Cymbeline //, also known as Cymbeline, King of Britain or The Tragedy of Cymbeline, is a play by William Shakespeare, based on legends concerning the early Celtic British King Cunobelinus. Although listed as a tragedy in the First Folio, modern critics often classify Cymbeline as a romance. Like Othello and The Winter's Tale, it deals with the themes of innocence and jealousy. While the precise date of composition remains unknown, the play was certainly produced as early as 1611.
The plot of Cymbeline is based on a tale in the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed and is ultimately derived from part of the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth about the real-life British monarch Cunobelinus. Shakespeare, however, freely adapts the legend and adds entirely original sub-plots. Iachimo's wager and subsequent hiding-place inside a chest in order to gather details of Imogen's room derive from story II.9 of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron.
Date and text
The first recorded production of Cymbeline, as noted by Simon Forman, was in April 1611. It was first published in the First Folio in 1623. However, when Cymbeline was actually written cannot be precisely dated.
The Yale edition suggests a collaborator had a hand in the authorship, and some scenes (e.g. Act III scene 7 and Act V scene 2) may strike the reader as particularly un-Shakespearean when compared with others. The play shares notable similarities in language, situation and plot with Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedy Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, (c.1609–10). Both plays concern themselves with a princess who, after disobeying her father in order to marry a lowly lover, is wrongly accused of infidelity and thus ordered to be murdered, before escaping and having her faithfulness proven. Furthermore, both were written for the same theatre company and audience. Some scholars believe this supports a dating of approximately 1609, though it is not clear which play preceded the other.
Some have taken the convoluted plot as evidence of the play's parodic origins. In Act V Scene IV, "Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt." After stating that Posthumus' fortunes will improve, Jupiter returns to heaven on his eagle.
Though once held in very high regard, Cymbeline has lost favour over the past century. Some have held that Shakespeare, by frivolously spinning absurd tales, merely wrote it to amuse himself. William Hazlitt and John Keats, however, number it among their favourite plays. It is sometimes referred to as a "problem play", because its central character confronts a specific moral or social concern.
The editors of the Oxford and Norton Shakespeare believe the name of Imogen is a misspelling of Innogen—they draw several comparisons between Cymbeline and Much Ado About Nothing, in early editions of which a ghost character named Innogen was supposed to be Leonato's wife (Posthumus being also known as "Leonatus", the Latin form of the Italian name in the other play). Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson point out that Holinshed's Chronicles, which Shakespeare used as a source, mention an Innogen, and that Forman's eyewitness account of the April 1611 performance refers to "Innogen" throughout. In spite of these arguments, most editions of the play have continued to use the name Imogen.
Cymbeline, King of Britain
Queen, Wife to Cymbeline
Cloten, Son to the Queen by a former husband
Imogen / Innogen, Daughter to Cymbeline by a former queen
Posthumus Leonatus, a gentleman, husband to Imogen
Belarius, a banished lord, disguised under the name of Morgan
Guiderius & Arviragus, Sons to Cymbeline, disguised under the names of Polydore and Cadwal, supposed sons to Morgan
Philario, Friend to Posthumus
Iachimo / Jachimo / Giacomo, Friend to Philario
Helen, a lady attending Imogen
Caius Lucius, General of the Roman forces
Pisanio, Servant to Posthumus
Cornelius, A physician
A Roman captain
Two British captains
A French gentleman, Friend to Philario
Two lords of Cymbeline's court
Two gentlemen of the same
Lords, ladies, Roman senators, tribunes, a Dutch gentleman, a Spanish gentleman, a soothsayer, musicians, officers, captains, soldiers, messengers, and other attendants
Imogen (or Innogen), daughter of the British king Cymbeline, is in love with Posthumus Leonatus, a man raised in her father's court who is described as possessing exceeding personal merit and martial skill. The two have secretly married, exchanging jewellery as tokens: a ring from Imogen, a bracelet from Posthumus. Cymbeline has discovered the affair and banishes Posthumus for his presumption, for Imogen is currently Cymbeline's only child and so her husband is heir to the British throne. Cymbeline did have two sons before Imogen, Guiderius and Arviragus, but they were stolen twenty years ago as infants by Belarius, a courtier banished as a traitor for supposedly conspiring with the Romans. Cymbeline is a vassal king of Caesar Augustus, and Caius Lucius, a Roman ambassador, is on his way to demand the tribute that Cymbeline, under the influence of his wife the Queen, has stopped paying. The Queen is conspiring to have Cloten, her cloddish and arrogant son by an earlier marriage, married to Imogen. The Queen also is plotting to murder both Imogen and Cymbeline to secure Cloten's kingship, and to that end has procured what she believes to be deadly poison from the court doctor, Cornelius; Cornelius, however, suspects the Queen's malice and switches the "poison" with a drug that will cause the imbiber's body to mimic death for a while before reviving. Imogen meanwhile secludes herself in her chambers, resisting entreaties that she come forth and marry Cloten.
