Cymbeline (Vol. 73)
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...
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Criticism: Character Studies
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.
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 quality and significance can be said to exist.”1 Although this statement comes as no surprise to students of this uneven and perplexing play, it does point up the fact that Cymbeline reveals few obvious clues to those who would derive its meaning from intrinsic relationships. Existing criticism simply leaves too much out of account in its attempts to find a “way in” capable of coordinating the play's pervasive indirection, its lack of coherent atmosphere, its manifold strategies for controlling and directing an audience's energies. Nosworthy's own introduction demonstrates the inadequacy of measuring the play against traditional romance categories, since he is first forced to conclude that Cymbeline will not...
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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 could be celebrated, historical events of profound significance, and characters ripe for dramatic presentation.
In a recent retrospective essay discussing criticism and scholarship on Shakespeare's classical plays, John W. Velz wrestles with the question, “What … was Rome to Shakespeare?”1 He argues that Shakespeare thought concretely, perhaps authentically, about Rome. The “Roman” qualities Velz sees in Shakespeare's plays include language and style (especially an oratorical mode), national character (mirrored sometimes in the Stoicism of characters and sometimes in their decadence), institutions (with particular emphasis on the family, notably in Titus), and sense of place (Rome as a...
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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 into certain expectations about the kind of play to follow. One of these more subtle devices is the order of introduction of characters, a dramatic device only occasionally noticed but always powerfully operative on the collective unconscious of an audience. For example, what an enormous difference there would be in our response to Richard II—the man and the play—if scenes i and ii of Act I were reversed and our initial view of Richard occurred after Gaunt tells us that the King is a murderer. Reverse the scenes and we would anticipate the entrance of Richard the murderer, Richard the hero/villain, Richard the focal point of a political tragedy in the vein of Macbeth. But as the scenes stand, Richard and Bolingbroke are...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. Review of Cymbeline. The New Republic 219, no. 10 (7 September 1998): 27-8.
[In the following review, Brustein describes director Andrei Serban's 1998 production of Cymbeline at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, mentioning its set, dramaturgical innovations, and strong individual performances, as well as its illumination of the play's theme of reconciliation.]
Cymbeline is currently receiving its second staging in ten years by the New York Shakespeare Festival (Joanne Akalaitis last directed it as her farewell production at the Public Theater in 1989). Produced at the Delacorte as part of Shakespeare in Central Park, this version has been concocted by the Romanian stage and opera director Andrei Serban. Serban and I have done seven shows together and are now preparing an eighth for the coming season. Three members of the cast, moreover, have been members of my company. Michael Chybowkski, responsible for the lighting, is one of our resident designers. And my theater has sometimes collaborated with the composer, Elizabeth Swados. I mention these affiliations for the sake of those interested in potential conflicts of interest. I could, of course, elect not to write about the production. But since I believe it deserves a review, I will at least try to be more descriptive than prescriptive in my report.
The set designer, Mark...
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SOURCE: Berlin, Normand. Review of Cymbeline. The Massachusetts Review 40, no. 1 (spring 1999): 137-53.
[In the following excerpted review of the Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of Cymbeline at Stratford, Berlin observes that director Adrian Noble's extensive cuts of the play-text contributed to an increased energy in the performance, but seemed to diminish its magic and romance as well.]
Adrian Noble's Cymbeline, which the RSC performed first in Stratford and then in the large Barbican Theatre where I saw it, did not fare much better [than Twelfth Night]. The play's unfamiliarity, the fact that it is seldom performed, helped spark some interest. Although not considered one of Shakespeare's so-called “problem plays,” it does pose a problem of genre—is it a tragedy, as the First Folio indicates, or a comedy, as most modern productions (including this one) suggest, or a tragicomedy, as most scholars use the term? It certainly offers a director unique challenges because of its many complications in plot design, and many changes in locale. Noble, to his credit, tried to give the play a clarity it seems to lack by cutting about 1000 lines and quickening the pace of presentation. But his attempt did not result in a satisfying production. Yes, it was energetic in movement but little attention was paid to the characters who were moving. When I think back on my experience of...
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SOURCE: Orgel, Stephen. “Shakespeare Performed: Cymbeline at Santa Cruz.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 2 (summer 2001): 277-85.
