Study Guide

Cymbeline

by William Shakespeare

Cymbeline Essay - Cymbeline (Vol. 73)

Cymbeline (Vol. 73)

Introduction

Cymbeline

For further information on the critical and stage history of Cymbeline, see SC, Volumes 4, 15, 36, 47, and 61.

Often grouped with Shakespeare's late romances, Cymbeline has resisted critical attempts at generic classification. A pastiche of comedy, romance, history, and tragedy, the drama was written after Shakespeare had completed his great tragedies, elements of which are echoed in several of Cymbeline's principal characters. The play, set in Britain and Rome at about the time of Christ's birth, relates the tale of Cymbeline, a semi-legendary British king, his virtuous daughter Imogen, who has secretly married beneath her station, and her banished husband Posthumus. The drama additionally features the oafish Cloten, Cymbeline's intended husband for his daughter, and a deceitful Italian gentleman named Iachimo, who proposes a wager on Imogen's chastity. Following a convoluted plot that erupts into war between Britain and Rome, the play presents a series of near-tragic events, only to resolve itself in a mood of general contrition and reconciliation. For a large portion of its critical history Cymbeline has been perceived negatively by critics and derided for its ostensible aesthetic and structural deficiencies. By the mid-twentieth century, however, many commentators began to adopt new approaches to the play, emphasizing Shakespeare's unique representation of history and dramatic design. In the ensuing decades, many critics have conducted a reassessment of Cymbeline, noting such issues as Shakespeare's probable impetus toward parody in the drama and acknowledging the play's experimental juxtaposition of genre categories as well as its defiance of accepted norms.

Traditional character-based study of Cymbeline has generally highlighted the relative flatness and superficiality of the drama's principal figures and alluded to serious weaknesses in the play's methods of characterization. While Imogen was once much lauded as a paragon of feminine virtue, she has, along with Cymbeline, Cloten, Posthumus, and Iachimo, elicited relatively little serious interest among contemporary critics. Recent examinations of character in Cymbeline have concentrated on character in conjunction with related psychoanalytic, historical, or structural issues. Probing the play using the tools of Freudian psychoanalysis, Murray M. Schwartz (1970) offers an extended look into the obsessive, sexually motivated, and repressed psyches of the drama's main characters, especially its younger, male figures Cloten, Posthumus, and Iachimo. Schwartz additionally studies the fatherly paranoia of Cymbeline, the murderous self-deception of his Queen, and the guilt of the banished nobleman Belarius, as well as other unconscious motivations that drive the story. Other critics have concentrated on character in terms of the drama's elusive genre. David M. Bergeron (1980) views Cymbeline as Shakespeare's final Roman play, and finds that the antique qualities of the play are particularly evident in its delineation of character. The critic traces links between major characters in the drama and historical figures, for example, Cymbeline to the Roman Emperor Augustus. Bergeron illuminates other correspondences as well, including Cloten to Augustus's son Tiberius, the Queen to Augustus's wife Livia, and Imogen to the emperor's daughter Julia. Offering a differing approach to genre and character, Carol McGinnis Kay (1981) concentrates on Shakespeare's methods of introducing various characters in the opening scenes of Cymbeline. Kay argues that Shakespeare manipulated audience expectations by introducing Imogen, the Queen, Posthumus, Cloten, and finally Iachimo in succession according to shifting generic tropes: first fairy tale, then romantic comedy, and lastly tragedy.

Despite its mixed critical reputation and frequent designation as one of Shakespeare's more perplexing dramas, Cymbeline continues to enjoy a modestly robust phase in stage production. Reviewing director Andrei Serban's 1998 staging of Cymbeline in New York's Central Park for the Delacorte Theater, Robert Brustein notes the production's beautiful sylvan ambience, dramaturgical inventiveness, and a series of strong individual performances that contributed to a dynamic vigor and overall success. Less well received was Adrian Noble's Royal Shakespeare Company production of the drama, first performed at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1999. Reviewer Normand Berlin highlights certain trade-offs resulting from Noble's decision to excise some thousand lines from the text, including a quickened pace and momentum in return for diminished personality among the drama's already somewhat flat characters and the weakening of the power of Shakespeare's poetry. Stephen Orgel (2001) critiques a 2000 staging of Cymbeline directed by Danny Scheie in Santa Cruz, finding the production at once fascinating and brilliant in everything from its vibrant performances and anarchic energy to its comic business and visual gags. Among the most frequently reviewed stagings is Mike Alfreds's minimalist production, first staged at England's open-air Globe Theater in 2001 and later transported across the Atlantic to Brooklyn, New York. Noting its bare set and heavily stylized aesthetic, reviewer Robert Shore comments favorably on Alfreds's significant illumination of dramatic irony and comedy in the play, though he acknowledges that the piece threatened to spin out of control during its notorious final scene. Considering the same production, Bruce Weber offers a mixed assessment, admiring moments of directorial and authorial clarity amid the chaos, but finding the individual performances sometimes overdone and largely devoid of sympathy. Reviewing a performance of this production reprised in the United States, Charles Isherwood (2002) suggests that Alfreds placed his focus too much on the drama's weaknesses in verse, characterization, and plot by opting for a minimalist approach; however, he finds the six actors, who were cast in multiple roles, generally convincing in their performances.

