Cymbeline is another of those over-pretentious plays of the latter cycle. You could argue for it’s complexity, that it delivers too much. And like other similarly ‘problematic’ plays, ie Troilus and Cressida and Pericles, it caters to an acquired palate.
As for me, like these other plays I speak of, Cymbeline falls easily among my favourites.
It’s one of those sombre tragi-comedies with a pseudo-historical element: the reign of Cunobelius (here Cymbeline), early King of (Celtic) Britain of around 9-40AD still under the influence of the Roman Empire of Augustus.
Cymbeline was said to be knighted and apprenticed by Augustus, yet a rift has arisen between the two nations as Britain refused to continue to pay the yearly tribute to Rome that was historically agreed upon during Julius Caesar’s involvement. Britain emphasizes it’s growing independence and that, well, Augustus Caesar is not Julius.
The plot also involves a Lord long banished from the Kingdom, for twenty years now the inhabitant of the wilderness (somewhere in the mountainous Wales) along with two young lads unaware of their noble blood ties.
Of course, not being a formal history play, Shakespeare manipulates events, shifts narratives, switches characters, introduces anachronistic aspects, as far as borrowing from the progressive (for the times) Italian scene of Boccaccio, and otherwise invents.
There is much to digest in the bombardment of parallel narratives, diversions, convoluted plot devices and props. But proceeding at a modest rhythm, the incredible dimension lends to a phenomenal impression, especially when appreciating each scene as an independent unit.
The characters are astonishingly many, including some who acquire multiple identities under different names. Thus the ‘transformation’/impersonation technique is here in full force, as with the myriads of other Shakespearean (and Elizabethan) dramas.
What are some of the underlying themes? Jealousy. Deception. Revenge. Hatred. Abuse of power. Intrigue. Repentance. War. Dichotomy between the Court and the rural lifestyles.
Much of the narrative involves unrealistic coincidences and hyperboles. Certain plot devices can seam wildly fantastical, but such was the nature of much Renaissance theatre in general. It’s not to be misconceived with the 20th-century realism. You must appeal to your imagination.
Among the other remarkable elements:
Self-dialogue, used to reveal the character’s intimate thoughts and dispositions. This is common for plays of the period, helpful to facilitate the narration, eliminating the need for explicit staging notes inherent to the modern theatre.
Fate. Prophesies. Predictions. Both nations still under the Pagan influences (and for long to come), there’s even a Soothsayer character (an oracle), employed by the Romans in the interpretation of the signs.
An evocative dream sequence very reminiscent of Greek Drama.
Comically villainous characters; some of seemingly absolute evil, others driven by passion.
A battle sequence with a comic segment or two. In fact, throughout many of Shakespeare’s plays involving battles, historical or otherwise, the bard is notorious for infusing them with humor. And this is no exception.
In addition, much of the battle sequences are related by way of incidental character dialogue, and not only in this play but in numerous of Shakespeare. I really appreciate this touch of indirection, for it lends the fable that double air of the realistic and the subjective characteristic of something like a troubadour tale.
The anticipation of death with humor and philosophy. In some of the grimmest moments, the bard introduces witty and yet philosophically riveting dialogue with characters you’d least expect. In this case, such an exchange takes place with a prison guard.
To reemphasize, the identity-transformation device (through supposed grooming and vocal adjustment) is used abundantly and to great ingenuity, hilarity and unrealism, which, again, in no way expects to appease the audience strictly adherent to the contemporary theatre scene.
The Boccaccio (Decameron) inspired wager over the loyalty of a woman and the nearly erotic encounter that follows.
The techniques employed in this play are too many. In a certain way it unfolds like the Swiss army knife of Elizabethan theatre. While not for everyone who expects a more grounded story, it should entertain the appreciators of poesy and dramatic extravagance.
Questions, comments? Connect.