The Masculine Romance of Roman Britain: Cymbeline and Early Modern English Nationalism - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Masculine Romance of Roman Britain: Cymbeline and Early Modern English Nationalism

Jodi Mikalachki

The birth of the English nation was not the birth of a nation; it was the birth of the nations, the birth of nationalism.

Nations have no clearly identifiable births.1

It is somewhat misleading to put the above quotations together, since the first describes the birth of nationalism in England at a specific historical moment (the sixteenth century), while the second invokes the (usually imagined to be) ancient origins of something that has come to be called a nation. I juxtapose them here not simply to imply a wide divergence of scholarly opinion but also to suggest that any discussion of nationalism and early modern England necessarily involves both ways that these quotations read the phenomenon they describe: one places the origins of English nationalism (and perhaps of nationalism more generally) in the early modern period; the other recognizes early modern England's own perception of its national origins in antiquity. The quotations do nevertheless represent opposite poles in theories of nationalism. The first introduces Liah Greenfeld's recent study of early modern England as the world's first nation; assuming the causal primacy of ideas, Greenfeld argues for the idea of the nation as the constitutive element of modernity. The second quotation virtually concludes the last appendix to Benedict Anderson's influential Imagined Communities, a study that famously rejects ideological definitions of nationalism, considering it instead alongside anthropological terms like kinship or religion, and arguing strongly for its emergence in the eighteenth-century Americas. Both works participate in the new social, political, and historical interest in nationalism that developed during the 1980s, just as its subject seemed about to become obsolete. 2

My own approach emphasizes the interplay between historical obsolescence and continuity with the past in the recovery of national origins. I am less concerned to establish whether nationalism did indeed originate in sixteenth-century England (believing, as I do, that nationalism, too, has no clearly identifiable birth) than I am to explore the complexities of early modern attempts to recover English national origins. The tensions of this sixteenth-century project of recovery—its drive, on one hand, to establish historical precedent and continuity and, on the other, to exorcise a primitive savagery it wished to declare obsolete—inform virtually all expressions of early modern English nationalism. These tensions derive from the period's broader social tensions about order, manifested most acutely in anxiety over the nature of familial relations and the status of the family as a model for the order of the state. 3 The centrality of the family and the church to early modern English articulations of the nation suggests that Anderson's anthropological focus might be particularly appropriate to the study of English nationalism in this period. His understanding of nationalism as aligned "not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which—as well as against which—it came into being," 4 informs my own understanding and guides my consideration of how perceptions of national origins reflected and shaped early modern concepts of the English nation.

Greenfeld's intellectual history is not without interest, however, particularly given the prominent role of early modern intellectuals—scholars, poets, visual artists—in developing nationalist icons and narratives in England. One of the great intellectual stumbling blocks to the recovery of national origins in sixteenth-century England was the absence of a native classical past on which to found the glories of the modern nation. Worse yet, the primitive British savagery that purportedly preceded Roman conquest proved antithetical to a fundamental principle of hierarchy in early modern England, for the Britons made no distinction of sex in government.5 Powerful females loomed large in early modern visions of national origins, from the universal gendering of the topographical and historical "Britannia" as feminine to the troubling eruptions of ancient queens in the process of civilization by Rome. Like the unruly women who challenged the patriarchal order of early modern England, these powerful and rebellious females in native historiography threatened the establishment of a stable, masculine identity for the early modern nation.

Recent work on the mutually informing constructs of nationalism and sexuality has defined the former as a virile fraternity perpetuated by its rejection of overt male homosexuality and its relegation of women to a position of marginalized respectability.6 I would argue that this gendering and sexualizing of the nation, generally presented as having emerged in the eighteenth century, had become current by the early seventeenth century in England and involved both an exclusion of originary female savagery and a masculine embrace of the civility of empire. Jacobean dramas set in Roman Britain often conclude with a masculine embrace, staged literally or invoked rhetorically as a figure for the new relation between Rome and Britain. These concluding embraces depend on the prior death of the female character who has advocated or led the British resistance to Rome. The exorcism of this female resistance, constructed as savage, grounds the stable hybrid that crowns these plays with a promise of peace for Britain and wider membership in the Roman world of civilization. And yet it is precisely the savage females banished from the conclusions of these dramas—ancient queens like Fletcher's Bonduca or the wicked Queen of Shakespeare's Cymbeline—who articulate British nationalism and patriotism.