[In the following review of Danny Scheie's 2001 production of Cymbeline in Santa Cruz, California, Orgel praises the comic and innovative interpretation of Shakespeare's play and lauds the excellent performances; he also finds that the subversive directorial decisions remained true to the anarchic spirit of the drama.]
Danny Scheie made his professional directing debut with a brilliant, ingenious, and hilarious Comedy of Errors for Shakespeare Santa Cruz in 1988. As artistic director of the company from 1992 to 1996, he was responsible for a remarkable series of innovative productions, usually performed outdoors in a redwood grove on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. His directing style is irreverent, but more playful than confrontational. It is also witty, erudite, and highly allusive; and his work, even at its most deliberately outrageous (for example, in an all-male, frankly homoerotic Twelfth Night with Malvolio omitted, at San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros), has been consistently exciting, often bringing to light elements of the Shakespeare text that tend to be ignored or suppressed by editors and critics. His tenure at Shakespeare Santa Cruz concluded in 1996 with a superbly conceived and wildly funny...
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SOURCE: Shore, Robert. “Morally Magnetic.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5129 (20 July 2001): 21.
[In the following review of Mike Alfreds's stylized Cymbeline at the Globe in 2001, Shore praises the production's minimal cast and privileging of comic and ironic elements. Acknowledging some weaknesses in the play's final scene, the critic nevertheless deems this “a fine, bold staging” of one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays to successfully realize.]
Performances at the open-air Globe set in high relief those lines in which the Bard eyes the heavens. On the opening night of Cymbeline, for instance, Imogen's question “Hath Britain all the sun that shines?”, delivered as she contemplates exile overseas, drew rueful laughter from a sodden audience. Fittingly, the play dates from the period around 1609, when Shakespeare himself was preparing for a relocation of operations indoors, to the theatre at Blackfriars.
With its large cast, extravagant plotting and swift scene shifts between the British court, Rome and a rude cave in Wales, Cymbeline is a difficult play to stage successfully, whatever the weather. Dr Johnson raged against “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”, concluding that its “unresisting imbecility” was unworthy of his...
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SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. “Shakespeare's Game, without a Score Card.” New York Times (8 March 2002): B7; E7.
[In the following review of Mike Alfreds's production of Cymbeline for the Shakespearean Globe Theater, which visited Brooklyn, New York, in 2002, Weber highlights the challenges and rewards of staging this sometimes absurd drama with only six actors.]
Pick one. Cymbeline is a comedy in which a character is beheaded. It's a tragedy with a happy ending. It's a history that has elements of time travel. It's a romance in which the lovers are tiresome, and a story that celebrates family togetherness in which a mother and son are killed off.
It's something of a literary quiz in which Shakespeare quotes from himself. Among other things, there is a conniving, power-hungry queen like Lady Macbeth; a deceitful fabricator of jealousy-inspiring infidelities like Iago (and named Iachimo); a potion that induces a deathlike sleep seemingly taken from Romeo and Juliet; a king who, like Lear, rages against a disobedient daughter; the reuniting of sons with a father as in The Comedy of Errors; and a speech in which the despairing heroine, echoing Hamlet's invocation of God's dictum “against self-slaughter.”
The playfulness with which Shakespeare constructed Cymbeline seems to court literary criticism of the sort he placed in the mouth of...
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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Cymbeline. Variety 386, no. 5 (18 March 2002): 33.
[In the following review, Isherwood deems the Globe Theater production of Cymbeline directed by Mike Alfreds disappointing, as its minimalist approach placed too much emphasis on the weaknesses of the drama's verse.]
The company of the Shakespeare's Globe Theater, recently reconstituted on the South Bank of the Thames, is making its first U.S. foray this month with a leisurely visit (almost two weeks) to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mark Rylance, the acclaimed actor who is the company's artistic chief, introduced the company's performances at BAM with a brief tribute to Sam Wanamaker, the American thesp who was instrumental in the creation of the theater. It was a gracious touch that put one in an affectionate mood, but three and a half hours later, it was hard not to wish the company had chosen a happier vehicle for its U.S. debut.
It happens that New York has seen a pair of solid stagings of Cymbeline recently, in Central Park and Off Broadway, where Bartlett Sher's funky romp through the romance closed just days before the Globe's opened in Brooklyn. The Globe approached Shakespeare's complicated play in a manner diametrically opposed to that of Sher & Co. While Sher played up the text's overstuffed nature by piling on layers of playful and stylistically contradictory...
