Shakespeare: Cymbeline

January 29, 2016

51620XFKCTL._AA160_It’s not a play I know that well, never having studied it, and I’ve only read it a few times. It’s supposed to be set in ancient Britain, at the time of the emperor Augustus (which is a bit odd, since the Roman History I studied had no offical contact between Britain and Rome between Julius Caesar’s adventures in 55 and 54BC and Claudius’ conquest nearly a century later, but let’s not get too niggly..) but one thing that I have never really got is a sense of that time period; dialogue, action and attitudes basically feel like those of the sixteenth century, and the scenes in Rome and with Romans are very cursory.

It’s another of those plays where a villain convinces a man that his partner (wife or intended wife) has been unfaithful to him, causing grief and mayhem. Instead of the machinations of Don John which I wrote about in my last piece, about Much Ado, this time it’s the alleged friend of a friend, Iachimo, who manages to convince the absent Posthumus that he has slept with Imogen, the former’s wife. Clearly captivated by her beauty, he has tried it on a couple of times but got nowhere; repulsed he sneaks into her room at night and notes so many details of the chamber and the woman that he is able to convince Posthumus he’s done the dirty deed, even though he hasn’t…

There are elements of the scheming nature of Iago in Iachimo; Cymbeline‘s wife is also a schemer, and it’s via a supposed poison that she’s had concocted for a nefarious purpose that Imogen ends up apparently dead, and buried, though she comes back to life later on (now where has Shakespeare used that idea before?) This is a Roman element, I suppose, as Romans – especially women – were notorious for their use of poison to get rid of people who got in their way. And the idea of the heroine restored to life and reunited with her true love, her husband who had been gulled and led to doubt her honesty, comes up again in the later and rather more spectacular play, TheWinter’s Tale.

Then there’s the long-lost loyal friend who has fallen out of the king’s favour and gone into hiding (having arranged to have two of the king’s sons stolen away, too), which leads into a series of episodes set among the more primitive ancient Britons, though why Milford Haven should be everyone’s preferred spot does escape me.

Certainly Shakespeare wasn’t above re-using elements of earlier plays that had been successful! And they work well, re-used. The language of the play is often very complex, the syntax somewhat tortured, compacted in the way that a good number of Prospero‘s speeches are in The Tempest. I am looking forward to seeing it in performance, as I expect that it will be more immediately comprehensible when performed. And, although the combinations of plots, attitudes and characters are at times a challenge for a twenty-first century reader, I did feel strangely moved by the ending.


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