Classified as a dramatic romance that serves as a celebration of British national history, Cymbeline is part of a group of plays known as Shakespeare's late romances; scholars generally agree that it was written circa 1609-10. The story is set in England and Rome at about the time of Christ's birth and tells the tale of Cymbeline, a semi-legendary king of Britain, his daughter Imogen, who has married beneath her station, and her husband, Posthumus. Following the discovery of the marriage, Posthumus is banished from England and flees to Rome. There an Italian named Iachimo overhears Posthumus speaking of the unassailable virtue of his wife, and a wager on her chastity follows. After many trials and tribulations, the play is resolved in a mood of contrition and redemption. Shakespeare drew on many sources for this story, including Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1353), the anonymously written Frederyke of Jennen (1560), and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1577). The play's dramatic structure has received a good deal of critical attention. Shakespeare's combined use of material from pastoral romances, British and Roman history, and the techniques of seventeenth-century tragicomedy have frequently led critics to question how well all these disparate elements are blended in the play. Seventeenth-century commentators tended to focus heavily on these perceived structural disparities, while in the nineteenth century Cymbeline was lauded as a remarkable example of dramatic unity, and considered a work of serious import that dealt with religious and theological issues. The early twentieth century saw a reversal of this assessment, with many critics pointing to the work as an example of Shakespeare's declining dramatic skills. However, since the publication of G. Wilson Knight's landmark essay on Cymbeline in 1947 the play has enjoyed a revival in status. Knight's study suggests that the historical elements included in the tale are extremely significant and that the play's concerns are representative of contemporary issues of emerging British nationhood.
Debate over Cymbeline's dramatic structure and unity has continued through the latter half of the twentieth century. Derick R. C. Marsh (see Further Reading) calls Cymbeline one of the most neglected and undervalued Shakespearean plays. Marsh contends that while the text presents several difficulties typical of the romance group, a closer examination of it reveals that the unifying power of poetry knits the various themes into a complete work of art. The end result, according to the critic, is a play that explores such varied topics as the nature of life and death, the nature of piety and fidelity, and the life-giving power of goodness and virtue. Marsh places Cymbeline among Shakespeare's later plays, calling it a hopeful story in its affirmation that life, even with its pitfalls and suffering, is worth living. Leonard Powlick (1974) concurs with the assessment that the work showcases Shakespeare's affirmation of faith in men and life. However, Powlick proposes that its structure is deliberately varied in order to allow Shakespeare to lead his audience to this premise. According to the critic, Cymbeline contains all the elements of a comedy, yet it is subtly different from typical comedies because of a consistent use of the technique of deflation—a frustration of expectations at each step, especially in relation to the story of Imogen and Posthumus. This unpredictability allows Shakespeare to show the audience numerous possibilities in the action, thus opening up the plot and allowing the characters to order their world. In this sense, says Powlick, Cymbeline exposes the constricting nature of tragedy, giving way instead to the broad possibilities of comedy and allowing characters to make decisions and control their own fate.
In the years since the publication of Knight's study, many critics have acknowledged the topical nature of the play, aligning much of the action to contemporary Jacobean politics....
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