(Chicago Shakespeare Theater)
A few years ago (ten, it was ten years ago, I’m so old) I had an on-going, super informal Hamlet discussion going on in my LiveJournal. Actually, calling it a “discussion” might be dignifying it too much. Mostly it was me reading the play and posting scene-by-scene, line-by-line commentary. Sometimes it was super profound commentary that would make my former professors proud. Sometimes it was me making fun of Horatio for thinking he would know how to talk to ghosts just because he went to college for three semesters. And the comments, of course, were open for everyone else to post their own insight and mockery.
So after a recent discussion on Facebook, I decided to host a similar discussion for Cymbeline here at Language and Light. Never read Cymbeline? Never fear! The text of the play will be posted in its entirety, scene by scene by scene, so you can read along with me, as long as you don’t mind me snickering in your ear as we go along. All my commentary is marked in bold, even, so you can skip right past it if you like your initial read-through to be untainted by other people’s opinions.
Each post will be dedicated to a single scene, unless a scene is really short, and then I might cram two scenes in.
I love the “romances”—Pericles, Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and a few others like Measure for Measure that just defy neat categorization. There are lots of reasons for this, but the principle one is that I feel like the romances get overlooked next to their noisier, bloodier sisters like Macbeth, and the second Henriad, and yes, Hamlet.
I should probably point out that I’m not a scholar by profession, I never went to grad school, I never wrote a dissertation. I’m just a nerd who reads a lot of books and spends too much time on the internet. Don’t be surprised if I started reacting in memes once the play gets properly underway.
CYMBELINE: A cursory background
For those of you coming to the play for the first time, here’s some context. Cymbeline is one of the “romances” or “tragicomedies” written late in Shakespeare’s career—1609-1610, in this case. Some people characterize the romances as “tragedies, but with happy endings”. (If, by happy endings, you mean that the stage isn’t littered with bodies at the end of the play, I’m willing to go with that generalization.) Personally I think the reason that Shakespeare’s last handful of plays are the weird little stories they are is because, as he neared the end of his career, he threw out his personal dramatic rule book and wrote what he damn well pleased. But I’ll save my thoughts on that for later.
Background on Cymbeline specifically: like so many of his history-light plays, Shakespeare drew on Holinshed for this one, though since the play is set in pre-Christian, pre-Roman Britain, it’s probably also worth mentioning that he got some background from Livy, Plutarch, and Ovid, like any good grammar-school boy of his era. We know this in part because Shakespeare was kind of obsessed with the Rape of Lucrece, subject of one of his earliest poetic works, and the dramatic conflict in Cymbeline owes a lot to that story. (Livy and Ovid would have been his sources for that story.) But as is typically the case with anything written by Shakespeare (who, like me, was no scholar), Cymbeline takes place in its own setting, freed from any aspirations towards historical accuracy. Shakespeare chucks history aside whenever he feels like it, basically; best to just get used to that.
That said: there was a Cymbeline who ruled in Britain in the decades before the Roman invasion. He was called Cunobelinus, until an historian in 1136 dubbed him Kymbelinus, which probably means I’ve been mispronouncing Cymbeline with a soft C all this time. I honestly wrote up a good two paragraphs worth of background comparing what we know about the historical Cunobelinus versus the legendary version of the story that made it into Holinshed, but the fact is, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Holinshed’s Cunobelinus have basically nothing in common, so I decided too much detail would just be confusing. There are only two things about the legendary/historical king that are relevant to Shakespeare’s play: Cymbeline/Kymbelinus/Cunbobelinus was the king who either intentionally or inadvertently invited the Romans under Claudius to invade Britain and make it into the Roman vassal state, Brittania. (In some versions, this was the doing of one of his sons, who had been a hostage/fosterling in Rome under Caligula; in the Holinshed version, Cunobelinus was the hostage/fosterling who swore fealty to Rome.) The other relevant point is that Holinshed’s Cunobelinus wasn’t king of Britain, but rather the nephew of a king called Cassibellaunus. This uncle-king figure gets a name check in scene one.
That’s it. That’s all the similarities there are between Shakespeare and his quasi-historical sources. If this surprises you, congratulations: welcome to Shakespeare studies.
Honestly, the historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Cymbeline is doubly irrelevant, not just because Shakespeare manifestly doesn’t care about history, except to cherry pick it for dramatic prompts, but because, like so many of his plays, the title isn’t super relevant to the theme of the play. It makes about as much sense to name Cymbeline after Cymbeline/Kymbelinus as it would if they’d named The Winter’s Tale after Leontes. We’re not reading this play for him, we’re reading it for Imogen. But we can’t start talking about the arbitrary weirdness of the titles of Shakespeare’s plays now, or we’ll be here forever.
Okay! I think that’s enough to be going on with. Text and analysis of the play appears after the jump cut. Make this worth my while, guys. There’s a comment section. Use it.