Edition: Arden, edited by J.M. Nosworthy, 1955.
Genre & Setting: Cymbeline is one of the “Romances,” which I have generally taken to mean “one of the ones that are hard to classify as either Tragedy, Comedy, or History.” J.M. Nosworthy saw me coming, though, and in the introduction cites literature to the effect that
the term ‘romance,’ as applied to Shakespeare’s final plays, is not merely a vague substitute for something more specific, but is exact in the restricted and historical sense of the word. These plays belong in matter and tone to a [particular] literature of love and love-making….He lists the characteristics of “a full-fledged Elizabethan romance”:
- “Love is treated as a sublime and momentous experience which imposes courtesy and hazardous quests.”
- “Faithful love is subjected to abnormal strain….”
- Complex scenarios grow out of scheming and intrigue.
- There is much coincidence and mistaken identity.
- Characters make elaborate quests for unlikely reasons.
- There are journeys through the forest.
- “Ultimately the whole contorted pattern yields to poetic justice which effects the conventional happy ending.”
The play is set in quasi-historical Britain, Cymbeline being a quasi-legendary (I think) early British chieftain who pays tribute to, but is not part of, the Roman Empire. Bits happen in Cymbeline’s capital, and other bits happen in, of all places, Milford Haven, Wales. In practical terms, though, everything really happens in a generalized fairytale kingdom of long ago.
The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: So there’s this king, Cymbeline, but like Henry IV and Julius Caesar, he is a minor character in his own Shakespeare play. So let’s not worry too much about him.
The action of Cymbeline is something of a Rube Goldberg machine in which a number of very common plot elements are all superimposed on top of each other, creating a perfect storm of many, many unlikely misunderstandings and wacky complications until all is put right in a deluge of last-act revelations. Here’s how it’s put together.
We begin with
(1) The Princess who Wants to Marry Below Her Station. Imogen, who is of course lovely and pure, wants to marry Leonatus Posthumous. Posthumous, as he is called, got his ridiculous name because he was the son of a guy named Leonatus who died shortly after his birth, leaving him an orphan. He was brought up in Cymbeline’s court, which gave me the queasy sensation early on that Imogen the lovely and pure was wanting to get it going on with her adoptive brother, but it becomes fairly clear, I think, that we aren’t supposed to regard the relationship in that light. Nevertheless, Dad is pissed.
(2) The Wicked Stepmother. “Queen” – she is not given a name – pretends to be all sugar and spice, but is secretly contemptuous of Cymbeline. She wants to secure the throne for her doltish son Clotten by marrying him off to Imogen. Obviously she is not thrilled by the Posthumous business.
(3) The Dumb-Ass Bet About the Girlfriend’s Fidelity. The stupidest device in all of literature, but you know how it is with playwrights and librettists: cosi fan tutti. Posthumous, banished from Britain for his insolent nuptial aspirations, makes a bet with Iachimo, a dastardly Italian, that he (Iachimo) won’t be able to talk Imogen into putting out for him. Iachimo – rather cleverly, really – asks Imogen to store a crate for him in her room, then sneaks out of the crate while she’s asleep to take a thorough inventory of her décor and physique. Back in Italy, he uses this fairly dubious evidence, along with some uncharitable fibs, to convince Posthumous that Imogen was not as constant as might have been expected. Posthumous – perhaps not the sharpest tool in the shed – takes it hook, line, and sinker, and writes home commanding his faithful servant to have Imogen killed.
(4) The Long Lost Brothers/The Nice Young Rustics Who Don’t Realize They Are Heirs to the Throne. Tipped off by the faithful servant, Imogen takes off to Milford Haven, where she expects to find Posthumous and be able to clear things up. Near there, she meets some very nice guys who live in a cave. They are of course her brothers, the princes who we happened to hear about early on, the ones who mysteriously disappeared in their infancy. Cool.
(5) Amazingly Successful Cross-Dressing. I should mention that, having fled the Queen, Imogen spends most of the second half of the play disguised as a boy.
(6) Poison! Unfortunately, the Queen has passed some poison on to Imogen. She drinks it and dies.
