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Cymbeline /

Further Reading: Cymbeline

Abbreviations: Per. = Pericles; Tmp. = The Tempest; WT = The Winter’s Tale


Belsey, Catherine. “Marriage: Imogen’s Bedchamber.” In Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture, pp. 55–83. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999. (The chapter incorporates portions of the author’s earlier essay “The Serpent in the Garden: Shakespeare, Marriage, and Material Culture,” Seventeenth Century 11 [1996]: 1–20.)

Belsey traces the “representation of the emergence of the loving [nuclear] family in three linked fields: Shakespeare’s plays, English visual culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and interpretations of the book of Genesis in the period.” In the chapter on Cymbeline, she concentrates on two furnishings in Imogen’s bedchamber—the chimneypiece of the chaste Diana bathing and the chamber’s wall hangings of the passionate Cleopatra meeting Antony. The difficulty for the play’s male protagonists lies in distinguishing these two contradictory feminine stereotypes of modesty and sexual invitation: Posthumus interprets Imogen’s chastity as lasciviousness, while King Cymbeline takes the Queen’s sexuality for virtue (5.5.74–78). The King’s “Who is ’t can read a woman?” (5.5.58) seems an apt epigraph for the whole play. Like the iconography, sermons, and marital tracts of the period, which associate the first marriage with the Fall of Man and death and also reveal a dual meaning in the feminine (i.e., Eve as both helpmate and temptress, ideal and warning), Cymbeline suggests “a structural anxiety at the heart of the early modern celebration of conjugal love.”

Boling, Ronald J. “Anglo-Welsh Relations in Cymbeline.Shakespeare Quarterly 51 (2000): 33–66.

There are three major settings in Cymbeline: the British court in Lud’s Town, Rome, and the vicinity of Milford Haven in southwest Wales. Critics have either ignored the Welsh setting, read it as timeless pastoral, or interpreted it totally in the context of Tudor myth (since Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven in 1485 en route to Bosworth). Boling, however, finds in the Welsh scenes traces of the “anglicizing process” in early modern Wales, Milford Haven functioning as a “microcosm of contemporary Anglo-Welsh relations.” The author moves dialectically between the expansionist “Great British” trope and the insular “Little English” trope to argue that the play depicts the numerous complexities involved in defining the British state. In Cymbeline, “Rome is to Britain what in Shakespeare’s time England was to Wales.” Britain thus plays a double role as “empire to Wales but colony to Rome: as Cymbeline’s Wales is anglicized, so Cymbeline’s Britain is Romanized.”

Crumley, J. Clinton. “Questioning History in Cymbeline.Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 41 (2001): 297–315.

Instead of identifying Cymbeline with romances such as Per. and WT, Crumley classifies it as “a kind of history play [with] something to say about history and historiography.” Honoring both the form and content of its historical source (Holinshed’s Chronicles), even while taking “exorbitant romantic liberties” with it, Cymbeline “uses romance to question history.” In 3.1, Shakespeare’s choice of the play’s most repellent characters, the Queen and Cloten, to deliver the highest praise for Britain achieves a “delicate balance between moral sympathies and any nationalistic biases within the audience” (educated spectators would have inclined more toward Rome than Britain). Had the more sympathetic Imogen given the defense, the audience would have been encouraged to support the pro-British position. As it is, Shakespeare prevents one version of history (the Queen and Cloten’s account of Caesar’s invasion) from outweighing the other (Lucius’s) in terms of historical credibility, thus leaving the audience with “something close to historical objectivity.”

Cunningham, Karen. “Female Fidelities on Trial: Proof in the Howard Attainder and Cymbeline.Renaissance Drama 25 (1994): 1–31, esp. 15–25.

A challenge, both judicial and theatrical, in the early modern period was that of “providing a credible story.” Cunningham focuses on the “narrative and rhetorical strategies necessary to the provisions of proof” in two distinct but related instances—Katherine Howard’s attainder for treason in 1542 and Imogen’s “metaphorical trial for promiscuity” in Cymbeline. Both tales turn on the issue of female “ ‘incontinency,’ conjuring and containing a wayward female within the discipline of legal and legalistic rituals.” Making its claims to truth by following the traditional legal approach of suppressing the notion that proof is something “made,” the Howard attainder >minimizes the effect of human agency and intervention. Cymbeline, however, “wears its status as a simulation on its sleeve, aggressively destabilizing the quasi-legal fictions that generate the ‘unfaithful woman.’ ” Unlike in the Howard attainder, proof in the play maximizes human intervention in Iachimo’s production of “Imogen-incontinent.” Both texts probe female fidelity “within a more general theory of nationhood and identity—one organized around ideas of the legitimacy of patrilinear purity, unified subjectivity, and secure gender hierarchy—that was asserted, interrogated, and reasserted again and again in law courts and theaters.”

