The Bardathon: 30 – Cymbeline

It’s with Cymbeline, I think, that we come to the set of plays that may be described as Shakespeare’s final flowering. Of course, there’s Pericles, but that is clearly not all Shakespeare’s work; and given how poor the first half of it is, I find it hard to think of it as a considered work of art. And there are Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen – but the former is possibly, and the latter definitely, the result of a collaboration; and in any case, neither play is sufficiently impressive to be thought of as anything other than run-of-the-mill pieces. No – if we are to look for Shakespeare’s final artistic testament, we must look to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.

But these plays are puzzling in many ways. While there are some who regard these as the crown and the artistic culmination of Shakespeare’s career, there are others who detect a lessening of powers: some have even suggested that Shakespeare was getting bored. Samuel Johnson memorably described Cymbeline as “unresisting imbecility”, pointing out the various absurdities that riddle the work. While it’s hard to disagree with Johnson, one really does need to ask oneself whether it is at all probable that we can see quite clearly the various absurdities of this work that Shakespeare himself couldn’t. Whatever we finally decide about Cymbeline as a play, I think it deserves serious consideration as a serious work of art.

Shakespeare was, quite clearly, moving into new areas. He was trying to write a new kind of play, but he hadn’t yet solved the various technical problems associated with it. Inevitably, Cymbeline – and, for that matter, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – are experimental works. Given his position, I don’t think Shakespeare had the luxury of abandoning a project and starting afresh if things weren’t quite going right: he had to produce two to three new plays every year, and if things weren’t going quite right in one play, that was too bad. In the entire canon, Timon of Athens seems to me to be the only play that had been abandoned after an early draft.

It has to be admitted that Cymbeline is, in many ways, a deeply unsatisfactory work. But, on this reading, it also seemed to me very clearly informed with a serious artistic intent. Having written some of the most awe-inspiring tragic masterpieces, Shakespeare’s vision was now fixed beyond the tragic: he was looking towards the possibility of atonement, of reconciliation, of a hard-won serenity in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. The problem was in finding an appropriate dramatic form.

For this, I think he looked back on his comedies as much as he did to the tragedies. Of course, Posthumus’ murderous jealousy may remind us of Othello, and Iachimo’s villainy may remind us of Iago; but Imogen setting out on her own in time of adversity reminds us of Rosalind, of Viola, and even, perhaps, of Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and, more especially it reminds us of Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well, that strange fairy-tale like work written while Shakespeare was conccerned mainly with tragic affairs. Indeed, looking through the entire body of Shakespeare’s work, All’s Well That Ends Well seems to me to be a sort of link between the world of the comedies and that of these late works. I get the impression that even when Shakespeare was creating his great tragic dramas, his ever-restless mind, constantly darting, like Hamlet’s, to newer ideas, was already forming and imagining a new artistic vision.

Artistic vision is all very well, but it needs to find proper dramatic expression. And Shakespeare had no option but to experiment. If the experiment came off, well and good; if not, there was always the next play, where one could try something else. And it is noticeable that each of these these three late plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – while depicting a vision reconciliation, is each very different in terms of form.

As in All’s Well That Ends Well, we find Shakespeare fascinated by folklore, by the world of the fairy tale. The ethos of the fairy story seems to permeate Cymbeline: and indeed, there isn’t really any other way to make sense of those various elements that give the impression of “unresisting imbecility”. And when we do start to take the action as a sort of fairy story, questions of probability of plot or of psychological consistency seem no more relevant than they do in, say, “Hansel and Gretel”. This is obviously a far cry from the dramatic world of the tragedies, which only really make sense when we try to probe into the minds of the protagonists. When we watch or read Othello, we can’t help but question why Othello reacts the way he does to Iago’s posion, or why Iago applies such poison in the first place: but here, it seems pointlss to ask similar questions regarding Posthumus’ jealousy, or Iachimo’s villainy. The characters’ actions are a given: we do not even think here of asking “why?”

