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...
(The entire section is 44,217 words.)