports her confession. He begins in a straightforward enough way: "With horror, madly dying, like her life, / Which (being cruel to the world) concluded / Most cruel to herself. What she confess'd / I will report, so please you" (V.v.31-34). Cymbeline encourages him to continue and the matter-of-factness of Cornelius' enumeration of her confessions is comic: "First, she confess'd she never lov'd you. . . ." The list grows so long that whatever effect of surprise might have been generated at the beginning is lost in the disproportion of the number of confessions the Queen had to make (Cornelius' report of her confession requires twenty-two lines, aside from Cymbeline's choric rejoinders). But the cap of the comedy occurs almost two hundred lines later when Imogen is accusing Pisanio of having tried to poison her. Cornelius steps forward with part of the confession he had forgot.
I left out one thing which the queen confess'd,
Which must approve thee honest. "If Pisanio
Have," said she, "given his mistress that confection
Which I gave him for cordial, she is serv'd
As I would serve a rat."
This intrusion after the matter of the Queen had been satisfactorily completed demolishes the last shred of seriousness which her characterization might have sustained. Like her son Cloten's, the Queen's evil plans and even her death have been contained in comedy.
The threat of evil is not the only effect which is offset by comic presentation. The sense of awe engendered by grand things—appropriate to tragedy but too overbearing for tragicomedy—is counterbalanced as well by comic characterization. For instance, the pastoral situation of Belarius and the two brothers in an idealized formulation would be entirely good and polarize an entirely bad situation at court. But the pastoral formula is no more sufficient than any other single formula is to represent the world of Shakespeare's last plays. Therefore Belarius has his own guilt to counterbalance the unjustly maligned nobility of his character. He stole Cymbeline's sons from their proper place in the world and he has insisted on limiting their experience according to his own necessities. His recurrent eulogies for their inherent nobility are awesome in implication but self-conscious in their execution. The sons' retention of nobility in motive and action despite savage surroundings is an impressive fact and it elicits admiration (especially from Imogen), but Belarius' repetition of this point in five speeches of the last three acts and even twice in the same scene exaggerates the situation.16 Excessive emphasis on the convention of princes disguised as commoners draws the artifice itself into central focus; and this comic stress balances the wonder of a pastoral situation where mountaineers behave more nobly than courtiers.
The dream vision is another scene (V.iv) which inspires a sense of awe in the characters who participate in the admirable events. But the audience is not asked to share this sense of awe with Posthumus—or with Imogen and Belarius in the case of the noble brothers—at least not fully. Wonder is much greater in the dream vision scene because ghosts and a divinity actually appear onstage. To emphasize the spectacular quality of this wonder Jupiter even descends on an eagle. Of course, the self-consciousness of this artifice generates amazement of a sort that nullifies the wonder which a god's visitation should create within the illusion of the play. That is, the audience marvels at the mechanical strategy which lowers Jupiter to the stage more than it marvels at the descent of a god into a man's world. Aside from the mechanical ingenuity, the characterization of the god and his relationship with the ghosts displace much of the awe an audience might feel within an unbroken illusion. His first words to these suppliant shades are a reprimand.
No more, you petty spirits of region low,
Offend our hearing: hush! How dare you ghosts
Accuse the thunderer, whose bolt (you know)
Sky-planted, batters all rebelling coasts?
Jupiter's characterization is comic and he descends primarily to show how silly it is to doubt that he is controlling everything. The shades are awed and so is Posthumus, but the audience can appreciate the comic quality of these characters' previous doubt because the audience has been pushed to a distance that creates a more sensible perspective on such things. The self-conscious artifices have pointed all along to a controller of the play's incidents, and it is less of a surprise to the audience than to the characters to discover that, true enough, Jupiter has kept these "mortal accidents" under his Jovial eye with the purpose of making his gifts "the more delay'd, delighted."
