A Shakespeare Read-Along Adventure post: CYMBELINE

cymbeline-1(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.

Why Cymbeline?

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.

Continue reading


What Kay meant to me – June 7, 2017

I knew of Kathryn Stripling Byer long before I ever had a conversation with her. Back in 2001, when I was a freshman at WCU, Kay was something of a superstar to baby English majors and aspiring writers like me. Long before I ever spoke to Kay, I fantasized about impressing her, winning her approval. I had never met a “real” writer before I came to Western, let alone a woman who had been published and honored for writing about the mountains. To me, Appalachia was not a fitting subject for poetry–it was simply the backwards part of the country where my ancestors had settled after the Revolution, that my parents and aunts and uncles had fled in search of better jobs, greater prosperity.


At Western, naturally, those particular cobwebs got swept from my brain quickly enough. I was exposed to a wider world of literature there, and for the first time my ears were unstopped to the music of my grandmother’s dialect and my father’s accent. And I drew new life and strength from the mountains that surrounded WCU’s campus, connecting for the first time to the natural world that had sheltered my ancestors since they first came to the New World. Alongside all of this, at WCU, I was supported for the first time in my life by people who understood and encouraged my determination to be a writer. When it came time for me to return to my parents’ home in Raleigh at the end of my freshman year, I was sick with dread at leaving it all behind.

Continue reading

The Productivity Paradox



I’ve been thinking lately about how my writing career, such as it is, came into being. I’m pretty satisfied with the state of my writing life at the moment: with one essay due to come out soon, another in submissions, and a third in progress, plus an ongoing novel, I’m about as productive as I’ve ever been.

I pay a lot of attention to what other writers are doing as well. One of the nicest thing that’s happened to me in the last twelve months is that I’ve joined an email group comprised mostly of women who write for new media. A side effect of this is that I read a metric fuck-ton of essays and articles every week.

One particular theme comes up in those essays a lot—a theme that intrigues me, because I personally can’t relate to at all. People call it different things. Esmé Wang, a writer and entrepreneur whose work I admire a lot, calls it “hustle”, in this fantastic essay for Elle about the effect of chronic illness on productivity. I tend to think of it as the productivity paradox.

Continue reading

Perils of the night

On a very old website of mine, I hosted the text of some writing I’d done in college–twelve years ago, that was what passed for my professional portfolio. I happened to be looking at the site today and I found that one of the pieces I’d uploaded was a meditation I’d been asked to write for a Wednesday evening Advent service at St. David’s, the church I attend when I’m in Cullowhee.




I’ve copied the meditation here, under the read more. I was nineteen when I wrote it, halfway through my second year of college.

Reading it over this morning for the first time in over a decade, I felt a bit breathless. It just so happens that I’ve been more than a little preoccupied with themes of shame and judgment lately. If I didn’t know that writers frequently write things that are wiser than they are, I would be tempted to think I was much smarter 14 years ago than I am now. In some ways, I probably was.

My favorite thing about the Advent service that year was hearing the Collect for Aid Against All Perils for the first time, read out in a dark sanctuary lit by candles:

“Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers and this nigh, for the love of thy only son our savior, Jesus Christ.”

Every time I read that, I think about the scene in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising where Will and Merriman have to battle the powers of the Dark in an old church around Christmas.

The build-up to Christmas, to say nothing of the holiday itself, is a conflicted time for me, as it is for a lot of people. But this is my favorite part of it.

Continue reading

Language and Light

“If I’m confused, or upset, or angry, if I can go out and look at the stars I’ll almost always get back a sense of proportion. It’s not that they make me feel insignificant; it’s the very opposite; they make me feel that everything matters, be it ever so small, and that there’s meaning to life even when it seems most meaningless.”

from A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle

The Christmas I was sixteen I wrote a letter to Madeleine L’Engle.

Like most people, I encountered L’Engle’s writing first in A Wrinkle In Time and its sequels as a child, but I went on to read almost her entire bibliography of more than fifty books my junior year of high school.

My favorite was A Ring of Endless Light. I considered it the most important book I had ever read; the intensity of my feelings about it defied articulation. I considered it almost another Gospel. It conveyed the essentials of everything I believed to be true about life, death, God, and the soul with beautiful imagery and simple, transparent language. Madeleine L’Engle was the writer I most aspired to emulate, and her characters were the people I most wanted to be like. The first book I published I intended to dedicate to her.


Continue reading

Obsessions In Fiction

When I was eleven, my favorite books were a series of Christian historical romances by Judith Pella and Michael Phillips. Set in Russia during the late 19th century, the main character is a shy, pious peasant girl named Anna who traveled to St. Petersburg from her little country village to work as a kitchen maid in the home of a wealthy nobleman. In the first book, The Crown and the Crucible, Anna gets lost and accidentally ends up in her employer’s private gardens, where she meets Katrina, the daughter of the family, who decides that the unworldly peasant girl would make a great ladies’ maid. Anna is a familiar anachronism in historical romances, the poor girl who just loves books and reading more than anything, and is able to breach massive class barriers thanks to her literacy, moral certitude, and unassuming manner. When she meets Katrina’s brother, Sergei, an aspiring novelist, the two fall rapidly in love. The turbulent political backdrop of Russia during the reign of Alexander II serves as excellent fodder for the plot, when Sergei’s novel upsets the imperial censors, who drive his noble father out of the tsar’s favor and get Sergei exiled to Siberia. Not to worry, though: he escapes, and is reunited with Anna at her father’s peasant hovel, where they live happily for many years, raising a large family in well-educated destitution.

Continue reading