If you ask me what my favorite Shakespeare play is, I usually say Cymbeline. Until recently, I sort of forgot why. But then I read the thing again just now, and oh dear Christ it’s a wonderful play. Really, really wonderful, with one of the era’s greatest female protagonists, opportunity for a spectacular battle sequence, and a final scene that mixes comedy and emotional weight with such mastery that Joss Whedon would walk stoically into the ocean with his pockets filled with every piece of evidence that Dollhouse ever existed.
I should probably mention that the title character and actual King of Britain in this play, Cymbeline, doesn’t really have much to say or do. And I don’t mean like Henry IV or the First Part of Henry VI where the focus frequently leaves the political leader’s stage in order to explore the detailed consequences of his wars on the characters fighting the front lines, I mean the play is not at all about that worthless title character. He shows up maybe twice to yell at his awesome daughter, Imogen, gets captured at one point, and gets to sit down and react for the final scene as it is revealed that more often than not he has no idea what is happening in his kingdom. The play itself is not about him, though his subjects must deal with the poor choices he made as their ruler.
So what is it about? Read the damn play, that’s what it is about. Read it, see it, tell all of your friends. This is my favorite play, and everything happens. The fastest way to describe the plot is Othello meets Romeo and Juliet, which I know sounds ridiculously awesome. Even that Romeo and Juliet poison, “which, being ta’en, would cease The present power of life, but in short time All offices of nature should again Do their due functions,” - that’s in this play, too. Ghosts, check. Decapitation, check. Mistaken identity, a woman dressed as a boy to elude discovery, all here.
Plus, we also have the Italian pervert, Iachimo, who is only out-slimed by Cloten, Imogen’s step-brother who will stop at nothing to be king, despite being an idiot: “That such a crafty devil as is his mother Should yield the world this ass! a woman that Bears all down with her brain; and this her son Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, And leave eighteen.” But not only is he a pig-headed brute… I think the best way to desccribe Cloten is in his own words, regarding his plan for Imogen and her husband: “will I ravish her: first kill him, and in her eyes; there shall she see my valour, which will then be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and when my lust hath dined,–which, as I say, to vex her I will execute in the clothes that she so praised,–to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I’ll be merry in my revenge.” Seriously. And then he goes out to the wilderness to find them, and has another soliloquy about raping this woman on the corpse of her husband. It’s actually very interesting to see his character reveal itself, from a comically incompetant suitor to a legitimately threatening monster. Fortunately, Imogen has two brothers that she didn’t know about (seriously? Yes.) who defeat the evil prince. I won’t tell you how, because that scene is such a morbidly delightful suprise, and can be so hilarious if given the right comic timing. However, this does not mean that Imogen is in any way helpless.
By the way, her sometimes emotionally stunted husband, Posthumous, is also somewhat of a badass. In one scene, it’s him, Imogen’s brothers, and an old man named Belarius versus the entire Roman army; but that’s not especially important. Yes, Rome is invading Britain at this point in history. Cymbeline is a mythological name associated with King Cunobeline, ruler of Britain around the same time that Jesus was doing his whole thing around the Holy Land. And while Elizabethan law forbid the Christian God from being mentioned onstage – it was a “religious subject” – Christ seems to be an important theme running under this entire crazy adventure.
Again, I don’t want to spoil the story for anybody who hasn’t read it yet (something rare and special with a Shakespearean play), but fidelity is the other major theme. The idea that women can be either purely chaste or entirely wonton is a troublesome fallacy that shows up throughout Shakespeare and still plagues pop culture even today. Yet here, Shakespeare gives Posthumous the words: “You married ones,If each of you should take this course, how many Must murder wives much better than themselves For wrying but a little!” This marks a profound shift in the maturity of not only the character who says it, but the playwright who wrote it. So many of Shakespeare’s heroines are valued for their chastity, and regardless of their other qualities it is the chastity that makes or breaks their full value. The brothel-bound Marina, in Pericles, is another great example of how chastity is the determining factor in a female character’s worth. And while Imogen is, technically, just as chaste as the others, it is signifigant to note this direct appeal to the contrary.
And one more thing before I go, because the relationship between Imogen and Posthumous is incredibly interesting. They begin the play married, incredibly in love, and even after he is banished they remain devout to each other. Posthumous, however, is tricked into believing that Imogen is an adulteress and flies into a jealous rage that involves a plan for suicide by soldiering. Both characters have scathing things to say about each other during this period of misunderstanding, yet only kindness and praise once they believe the other dead. So, I will offer one spoiler to you, because I think it’s fascinating and – even for this obscure play – something that seems to be overlooked: they are not reconciled at the end. They aren’t necessarily unreconciled, either. But textually speaking, with all of the revalations in the final scene, Posthumous and Imogen are never really given that final moment together. The closest that we have is Posthumous’ words to Iachimo: “The power that I have on you is, to spare you; The malice towards you to forgive you: live, And deal with others better,” and Cymbeline finally recognizes his marriage to Imogen, referring to him as “son-in-law.” Yet no dialogue between him and Imogen after her identity is revealed. However, their circumstance is certainly hopeful after the Christian themes of forgiveness and reconciliation have been so heavily expressed.
Someday, I will produce this strange play, and I’m sure it will embrace the weird anachronisms of the play’s political landscape so that I can incorporate weird steampunk armored Jesus up there as well as other manic creations that exist in my head. They will be right at home in this play, which can be easily dismissed as silly. However, despite the absurd levity of some parts, it is truly beautiful at other times, and it’s all suprisingly well balanced. To that end, I will conclude with some of the most overt sexual innueno in all of Shakespeare, from Cloten’s early attempts to seduce Imogen with music: “Come on; tune: if you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too.”
See you next week!