Desmet, Christy. “Shakespearean Comic Character: Ethos and Epideictic in Cymbeline.” In Acting Funny: Comic Theory and Practice in Shakespeare’s Plays, ed. Frances Teague, pp. 123–41. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1994.

Desmet uses epideictic rhetoric (the ceremonial oratory of praise and blame) to analyze the characters in Cymbeline according to ethical rather than psychological categories. Those who fault the play for its disjointed characterization fail to see that the dramatic agents achieve self-formation through the construction of ethical character, or what the ancients called ethos. The First Gentleman’s appraisal of Posthumus (1.1.20–27), a “truncated encomium,” evinces an “urge to evaluate moral character and the difficulties attendant on moral judgment.” Desmet looks closely at three passages—Iachimo’s “rhapsody” over the sleeping Imogen (2.2.14–54), Posthumus’s rant against womankind (2.5.1–36), and the masque of the Leonati (5.4.32–153)—to demonstrate how Cymbeline “dramatizes the tensions that characterize epideictic rhetoric, examining self-consciously the relationship between ethos and the decorative rhetoric [hyperbole, metaphor, and other figures of amplification] used for its representation.”

Granville-Barker, Harley. “Cymbeline” (1930). In Prefaces to Shakespeare, 1:459–543. 1946. Reprint, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Granville-Barker’s frequently cited treatment of Cymbeline addresses a wide range of issues: the question of collaboration (there must be a “whipping boy” responsible for the moments of “unresisting imbecility”), the influence of the Blackfriars playhouse, the self-consciously artificial style that permeates every aspect of the play, the construction of the action (the “swift forwarding” of the first part of the story, the “subtle composition” of Iachimo’s three scenes, and the elaborate finale with its eighteen surprises are the best parts), the verse (Shakespeare creates a “new Euphuism . . . of imagination rather than expression”), and the characters (primarily Iachimo and Imogen, with some discussion of Posthumus, Cloten, and the two lost princes). Integral to the nature of Cymbeline is a “sophisticated artlessness,” i.e., an art always on display and never concealed that steers the audience (especially at the conclusion) “between illusion and enjoyment of the ingenuity of the thing.” Clumsy at times and full of imperfections, Cymbeline, nevertheless, has a “recondite charm.”

Kermode, Frank. “Cymbeline.” In William Shakespeare, the Final Plays: “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” “The Tempest,” “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” pp. 19–29. London: Longmans, Green, 1963.

Kermode considers Cymbeline a dramatic experiment in which Shakespeare is “somehow playing with the play” as he continues to explore, thematically and structurally, the dramaturgical element of recognition. Among Cymbeline’s peculiar features are a verbal style that is anything but “lucid,” an extraordinarily complex plot filled with ambiguities, and a “wanton rapidity” of last-minute revelations that risks evoking farcical associations for the audience. The opening exchange between two unnamed gentlemen (1.1.1–80) exemplifies the “obliquity” that runs throughout the text. In spite of its obscurities, Kermode considers Cymbeline a “superb play.”

Lewis, Cynthia. “ ‘With Simular Proof Enough’: Modes of Misperception in Cymbeline.Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 31 (1991): 343–64.

Lewis contends that of all the plays in the canon, Cymbeline is the one most preoccupied with the deceiving of characters and audience alike. The theme of misperception, introduced in 1.1, informs the play’s asides, its characters (almost all of whom are “duped” at least once), the repeatedly piecemeal imparting of information crucial to understanding, the building of episodes around incomplete pictures, and the language (which constantly underscores problems of seeing). The play’s signature line is Imogen’s “Our very eyes / Are sometimes like our judgments, blind” (4.2.374–75). With mercy and love (figured most clearly in Imogen/Fidele) ultimately transcending the strictures of rational systems, faith emerges “as the only viable means to living harmonious spiritual and social lives.”

Maley, Willy. “Postcolonial Shakespeare: British Identity and Identity Formation and Cymbeline.” In Shakespeare’s Late Plays: New Readings, ed. Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, pp. 145–57. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Maley reads Cymbeline, a text profoundly preoccupied with myths of origin and ideas of union and reconciliation, as “a nativity play” about the birth of Britain and of the “homecoming” of Britishness associated with the reign of King James I. As England moved from a nation to an empire, it looked to the only model of expansion it knew, one that it had earlier rejected: Rome. In Cymbeline, Shakespeare works through England’s post-Reformation history, “the history of a nation wrested from an empire that copied . . . the thing to which it was ostensibly opposed.” At the end of the play, this mimicry is presented positively, “but the covert reintroduction of Catholicism by the back door would be interpreted much less generously and optimistically by those whose insular idea of an Englishness [essentially Protestant] did not extend to Britain.”

