Traditional scholarship on Cymbeline has treated such questions as the genre of the play, its relation to other Shakespeare plays, its historical background, and what many critics consider to be its inconsistent structure. While twentieth-century criticism continues to address these themes, modern scholars have also focused on issues such as the relation of language to drama, the influence of myth and psychology on Shakespeare's works, and the role of women and their relationships to various male figures.
Increasing attention has been given to the character of Imogen. Some critics, such as E. A. M. Colman, have studied Imogen's portrayal as it is revealed through her language and the language of those around her. Colman has examined the syntax in Cymbeline, concluding that although Imogen is portrayed as a clearsighted character, her speech reveals that she is unaware of the constraints placed upon her by her father, family, and society. Refuting earlier criticism castigating Shakespeare's dialogue as faulty, Maurice Hunt has argued that Shakespeare carefully crafted the dialogue to accompany the dramatic structure of the play. Coburn Freer has also analyzed the play's language, contrasting the characters of Imogen and Iachimo by comparing their speeches. While Iachimo is "the master of [his] speeches," using words to confirm his self-regard and the opinions he has of others, Imogen's speeches help her discover her own ideals and find her role in society.
Imogen's relationships with Cymbeline and other male characters is a theme often studied in current scholarship on Cymbeline. Charles K. Hofling, for example, has explored Shakespeare's own background and assesses its influence on the main characters of the play and their interrelationships. Building on the earlier psychohistorical work, he suggests that the relationship and final reconciliation of Cymbeline and Imogen reflects Shakespeare's own relationships with his mother and daughter. Other scholars have focused more explicitly on the father-daughter relationship between the characters of Imogen and Cymbeline. John P. Cutts has argued that Cymbeline, while appearing to be dominated by his wife, is actually in control of the plot and characters of the play and acts vicariously through Imogen, whose behavior and values end up mimicking his.
The father-daughter relationship in Cymbeline has also been explored in terms of another theme undertaken by modern scholarship, that of the discrepancy between man's inner nature and outward appearance. Joan Hartwig has contended that Cymbeline's position as king serves to force people into unnatural behavior. Thus Posthumus' behavior contradicts favorable reports of him, and Cloten becomes a parody of Posthumus in speech and physical characteristics. Imogen, as the king's daughter, becomes a pawn who has a deeper understanding than any of the other characters, but must behave in ways that conform to the inverted world Cymbeline has created. Many modern critics have addressed similar themes, concluding that the dramatic structure, language, and characterization of the play are more complex than earlier criticism allowed.
Joan Hartwig (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Cymbeline: 'A Speaking Such as Sense Cannot Untie'," in Shakespeare's Tragicomic Vision, Louisiana State University Press, 1972, pp. 61-103.
[In the essay below, Hartwig contends that while Cymbeline is characteristic of Shakespeare's tragicomedies, it has an unprecedented complexity stemming from shifting perspectives and the juxtaposition of reality and illusion.]
To move from Pericles to Cymbeline is to move from majestic simplicity to bewildering complexity. Cymbeline has three basic plot lines, but each of these has many subsidiary plots and their interweaving is more intricate than the two plot lines in Pericles. First, there is the suit for the hand of Imogen, which includes Iachimo's "wager" and Cloten's "revenge" as well as Posthumus' banishment and return. A second plot concerns the lost sons of...
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