Cymbeline (Vol. 84)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Cymbeline, see SC, Volumes 4, 15, 36, 47, 61, and 73.
Cymbeline was composed and initially performed toward the end of Shakespeare's life, between 1609 and 1610, during a period when the playwright produced the works that are known as his romances. Like his other romances, Cymbeline is a tragicomedy, which contains elements of tragedy but resolves with the traditional happy ending of a comedy. The play relates the tale of Cymbeline, a chieftain king who ruled Britain during the first century, when the country was part of the Roman Empire. Cymbeline imprisons his daughter Imogen, heir to the throne of Britain, for marrying Posthumus Leonatus, a gentleman greatly favored at court until his marriage to Imogen interrupted the Queen's plan for Imogen to marry her son, the villainous Cloten. While in prison and with her husband banished from the country, Imogen becomes the target of several schemes. Posthumus, exiled to Rome, has his idealistic view of Imogen challenged by the Italian Iachimo, who wagers that he can prove Imogen is not as chaste and loyal as Posthumus believes her to be. When he receives Iachimo's false proof of Imogen's infidelity, Posthumus orders his faithful servant to return to Britain and murder her. The Queen also plots to murder Imogen in order to ensure the throne of Britain for her son. Adding further tension to the plot is the war that erupts between Rome and Britain as Cymbeline refuses to continue paying an annual tribute to the Romans. The play is resolved with the deaths of the Queen and her son Cloten, the reestablishment of peace with Rome, and the redemption of Posthumus.
Shakespeare's romances all share several important themes, including separation and reunion, exile, jealousy, and divine providence. Many critics have also noted that the female characters are integral to the action and substance of these plays. Derrick R. C. Marsh (see Further Reading) theorizes that, as in The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline's moral standard is set by the main female character. Although surrounded by characters who have compromised their moral convictions, Imogen refuses to be seduced by the corrupt temptations of the world. Believing love to be paramount, she marries a man for whom she feels genuine affection and admiration, even though the man has a lower position, and thus less value, in her father's court. As Marsh explains, rather than falling prey to the notion that ideals are dictated to and formed outside of the individual, Imogen consistently embodies moral courage by living according to her own principles. For Imogen, genuine humanity comes from living by what she knows to be right and just. Her conviction throughout the play is unwavering, and Marsh refers to her moral sensibility as the play's touchstone. Valerie Wayne (2002) focuses on the relationship between Imogen and Posthumus and explores the commoditization and objectification of Imogen in Cymbeline. Wayne notes that the wager between Posthumus and Iachimo on Imogen's chastity “permits them to exercise the privilege of their gender by debasing women into sexual signs of questionable worth.” However, the critic notes, by the end of the play Posthumus loses his “impulse towards possession” and is redeemed.
Cymbeline has never been widely produced, and although it has been historically regarded as inferior to Shakespeare's other plays, modern critics usually welcome the chance to see Cymbeline on the stage. Critics are especially interested in the character of Imogen, who has long been a favorite among Shakespeare's heroines. Janet Gupton (1999) reviews director Andrei Serban's 1998 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Cymbeline set in the city's Central Park. Gupton notes that the convoluted story is a challenge for directors and finds that “even Serban's magic with the actors, set, and text could not weave together all the disparate elements that make up the tangled web of Cymbeline.” Kenneth Tucker (2001) reviews Mike Alfreds's 2001 Globe Theatre staging. Although Tucker praises the play overall as a “sprightly, well-paced production,” he suspects that the “the fast and incessant identity switchings” likely confused the audience. Charles Isherwood (2002) reviews Alfreds's 2002 Globe Theatre Company production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He argues that the play's ascetic approach “emphasized its weak points and downplayed its strengths.” He also criticizes Jane Arnfield's Imogen, whom he contends “was lacking in charm.” Charles Isherwood also reviews Bartlett Sher's 2002 Theater for a New Audience production of the play. The critic lauds Sher's “ingenious” approach to one of Shakespeare's “most troublesome plays.” Isherwood also praises the performances of the cast, except for Erica N. Tazel's Imogen, whose performance “never really touched our hearts.”
Several critics, including Maurice Hunt (2002), have studied the theme of body politics in Cymbeline. As Hunt explains, the monarch or ruler of a country is generally understood to be both a political and moral leader. Due to the ruler's position as the governor of society, he or she is the metaphoric head of the social body. The theory that a society and its ruling force can be understood as a symbolic physical body is referred to as the body politic, and Hunt uses this concept to critique Shakespeare's play. Hunt suggests that Shakespeare's use of corporal metaphors implies that body politics is a core theme in Cymbeline. He argues that the reconstitution of a sound and well-functioning political body is the underlying message of the plot, since the ruling head of Britain is presented early in the play as negligent and ineffective—Cymbeline's remiss governing and villainous courtiers are the antithesis of what is needed for effective management of the social body. Hunt states that the deaths of several characters—particularly Cloten and the Queen—serve to bring the kingdom back to health, as the elements preventing it from functioning are successfully purged. Glynne Wickham (1980) relates images of the imperial eagle, Jupiter, the cedar tree, and military reparations in Cymbeline to the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603. Wickham contends that “Shakespeare was deliberately manipulating his source material when constructing his play in order to be able to comment indirectly on his patron's own aspirations for his children and for Europe.”