(7) OMG She’s Dead! Fortunately, a wise doctor back home had realized that the Queen is bad business, and when she asked him for poison he just gave her some Ambien. So Imogen isn’t really dead.
(8) OMG He’s Dead! Clotten, however, is quite dead, having picked a fight with the wrong Rustic Who Is Actually, Unbeknownst To Himself, A Long-Lost Prince. Clotten rode out to Milton Haven intending to rape Imogen and drag her home for a good old-fashioned marriage of convenience, but this did not work out. So, Imogen wakes up next to Clotten’s body. She doesn’t recognize him, though, because (a) he has been decapitated and (b) he had dressed up in Posthumous’ clothes in order to taunt Imogen during the whole rape business. Therefore the Princess, who apparently has not made it much past first base with her fiance’, assumes that this body must be her beloved Posthumous. She is naturally distraught.
Do you feel like there are enough balls in the air at this point? Shakespeare apparently did, because now events are pushed along by a Roman invasion. King Cymbeline is briefly captured but is saved by his long-lost sons, although neither of them recognize each other yet. Posthumous has come back and engages in some swordplay with the dastardly Iachimo. Posthumous is remorseful for having made the dumb bet and for having had Imogen killed. Iachimo is remorseful for having made the dumb bet and for having been so, you know, dastardly.
And at this point, having erected radical misunderstandings and/or mistaken identities between pretty much any two major characters, Shakespeare manages to gather everybody in one place: Milford Haven! So the last act is preposterous, or great fun, or both, with its long parade of Amazing Revelations. Information trickles in from minor characters, and major characters decide to finally reveal their secrets, and lo, we in the audience are treated to the spectacle of the characters finally figuring out all of the things that we have known about all along. It’s called “dramatic irony,” and in Cymbeline it is turned up to 11.
The Edition: Y’all probably know that most Shakespeare plays have more than one source text, that they don’t generally line up especially well, and that there’s ample grounds for speculation about whether specific scenes in a given play might have been written by one of Shakespeare’s pals, or maybe just slapped together by somebody who had acted in or seen the play, working from memory. So a Shakespeare “Edition,” in addition to offering lots of contextual information and (Shakespeare scholarship being Shakespeare scholarship) great edifices of educated guesswork, has heaps of notes on the texts.
This is the first time I’ve ever read an edition thinking about its quality as an edition. What I noticed is that Nosworthy generally tells you what various literary giants of the past thought about a portion of the text, and then tells you what HE thinks. He tacitly makes fun of critics who shallowly argue that a scene or passage should be omitted as “not Shakespearean,” for instance, but then he doesn’t really give a lot of insight into his own thought processes either. The bulk of the notes recap somewhat esoteric disputes about the meaning of difficult or garbled passages that you can otherwise blow past without too much trouble. The notes are generally pretty interesting in their own light, though, and there is occasionally one that you are really grateful to for clearing up an otherwise opaque passage. The most entertaining are the ones that summarize centuries of argument over the meaning of a passage that, as far as ~I~ can tell, are completely unproblematic. I have read that this kind of thing is just an occasional hazard of serious literary study.
Adaptation: It seems to me that you could go two directions with Cymbeline. You could play it straight, as the adventures of Imogen the Princess, and end up with such melodrama that it would be tough to keep the audience from laughing. The wiser choice, I think, would be to revel in the overblown plot mechanics and stage it as a very early absurdist comedy.
Prognosis: In the introductory material, Nosworthy – who, since he is editing an edition of Cymbeline, has a powerful vested interest in saying that it is awesome – suggests that the strength of the play is that it is a pioneering work in the new genre of Romance, and that its inconsistencies and rough patches just show how experimental it was. The flaws of the play are spun so as to flatter Shakespeare: “look how close to the cutting edge he was!”
Personally, I can’t help wondering if Cymbeline was something more along the lines of a “spoof.” Why not? Self-referential parody was certainly around in the English tradition before Shakespeare – check out Chaucer’s own tale in the Cantebury tales – so why couldn’t a talented and popular dude like Shakespeare throw together a light-hearted lampoon of the goofy plot devices that undergirded most of his work? It would have been fun for him, and his fans probably would have loved it. “The OMG He’s Dead gambit! Ha! Ha! Just like that one about the Italian kids!”