Posthumus flees to Italy to the house of his friend Philario/Filario, where he meets Iachimo/Giacomo. Posthumus waxes at length on Imogen's beauty and chastity, and Iachimo challenges him to a bet that he, Iachimo, can seduce Imogen and bring Posthumus proof of her adultery. If he wins, Iachimo will get Imogen's ring from Posthumus's finger. If Posthumus wins, not only must Iachimo pay him but also consent to a sword duel so that Posthumus may avenge his and Imogen's affronted honour. Iachimo heads to Britain where he aggressively attempts to seduce the faithful Imogen, who sends him packing. Iachimo then hides in a chest in Imogen's bedchamber and, when the princess falls asleep, emerges to steal from her Posthumus's bracelet. He also examines the room and Imogen's naked body for further proof. Returning to Italy, Iachimo convinces Posthumus that he has successfully seduced Imogen. In his wrath, Posthumus sends two letters to Britain: one to Imogen, telling her to meet him at Milford Haven, on the west coast of Wales; the other to Pisanio, Posthumus's servant left behind at court, ordering him to murder Imogen at the Haven. On the way the anguished Pisanio instead shows his letter to Imogen, revealing Posthumus's plot. He has Imogen disguise herself as a boy and continue to Milford Haven to seek employment. He also gives her the Queen's "poison," believing it will alleviate nausea from distemper and motion sickness. Imogen adopts the name "Fidele," meaning "faithful."
Back at court, Lucius receives Cymbeline's refusal of tribute, and warns him of Augustus's wrath. Meanwhile Cloten, incensed at Imogen's assertion that she values Posthumus's worst clothing over Cloten himself, learns of the "meeting" between the princess and her paramour at Milford Haven. Dressing himself in Posthumus's clothes, he determines to go to Wales and kill Posthumus while Imogen looks on, after which he will rape her on Posthumus's corpse before dragging her back to court for marriage.
Imogen's long journey to Milford Haven takes her into the Welsh mountains, where she becomes weak from hunger, but she luckily stumbles upon a cave and inside finds food. The cave is home to Belarius and his "sons" Polydore and Cadwal, whom he raised into great woodsmen. These young men are in fact Guiderius and Arviragus, who themselves do not know their origin, but are nevertheless possessed of royal passion and heartiness. The three men enter their cave and find "Fidele," and the young men are captivated by "his" beauty. Leaving "Fidele" to eat, the men are met outside the cave by Cloten, who insults them. After a brief fight, Guiderius kills Cloten and cuts off his head. Recognizing the face, Belarius worries that Cloten's death will bring Cymbeline's wrath upon them. Meanwhile Imogen, feeling ill, takes the "poison," and when the men enter they find her "dead." They bewail "Fidele's" fate and, after placing Cloten's body beside her, solemnly depart. They also determine to fight for Britain in the inevitable battle with Roman forces. Imogen awakes to find Cloten's headless body, and takes it for Posthumus due to the clothes. She flees to Milford Haven, where "Fidele's" beauty earns "him" the affection of Lucius, who takes "him" on as a page. Meanwhile a guilt-ridden Posthumus arrives with the Roman army and dresses himself as a poor British soldier, hoping to die on the battlefield.
The battle goes badly at first for the Britons, but four unknown men—Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus in their disguises—turn the tide, rallying Cymbeline's troops into a rout of the Romans. Posthumus, still alive, gives himself up to Cymbeline as a Roman soldier, hoping to win his sought-for death by execution. He is put in chains and jailed, after which he falls asleep. The ghosts of his father (Sicilius Leonatus) and mother, who both died at Posthumus's birth, and his brothers, who died in battle, appear around Posthumus's sleeping body and complain to Jupiter of his grim fate. Jupiter himself then appears in thunder and glory on an eagle to chide the ghosts for their lack of faith. Before the god and spirits depart they leave a tablet on Posthumus's chest explaining in obscure prophecy how destiny will grant happiness to Posthumus and Britain. Posthumus awakens, believing he has dreamed the ghosts and god, but wonders what the tablet could mean. A jailer then summons him to appear before Cymbeline.