In the following account I shall read Shakespeare's romance of Roman Britain in terms of these issues of gender and sexuality, taking both as constitutive of the nationalism the play articulates. In doing so, I hope not only to revise twentieth-century readings of Cymbeline as a nationalist drama but also to explore Renaissance anxiety about native origins and the corresponding difficulty of forging a historically based national identity in early modern England.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Queen's great patriotic speech in 3.1 has long been a stumbling block in interpretations of Cymbeline. Combining appeals to native topography, history, and legendary origins, it recalls the highest moments of Elizabethan nationalism: 7

… Remember, sir, my liege,
The kings your ancestors, together with
The natural bravery of your isle, which stands
As Neptune's park, ribb'd and pal'd in
With rocks unscaleable and roaring waters,
With sands that will not bear your enemies'
But suck them up to th' topmast. A kind of
Caesar made here, but made not here his brag
Of "Came, and saw, and overcame:" with
(The first that ever touch'd him) he was
From off our coast, twice beaten: and his
(Poor ignorant baubles!) on our terrible seas,
Like egg-shells mov'd upon their surges,
As easily 'gainst our rocks. For joy whereof
The fam'd Cassibelan, who was once at point
(O giglot fortune!) to master Caesar's sword,
Made Lud's town with rejoicing-fires bright,
And Britons strut with courage.

The Queen's opening command to remember invokes the restitutive drive of early modern English nationalism. The nation's glorious past—its resistance to the great Julius Caesar, its ancient line of kings, and the antiquity of its capital—depends paratactically on this command, emerging in the incantatory power of names like "Lud's town" and Cassibelan and in the powerful icon of native topography.9 Moved by this nationalist appeal, Cymbeline refuses to pay the tribute demanded by the Roman emissaries, thus setting Britain and Rome at war.

As the last of the play's many reversals, however, Cymbeline agrees to pay the tribute and announces his submission to the Roman emperor. In place of the bonfires of victory remembered by his queen, he commands that "A Roman, and a British ensign wave / Friendly together" as both armies march through Lud's town (5.5.481-82). This volte-face is the more remarkable in that the Britons have just defeated the Romans in battle. Honor, not force, dictates Cymbeline's decision, as he invokes the promise made by his uncle Cassibelan to Julius Caesar, from which, he recalls, "We were dissuaded by our wicked queen" (1. 464). Despite everything else the Queen does to earn this epithet, Cymbeline accords it here in the context of her opposition to the Roman tribute, her disruption of the masculine network of kinship, promises, and honor that binds Cymbeline to Rome. In this final assessment of the political plot, the king's full censure falls on the radical nationalism articulated by "our wicked queen."

Critics who wish to read Cymbeline as a straightforward celebration of national identity dismiss the Queen's motivation as mere self-interest.10 By doing so, they fail to interrogate the corporate self-interest that animates nationalism. They further marginalize the Queen by focusing on the oafish Cloten as the main proponent of an objectionable patriotism, thus avoiding the problem of how to interpret her delivery of one of the great nationalist speeches in Shakespeare. Even those who do acknowledge the interpretive difficulties of this scene find ultimately that the patriotic voices of the Queen and Cloten must be rejected in order to effect the play's romance conclusion.11 G. Wilson Knight's masterful account of Shakespeare's use of Roman and British historiography remains the most instructive in this regard. Knight casts Cymbeline's refusal to pay the tribute, the pivotal national action in the play, as a "question of Britain's islanded integrity." While noting Posthumus's early description of British virtue in his reference to Julius Caesar's respect for British courage (2.4.20-26), Knight nevertheless recognizes that the Queen expresses it much more satisfyingly in 3.1. He argues, however, that the Queen and Cloten are types Britian must ultimately reject in...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Cymbeline's Queen has no direct source in Holinshed's reign of Kymbeline. She bears a striking resemblance, however, to Voadicia, or Boadicea, who appears in Holinshed's narrative of Roman Britain roughly sixty years after the events depicted in Shakespeare's play.26 Like Cymbeline's Queen, Boadicea man conquerors but ultimately failed to free Britain of the imperial yoke, taking her own life (or dying of "a natural infirmity") after a conclusive battle. Also like the wicked Queen, she was famous for her nationalist stance, especially her great speech on British freedom and resistance to tyranny, where she opposed the payment of tribute to Rome and invoked the same topoi of the island's natural...

(The entire section is 2590 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Imogen alone remains as a possible icon of pure Britishness in the complex of gender, sexuality, and nationalism I have been describing. Surely in her we have an early version of Mosse's icon of respectable womanhood to bless the virile bonding of nationalism.51 She, more than her father or brothers, presents and experiences Britain, wandering through it, calling up its place names, and describing its natural situation. Imogen's name, invented by Shakespeare for the heroine he adds to his historical material, is derived from that of Brute's wife, Innogen, mother of the British race.52 And like other ancient queens, Imogen, too, voices a lyrical celebration of the island: "I' th' world's volume /...

(The entire section is 6922 words.)