Cymbeline (Vol. 61)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Cymbeline see SC, Volumes 4, 15, 36, and 47.
Classified as a dramatic romance that serves as a celebration of British national history, Cymbeline is part of a group of plays known as Shakespeare's late romances; scholars generally agree that it was written circa 1609-10. The story is set in England and Rome at about the time of Christ's birth and tells the tale of Cymbeline, a semi-legendary king of Britain, his daughter Imogen, who has married beneath her station, and her husband, Posthumus. Following the discovery of the marriage, Posthumus is banished from England and flees to Rome. There an Italian named Iachimo overhears Posthumus speaking of the unassailable virtue of his wife, and a wager on her chastity follows. After many trials and tribulations, the play is resolved in a mood of contrition and redemption. Shakespeare drew on many sources for this story, including Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1353), the anonymously written Frederyke of Jennen (1560), and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1577). The play's dramatic structure has received a good deal of critical attention. Shakespeare's combined use of material from pastoral romances, British and Roman history, and the techniques of seventeenth-century tragicomedy have frequently led critics to question how well all these disparate elements are blended in the play. Seventeenth-century commentators tended to focus heavily on these perceived structural disparities, while in the nineteenth century Cymbeline was lauded as a remarkable example of dramatic unity, and considered a work of serious import that dealt with religious and theological issues. The early twentieth century saw a reversal of this assessment, with many critics pointing to the work as an example of Shakespeare's declining dramatic skills. However, since the publication of G. Wilson Knight's landmark essay on Cymbeline in 1947 the play has enjoyed a revival in status. Knight's study suggests that the historical elements included in the tale are extremely significant and that the play's concerns are representative of contemporary issues of emerging British nationhood.
Debate over Cymbeline's dramatic structure and unity has continued through the latter half of the twentieth century. Derick R. C. Marsh (see Further Reading) calls Cymbeline one of the most neglected and undervalued Shakespearean plays. Marsh contends that while the text presents several difficulties typical of the romance group, a closer examination of it reveals that the unifying power of poetry knits the various themes into a complete work of art. The end result, according to the critic, is a play that explores such varied topics as the nature of life and death, the nature of piety and fidelity, and the life-giving power of goodness and virtue. Marsh places Cymbeline among Shakespeare's later plays, calling it a hopeful story in its affirmation that life, even with its pitfalls and suffering, is worth living. Leonard Powlick (1974) concurs with the assessment that the work showcases Shakespeare's affirmation of faith in men and life. However, Powlick proposes that its structure is deliberately varied in order to allow Shakespeare to lead his audience to this premise. According to the critic, Cymbeline contains all the elements of a comedy, yet it is subtly different from typical comedies because of a consistent use of the technique of deflation—a frustration of expectations at each step, especially in relation to the story of Imogen and Posthumus. This unpredictability allows Shakespeare to show the audience numerous possibilities in the action, thus opening up the plot and allowing the characters to order their world. In this sense, says Powlick, Cymbeline exposes the constricting nature of tragedy, giving way instead to the broad possibilities of comedy and allowing characters to make decisions and control their own fate.
In the years since the publication of Knight's study, many critics have acknowledged the topical nature of the play, aligning much of the action to contemporary Jacobean politics. Considered by many to be a work that was written expressly with James I in mind, the court of King Cymbeline is often compared to the court of James I, particularly in terms of the king's character and his foreign policy. In his essay detailing this comparison, Emrys Jones (1961) draws a parallel between the birth of Christ in the time of the historic Cymbeline and the peacemaking role assumed by James I. Leah S. Marcus (1988) examines the play's political symbolism, noting that a close reading will support an interpretation of the action as a political allegory. According to Marcus, although Cymbeline presents a vision of concord under the reigning monarch, there are also subtle references to some discomfort on Shakespeare's part regarding this vision of idealized harmony. Glenn Clark (1998) examines the geopolitical context of Cymbeline, noting that just as James I was interested in the geopolitical restructuring of England and in altering the mentalities of its inhabitants, Cymbeline dramatically highlights the relation between geography and a subjective sense of identity and otherness.