The main problem with this play is not so much that the plot is silly, but that there is far too much of it. As a consequence, Shakespeare has to spend a disproportionate amount of time in explaining the plot to the audience; and that, in itself, draws attention to the absurdities. And furthermore, the explanations of the sheer mechanics of the plot result in some very awkward passages. The very opening scene, for instance, is about as crude a piece of expository writing as one would find anywhere in dramatic literature. Throughout, there are explanatory asides; and Belarius at one point is given a long soliloquy that has absolutely no purpose other than to fill in the audience on his story. Shakespeare must have realised that things were going a bit wrong: it is very noticeable that in the two plays that followed, he thinned down the plot considerably.

But if the experiment that was Cymbeline was not a complete success, by no means is it a complete failure. Scene after scene impress with their dramatic power – even that very strange scene where Imogen wakes up next to a headless corpse, and thinks it the body of her husband, The first meeting between Imogen and Iachimo contains some remarkable dramatic verse: Iachimo’s lines as he finds himself overwhelmed by the beauty of the woman he has come to destroy are extraordinary. Similarly impressive are the monologues of the penitent Posthumus; and his line on fianally being reconciled to Imogen are surely amongst the most tender that Shakespeare had ever written:

           Hang there like fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die.

And of course, there is that very beautiful dirge sung over the dead Fidele (in reality, the living Imogen). That single lyric is enough to ensure the reputation of this play.

When I saw this play in performance (there’s an excellent production in the BBC Shakespeare series), my reaction was “What was Will on?” I think perhaps that these late plays work somewhat better read rather than seen: perhaps, they are better as poetry than as drama. At least, after my latest reading of this particular work, I find myself thinking far more highly of it than I had done previously. Shakespeare may not yet have found the dramatic form he was looking for, but something of his vision does get through: I found it strangely moving. This is a play I shall be revisiting: I get the impression that I am only really beginning to come to grips with it.

3 responses to this post.

  1. I will probably be quoting a couple of paragraphs of this in my personal RSC review (press night is not until next week: so it will not be until after that – even though I am not an official member of the RSC media cadre, they send me photos: so I have to play nice…(?!) – so please feel free to bitterly complain…!) – I shall of course be giving you full credit for your insight, etc..

    To be honest, your essay helped me make sense of some of the muddle that’s present in trying to stage this; and I agree that, here, the written word seems, somehow, more potent that the performed one: which is very unusual for Shakespeare’s plays.

    That the first viewing lasted three hours and 40 minutes (including interval), and still felt rushed, shows how much ‘stuff’ he is trying to cram in! Another two viewings may confirm whether the experiment worked… – but, as of now, it feels like it needs a darn good editing…!

    Thanks, as always, for your hairy wisdom!


    • I just read over this post – I had written it some years ago – and found myself embarrassed by my presumption: when it comes to Shakespeare’s mature dramas, if there is anything that doesn’t make sense, I should look to my own understanding, and try to understand better, rather than presume to think Shakespeare had got it wrong. That may seem like idolatry, but it isn’t: there have been many examples where I have thought Shakespeare had got it wrong, only to realise after a few years’ thinking about it that the old boy knew what he was doing!

      The plot, and the way the plot sis presented, is indeed often clumsy. But that only means that Shakespeare didn’t attach much attention to the plot. I think this play is best treated as a sort of pantomime – a fairy story with lots of comedy, but which, like The Magic Flute, nonetheless addresses themes of the greatest importance. I still don’t quite get this play – but I think I’m getting there!


      • I think you’re a lot further on than I am (witness your review of the Wanamaker production). I have read the text three times, this week; and am about to see it ‘played’ for the second time – and am still convinced that it works better on the page than the stage. Maybe it’s the staging itself that’s the problem? We shall see…! Thank you for the quick reply, though… – even though I think you are doing yourself a disservice…!

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