Mikalachki, Jodi. “The Masculine Romance of Roman Britain: Cymbeline and Early Modern English Nationalism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 301–22. (A slightly revised version of the article appears in Mikalachki’s The Legacy of Boadicea: Gender and Nation in Early Modern England [London: Routledge, 1998], pp. 96–114.)

Mikalachki develops George Mosse’s work on the “mutually informing” constructs of nationalism and sexuality to argue that the “gendering and sexualizing” of the nation, usually thought to have emerged in the eighteenth century, had come into existence by the early seventeenth century. In Cymbeline, the creation of a modern English nation requires “virile bonding” (the battle with Rome in Act 5 serves as a rite of passage for the lost sons of the King), the elimination of the wicked queen (who bears a striking resemblance to the mid-first-century Boadicea, who bravely failed to drive out the Roman conquerors sixty years after Cymbeline’s reign), and “the construction of Imogen as a viable alternative[,] . . . a national icon of feminine respectability.” The play concludes with the image of an “exclusively male community,” from which the savage female (a threat to patriarchal order) has been banished; in her place, the respectable, domesticated ideal remains, still in her male attire. The “convergence of the personal and the national in the forging of masculine identity” helps reconcile two important interpretive traditions of Cymbeline: the psychoanalytic and the historicist.

Mowat, Barbara A. The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s Romances. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976, esp. pp. 46–59.

In this study of the dramaturgy of Cymbeline, WT, and Tmp., Mowat makes Cymbeline the focus of her chapter on theatrical tactics and theatrical styles, “because, of all the romances, [it] has been most open to attack or apology because of its ‘primitive’—or, as they are called, ‘artificial’—tactics.” Concentrating on 1.5 as typical of the play’s self-conscious theatricality, she examines such presentational conventions as (1) expository direct address to the audience; (2) indiscriminate distribution of soliloquies among major and minor characters alike, which results in the scattering of audience interest; and (3) emphatic entrance and exit cues. Such “obtrusive” devices, when combined with extradramatic monologues that provide long histories of individual characters and suggest the passage of time, yield a narrative structure that sporadically interrupts our sense of dramatic illusion by detaching us from moments of emotional intensity. Mowat claims that Shakespeare deliberately conjoins comedy and tragedy, presentation and representation, and narrative and dramatic modes to create “open form drama,” through which he forces the audience “to acknowledge and experience” life’s complexity in all its contrarieties and mysteries.

Palfrey, Simon. Late Shakespeare: A New World of Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Palfrey investigates the fascination of Cymbeline and its companion romances (Per., WT, and Tmp.) with “the genetics of speech and writing, and the political mutations of each” in a period of symbiotic linguistic and civic self-consciousness. He contends that in these plays “Shakespeare’s febrile use of metaphor, and the diffusion of narrative authority and responsibility among competing voices or agencies, creates a politically restless genre which offers a robust and often irreverent challenge to providentialist or conservative teleologies.” The author discusses the “turbid world” of Cymbeline in four chapters: “Body Language at Court” (Cloten, who bears much of the play’s political dialogue, typifies Shakespeare’s “experimental, decentred figurative process of character construction”); “Country Matters” (the Welsh scenes provide “an alternative to established order and, consequently, an environment capable of inaugurations, of beginnings”); “Women and Romance” (the woman’s part, as found in Imogen, is one of “ideological disjunction,” the archetype of embodied virtue, stalwart in the face of assault, “tak[ing] up a fearful strain”); and “Endings” (the ineffective and belated appearance of the “glittering, meretricious” Jupiter provides only a “simulacrum of closure”). Political imperatives are at the core of Shakespeare’s revamping of romance.

Palmer, D. J., ed. Shakespeare’s Later Comedies: An Anthology of Modern Criticism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