Criticism of Cymbeline since the 1960s has principally concerned itself with two overriding issues: assessment of the drama's potential aesthetic unity, and reflection on the unsettled question of the play's genre. Frank Kermode (1963) notes that past critical energies were wasted on highlighting Cymbeline's incongruities. In moving toward a more positive evaluation, Kermode acknowledges the play's obliquity, but nevertheless considers it a “superb play” and finds the pivotal unraveling of plot and theme in its concluding scene a “virtuoso exercise.” Offering a study of Cymbeline's emblematic imagery and design, John Gillies (see Further Reading) notes that disparaging appraisals of the play have tended to neglect the subtle juxtaposition of character and metaphor that furnish the drama with its architectonic structure. Erica Sheen's (see Further Reading) intertextual analysis of Cymbeline concentrates on political themes in the work. Drawing upon parallels between Shakespeare's drama and the Senecan tragedy Hercules furens, Sheen contends that Cymbeline critiques such topics as absolutism and the imperial suppression of individual liberty. Turning more specifically to difficulties associated with Cymbeline's genre, David L. Frost (see Further Reading) proposes that the work should not be viewed in conjunction with Shakespeare's late romances, but rather as an elaborate parody of the romance form and its attendant tropes and clichés. Douglas Bruster (1990) likewise maintains that the work is an example of parody, although with a serious undercurrent suggested by its many references to violence and brutality. Finally, viewing Cymbeline as a history play animated by elements of romance, J. Clinton Crumley (2001) applies the tools of historiography to the drama. In Crumley's analysis, the work questions the ways in which individuals at any given point in historical time perceive, shape, reinterpret, and record the past.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Kermode, Frank. “Cymbeline.” In William Shakespeare: The Final Plays, pp. 19-29. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1963.

[In the following excerpt, Kermode calls Cymbeline one of Shakespeare's most oblique works but nonetheless finds it to be a “superb play.” Kermode also considers the play's sources, language, plot, characterization, and themes.]

Heminge and Condell placed Cymbeline with the tragedies. Perhaps the printing was held up by copyright difficulties; perhaps they were puzzled as to the category of so strange a play, by the unprecedented mixture of ancient Britain and modern Italy, comedy and tragedy, history and romance. Dr. Johnson was severe upon these inconsistencies:

This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogue, 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 names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.

Some criticism must, nevertheless, be wasted on the incongruities. Cymbeline is, under one aspect, a history play, and for the story of Cymbeline's disagreement with the Romans over the payment of tribute, and the subsequent war and peace, Shakespeare referred to Holinshed. But he was far less respectful of history than in the English Chronicle Plays, and the freedom of his treatment reminds one rather of King Lear, in which he had once before blended a romance-plot with an episode from British history. As a matter of fact, Holinshed is perfunctory, not to say hazy, about Cymbeline; he is not sure whether it was this king or his son who refused the tribute, or even whether the Britons won the war. Shakespeare eked out Holinshed from a poem in a supplement to The Mirror for Magistrates. In this work the Britons won, which suited him because there was a vogue for incredibly bold and warlike Britons, reflected a little later in Fletcher's Bonduca. Since the accession of James I, the English were British in name as well as by remote descent; they could think of Cymbeline as of their own nation, and perhaps find him especially interesting because he occupied the throne of Britain at the time of the birth of Christ and the Augustan peace.1

On the other hand, Shakespeare could assume that nobody wanted archaeological accuracy. Iachimo's conduct is, admittedly, un-Roman (though Shakespeare remembered his own Tarquin as he wrote). He is a Sienese, and his Italian manners are appropriate to the wicked Italy of the Jacobean imagination; it was no part of the dramatist's purpose to portray a Tuscan of the time of Augustus. Iachimo's treachery is there to touch another responsive note in the audience; as Dr. Brockbank shows, it was conventional to contrast the craftiness, the ‘doubleness and hollow behaviour’, of Italians with the ‘great strength and little policie, much courage and small shift’ of the British. But this gives rise to one of those contradictions, or at any rate tensions, which abound in Cymbeline; for it was also accepted that the Roman occupation of Britain did us good because it provided an early dose of civility and associated us with the great Empire. ‘Were not Caesars Britaines as brutish as Virginians?’ asked Samuel Purchas. ‘The Romane swords were best teachers of civilitie to this and other Countries.’ So when Cymbeline has won the war he offers the tribute after all, blaming the Queen and Cloten for restraining him from doing so earlier. We are meant to conclude that the valour of the British royal family is ‘gentle’, and not simply a brute toughness which must set the nation against the forces of civility and religion. And we remember that the secular Empire was a preparation for Christianity, and that the England of Shakespeare was the home of the true religion.

