Cymbeline (Vol. 47)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Cymbeline, see .
Numbered among Shakespeare's final plays, Cymbeline has suffered a largely negative critical reputation as commentators typically have emphasized the work's deficiencies, including its ambiguous genre, inconsistent characterization, and disjointed plot. Historically, many critics have dismissed the play, seeing it as an amalgamation of comedy and tragedy with a poorly realized hero and multiple denouements. Critical assessments of Cymbeline in the latter half of the twentieth century, however, have endeavored to formally reconstruct the play. Using new approaches that emphasize Shakespeare's historical and rhetorical strategies and unique methods of characterization in the work, contemporary scholars have seen beyond the play's Byzantine plot, seemingly implausible characters, and generic complexity to locate aesthetic and thematic unity.
A tale of deception, slandered virtue, and political turmoil, Cymbeline is set in England and Rome around the time of the birth of Christ. The main plot of the play involves the discovery by Cymbeline, a semi-legendary king of Britain, that his daughter has secretly married below her station. The king banishes his new son-in-law, Posthumus Leonartus, who flees to Rome. There he speaks of the unassailable virtue of his estranged wife, Imogen, and is overheard by Iachimo, the drama's principal agent of deception. Iachimo proposes a wager to test Imogen's virtue and by trickery convinces Posthumus that she is inconstant in her love. After war erupts between England and Rome, Posthumus eventually realizes that his wife has been wronged by Iachimo's deceit and experiences a radical shift from anger to contrition and redemption.
Following this primary plot many critics have focused their study on the closely related issues of deception, disguise, and misperception in Cymbeline. Brook Thomas (1983) has observed the work's emphasis on deceit as a metatextual concern that frames the play's theme of misinterpretation and its subversive critique of patriarchy and textual authority. John Scott Colley (1974) has considered the topic of clothing and disguise in the drama and contends that the figure of Posthumus functions emblematically rather than realistically in Cymbeline. He argues that Shakespeare uses the imagery of clothing to flesh out the humble and eventually redeemed character of Posthumus, as well as to underscore themes of deceptive and mistaken virtue related to Iachimo and Imogen. Imogen and cross-gender disguise are the topics of Michael Shapiro's 1994 study, which investigates the sources and tragic dynamics of Shakespeare's Imogen in male disguise. Shapiro has described Imogen as primarily a victim, contrasting her with the active heroines—Julia, Portia, Rosalind, and Viola—who assume male guises in Shakespeare's earlier romantic comedies.
Historical and political analysis of Cymbeline has also drawn the attention of many contemporary critics. Hugh M. Richmond (1972) has seen Cymbeline as the last in Shakespeare's trilogy of Roman history plays—the others being Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. For Richmond, Cymbeline presents the culmination of themes taken up in these earlier works and is indicative of a historical transformation in the conception of natural law during the Roman era. A similar line of thought has been undertaken by Patricia Parker (1989) who has seen in Cymbeline's anachronistic melding of early-modern Britain and imperial Rome Shakespeare's romantic revision of the concept of empire.
Others lines of critical commentary have concentrated on the language of the drama, its ambiguous genre, and Shakespeare's methods of characterization. R. J. Schork (1972) has responded to Shakespeare's use of classical allusion in the play to delineate his characters, principally Imogen and Iachimo. Christy Desmet (1994) has examined the rhetorical strategies Shakespeare employs in Cymbeline by shifting the focus of character analysis from psychological to ethical models. Accordingly, Desmet has emphasized that the work's characters may be best understood in light of their moral nature. Elena Glazov-Corrigan (1994), while acknowledging the aesthetic flaws of the play, has found in the seemingly paradoxical language of Cymbeline a synthesis of comic and tragic genres.
John P. Cutis (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "Cymbeline: 'In Self-Figur'd Knot'," in Rich and Strange: A Study of Shakespeare's Last Plays, Washington State University Press, 1968, pp. 26-50.
[In the following essay, Cutts presents an overview of Cymbeline, discussing imagery, characterization, and the dream-like quality of the play.]
Since he gives his name to the play Cymbeline might reasonably be expected to dominate it in some way. Yet it is obviously difficult to claim that he is vitally essential to those parts of the play, the wager (Posthumus-Iachimo-Imogen), and the Milford Haven episode (Guiderius-Arviragus-Belarius-Cloten-Imogen), which give the play its best strength. He is by no means as vitally dramatic in himself as Pericles, with whom he invites obvious comparison if only on the grounds that both plays are usually considered together as examples of Shakespeare's experimentation with a new art form, romance. It is difficult to forget Pericles at any time in the play other than the brothel scenes, but even here, as I have tried to show earlier, there are too many echoes of Pericles in Marina for the episode to be totally divorced from consideration of Pericles, and the subsequent scenes make this clear enough. It is too easy to forget Cymbeline. The temptation is to write him off and concentrate on Imogen and Posthumus. To do this may not appear as...