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Wickham, Glynne. “Riddle and Emblem: A Study in the Dramatic Structure of Cymbeline.” In English Renaissance Studies: Presented to Dame Helen Gardner in Honour of Her Seventieth Birthday, pp. 95-113. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
[In the following essay, Wickham relates images of the imperial eagle, Jupiter, the cedar tree, and military reparations in Cymbeline to the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603.]
I know not by what fortune the dicton of Pacificus was added to my title at my coming to England, that of lion, expressing true fortitude, having been my dicton before. But I am not ashamed of this addition. For King Solomon was a figure of Christ in that he was a king of peace. The greatest gift that our Saviour gave his apostles immediately before His ascension was that he left His peace with them.1
It will be my contention in this essay that the sentiment lying at the heart of this pronouncement by King James VI of Scotland and I of England provided William Shakespeare and the King's Men with both the riddle and the icon upon which to graft the tragicomedy of Cymbeline for presentation at Court in the autumn of 1609.
Although the misfortunes of British Imogen in her love for the Roman Leonatus Posthumus supply the driving force of the play's story-line, the...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Wayne, Valerie. “The Woman's Parts of Cymbeline.” In Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, edited by Jonathan Gil Harris and Natasha Korda, pp. 288-315. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Wayne explores the commoditization and objectification of Imogen in Cymbeline. ]
In his introduction to The Social Life of Things, Arjun Appadurai proposes that “economic exchange creates value,” and that focusing on the things that are exchanged rather than the forms or functions of exchanges, as Marxist critics have traditionally done, makes visible the political linkages between exchange and value.1 Drawing on the insights of Georg Simmel, Appadurai explores the conditions under which objects circulate in different regimes of value in space and time. His approach “justifies the conceit that commodities, like persons, have social lives” (p. 3), and that “specific things, as they move through different hands, contexts, and uses” may be regarded as having life histories (p. 34). One can trace the “career” or life history of objects by noting their participation in various exchanges and their consequent shifts in value. Appadurai is especially interested in the phases and contexts during which things meet the requirement of commodity candidacy, since they may move into and out of the commodity state at different...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Gupton, Janet. Review of Cymbeline. Theatre Journal 51, no. 1 (1999): 78-80.
[In the following review, Gupton evaluates Andrei Serban's 1998 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Cymbeline, set in the city's Central Park, and contends that “even Serban's magic with the actors, set, and text could not weave together all the disparate elements that make up the tangled web of Cymbeline.”]
Set against the backdrop of Central Park and the Delacorte Theatre, the set of Andrei Serban's production of Cymbeline blended with its surroundings. Four trees were nestled atop a grassy mound, a circular sand pit took center stage and a moat of water surrounded most of the outer perimeter of the stage just in front of the audience. Serban used all of these natural elements in a moving but sometimes uneven production of one of Shakespeare's problematic romances.
Cymbeline challenges director and cast to tell a convoluted story of “deceit, murder, abandonment, and cross dressing” (as the production's poster suggests) and employs two dozen revelations to tie up the loose ends of three different plots: a king (Cymbeline) banishes his daughter's husband (Posthumus) at the insistence of his wife; the husband's faith in his wife (Imogen) is tested as is her faith in him; and a war breaks out between Britain and Rome, the result of which is the king's...
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SOURCE: Tucker, Kenneth. “Cymbeline at the Globe.” Shakespeare Newsletter (spring-summer 2001): 37.
[In the following review, Tucker praises Mike Alfreds's 2001 Globe Theatre production of Cymbeline as a “sprightly, well-paced production.”]
Cymbeline offers an acting company a formidable challenge. Not only is its plot convoluted, but many playgoers find its apparent hero, Posthumus, reprehensible. In the throes of jealousy (created by the lies of the cynical Iachimo), Posthumus believes that his beloved Imogen is untrue and orders his servant to murder her. In fact some critics have judged their apparent inability to like Posthumus as the play's crippling fault. Despite these potential dramatic shoals, the Globe Theatre presented a sprightly, well-paced production that, on the afternoon I watched it, was surely an audience-pleaser.
Director Mike Alfreds departs from conventional stagecraft and sets out on what he terms “an adventure in story telling.” Instead of beholding a large cast in Elizabethan costume, the audience encounters only eight actors (six men and two women) and two musicians. All are clad in similar white tunics, trousers, and shoes. One is reminded of a Noh-inspired experimental drama by W. B. Yeats, and experimental the production is. For the cast members are given the chance to showcase their acting talents by doubling, tripling, and...
