Re-reading Shakespeare: Cymbeline

(1) Those opening lines are difficult. I get their sense but can’t precisely take them apart to see how they work. Their difficulty is instructive though, because it’s a pair of courtiers talking and they’re talking like courtiers. The theatre director Dominic Cooke was asked specifically about the difficulty of Shakespeare’s late style in this play and said the speech in the first scene is convoluted precisely because “the characters are speaking in a courtly code. It’s as if everyone is nervous about being overheard and potentially incriminated.” Let’s face it, even if a spy was writing down everything word for word, what would anyone make of this:

You do not meet a man but frowns. Our bloods
No more obey the heavens than our courtiers
Still seem as does the king.

Try translating that into English. What makes it even more difficult is that the two gentlemen are talking about the dissembling that is going on at court, and their mixed feelings at Innogen not marrying Cloten and Posthumus being banished. So are the frowns real or feigned? Are the courtiers in sympathy with the king, or pretending?

The contrast between the world of the court and the natural world of Wales, where real men live in caves, was standard stuff even for Shakespeare, but I feel like this is one of his most cynical takes on the theme. Everyone at court schemes and lies and backstabs as they try to get ahead. Iachimo has Posthumus pegged as a hypergamous toy-boy and tries to talk him down to the international set in Rome. It’s a special kind of jealousy he feels for Posthumus, a young man on the rise. Belarius was right to get the boys away from court life. It’s wicked!

(2) Of course the Queen – unnamed because she’s a type of the wicked stepmother – is a bad one. But what’s new here is that everyone knows she’s bad. As soon as she turns her head they’re telling us that they’re on to her villainy. “I do suspect you, madam,” Cornelius says, staying one step ahead of her poisoning scheme. Innogen knows she’s “a stepdame false,” while the Second Lord calls her a “crafty devil” as soon as he’s left alone. I think the only one who doesn’t see through her is Cymbeline, which makes his expostulation at the end when her machinations have been revealed – “Who is’t can read a woman?” – all the funnier.

Is she meant to be a comic figure? She’s not like Edmund or Iago. Tamora in Titus Andronicus is her most obvious precursor, but Tamora was far more fearsome, and Aaron, Demetrius, and Chiron more threatening than Cloten, who sounds perfectly awful but is all wind. He gets some shockingly violent and vulgar lines, talking about fingering Innogen or trying her with his tongue, or fantasizing about raping her beside Posthumus’ corpse, but in the end he’s as harmless as his mom. So are we just meant to laugh at them?

(3) Poor Lucius. In the final scene’s mad rush of recaps and revelations he gets brushed aside pretty quickly, even after standing up for Fidele/Innogen. “Save him, sir,” he asks Cymbeline, “And spare no blood beside.” Cymbeline does save him/her but immediately adds that Fidele should not thank Lucius for this mercy. Then, after Cymbeline grants Fidele in turn the chance to spare a prisoner Lucius says “I do not bid thee beg my life, good lad, / And yet I know thou wilt.” Ha! Talk about wishful thinking. “No, no, alack. / There’s other work in hand,” is how Fidele responds, leaving Lucius to bemoan such ingratitude in one so young.

The boy disdains me,
He leaves me, scorns me; briefly die their joys
That place them on the truth of girls and boys.

I’m pretty sure this is another point where we’re supposed to laugh. Fidele’s “There’s other work in hand” is part of the whole spirit of “Get on with it!” that dominates the final scene. For a long time Cymbeline was seen as being the work of a burnt-out writer, or one grown lazy. I think that’s possible, and maybe even likely, but if so it’s a burnout that Shakespeare could still have some fun with.

2 thoughts on “Re-reading Shakespeare: Cymbeline

  1. I am woefully uneducated in Shakespeare, we did Romeo & Juliet and Midsummer Nights Dream at school and that was it, but I did read Anthony & Cleopatra for myself. Not sure I’d read any now, I’d need a companion book to go with them.


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