We end with one of Shakespeare’s more peculiar romances. It has perhaps the most improbable sequence of events of any Shakespeare play, including even The Comedy of Errors and Pericles. Lost children are found after twenty years; those thought dead turn out to be alive; complex disasters all turn out to have been subtly changed by connivance or mere happenstance, and everything turns out well for the good guys and badly for the bad guys (which, as Oscar Wilde said, is what “fiction” means.)
At the same time, it is also of a piece with the more political dramas (Richard II, Macbeth, and most of the Henry plays). To some measure it is designed to tie the current monarch (James I) in to both the British and Roman forebears in England.
It is also by turns introspective and wonderfully lyrical. There are pieces of the play that rise to some beautiful language, even as the plot is taking a yet more improbable turn. Take it as it comes; don’t be too fretful about keeping in touch with plausibility. Many have found that it is, despite all expectations, one of their favorites in the Shakespeare corpus.
Things to consider while reading Cymbeline
What (if anything) can you extract from its political discourse?
Shakespeare is noted for the depth and complexity of his greatest characters. Here almost everyone is a type. How does that affect the play? Does it undercut it or push us in another direction?
Cymbeline and what has come before
- We’ve already seen an example of Shakespearean romance in Pericles, and perhaps also in The Tempest. How does this compare? What is similar? What is different?
- Compare the character of Imogen/Fidele with other girls who disguise themselves as boys (Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night, Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and so on.).
- The resolution of outstanding issues after a lapse of many years is characteristic of fairly few of Shakespeare’s plays, but they make an interesting set:
- In The Tempest, the long-displaced Duke if Milan is eventually restored to his throne.
- In Pericles, some long-unresolved issues are resolved after many years.
- In A Winter’s Tale, the broken marriage is healed and set right after about twenty years.
- The band of ruffians with the good hearts is somewhat reminiscent of those in Two Gentlemen of Verona. How does it differ?
- This play shares with King Lear the distinction of having been set in ancient Britain. How does this influence the coloration of the story?
- Geoffrey of Monmouth (History of the Kings of Britain) relates a kernel version of this story, centered around a King Cunobelinus, in the mid-1100s. You can read more about him here at Wikipedia, or in Geoffrey’s account here at the Internet Sacred Text Archive. The part having to do with Cymbeline begins at Chapter 11 of Bk. IV (the book is linked).
- Holinshed’s Chronicles discusses Kymbeline, himself actually a descendant of King Lear.
- A recent version of the story is that of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, though whether Shakespeare had access to this is unclear: no English translation was published until 1603 or so.
- Some authorities also refer to three thirteenth-century French romances, the Roman de la Violette, King Florus and Fair Jehane, and Roman del conte de Poitiers -- for further information on these, look at the Shakespeare-Online site here.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- The faithfulness (of women in particular), and the trial thereof, is a common theme throughout many of Shakespeare's plays, but in few if any of them are they more extreme than here. The woman suspected by almost everyone of infidelity, and either shamed (as in Much Ado About Nothing) or condemned to sterner punishment (The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline) is a conventional but still powerful topos. Why are we drawn into this dramatic scenario? Certainly there is a powerful dramatic energy to be drawn from the sufferings of a basically powerless person or servant who nevertheless remains faithful even in the face of vicious accusation.
- Purity is an ongoing theme here, as in Pericles and several others.
- The exchanging (or stealing) of tokens (rings and other material property) is here raised to a fine and complex art. What do you make of that?
- The old proto-romantic notion that a low-born (or apparently low-born) person might in fact be nobler than the high-born. What does Shakespeare mean thereby? Is he genuinely promoting an egalitarian agenda, or is it all a feint in the direction of social radicalism, but backed up by the deceptive reality?
- Evil stepmothers are an almost routine topic in folktales. Are there any interesting twists added to the one here?
Symmetries in the play
- Note the similarity of Pisanio's entry to Imogen's company to Iachimo's, both effectively at the instigation of Leonatus. A great deal seems to depend on these.
- The good suitor (Leonatus) and the evil one (Cloten) make a sort of pairing requiring comparison.
- The father and his daugher (Cymbeline, Imogen) bear specific comparison to the mother and her son (the Queen, Cloten).
- The unknown heritage of Guiderius/Polydor and Arivagus/Cadwal reflects other deceptions of identity in the play.
Problems in the play
- Do you find the resolution of the play satisfactory?
- Is the elaborate ruse whereby Iachimo “proves” Imogen's unfaithfulness plausible?
- Are there just too many things going on here? There are at least three — perhaps as many as five — distinct plots interwoven. Do they work together to a common purpose and point?
- In a play with so many cases of mistaken or deceptive identity, is there any really solid ground here, or are all personal relationships effectively slippery and insoluble?
- Why is this play called Cymbeline? Cymbeline himself seems to be a relatively minor character in the overall goings-on.
- The double-double-cross with the drug verges on the comical. How seriously are we to take that?
Contents of this page © Copyright 2008, 2011, 2014 by Bruce A. McMenomy.