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SOURCE: Winter, Jessica. Review of Cymbeline. Village Voice 47, no. 11 (19 March 2002): 70.
[In the following review of Mike Alfreds's Cymbeline, which was transplanted from England to New York City in 2002, Winter comments on the attempts to reduce or eliminate the barrier between audience and stage, and summarizes individual performances in the production.]
At the outset of the Globe Theatre's Production of the Bard's most infamously convoluted contraption, artistic director Mark Rylance pointedly announces The Tragedy of Cymbeline! That's how the play is categorized in the folio of 1623, which had no category for romances (or ‘problem plays,’ or “Goldberg, Rube”). But Shakespeare's erratic twilight opus is better pegged as Very Tragical Mirth, ranging from the broad buffoon comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream to the wrenching father-daughter schisms of King Lear. Careering between three countries (England, Wales, and Italy) and many more temperaments, grafting in the sexual double cross from Othello and a wicked stepmother modeled on Lady Macbeth, Cymbeline often resembles a spotty greatest-hits album—or more accurately, a B-sides compendium. The medley of styles only attempts to accommodate characters who are constantly changing their tune: two commoners who aren't, a boy who's a girl, corpses (one headless) that live, and, by the long evening's...
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SOURCE: Bruster, Douglas. “Cymbeline and the Sudden Blow.” Upstart Crow 10 (1990): 101-12.
[In the following essay, Bruster examines scenes in Cymbeline that strongly suggest the drama's parody of the romance genre and question viewer tolerance for violence.]
At the first performance of its latest Stratford revival tonight the audience laughed at the primitive ravelling of the loose ends of a careless plot.
(1962 Stratford Production)
In 1968 I saw Cymbeline at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival in Ashland and the audience disturbed me by laughing as the dozen odd strands of the mingled yarn of the plot were unravelled in the complicated denouement of the play.
From this point (i.e., the ‘headless man’ scene) the audience seemed to feel the lid was off, allowing them to laugh freely at any part of the play's remaining scenes. … When Jupiter appeared, amid clouds of dense smoke and astride a golden eagle, the theater was in an uproar.
(1970 Ontario Stratford Festival)1
As the above accounts of three different productions testify, Cymbeline has struck twentieth-century audiences as an unintentionally ludicrous play.2 The last reviewer cited above...
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SOURCE: Crumley, J. Clinton. “Questioning History in Cymbeline.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41, no. 2 (spring 2001): 297-315.
[In the following essay, Crumley evaluates Cymbeline as history and romance, concentrating on themes of historiography, epistemology, and the uncertainty of textual interpretation in the drama.]
The First Folio of William Shakespeare's works misclassifies Cymbeline with vigor, including the play in the table of contents under “Tragedies” and setting the running title, “The Tragedie of Cymbeline,” over the play text. Of course, either of the two other kinds of plays listed in the contents, “Comedies” and “Histories,” would have made a better match. Cymbeline ends happily, with joyful reunions aplenty, and its setting in the years of Britain's tribute payments to Rome secures its connection to recorded history. Perhaps the play's dual status as comedy and history compelled the Folio editors to throw up their hands in dismay, prompting the perverse classification that reached print in 1623.
In the twentieth century, when faced with the fact that Cymbeline exhibits the characteristics of both history and what has come to be called “romance,” critics have usually sought to identify the play with its chronological neighbors, Pericles and The Winter's Tale, thereby...
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Boling, Ronald J. “Anglo-Welsh Relations in Cymbeline.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 1 (spring 2000): 33-66.
Studies the historical context and partial Welsh setting of Cymbeline, drawing an analogy between the Welsh-English and Britain-Rome relations alluded to in the play.
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. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1998.
Suggests that Shakespeare's spatial and cosmological metaphors in Cymbeline point toward a Jacobean vision of geographic union.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. “Imogen's Andirons.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 14, no. 3 (summer 2001): 16-19.
Affirms that the torches in Imogen's bedchamber, on which figures of Cupid stand, were meant to be inverted, and considers the possible thematic significance of this fact.
Frost, David L. “‘Mouldy Tales’: The Context of Shakespeare's Cymbeline.” Essays and Studies 39 (1986): 19-38.
Suggests that Cymbeline should not be analyzed in the context of Shakespeare's late romances, but rather as an extended...
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