Thursday, November 23, 2017

thinking again about Cymbeline

Emma Fielding as Imogen, in an RSC production from 2003

[Image source:]

Cymbeline was one of the last plays that Shakespeare wrote on his own. More than that is difficult to assert.  Shakespeare may have been working on The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest all at the same time.

Pericles, that very seminal play, had been performed in early 1608. It was a big hit, much to Jonson's annoyance (he called it a "mouldy tale"). You can understand that Shakespeare might have decided to write more plays in the same vein. 

But there was a delay.

London always had a low background level of plague, but sometimes the level rose. The London playhouses were made to close if "the plaguey bill"* rose above 30 dead per week. [Some scholars think the cut-off point was 40 rather than 30.] Anyhow now, for 17 successive months, between July 1608 and January 1610, the plague level was more than 50.

* Alas! Alas! Who's injur'd by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drown'd?
Who says my tears have overflow'd his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguey bill? ...

(John Donne, "The Canonization")

Finally performances resumed. We have records of Macbeth and Othello being played at the Globe in April 1610.  Coriolanus, Shakespeare's final tragedy, is a difficult play to date but the consensus is for 1608-09 with, we can speculate, a first performance in early 1610. (There's no record of any such performance, but some 1610 sources, such as Jonson's Epicoene, seem to allude to Coriolanus.)

Then in July 1610 the plague levels rose again, so there was another closure of six months until early 1611. The earliest known performances of Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale come from May 1611. The Tempest was played at court that November (in all likelihood, there had been earlier public performances).

[ Info from Leeds Barroll, "Shakespeare and the Second Blackfriars Theater" in Shakespeare Studies 33 (2005). ]

The main thing that stands out about the years 1607-1611 is that Shakespeare's productivity dropped by half. For the previous 15 years he had averaged  two plays per year, but in these five years he wrote only five plays. And this trend continued, with just the three Fletcher collaborations in the years 1612-1614. We can only speculate about the reasons for the slowdown.


What's clear is that the five plays have close links with each other. The scenes of greatest emotional intensity are connected by a general theme of "secular salvation", particularly figured by family reconciliations. It's secular salvation because the protagonist receives it in this life, not for eternity. Generally speaking the protagonist who receives salvation is male and the agent or agents of salvation are female. This is all far too schematic, but let's spell it out anyway.

All of the plays take place in pre-Christian or never-never type places and times, where the gods are only pagan. The salvations figured in the plays have no explicit Christian trappings. (All the odder, in The Tempest, where Naples and names like Sebastian and Ferdinand clearly proclaim a context of Christendom.)

The theme began to become prominent for Shakespeare, perhaps, with King Lear ... with the crazed king's reunion with Cordelia, with her "No cause, no cause" (IV.7). Lear's salvation is short-lived, of course, but he does have it, and it's not meaningless even if heartbreak soon follows; a Lear in which the king was never reconciled with Cordelia at all would have been even darker. At this moment his own behaviour to his daughter, the misunderstandings of the past, are all forgiven, he receives what he could never expect, he can redeem the past.

The emotional heart of Pericles is the miraculous reunion with his daughter Marina. Mouldy tale or not, the drama is intensely moving at this point.  And in the climax of The Winter's Tale Leontes is reunited first with his daughter Perdita and then, even more miraculously, with his wife Hermione. (Both believed long since dead.)

In a way these scenes achieve their deep poignancy because, in our heart of hearts, we feel that such complete redemption of the past is something that doesn't happen in real life. People who act like Leontes don't get a second chance. And yet the dream flickers, it's there, sometimes in life incredibly good things do happen, we can sometimes begin again, at least a bit....  So the contemplation of these secular salvations doesn't actually feel like escapism but like being exposed to deeps within our own hearts, to irredeemable losses that we mostly keep stoppered up. It's a serious matter.

Coriolanus partakes in the theme too. But in this case it isn't so much salvation experienced as salvation earned, when Coriolanus saves the city of Rome at the expense of his own life. Once more the secular salvation is connected with a family meeting, with his wife and mother.