Posthumus stands in the ranks of prisoners with "Fidele," Lucius, and Iachimo, all condemned to be executed. Cornelius arrives from the court with a message that the Queen has died, and that on her deathbed she unrepentantly confessed to her murderous conspiracies. Both troubled and relieved at this news, Cymbeline prepares to carry out his sentence on the prisoners, but pauses when he sees "Fidele." Finding the "boy" both beautiful and somehow familiar, the king resolves not only to spare "Fidele's" life but also to grant "him" a favour. Imogen has noticed her ring on Iachimo's finger and demands to know from where the Italian got the jewel. A penitent Iachimo tells of his bet, how he could not seduce Imogen and yet tricked Posthumus into thinking he had. Posthumus then comes forward to corroborate Iachimo's story, revealing his identity and acknowledging his guilt and wrong in desiring Imogen dead. Ecstatic, Imogen throws herself at Posthumus, who still takes her for a boy and knocks her down. Pisanio then rushes forward to explain that the boy is Imogen in disguise; as the servant tries to help her up she pushes him away, under the impression that he worked with the Queen to poison her. Pisanio insists on his innocence, and Cornelius reveals how the poison was all along non-fatal. Belarius then speaks, noting how all this makes sense of the disappearance of "Fidele's" "corpse." Insisting that those who swore against him did so falsely, Belarius reveals Guiderius's and Arviragus's identities. With her brothers restored to their place in the line of inheritance, Imogen is now free to marry Posthumus. An elated Cymbeline pardons Belarius and all the prisoners. Posthumus produces Jupiter's tablet, still confused about its meaning, and Lucius calls forth his soothsayer Philharmonus, who deciphers the prophecy as a description of recent events, the unfolding of which has ensured happiness for all. Cymbeline decides to pay the tribute to Augustus as a gesture of peace between Britain and Rome, and invites everyone to a great feast.
Following the performance mentioned by Forman, the play was revived at court for Charles I and Henrietta Maria in 1634. In the Restoration era, Thomas D'Urfey staged an adaptation of Cymbeline, titled The Injur'd Princess, or The Fatal Wager. John Rich staged the play with his company at Lincoln's Inn Fields; the performance was not long-remembered, as Rich's company was less famous for its work with Shakespeare than for its pantomimes and spectacles. Theophilus Cibber revived Shakespeare's text in 1758. In November 1761, David Garrick returned to a more-or-less original text, with good success: Posthumus became one of his star roles. Garrick rearranged some scenes; in particular, he shortened Imogen's burial scene and the entire fifth act, omitting the dream of Posthumus. The production was highly praised.
The play entered the Romantic era with John Philip Kemble's company in 1801. Kemble's productions made use of lavish spectacle and scenery; one critic noted that during the bedroom scene, the bed was so large that Jachimo all but needed a ladder to view Imogen in her sleep. Kemble added a dance to Cloten's comic wooing of Imogen. In 1827, his brother Charles mounted an antiquarian production at Covent Garden; it featured costumes designed after the descriptions of the ancient British by such writers as Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus.
William Charles Macready mounted the play several times between 1837 and 1842. At the Theatre Royal, Marylebone, an epicene production was staged with Mary Warner, Fanny Vining, Anna Cora Mowatt, and Edward Loomis Davenport.
The play was also one of Ellen Terry's last performances with Henry Irving at the Lyceum in 1896. Terry's performance was widely praised, though Irving was judged an indifferent Iachimo. Like Garrick, Irving removed the dream of Posthumus; he also curtailed Iachimo's remorse and attempted to render Cloten's character consistent. A review in the Athenaeum compared this trimmed version to pastoral comedies such as As You Like It. The set design, overseen by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, was lavish and advertised as historically accurate, though the reviewer for the time complained of such anachronisms as gold crowns and printed books as props.
Similarly lavish but less successful was Margaret Mather's production in New York in 1897. The sets and publicity cost $40,000, but Mather was judged too emotional and undisciplined to succeed in a fairly cerebral role.
Barry Vincent Jackson staged a modern-dress production for the Birmingham Rep in 1923, two years before his influential modern-dress Hamlet. Walter Nugent Monck brought his Maddermarket Theatre production to Stratford in 1946, inaugurating the post-war tradition of the play.