For the wager between Posthumus and Iachimo Shakespeare drew, more directly, on Boccaccio.2 This ancient and implausible tale goes well enough in romance, and Shakespeare stirs it up with the pseudo-history, the pastoral tale of the King's lost sons, the wanderings of Imogen in the deserts of Wales, the fairy-tale plot of the Queen's drugs, without the least apology:

                    Howsoe'er 'tis strange,
Or that the negligence may well be laugh'd at,
Yet it is true, sir.

(I.i.65-67)

Granville Barker explains the theatrical craft needed to bring this off. As to why Shakespeare wanted to do it, we must assume a desire to experiment in a new kind of play, in which probabilities and personalities count for less than coups de théâtre which suggest with ideal clarity certain truths left obscure in the turbulence of real life.

Not that Cymbeline is a lucid play; its language prevents it being that. The romance plot is not matched by any assumed simplicity of diction, but set off against tough late-Shakespearian verse; and this produces an effect almost of irony, so that several critics, among them Professor Danby, have tried to convey their sense that the dramatist is somehow playing with the play. I think this is true. For example, Cymbeline is the only play in the canon which has characters given to such tensely obscure ways of expressing themselves that not only the audience but the other characters find it hard to make out what they mean. Add to this the extraordinary complexity of the plot, the wanton rapidity of the multiple dénouement, and certain other complications to be mentioned later, and you have a play very remote in tone from Pericles. But it is a superb play nevertheless, and in some ways perhaps it shows more of the difficult, tortuous, ironical mind that made the Sonnets, than other greater works in which the main effort goes into the making explicit of some more public theme.

The opening scene is a good example of the obliquity that will prevail throughout. The two anonymous gentlemen constitute a simple device for telling the audience what it needs to know about the situation. The explanations of the First Gentleman to his guest do indeed cover a lot of ground in only 70 lines, but there is nothing simple in the way he goes about it. ‘Everybody looks angry because the King is’ becomes:

You do not meet a man but frowns; our bloods
No more obey the heavens than our courtiers
Still seem as does the King's.

(I.i.1-3)

The reason for the King's anger is that his daughter and his only child Imogen has married Posthumus instead of the Queen's son Cloten; but there is room amid all the narrative detail for a comparison between Cloten and Posthumus, with much tortuous praise of the latter:

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.
SECOND Gent.
                                                                                                              You speak him far.
FIRST Gent.
I do extend him, sir, within himself;
Crush him together rather than unfold
His measure duly.

(I.i.16-27)

From this energetic, indeed violent dialogue—and it is the energy of the writer rather than of the First Gentleman—we certainly learn a number of facts necessary to the progress of the...

(The entire section is 3327 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Murray M. Schwartz (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Schwartz, Murray M. “Between Fantasy and Imagination: A Psychological Exploration of Cymbeline.” In Psychoanalysis and Literary Process, edited by Frederick Crews, pp. 219-83. Cambridge, Mass.: Winthrop Publishers, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Schwartz undertakes a Freudian psychoanalysis of the principal characters in Cymbeline.]

Virtutis est domare quae cuncti pavent.

—Seneca

In his introduction to the Arden edition, J. M. Nosworthy observes that “Cymbeline has evoked relatively little critical comment, and no completely satisfactory account of the play's...

(The entire section is 9991 words.)

David M. Bergeron (essay date spring 1980)

SOURCE: Bergeron, David M. “Cymbeline: Shakespeare's Last Roman Play.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31, no. 1 (spring 1980): 31-41.

[In the following essay, Bergeron studies the Roman sources of Cymbeline and probes affinities between several of the drama's main figures and individuals in the family of the Roman Emperor Augustus.]

By the time he wrote Cymbeline, Shakespeare had already made several forays into things Roman: the early tragedies Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar and the two tragedies shortly before Cymbeline—Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. Shakespeare apparently saw in the ancient Romans virtues that...

(The entire section is 5762 words.)

Carol McGinnis Kay (essay date November 1981)

SOURCE: Kay, Carol McGinnis. “Generic Sleight-of-Hand in Cymbeline.South Atlantic Review 46, no. 4 (November 1981): 34-40.

[In the following essay, Kay argues that Shakespeare manipulated audience expectations in Cymbeline by introducing various characters according to shifting generic tropes: first fairy tale, then romantic comedy, and lastly tragedy.]

It is a critical axiom that Shakespeare's opening scenes are crucial in such obvious ways as introducing characters and relationships, establishing atmosphere and setting, positing themes, and so forth.1 In less obvious ways these scenes also manipulate, cajole, and nudge their audiences...

(The entire section is 2813 words.)