So what about Cymbeline? Here the king is indeed reunited with his daughter, and also his two sons, lost some twenty years earlier. Regarding these sons, we're never told the details of how Belarius came to be falsely accused of treason (which led to the kidnap) and to what extent it may have been Cymbeline's fault, and it's all so long ago that the king shows no sense of missing his sons.  There's a coolness about all this compared to the high-intensity scenes I've been discussing in the other plays. We are told (by the Gentleman in the opening scene) that the king suffers from the falling out with Imogen, but it's only late in the play that the king himself says anything of the kind. On her part Imogen seems to regard her father as not much more than a nuisance; she's entirely focussed on her husband Posthumus. And it's to Posthumus that the theme of secular salvation now applies. He believes he's caused his wife Imogen's death in the madness of jealousy (like Leontes), and he longs only to die. Then she's there...  (He doesn't recognize her, and knocks her down.).  Imogen likewise believed that her husband was dead, but Shakespeare doesn't develop her feelings in the same way as Posthumus. (In fact, she seems to recover from her bloodstained access of grief with remarkable speed, at the end of IV.2) So it's almost a double salvation of husband and wife here, but Posthumus is definitely the major recipient.

The Tempest doesn't, of course, fit so patly into this scheme. Certainly, Alonso is reunited with the son who he thought was dead. But The Tempest's emotional centre is more dispersed. In particular, it's dispersed to the early scene recounting when Prospero and Miranda escaped Naples together, and each is the other's salvation. At the end of the play the theme returns in Prospero's speech to the audience, where he asks for salvation in the form of a fair journey to Naples (or, it may be, New Place).


But. The errors of fitting one play to the shape of another.  These reflections centre us on the famous reunion:

  IMOGEN. Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?
    Think that you are upon a rock, and now
    Throw me again. [Embracing him]
  POSTHUMUS. Hang there like fruit, my soul,
    Till the tree die!

But Cymbeline, that "flamboyant oddity" as Donald Mackenzie puts it, can't be contained by this theme. Characteristically, the play carries on for another 300 rather less interesting lines, during which both Imogen and Posthumus have plenty to say.

Posthumus' salvation cannot have quite the same poignancy as Pericles' or Leontes', because of the drastically shorter timescale.

Fruit is not really supposed to hang on a tree forever, it's meant to fall.  So Posthumus' line can be seen as limiting Imogen's potential, but the main point is that Posthumus's life will be fruitful so long as Imogen is with him. Indeed that Imogen really is his soul.

My sense is that Cymbeline lies between The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Compared to The Winter's Tale, it's no longer as committed to the "secular salvation" theme:  the theme proliferates, but as it does so it loses its centrality. Cymbeline is starting to be meta-dramatic, as The Tempest is.

Shakespeare was immersing himself in his past. Pericles had returned to Apollonius of Tyre, a source of The Comedy of Errors.
And, as before during extended playhouse closures, Shakespeare turned to poetry. The publication of the Sonnets in 1609 is surely no coincidence, Shakespeare I guess would have been working to shape this volume in 1608-09. The bulk of its contents date from the early to mid 1590s, but there was other material from ten years later, including The Lover's Complaint (and probably the last twenty of the sonnets to the young man). I'm not sure how much revision he did at this stage, but he woukd, at any rate, have been reading his earlier work and refining the collection into the Delian shape he wanted.

Placing the emphasis on Posthumus likewise brings centrally the brilliant scenes of the wager with Jachimo and the latter's apparent victory. But at the same time, these scenes remind us how Cymbeline is weirdly full of echoes from other plays. In these scenes it's Othello. Jachimo plays the role of Iago. Posthumus becomes crazed with jealousy in a minor reprise of Othello. Imogen, missing her bracelet and imagining the consequences, is reprising Desdemona and the whole business with the handkerchief. Cymbeline's words to Imogen momentarily feint at Lear ("O disloyal thing,That shouldst repair my youth, thou heap'st A year's age on me!").

But what's especially characteristic of Cymbeline is the wide range of earlier Shakespeare that it recycles.In III.1, the scene about the tribute, we seem to back in the territory of Henry V or King John (whose opening line it half steals). When Posthumus boasts of his wife's chastity we remember Collatine's boasting of his wife Lucretia and where that leads: the story told by Livy and Ovid and taken up in The Rape of Lucrece. And when Posthumus declares that, should Iachimo prove Imogen a whore, he'll forget his hostility and treat  Iachimo as a friend who had done him a service, this is a motif straight out of one of Shakespeare's favourite sources, the Belleforest/Bandello source for the Claudio story in Much Ado About Nothing.