Although it is most often studied as a dramatic comedy focusing on the political issues paramount to England at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Cymbeline has also generated great critical interest as a romance. The subplot of the wager story involving Imogen, Posthumus, and Iachimo has led many critics to examine in detail the themes of marital fidelity, love, and family relationships. In fact, the nineteenth century saw an intense focus of critical scholarship on the character of Imogen, who was lauded as a dramatized ideal of female existence. Twentieth-century studies of the human relationships depicted in the play have tended to be more inclusive in their examination, focusing on both male and female characters. Homer Swander (1964) closely examines the character of Posthumus and his relationship to Imogen. According to Swander, Posthumus's progress towards excellence is defined largely by his rejection of conventional attitudes and the stock responses that are typically found in romantic comedies. In fact, the critic contends, Shakespeare used the character of Posthumus and his relationship to Imogen in order to criticize the generally accepted ideas about the kind of insight love demands and provides. Swander argues that the play begins with a traditional story and traditional moral attitudes, and then slowly exposes and destroys their rationale. In contrast to such heroes as Claudius in Much Ado about Nothing, Posthumus is not allowed to go unchanged—instead he is transformed until he realizes the value of love and trust.
Criticism: Dramatic Structure
SOURCE: “Cymbeline and the Comedy of Anticlimax,” in Shakespeare's Late Plays: Essays in Honor of Charles Crow, edited by Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbrod, Ohio University Press, 1974, pp. 131-41.
[In the following essay, Powlick proposes that Shakespeare deliberately modified the conventions of tragedy in Cymbeline in order to expose the constricting nature of the genre.]
For the more than three hundred years since its first publication critics have debated where among the other plays of Shakespeare to place Cymbeline. The first fault, of course, lay with Hemminge and Condell who included it with the tragedies in the first folio edition, and it is obvious that Cymbeline is no tragedy. The usual tendency of critics to say definitely that if it is not fish, then it must perforce be fowl has in this case been scrupulously avoided, and the result has been that some combined form—tragicomedy or romance—has been used to describe the play. The popularity of the Beaumont and Fletcher tragicomedies, which came out at roughly the same time as Cymbeline, apparently justifies placement of Cymbeline in the same generic bag with Philaster and A King and No King. Yet the difference in tone between these and Cymbeline is enormous. What distinguishes A King and No King, for instance, from Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy...
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SOURCE: “Natural Bonds and Artistic Coherence in the Ending of Cymbeline,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 440-60.
[In the following essay, Lawrence analyzes the difficult and often misunderstood ending of Cymbeline, and suggests that a close reading provides insights into Shakespeare's poetics and into Renaissance literature in general.]
“Cymbeline, though one of the finest of Shakespeare's later plays now on the stage, goes to pieces in the last act”: thus George Bernard Shaw justifies his decision to provide a rewritten fifth act for the 1945 production of the play at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.1 Wishing to salvage a great play for the sophisticated modern world—a world no longer subject to a vulgar craving for the easy consolations of poetic justice and happy endings—Shaw could approve of only two features in its concluding act: the vision of Jupiter, which he found to his surprise on rereading the play to be a splendid piece of stage business (but which he cut nevertheless), and the character of Posthumus, who came to life for Shaw when he shed his conventional role of murdering jealous husband and began to criticize, “quite on the lines of Mrs. Alving in Ghosts, the slavery to an inhuman ideal of marital fidelity which led him to this villainous extremity” (p. 63). The remainder of the act, and...
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SOURCE: “Cymbeline as a Renaissance Tragicomedy,” in Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's Cymbeline: An Iconographic Reconstruction, University of Delaware Press, 1992, pp. 29-65.
[In the following essay, Simonds claims that negative assessments of Cymbeline are often the result of misunderstandings about the play's proper classification, and suggests that evaluated as a tragicomedy rather than a romance, the work is a masterpiece.]
Yet, with my nobler reason, 'gainst my fury Do I take part. The rarer action is In virtue than in vengeance.