This collection includes three influential essays on Cymbeline: Philip J. Brockbank’s 1958 “History and Histrionics in Cymbeline(pp. 234–47), Emrys Jones’s 1961 “Stuart Cymbeline(pp. 248–63), and Arthur C. Kirsch’s 1967 “Cymbeline and Coterie Dramaturgy” (pp. 264–87). Brockbank focuses on Shakespeare’s integration of historical sources (especially chronicle material relating to Brute, the legendary founder of Britain) and “self-confessed” theatrical artifice to create a historical romance depicting the “apocalyptic destiny of Britain”: a brazen world transformed through reconciliation and providential design into a golden one. Jones explores the topical significance the play held for its first audience, pointing out parallels between Cymbeline’s reign, which carried associations with Christ’s nativity and Augustus’s pax Romana (Roman peace), and the reign and political views of King James I, who regarded himself as another Augustus. There are so many analogues, however, that the play “suffers . . . from being too close to its royal audience.” Kirsch contends that Cymbeline’s theatrical contrivances, which distance the audience from characters and actions, reflect Shakespeare’s experimentation with the dramatic techniques and language of a dramaturgy associated with Jonson, Marston, and Beaumont and Fletcher in their work for the private theaters. The defining feature of Cymbeline is the dominant trait of coterie dramaturgy, “deliberate self-consciousness.”

Parker, Patricia. “Romance and Empire: Anachronistic Cymbeline.” In Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance, ed. George M. Logan and Gordon Tesky, pp. 189–206. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Parker’s investigation of the Virgilian subtext of Cymbeline leads her to conclude that the play’s “curious” anachronisms—e.g., the character of Iachimo, who combines an ancient Roman noble with a Renaissance “jay of Italy” (3.4.51), and the superimposing of language suggestive of Italian and English Renaissance merchants on a plot and scene ostensibly set at the time of Augustan Rome—are deliberate, not the result of “bungling error or historical oversight.” The conflation of Virgil’s Aeneid and Shakespeare’s last Roman plot is most pronounced in Posthumus, the British Aeneas; both figures are false to the women who love them and are “ignorant” of the larger schemes working to secure their outcomes. Cloten’s headless trunk recalls the fall of King Priam, thereby serving as a visual emblem of the fall of Troy itself; Imogen’s character holds allusions to the abandoned Dido and the grieving Hecuba, and (in Iachimo’s emergence from the trunk) her body suggests “the potential British counterpart to ransacked Troy.” At the end of the play, the repentant Iachimo pays tribute to Posthumus in a gesture of submission that, in subtly reversing Cymbeline’s gesture of submission to imperial Rome, embodies the passing of true Roman virtue to a Britain that looks ahead to the inauguration of a Jacobean pax (peace), itself an echo of the pax Augusta (peace of the emperor Augustus). When read in the light of Virgil’s epic, the play’s anachronisms underscore the theme of imperialism and shift the emphasis from romance to history in the hybrid Cymbeline.

Skura, Meredith. “Interpreting Posthumus’ Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysts, and Literary Critics.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 203–16. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

“Family resonances” underlie each of the play’s three plots: the political story of King Cymbeline and his relations with Rome, the dynastic story involving the loss and recovery of the King’s sons and his remarriage to a wicked queen, and the marital story of Imogen and Posthumus. The quest for a viable family matrix, however, is most important to Posthumus’s moral growth as a husband worthy of Imogen. Skura views as crucial to this development the vision involving the Leonati and Jupiter (5.4), which Shakespeare psychologizes through a transformation of two theatrical conventions: the deus ex machina (or divine epiphany) that “presents the family from above as a sacred revelation,” and the “family recognition scene” that presents it “from below as the memory of infantile experiences.” The re-creation of his dead family in the dream sequence enables Posthumus to harmonize the tensions “between family inheritance and personal individuality[,] . . . between being part of the family unit and being the head of a new family.” In finding himself as son, Posthumus finds himself as husband.

Warren, Roger. Cymbeline. Shakespeare in Performance Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

For Warren, the play’s most striking theatrical quality is “its capacity to astonish and to move an audience at the same time.” The first part of the volume addresses a variety of topics: the challenge in performance of combining theatrical virtuosity with powerfully evocative language in key scenes (1.6, 4.2, and 5.4); the use of myth, pseudo-history, and Ovidian techniques; the role of language in complicating the stereotypes to which the fairy-tale characters seem to conform; the play’s “theatrical self-consciousness”; and Cymbeline’s stage history from the seventeenth century to the mid–twentieth century. The second half of the study provides a detailed analysis of seven productions spanning the years 1957 to 1988, with Peter Hall’s 1957 version at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and his 1988 revival at the National Theatre in London framing the discussion. The other productions examined are William Gaskill’s (RSC, 1962), Elijah Moshinsky’s (BBC, 1982), Jean Gascon’s and Robin Phillips’s (Stratford, Ontario, 1970 and 1986, respectively), and Bill Alexander’s (RSC, 1987). In his later Staging Shakespeare’s Late Plays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), Warren devotes a chapter to Hall’s 1988 production; he uses the rehearsal process, which he observed, as a means of exploring, scene by scene, the theatrical issues raised by the play (“Spiritual Journeys: Cymbeline,” pp. 25–94).