I saw Cymbeline a few years back at Lincoln Center with my mom; Phylicia Rashad played the nameless Queen. Frankly, that was the most memorable thing about the play. Going with my mom, that is. Not Phylicia Rashad. I vaguely remember betrayal, beheading, and disguise, but let’s face it – that could be virtually any Shakespeare play.
I think the reason for my mental fog – surrounding Cymbeline, at least – is its somewhat indefinable position between a comedy and tragedy. Dating from around 1609 and clocking in at 3398 lines, the 1623 Folio lists it as a tragedy, “which of course it is not.” (Hallett Smith, The Riverside Shakespeare, p.1517). Riverside lists it, along with Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and the Two Noble Kinsmen, as a Romance.
Briefly, King Cymbeline of Britain and his second wife, affectionately referred to as “Queen” are on the verge of war with Rome and trying to force their children to marry each other. The war is much more civil than the proposed coupling. When Cymbeline refuses to pay a tribute (tax) to Rome, Lucius politely asserts “I am sorry, Cymbeline,/That I am to pronounce Augustus Caesar…thine enemy,”(III,i,62-4) and “war and confusion/In Caesar’s name pronounce I against thee; look/For fury not to be resisted. Thus defied,/I thank the for myself.”(III,i,65-8)
But when Cymbeline learns that his daughter Imogen, has married the man she loves, he orders her jailed and suggests “let her languish/A drop of blood a day, and being aged/ Die of this folly!” (I,ii,156-8) Really? His own flesh and blood should bleed slowly to death for marrying – wait- the very man that Cymbeline himself adopted and raised after his parents’ death. He is called alternately Leonatus (his given name) and Posthumus (perhaps because he came to the court after his parents’ death).
When the Queen’s son, Cloten (and he is literally, a stinky clod) hears of her refusal, he goes all Gaston to her Belle on hearing she’s married Leonatus (the “Beast” – literally, “of lion born”): “And that she should love this fellow, and/Refuse me!” (I,ii,25-6)
The Queen plots to poison Imogen to get rid of her since she refuses to marry the Clod. Leonatus flees to Rome, where an acquaintance bets that he can seduce Imogen and then tricks Leonatus into believing he actually did so, using the usual trinket tricks.
Imogen runs away to the forest (ah – always to the refuge and refreshment of nature) with Leonatus’s servant and stumbles upon, in a confluence of Snow White and Goldilocks, Belarius’s cave. He peaks in and sees her munching on their porridge, and says “Stay, come not in/But that it eats our victuals.” (III,vi,39-40) He lives there with his two sons who really aren’t his sons but Cymbeline’s sons who he kidnapped as babies for vengeance – and hence are really Imogen’s brothers. Unbeknownst to all of them save Belarius. To quote the Eagles, “are you with me so far?” She’s feeling kind of crummy after all this travel and trauma and takes the “medicine” the Queen’s packed for her. It mimics death. Everyone’s bummed. Like one of the Seven Dwarves, Belarius cries “Pray not be sick,/For you must be our Huswife.”(IV,ii,44)
I know I said “briefly” – but for 3398 lines this IS brief.
Belarius, the king’s sons, and Leonatus help defeat the Romans and save Cymbeline. He’s pretty happy, and in one big fat true confessions and reconciliation scene, including a guest appearance by no less than Jupiter, the cast untangles the web they’ve woven. The Queen and the Clod (who literally lost his head) are revealed to be the conniving, deceitful louts that they are. Leonatus and Imogen reunite and clear up the nasty betrayal rumors. Belarius reveals and Cymbeline forgives the kidnapping. Siblings and parents meet again and reconcile. Britain agrees to pay the tribute and peace reigns in the valley. And this is no uneasy peace like that we see in Denmark. This is actually all’s well that ends well.
I like this play, but I don’t love it. It is unmemorable, unmoving, and unconvincing because it lacks the pathos and opportunity costs of the tragedies and the humor and entertainment value of the comedies. Just in time for Easter, lovers resurrect and reconnect. The good survive and thrive. The evil perish or repent. Families reunite. The war is civil and peace prevails. Everyone comes to their senses. What fun is there in that? It’s neither here nor there.
I felt glancing hints of greatness in the allusions to some of the tragedies:
– Romeo and Juliet: While secret, death-simulating serum figures prominently in both plots, the lovers in Cymbeline live. Peace breaks out in both – inter-familial in Romeo and Juliet and inter-national in Cymbeline, but the lovers in the latter are not star-crossed for long and do not need to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
– Othello: Jachimo is a watered-down, adolescent, whimsical prankster to Iago’s sociopath (and I credit my college freshman son for the latter moniker). Trinkets convince Othello and Leonatus that they’ve been cuckolded. But while the latter is duped, ironically, more convincingly, he cannot confront Imogen. Othello actually gets to accuse Desdemona in person and despite her vehement defense of her virtue and veracity, he throttles her. Iago gets into his head and the driver’s seat and remorselessly runs them both off the road. Jachimo confesses contritely and repents.
– Macbeth: Macbeth has nothing on Cymbelline in that Jupiter – Jupiter!- delivers the tablet with the veiled scenario under which everything will work just fine for Leonatus (does the Soothsayer really need to tell him what his name means?). Macbeth receives his prophesied fate from three ugly hags in the woods. Max Bialystock of The Producers could have contrived the Jupiter scene for one of his plays — he did, after all, do “Funny Boy,” – Hamlet, the musical.
Both leading ladies lack first names but at least Lady Macbeth’s last name gives her some status. And at least the villainous, manipulative, and later guild-ridden and dead Lady MacB stands by her man. Queen no-name, also villainous, also manipulative, also guilt-ridden and dead, didn’t: “First, she confess’d she never lov’d you; only/Affected greatness got by you, not you;/Married your royalty, was wife to your place,/Abhorr’d your person.” (V,v,36-9). But, wait, Alexis Carrington, how did you really feel??? Poor Cymbeline learns further that Queen B (and I don’t mean bee) thought Imogen “Was a scorpion to her sight” (V,v,45) and intended to poison her – and yes, Cymbeline there’s more, “She did confess she had/For you a mortal mineral.” (V,v,49-50)
While the dream sequence in which Leonatus (or more appropriately, Posthumus, in this scene) sees his dead family could have been a squiggly-lined segment from Wayne’s World, complete with sound effects, Cymbeline lacks both the farce-like amusement inherent in many of the comedies and the clear-cut distinction often made between nature and village (the former always filled with purer, more peaceful, problem-solvers). While Shakespeare does address this distinction in Act IV, scene ii, lines 76-100 there are some contradictions. Belarius and his sons are true and good forest dwellers. But he’s a kidnapper, after all. Cymbeline looks like a pretty awful, immoral royal at the outset, but he comes to his senses in the end once the catalytic, cancerous Queen is excised.
The resolution of the family mishegaas conveniently resolves the international crisis as well. I can forgive the facile resolutions in the comedies, but not in a play where at least one head is paraded around.
So while scenes from other Shakespeare plays often play in my head in an endless loop (I told you I was a nerd), I doubt I’ll splice this one in. It will, I fear, be relegated to the pile of old videos and 8 tracks collecting dust in the closet.