Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
Cymbeline, together with The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623) and The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), belongs to William Shakespeare’s final period of writing. These last three plays are marked by their mood of calmness, maturity, and benevolent cheerfulness; a kind of autumnal spirit prevails. This is not to say that Cymbeline lacks villains, traumatic events, or scenes of violence—the play contains all these elements—but that the tone is serene in spite of them. Cymbeline may be classified as a tragicomedy to distinguish it from such more dazzling predecessors among Shakespeare’s comedies as Love’s Labour’s Lost (pr. c. 1594-1595, pb. 1598) and Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602, pb. 1623), which have roguish heroes and heroines, dialogues filled with witty and sparkling repartee, and plots abounding in mischievous scheming and complications. The main characters in Cymbeline, by contrast, are remarkable for their virtue rather than for their cleverness, wit, or capacity for mischief; Posthumus is a model of earnestness and fidelity, and Imogen is the picture of purity and wifely devotion. The text is memorable not for the brilliance and sparkle of its dialogue, but for its moving poetry. Much of the plot consists of the trials and sufferings of the good characters, brought on by the scheming of the bad ones. However, the play ends as comedy must, with the virtuous rewarded and the wicked punished.
In the plot of Cymbeline, Shakespeare combines two lines of action: the political-historical story line of the British king preparing for war with Rome and the love story of Imogen and Posthumus. For the historical background, Shakespeare once again uses Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England (1577). Finding, however, that Cymbeline, a descendant of King Lear, is too dull to provide for interesting drama, he takes the liberty of assigning to that king the refusal to pay the Roman tribute, which action Holinshed attributes to Cymbeline’s son Guiderius. In this way, Shakespeare enlivens the plot with a war, which is resolved in a peace treaty at the end. Imogen’s story, however, provides the primary interest in Cymbeline, a love story centering on a wager between a cunning villain and a devoted husband regarding the faithfulness of the absent wife; for this story Shakespeare was indebted to one of the tales in Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-1351). In addition to the two main story lines, the plot of Cymbeline contains many characters traveling in disguise and cases of mistaken identity. In a subplot of Shakespeare’s invention, the story is further complicated with the consequences of Belarius abducting and subsequently rearing the king’s infant sons in Wales. Such elements lend a certain extravagance to the plot of Cymbeline.
Cymbeline bears many resemblances to previous plays of Shakespeare. The figure of the gullible king influenced by his wicked queen reminds one of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), as does the scene of supernatural intervention, the ghosts of Posthumus’s family, and the tablet bearing a prophecy. Iachimo does not approach Iago in malignancy, but nevertheless calls to mind Othello’s tormentor through his cunning strategies and his manipulation of Posthumus’s capacity for jealousy. Likewise, the scenes of Imogen’s travels disguised as a boy and her eventual reunion with her lost brothers are reminiscent of Viola’s similar adventures in Twelfth Night. Perhaps most important, however, is the relation it bears to that final masterpiece, The Tempest.
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