Cymbeline: Written with Scissors and Glue
I am convinced Shakespeare was having fun with us when he wrote Cymbeline.
It happened like this: He was tired of writing one day and decided to present of one of the old plays at the Globe. But that didn’t seem right. Sparked by his desperation, a inspired solution flashed upon him: He knew how he could give his audience something new and fresh.
He laid out all of his plays, cut each one into slips of paper, each paper containing a plot element from a past or soon-to-be-finished play. He stuffed the paper strips in a hat and had each of his King’s Men players pull out a slip of paper. Then, without looking at them, he glued them together in random order and proudly proclaimed the result his new play.
The first passage pulled out of the hat was from King Lear. Hum. He had to change the name of the play and the characters, at least. So he quickly scribbled out the name Lear and replaced it with the only other early monarch of the Britons (who wasn’t legendary Arthur) he could remember from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain)—Cymbeline. And weren’t Lear and Cymbeline related anyway. There, he had his title and subject.
Now the plot: The next slip contained the portion of Romeo and Juliet where the beloved young woman is given a potion so she could repose in death-like splendor, without taking that last step towards the final light. Feigned lover’s death? Shakespeare gazed at the paper for just a second. Obvious! He’d stick that element in the play. The young heroine could be given a sleeping potion. The husband would think her dead. “Great idea!” proclaimed the Bard a bit louder than he intended. “I’m glad I came up with it twice.” And he stuck it in the play.
The passage he pulled from Troilus and Cressida challenged him, but soon he concluded he’d use the test of a lover’s virtue, and with this free do-over, he’d make it work out better.
A slip of paper from Hamlet reminded him of the Dane’s ghostly father. But he wanted the show to attract families for the Saturday matinees, so he tossed in a few more related spirits for a more familial feel.
He looked down at the glued paper again. This time he saw a cutting from Twelfth Night. Perfect! He could have the princess dress up like a man to serve an authentic man as a faithful and beloved servant. It had worked great in Twelfth Night–very popular, so he included it in Cymbeline.
The next play in his “compilation” was the “taking” of the king’s child. The Winter’s Tale was a work in progress in his top left desk drawer, so it was fresh on his mind. It would add a great twist to the story! So he added it to Cymbeline, but this time it was not to save the child from a raving king, but to punish an unwise king. At that point, he remembered the final scene from the Tale. It was such a grand summing up of all those loose ends in the play—as good as any who-done-it he’d ever read—so he gave Cymbeline an even better wrap where everything was revealed and restored.
At that point, he read over his draft and realized he had plagiarized himself (not just another playwright or ancient writer), and this worried him. He pondered and pondered about how to get out of it. It’s ok to copy and imitate the work of others, especially when you always end up raising the quality of the work, but how do you improve upon the Bard?
He was troubled, but just for a short breath, for soon his genius kicked in, revealing an escape. He’d make it a fairy-tale, without the fairies. He’d write in the ever-unpopular evil stepmother stereotype, and maybe even have her try to poison the beautiful princess. But it needed something bigger, so he called in the big gun. A cameo by that chief god Jupiter would be fantastical and raise the whole play to mythical heights. Yes, a mythical play. A Roman God. A British King. A fair princess ever separated from her not-quite-a-prince husband. True, abiding love. A princess always at risk.
This was great formula. The play would be better than the plays the other guy had been supplying him—you know the guy: the one who wanted to stay anonymous and kept giving Will stellar plays and begging him to put the Shakespeare name on them. This was William’s chance to become the real Shakespeare. He trembled with excitement.
And that’s how Cymbeline was written.
It left the play with more twists and turns, more ups and downs and dangers than a narrow mountain road during a rock-slide. Part tragedy, part romance, part comedy. How do you categorize it? Originally, it was a comedy, but the latest trend is to call it romantic comedy.
It’s the story of a clearly incapable-of-discernment king in ancient England. His evil second wife and equally bad stepson use and deceive him, but he believes they adore him. His daughter, Imogen, who does adore him, has raised his ire by marrying a man she loves. Both she and her husband are marvelous, perfect. But Cymbeline, the king, wanted her to marry someone more worthy of her; someone like his stepson Cloten. Imogen’s husband, Posthumus, is banished.
Posthumus turns out not to be so perfect in judgement. He brags of Imogen’s loyalty and beauty and accepts a wager from an Italian–of course–to test Imogen’s faithfulness. Imogen proves exceedingly fair and faithful, but the Italian cheats to steal information and a bracelet from Imogen to “prove” her guilt.
In the meantime, under the misguidance of his queen, Cymbeline refuses to pay tribute to Rome and Augustus Caesar. Thus Rome prepares to crush the Britons. That’s where the linear plot twists upon itself over and over again: Imogen ends up wearing a lad’s clothes in supporting Rome’s battle with England. Posthumus, who believes he’s killed Imogen for her supposed wantonness, wearing commoner’s clothes ends up fighting ferociously for Briton in hope of dying. Two royal sons, earlier kidnapped and assumed dead, come out of their cave-home to crush the Romans. And Cloten, the want-to-be-king clod, borrows Posthumus’s clothes to kill Posthumus and force Imogen, but loses his head over her. And the queen: You know what happens to evil stepmothers, although this one confesses to all her dastardly deeds as she fades.
Cymbeline is a romantic comedy, so it all works out in the final scene with lots of forgiveness going around, a fine reconciliation with Rome, and with Imogen losing the kingdom to a brother she didn’t know existed. Never has a kingdom been lost with more joy.
Cymbeline displays unusually powerful emotions with a tremendous charge. Like some of Shakespeare’s other late work—especially The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest—it is an improbable story lifted into a nearly mythic realm.
Words that come to mind when I think of the play are forgiveness, faithfulness, loyalty, and kings tend to have poor judgement.
Quotes I liked:
Cloten:We will nothing pay for wearing our own noses.
Imogen:I see a man’s life is a tedious one
Imogen:Plenty and peace breeds cowards; hardness ever of hardiness is mother
Cloten:It is not vainglory for a man and his glass to confer in his own chamber.
Lucius:Some falls are means the happier to arise.
Pisanio:Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer’d.
Posthumus:The strait path was damn’d with dead men hurt behind, and cowards living, to die with lengthen’d shame.
Jupiter:Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift, the more delay’d, delighted. Be content
Jupiter:He shall be lord of Lady Imogen, and happier much by his affliction made
Gaoler:I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good
Posthumus:The power that I have on you is to spare you; the malice towards you to forgive you: live, and deal with others better.
Up Next:Titus Andronicus