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.