The final scene is a tour de force in every critic's evaluation, and I shall not attempt to imitate those who have counted twenty-four separate denouements in it.17 It is easier to distinguish the moments in which the tragicomic perspective shifts all these revelations into the same sphere—that inclusive container that allows the audience to see through the delightful artifices into the more profound meanings which the play has created. The resolutions progress with dramatic skill. The battle is just past, and the final scene opens with Cymbeline's praise of those who rescued him. After the report of the Queen's confession and death which holds the movement in stasis, Lucius and his train of Romans enter, catching up the gap in the dramatic progress. This forward, halting, and catch-up procedure becomes the pattern for the rest of the scene. Lucius presents Imogen-Fidele to Cymbeline and asks that the page be spared. Cymbeline becomes intrigued with the familiar features of his daughter disguised as a page and Fidele then moves into the director's position. The result of the long sequence of revelations which Imogen's inquiry about Iachimo's diamond ring sets off is the reconciliation of all domestic factions to a national harmony. Cymbeline describes it thus:
Posthumus anchors upon Imogen;
And she (like harmless lightning) throws her eye
On him: her brothers, me: her master hitting
Each object with a joy: the counterchange
Is severally in all. Let's quit this ground,
And smoke the temple with our sacrifices.
[To Belarius] Thou art my brother; so we'll hold thee ever.
But domestic harmony is not enough, and Imogen reminds her father about Lucius and the international problem that remains to be solved. Through Posthumus' forgiveness of Iachimo, Cymbeline takes his example and pardons the entire company. Posthumus then presents Jupiter's riddle and the soothsayer interprets it according to the revelations which have just been made. The union of the British and the Roman nations at a level that surpasses the insularity expressed in the orginial refusal of tribute...
(The entire section is 28257 words.)
Charles K. Hofling (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: "Notes on Shakespeare's Cymbeline," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 1, 1965, pp. 118-36.
[In the following excerpt, Hofling explores "the psychological relationship of Cymbeline to its author" and notes important similarities between Shakespeare 's personal relationships (such as that with his daughter Susanna) and the play.
Cymbeline has been called "Shakespeare's most recapitulatory play." It is of interest to note certain of the echoes of the great tragedies in Cymbeline. This interest is heightened by the recognition that at least one such echo is obviously conscious and...
(The entire section is 6892 words.)
Joan Carr (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "Cymbeline and the Validity of Myth," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXV, No. 3, July, 1978, pp. 316-30.
[In the following essay, Carr maintains that Shakespeare sought to explore the effects of myth on the human pysche in Cymbeline through his allusions to stories of death and resurrection.]
The complex plot of Cymbeline incorporates a large number of situations paralleled in myths and folk tales, often with bizarre twists that suggest Shakespeare is composing a playful, sophisticated scherzo on archetypal themes. However, the theatrical experimentation in this play is not merely...
(The entire section is 10051 words.)
E.A.M. Colman (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "The Language of Sexual Revulsion," in The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare, Longman Group Limited, 1974, pp. 112-42.
[In this excerpt, Colman suggests that the dark bawdiness of Cymbeline places it in the tradition of Othello, King Lear, and Timon, of Athens, rather than with the other Shakespearean romances,]
From most critical viewpoints, Cymbeline fits tidily into the place that chronology gives it, among Shakespeare's last plays. Recent editors have hazarded guesses of 1608 or 1609 as its most probable time of composition,22 and it has long been regarded as...
(The entire section is 33656 words.)
Baxter, John. "Cymbeline and the Measures of Chastity." In The Elizabethan Theatre XII, pp. 135-55. Toronto: P. D. Meany, 1993.
Maintains that while Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline in the romance genre, he used tragic elements for his dramatic purpose, particularly to reveal his view of marital chastity.
Colley, John Scott. "Disguise and New Guise in Cymbeline." In Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. VII, edited by J. Leeds Barroll, 1974, pp. 233-52.
Suggests that the plot development of Cymbeline was more easily understood in Elizabethan times, when audiences viewed costuming and...
(The entire section is 496 words.)