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Deception, Misperception, And Disguise
John Scott Colley (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Disguise and New Guise in Cymbeline" in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. VII, No. 1974, pp. 233-52.
[In the essay below, Colley examines the significance of Shakespeare's use of costume and disguise in Cymbeline as they relate to the characterization, action, and theme of the play.]
W. W. Lawrence felt that the central problem of dramatic characterization in Cymbeline could be resolved in only one way. Modern readers must imagine the play as the Elizabethans understood it, "as they saw it on the stage":
Posthumus and Imogen and Iachimo are too often treated as if they were persons of the nineteenth century, and their acts interpreted like those of characters in a modern realistic novel, instead of a tale the outlines and spirit of which had been determined by centuries of literary and social tradition.1
Lawrence's conclusions about Cymbeline have not proved as convincing as his critical methodology. His designation of Posthumus as an essentially "blameless" hero, completely justified in his jealousy and attempted revenge, has met with strong opposition.2 Yet even if Lawrence was mistaken about the relationship of Cymbeline to certain literary traditions, he was...
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History And Politics
Hugh M. Richmond (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Roman Trilogy: The Climax in Cymbeline" in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. V, No. 1, April, 1972, pp. 129-39.
[In the following essay, Richmond evaluates Cymbeline as a drama concerned with natural law and its transformation by Christianity.]
The New Arden editor asserts that "Cymbeline has evoked relatively little critical comment, and no completely satisfactory account of the play's quality and significance can be said to exist."1 Another recent editor proves even more pessimistic when he accepts Johnson's view, which concedes a few incidental virtues to the play but considers them scarcely compensation for "the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life."2 Both these recent editors concur in rejecting G. Wilson Knight's account of Cymbeline as a work "to be regarded mainly as an historical play . . . concerned to blend Shakespeare's two primary historical interests, the Roman and the British," in which "the heritage of ancient Rome falls on Britain."3
It is unfortunate, certainly, that Knight's preoccupation with the nationalistic theme causes him to dismiss the play's concern with the wager story, which he...
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Speech, Genre, And Characterization
R. J. Schork (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Allusion, Theme, and Characterization in Cymbeline," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXIX, No. 2, April, 1972, pp. 210-16.
[Below, Schork maintains that the classical allusions spoken by Imogen and Iachimo highlight key elements of their characterization in Cymbeline.]
Granted Shakespeare's penchant for classical allusions and the pseudo-antique setting of the play, it comes as no surprise that two central characters in Cymbeline frequently view present actions in terms of the mythology, heroic legends, and history of ancient Rome. The purpose of this brief paper is to show that several of these allusions are not only conventionally appropriate, but also (and sometimes most subtly) dramatically significant.
When Iachimo rises from the trunk in Imogen's bedchamber in II, ii, he first compares himself to Tarquín (12)1 and then addresses the sleeping princess as "Cytherea" (14). The force of the first of these two allusions is obvious: Iachimo views his actions as analogous to those of the Roman legend's archetypal violator of a comrade's trust and a woman's honor; yet Imogen is as impregnable as Lucrece was defenceless. His use of "Cytherea," I suggest, is also ironically ambiguous: Imogen's radiant beauty is comparable to Venus'; at the same time, she has emphatically rejected Iachimo's contorted...
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Clark, Glenn. "The 'Strange' Geographies of Cymbeline." In Playing the Globe: Genre and Geography in English Renaissance Drama, edited by John Gillies and Virginia Mason Vaughan, pp. 230-59. Madison, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.
Explores Shakespeare's concern with "the relation between geography and a subjective sense of identity and otherness" in Cymbeline.
Evans, Bertrand. "Cymbeline." In Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 245-89. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.
Praises Shakespeare's sustained dramaturgical control of his characters, imagined universe, and art in Cymbeline. Evans writes, "From the point of view of the creation, maintenance, and exploitation of discrepant awarenesses . . . Cymbeline is Shakespeare's greatest achievement."
Garber, Marjorie. "Cymbeline and the Languages of Myth." Mosaic X, No. 3 (Spring 1977): 105-15.
Examines the importance of creation and metamorphosis myths, including the classical tales of Prometheus and Pandora, to the theme and complex unity of Cymbeline.
Holbrook, David. "Cymbeline." In Images of Women in Literature, pp. 201-206. New York: New York University Press, 1989.
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