As E. D. Hirsch, Jr., has argued, we cannot hope to interpret a literary work with any degree of accuracy, much less criticize it fairly, until we have established its genre with a high degree of certainty,1 and Ernst Gombrich has extended this same warning to the study of art history and iconography.2 The problem of genre is particularly relevant to Shakespeare's Cymbeline, a play that is still considered to be “unsuccessful” or merely “experimental” by many literary critics. A misunderstanding of its genre lies, for example, at the heart of Samuel Johnson's scornful criticism of the play in the eighteenth century. Finding the work to be neither an emotionally cathartic tragedy nor an amusing comedy, and in no way Aristotelian, Johnson summarily dismissed...
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Criticism: Marriage, Family, And Love
SOURCE: “Cymbeline and the ‘Blameless Hero,’” in English Literary History, Vol. 31, No. 3, September, 1964, pp. 259-70.
[In the following essay, Swander claims that Cymbeline is, in one sense, a modern and revolutionary text since it questions conventional Renaissance morality.]
The first audience for Cymbeline would have been more aware than we are likely to be of certain social and literary conventions with which Shakespeare was working, and one must therefore be grateful to William Witherle Lawrence, who has insisted that we read the play not in a shadow cast by modern or personal prejudices but in the light shed by a knowledge of the conventions established in the medieval and renaissance analogues, all those plays, ballads, and romances that compose the cycle of stories about a woman falsely accused of infidelity.1 If we do so, we discover, as Professor Lawrence said we would, that the broad outline of Posthumus' actions—his boasting about his wife, his wager on her fidelity, his belief in false proofs of her guilt, and his order for her murder—is exactly that of the virtuous hero of a popular literature which, whether tragic or comic, never condemns the gullible lover of a slandered woman.2 In tragedy he dies like Othello, our sympathy still his; and in comedy, as in Much Ado About Nothing, he blandly returns to the woman, who accepts...
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SOURCE: “Interpreting Posthumus' Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysis, and Literary Critics,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, pp. 203-16.
[In the following essay, Skura examines the conflict between family inheritance and personal individuality via the character of Posthumus.]
Shakespeare's Cymbeline is an extraordinarily complicated play, even for a romance. Set in prehistoric Britain, it combines elements of history play and Roman play, but it still ranges over an Elizabethan Italy and a timeless pastoral world in Wales. By allusion, it also ranges widely over Shakespeare's own earlier plays. Its wicked Queen evokes Lady Macbeth; Iachimo evokes Iago; and the hero Posthumus recalls Othello, although Shakespeare seems to be making mere cartoon versions of those earlier complex characters.
If the external allusions are complicated, the on-stage action is even more so. There are more than twenty separate strands of action, and although sorting them out into three major plot lines helps some, the action is still confusing, even in the way that it is primarily about Posthumus' marriage to Imogen, rather than about Imogen's father Cymbeline, who gives the play its name. And finally, the play is written in a very mannered, elliptical, and self-conscious...
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SOURCE: “The Marriage Topos in Cymbeline: Shakespeare's Variations on a Classical Theme,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 94-117.
[In the following essay, Simonds studies Shakespeare's variations on the familiar Renaissance marriage theme in Cymbeline, and examines the significance of those variations in terms of contemporary politics and Protestant theology.]
Perhaps the most emotionally satisfying stage image in Shakespeare's Cymbeline occurs in Act 5, scene 5, where it elicits from Posthumus the best poetry in the entire play: “Hang there like fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die” (5.5.263-64).1 This is, of course, the moment when a joyful Imogen flings her arms about the neck of her long-lost husband, who at last returns her loving embrace. Although such reunions occur elsewhere in Shakespeare's canon, this one is unusual for the haunting beauty of Posthumus' words, which are often quoted but—to my knowledge—have never been fully explained.
The matrimonial embrace is also visually unusual, since Imogen is still dressed as the boy Fidele. What we see on the stage is the rather shocking spectacle, for the early seventeenth century, of two young men (or at least of a man and a boy in masculine attire) passionately hugging one another, a sight Shakespeare was careful to avoid in his earlier plays. For example,...