When Imogen (disguised as Fidele), draws her sword before entering the cave, hoping anyone she meets will be just as frightened by it as she is, we're in the world of Twelfth Night with Viola.
Cloten is a reprise of Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus. Here, as in The Tempest, Shakespeare brings back the theme of rape, untouched since the early days of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Titus. Oh yes, Two Gentlemen... young man goes abroad and makes an idiot of himself, loyal girl puts on boy's clothing and follows.... .

Our sense is of a flamboyant play, yes, but a mixture. Does Cymbeline ever reveal its own character, or does its identity only subsist in being a unique blend?

The Tempest, likewise "an echo-chamber of Shakespearian motifs" (Stephen Greenblatt), still manages to be itself...

It's interesting that these reprises of the past, in both Cymbeline and The Tempest,  are always on a reduced scale compared with the original. Jachimo, for instance, compared to Iago is smaller, does less harm, is less disturbing, and has far less lines. The theme of rape comes back in a few lines and allusions, but there is no actual rape (as in Titus), and no imminent threat of rape on stage (as, momentarily, in TGV). Leontes' fourteen years of purgatory become reduced to Alonso's three hours...

There's a sense of the author shuffling through a stack of old photographs, without lingering on any of them for very long. The other image from modern technology that keeps occurring to me is a flickering screen.

These images of speed (shuffling, flickering) are to do with alternation of mode, not with speed of action ... Macbeth, say. Cymbeline is also an expansive play, one of Shakespeare's longest.

One major difference between Cymbeline and The Tempest : the latter is dominated by its patriarch figure Prospero. Cymbeline, on the other hand, is a young people's play (those echoes of 2GV being relevant here).  Its older characters tend to be portrayed as lacking power to control the energies of youth. Cymbeline himself is a most feeble monarch; Belarius can only watch as his young charges pull away from the life he wants them to live;  the Queen is evilly-inclined but does no damage, because she helplessly reveals who she is, so everyone knows it and takes the appropriate precautions;


There's a lot of consensus about Cymbeline's kaleidoscopic effect and it's worth quoting some of it.

Here's the film critic Roger Ebert (writing about an apparently-not-very-good screen adaptation):

"To be fair, the basic material itself is not especially hot. Yes, it is Shakespeare but the play itself is little more than a rehash of elements that he has already handled with more insight in previous works ("Romeo & Juliet," "Othello," "Hamlet" and "As You Like It," to name a few) and is so plot-heavy that the characters feel more like traffic cops trying to move the story along than people about whom one is supposed to care. Many scholars have cited it as proof that Shakespeare was getting bored with his own work by this point in his career, though some, such as Harold Bloom, have looked upon it a little more forgivingly by suggesting that it was an example of Shakespeare deliberately spoofing himself. Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, this is not one of the Bard's more frequently revived efforts and after watching this take on it, I can understand why.

The action transposed to a modern-day American East Coast city, the film stars Ed Harris as Cymbeline, the king of the Briton Motorcycle Gang, a group that has forged an uneasy truce with the Roman police force that allows them to do business without interference. ... " 


The following extracts are from Ali Smith's piece in The Independent  :

"Cymbeline: how can such a late play be such a mutinous and energetic young man’s game too? It’s as if the later Shakespeare is liquidising a cocktail of Twelfth Night, Othello, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, throwing in some chunks and shreds of the history plays, and mashed it all into this consciously mischievous, wildly messy flourish of a narrative, one that winks not just at those foregone plays themselves but at the audience’s expectations of the shapes they’ve taken....

So pantomime-like are the asides and scene-shifts that it becomes a play more about the knowing status of its own audience than about that of the protagonists, all feeling their ways through a plot whose only real consistency is their shared blindness about their own misapprehensions. ..."

Guiderius (Kenji Urai), Cymbeline (Kohtaloh Yoshida), Arviragus (Satoru Kawaguchi) in a 2012 Ninagawa production at the Barbican

[Image source:]



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