London saw two productions in the 1956 season. Michael Benthall directed the less successful production, at the Old Vic. The set design by Audrey Cruddas was notably minimal, with only a few essential props. She relied instead on a variety of lighting effects to reinforce mood; actors seemed to come out of darkness and return to darkness. Barbara Jefford was criticised as too cold and formal for Imogen; Leon Gluckman played Posthumus, Derek Godfrey Iachimo, and Derek Francis Cymbeline. Following Victorian practice, Benthall drastically shortened the last act.
By contrast, Peter Hall's production at the Shakespeare Memorial presented nearly the entire play, including the long-neglected dream scene (although a golden eagle designed for Jupiter turned out too heavy for the stage machinery and was not used). Hall presented the play as a distant fairy tale, with stylised performances. The production received favourable reviews, both for Hall's conception and, especially, for Peggy Ashcroft's Imogen. Richard Johnson played Posthumus, and Robert Harris Cymbeline. Iachimo was played by Geoffrey Keen, whose father Malcolm had played Jachimo with Ashcroft at the Old Vic in 1932.
Hall's approach attempted to unify the play's diversity by means of a fairy-tale topos. The next major Royal Shakespeare Company production, in 1962, went in the opposite direction. Working on a set draped with heavy white sheets, director William Gaskill employed Brechtian alienation effects, to mixed critical reviews. Bernard Levin complained that the bare set deprived the play of necessary scenic splendor. The acting, however, was widely praised. Vanessa Redgrave as Imogen was often compared favourably to Ashcroft; Eric Porter was a success as Jachimo, as was Clive Swift as Cloten. Patrick Allen was Posthumus, and Tom Fleming played the title role.
A decade later, John Barton's 1974 production for the RSC (with assistance from Clifford Williams) featured Sebastian Shaw in the title role, Tim Pigott-Smith as Posthumus, Ian Richardson as Jachimo, and Susan Fleetwood as Imogen. Charles Keating was Cloten. As with contemporary productions of Pericles, this one used a narrator (Cornelius) to signal changes in mood and treatment to the audience. Robert Speaight disliked the set design, which he called too minimal, but he approved the acting.
In 1980, David Jones revived the play for the RSC; the production was in general a disappointment, although Judi Dench as Imogen received reviews that rivalled Ashcroft's. Ben Kingsley played Jachimo; Roger Rees was Posthumus. In 1987, Bill Alexander directed the play in The Other Place (later transferring to the Pit in London's Barbican Centre) with Harriet Walter playing Imogen, David Bradley as Cymbeline and Nicholas Farrell as Posthumus.
At the Stratford Festival, the play was directed in 1970 by Jean Gascon and in 1987 by Robin Phillips. The latter production, which was marked by much-approved scenic complexity, featured Colm Feore as Jachimo, and Martha Burns as Imogen. The play was again at Stratford in 2005, directed by David Latham. A large medieval tapestry unified the fairly simple stage design and underscored Latham's fairy-tale inspired direction.
At the new Globe Theatre in 2001, a cast of six (including Abigail Thaw, Mark Rylance, and Richard Hope) used extensive doubling for the play. The cast wore identical costumes even when in disguise, allowing for particular comic effects related to doubling (as when Cloten attempts to disguise himself as Posthumus.)
The play is rarely performed, and has thus far never been filmed. Elijah Moshinsky directed the 1983 made-for-television videotaped production, ignoring the ancient British period setting in favour of a more timeless and snow-laden atmosphere inspired by Rembrandt and his contemporary Dutch painters. Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Helen Mirren, and Robert Lindsay play Cymbeline, his Queen, Imogen, and Jachimo, respectively, with Michael Pennington as Posthumus.
There have been some well-received major theatrical productions including 1998's Public Theater production in New York City directed by Andrei Serban. Cymbeline was also performed in Cambridge in October 2007 in a production directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, who sought to re-capture the essence of the play as a story narrative, and in November 2007 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. The play was included in the 2013 repertory season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Adaptations and cultural references
The play was adapted by Thomas d'Urfey as The Injured Princess, or, the Fatal Wager; this version was produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, presumably by the united King's Company and Duke's Company, in 1682. The play changes some names and details, and adds a subplot, typical of the Restoration, in which a virtuous waiting-woman escapes the traps laid by Cloten. D'Urfey also changes Pisanio's character so that he at once believes in Imogen's (Eugenia, in D'Urfey's play) guilt. For his part, D'Urfey's Posthumus is ready to accept that his wife might have been untrue, as she is young and beautiful. Some details of this alteration survived in productions at least until the middle of the century.
