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From Britannia to England: Cymbeline and the Beginning of Nations


This essay revises the inclination to see Shakespeare’s skepticism about deep communal roots as skepticism about national identity. Although the demand for deep roots does characterize much early modern national consciousness, an alternate model of nationhood that subordinated ancient origin was emerging in this period, and it is this early model that eventually yields the modern association between nation and historical progress. In early Stuart England, the debate between the proposed union of England and Scotland initiated a confrontation between these two models of nationhood. What was the nation: Britain, whose roots went back to antiquity, or England, which had a relatively brief tenure on the island but which was unmixed with any Celtic blood? Escobedo proposes that we look not to the dynastic anxieties of the chronicle plays but instead to Cymbeline. Written during the years of the debate about Union in Great Britain, Shakespeare’s late romance dramatizes two distinct versions of nationhood: a British nation, awkwardly heterogeneous but linked to antiquity; and an English nation, potentially pure but severed from tradition. Its protagonist, Posthumus, is in a story about ancient British dynasty but never (surprisingly) assumes any dynastic role; he comes to signify a model of English nation as “rootless.” Cymbeline thus suggests that the realm can shift from Britannia to England—can begin to reimagine itself as a community we would call a “modern” nation—only at the cost of an ancient and dignified ancestry.

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