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Criticism: Political Allegory
SOURCE: “Stuart Cymbeline,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 11, No. 1, January, 1961, pp. 84-99.
[In the following essay, Jones compares the character and foreign policy of James I with those of Cymbeline and his court.]
Johnson had this to say about Cymbeline:
This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity.
To remark 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, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecillity, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.
The editor of the New Cambridge Cymbeline, Mr. J. C. Maxwell, after quoting this passage, is willing to concede something to Johnson:
Is it enough to say that most of these ‘faults’ are of the essence of romance and that Johnson did not understand romance? That would be too easy a way out: it is hard to deny an ‘incongruity’ that goes beyond the mere factual anachronisms and confusions that Johnson refers to; and it is perfectly possible to combine an enthusiastic admiration for others among the Last Plays with strong...
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SOURCE: “James,” in Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents, University of California Press, 1988, pp. 106-159.
[In the following excerpt, Marcus contends that a close reading of Cymbeline will support an interpretation of the play as a political allegory that is deeply reflective of contemporary Jacobean politics.]
In Cymbeline, Shakespeare can be seen as operating according to Jonsonian precept in the construction of a political allegory which presents “one entire bodie, or figure” devoted to a “present office” of the king. There have been fragmentary topical readings of the play, but none has pursued the “Jacobean line” with anything approaching the thoroughness that contemporary evidence permits. The play is by no means easy. But if allowances are made for the difference in form between a Jacobean pageant or court masque and a play in the public theater, Cymbeline will support a remarkably subtle, detailed reading as political allegory. Following the “Jacobean line” in Cymbeline will require us to perform some of the integrative and harmonizing functions dear to the project of traditional historicism—we can account for some notorious cruxes and arrive at a new perception of unity. The play's gathering of topical connections creates something of the same quality of concentration and distillation that classically minded writers in the...
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SOURCE: “The ‘Strange’ Geographies of Cymbeline,” in Playing the Globe: Genre and Geography in English Renaissance Drama, edited by John Gillies and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Associated University Presses, 1998, pp. 230-59.
[In the following essay, Clark explores the geopolitical restructuring of England led by James I and suggests that Cymbeline served to support the king's political agenda.]
At his accession to the English throne, and for years afterward, King James was determined to unify Scotland and England. This interest frequently led him to commentary on the status and meaning of the borders and border dwellers of his kingdoms, as in his “Proclamation for the Uniting of England and Scotland” issued in May, 1603. James expressed his desire “utterlie to extinguishe as well the name as substance of the bordouris, I mean the difference between them and other parts of the kingdome. For doing quhairof it is necessarie that all querrellis amoungst thaim be reconcyled and all straingenes between the nations quyte removed.”1 For James here, the existence of borders and border dwellers results from the “straingenes” between his kingdoms; to do away with such borders, he felt that the English and Scottish should be reconciled in “ane universall unanimitie of hartis.”2 Despite, or perhaps in recognition of, the difference that his Scottish accent and...
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Bergeron, David M. “Cymbeline: Shakespeare's Last Roman Play.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31, No. 1 (Spring 1980): 31-41.
Studies the influence of Shakespeare's knowledge of Roman history on Cymbeline's events and characters, particularly Cloten and the Queen.
Boling, Ronald J. “Anglo-Welsh Relations in Cymbeline.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, No. 1 (Spring 2000): 33-66.
Examines the play's dynamic between England and Wales and suggests it is representative of the complex issues surrounding the emerging British state of Shakespeare's time.
Cutts, John P. “Cymbeline: ‘In Self-Figur'd Knot.’” In Rich and Strange: A Study of Shakespeare's Last Plays, pp. 26-50. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1968.
Claims that Cymbeline is not, as some critics believe, a marginal character, but rather a central figure who controls the play's structure.
Dean, John. “Cymbeline.” In Restless Wanderers: Shakespeare and the Pattern of Romance, pp. 181-9. Salzburg: Institut Für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1979.
Provides a summary of sources that Shakespeare drew upon to compose Cymbeline.
Frost, David L. “‘Mouldy Tales’: The Context of Shakespeare's...
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