William Hawkins revised the play again in 1759. His was among the last of the heavy revisions designed to bring the play in line with Aristotelean unities. He cut the Queen, reduced the action to two places (the court and a forest in Wales). The dirge "With fairest flowers..." was set to music by Thomas Arne.
Nearer the end of the century, Henry Brooke wrote an adaptation which was apparently never staged. His version eliminates the brothers altogether as part of a notable enhancement of Posthumus' role in the play.
George Bernard Shaw, who criticised the play perhaps more harshly than he did any of Shakespeare's other works, took aim at what he saw as the defects of the final act in his 1937 Cymbeline Refinished; as early as 1896, he had complained about the absurdities of the play to Ellen Terry, then preparing to act Imogen.
Probably the most famous verses in the play come from the funeral song of Act IV, Scene 2, which begins:
- Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
- Nor the furious winter's rages;
- Thou thy worldly task hast done,
- Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:
- Golden lads and girls all must,
- As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
These last two lines appear to have inspired T. S. Eliot; in "Lines to a Yorkshire Terrier" (in Five-Finger Exercises), he writes:
- Pollicle dogs and cats all must
- Jellicle cats and dogs all must
- Like undertakers, come to dust.
The first two lines of the song appear in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. The lines, which turn Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts to the trauma of the First World War, are at once an elegiac dirge and a profoundly dignified declaration of endurance. The song provides a major organizational motif for the novel.
At the end of Stephen Sondheim's The Frogs, William Shakespeare is competing against George Bernard Shaw for the title of best playwright, deciding which of them is to be brought back from the dead in order to improve the world. Shakespeare sings the funeral song of Act IV, Scene 2, when asked about his view of death (the song is titled "Fear No More").
"Fear no more the heat of the sun" is the line that Winnie and her husband are trying to remember in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days as they sit exposed to the elements.
The last two lines of the Act IV-scene 2 funeral song may also have inspired the lines W. H. Auden, the librettist for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, puts into the mouth of Anne Truelove at the end of the opera: "Every wearied body must late or soon return to dust".
- Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson, eds., The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 101.
- F. D. Hoeniger, "Two Notes on Cymbeline," Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter, 1957), p. 133,
- Nosworthy, J. M. (1955) Preface in Cymbeline: Second Series p.xxiv quote:
... it's not possible to eliminate the debt to Boccaccio completely. The description of Imogen's bed-chamber, for instance, owes nothing to the English tale, but we have only to glance at the Decameron to discover a room in which a candle is burning, which is hung with pictures, all carefully noted by Ambrogiuolo, and to recognize at once a refinement of detail that stirred Shakespeare's imagination and set the poetry flowing from his pen.
- Wells and Dobson, p. 101.
- Collier, S., Cutting to the heart of the matter, in Shakespearean Power and Punishment, ed. Kendall, G. M., (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1998), pg. 39
- F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 366.
- Strachey, Lytton. Books and Characters. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922: 64
- Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson, eds., The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare Oxford University Press, 2001, p. vii.
- Dobson and Wells, p. 103.
- Halliday, p. 125.
- Dowden, Edward, ed., Cymbeline (Indianapolis: Bowin-Merrill, 1899): xli.
- Odell, G. C. D., Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving (New York: Scribners, 1920): 94.
- Pollock, Frederick, editor, Macready's Reminiscences and Selections from His Diaries and Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1875): 526.
- Odell 596.
- White, Martin, Renaissance Drama in Action (London: Routledge, 1998): 213.
- Leiter 105.
- Leiter, Samuel, ed. Shakespeare Around the Globe (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986): 107.
- Trewin, J. C., Shakespeare on the English Stage, 1909–1964 (London: Barrie Rocklith, 1964): 305.
- Findlater, Richard, These Our Actors (London: Elm Tree Books, 1983): 18.
- Levin, Bernard. Daily Mail 18 July 1962.
- "Shakespeare in Great Britain, 1974" Shakespeare Quarterly 25 (1974): 391.
- Potter, Lois, "The 2001 Globe Season: Celts and Greenery," Shakespeare Quarterly 52 (2002): 100.
- Odell 62.
- Spencer, Hazelton, Shakespeare Improved: The Restoration Versions in Quarto and on the Stage (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1927): 103–4.
- Dowden xli.
- Odell 262.
- Dowden xlii.
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