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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Cymbeline. Variety 386, no. 5 (28 January 2002): 42.
[In the following review, Isherwood appraises director Bartlett Sher's rendition of Cymbeline performed by A Theater for a New Audience at the Lucille Lortel Theater in 2002. Sher is referred to as “ingenious” for his approach to the “play's preposterous extremes.”]
Shakespeare's densely plotted late romance Cymbeline is an unruly animal. Let the ornery thing run wild and it will bowl you over. Try to tame it and you're in trouble, too. Smooth out its contrasting textures and tones, and boredom ensues. Bartlett Sher, the ingenious director of the new production at the Lucille Lortel Theater, takes just the right approach: He embraces the play's preposterous extremes and, like a skilled rodeo hand breaking in a wild horse, turns them into virtues. The result is a pretty darn delightful production of one of the Bard's most troublesome plays.
The Wild West, as it happens, figures prominently, and charmingly, in Sher's production for Theater for a New Audience, which in November became the first American staging of a Shakespeare play to visit the Royal Shakespeare Co. in London. It's one of several contrasting styles Sher uses to accommodate and accentuate the play's multifaceted texture—and to cheekily tweak some of the overused cliches of Shakespeare direction....
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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Cymbeline. Variety 386, no. 5 (18 March 2002): 33.
[In the following review, Isherwood discusses Mike Alfreds's 2002 Globe Theatre Company production of Cymbeline at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; the critic argues that the play's ascetic approach “emphasized its weak points and downplayed its strengths.”]
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...
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SOURCE: Jordan, Constance. “Contract and Conscience in Cymbeline.” Renaissance Drama 25 (1994): 33-58.
[In the following essay, Jordan examines the theme of verbal contracts in Cymbeline, focusing on the marriage of Posthumus and Imogen and Cymbeline's payment of the annual tribute to the Roman Empire.]
Early modern bodies politic—of the family and of the state—were shaped by the terms of verbal contracts observed over time by the continuous consent of the parties to them. In large measure this compliance reflected the fact that what was contracted for were duties of no quantifiable value but rather in the nature of benefits. The services of love and fidelity were beyond institutional enforcement and perhaps even determination. Their very vagueness made performance an act of discrimination and more particularly of conscience. Within the family, certain kinds of material support were, of course, subject to court order; fathers were required to feed and house children up to a certain age; husbands also had to provide for wives. Within the state, parties were comparably if less ambiguously bound: monarchs and magistrates had to promote the welfare of the people; subjects were expected to obey their superiors. But even these obligations were subject to interpretation.
The obedience of subjects was limited to “things indifferent” to their spiritual salvation....
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SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “Dismemberment, Corporal Reconstruction, and the Body Politic in Cymbeline.” Studies in Philology 99, no. 4 (fall 2002): 404-31.
[In the following essay, Hunt suggests that Shakespeare's use of corporal metaphors implies that body politics is a core theme in Cymbeline.]
Certain verses in Shakespeare's Cymbeline suggest that the early modern religio-political idea of the body politic is relevant for understanding this late tragicomedy.1 The two distinct strains composing this idea complicate my argument in this essay. The religious component of the body politic motif can be traced to New Testament passages such as Romans 12.1-8 and 1 Corinthians 12.4-13. “For as in one body we have many members,” we read in the former passage, “and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (New Standard Version). Even as each member of the human body performs a specialized function that preserves and augments that body, so the different gifts of individual persons maintain and build up the body of Christ: “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another...
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Gillies, John. “The Problem of Style in Cymbeline.” Southern Review 15, no. 3 (November 1982): 269-90.
Outlines alternative methods for reading, staging, and approaching Cymbeline.
Lawrence, William Witherle. “The Wager in Cymbeline.” In Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, pp. 174-205. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1931.
Urges a more historically sensitive understanding of Cymbeline's Posthumus.
Marsh, Derrick R. C. “Cymbeline.” In The Recurring Miracle: A Study of Cymbeline and the Last Plays, pp. 25-124. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1980.
Examines the first three acts of Cymbeline, compares the play to Shakespeare's other romances, and provides a detailed examination of Imogen.
Parolin, Peter A. “Anachronistic Italy: Cultural Alliances and National Identity in Cymbeline.” Shakespeare Studies 30 (2002): 188-215.
Posits that Cymbeline presents an image of Jacobean Britain as an advanced culture by appropriating models of Roman civilization.
Sheen, Erica. “‘The Agent for his Master’: Political Service and Professional Liberty in Cymbeline.” In The Politics of Tragicomedy: Shakespeare and After, edited by Gordon McMullan and Jonathan...
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