Cymbeline V: Revenge, remorse, reconciliation



Every writer has heard the advice “Show, don’t tell.” Exposition drags at the plot, often bringing it to a standstill. True to form, Shakespeare ignores this rule. Much like the point in the murder mystery where the detective has gathered everyone to explain whodunnit, the final scene of Act V gathers all surviving characters in one location for the final resolve.



But here’s where Shakespeare’s play is different from, say, the dinner party scene in The Third Man: In the latter, Nick Charles reveals what the audience does not know, but in the final scene of Cymbeline the various characters reveal what the audience does know. In fact, only the audience knows everything revealed in this scene, for each of the characters is missing several pieces of the puzzle, and the eponymous King Cymbeline doesn’t even know the puzzle exists. The king’s passage from ignorance to understanding, then from anger to forgiveness, is the theme of this ending. King Cymbeline, who as the play begins is vengeful (exiling Posthumus and arresting Imogen), learns — inspired by Imogen — to be magnanimous.



So. Act V is all about getting everyone happily back together, including Posthumus, whom we last saw in Rome but has come to Wales as part of the Roman army. Believing Pisanio has killed Imogene, his entrance in the first scene reveals him regretting his haste. Wishing to die, he leaps into battle, fighting for Britain, however, rather than for Rome.

Via several brief scenes, we watch the battle, until Posthumus is captured. Awaiting execution (and in a scene strikingly similar to Harry Potter’s entrance into the Forbidden Forest where he expects to be killed by Lord Voldemort), Posthumus sleeps and is visited by the ghosts of his mother, father and brothers. They demand that Jupiter, the “Thunder-master”, save their only surviving family member, and the great god, as cranky as an old man disturbed from his nap, agrees to do so. Posthumus wakes to find an engraved tablet predicting a turn in his fortunes.



Except for Cloten, whose end we’ve already seen, and the ailing Queen, whom we learn has died, the characters group and regroup until eventually they all share the same stage. On learning of his wife’s demise, the King gives us no equal to Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. The most he can muster is “Who worse than a physician/Would this report become? But I consider/By med’cine life may be prolonged, yet death/Will seize the doctor too. How ended she?”

She ended badly, insane and confessing all her sins. But this is soon forgotten in the rush of revealed secrets. Lovers are reunited, lost children returned to parents, exiles welcomed back, invaders forgiven. The King even agrees to pay the tribute to Rome. From their trials the characters have learned to more greatly appreciate their happiness, which may explain everyone’s eagerness to forgive all who have wronged them. Even Iachimo has a change of heart (although I have to wonder: is his eagerness to be good just another put-on?).

If I have anything else to say about this odd play, I will put up a final post on the 26th, the day of Shakespeare’s baptism. Whatever happens here, be sure to check Calmgrove’s blog for his final views of Cymbeline.

Bonus: For scenes from and insight into what looks to have been a gorgeous 2013 production of this play, watch the videos at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s site.

Posted in Cymbeline, Shakespeare | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The geography of Cymbeline

Lizzie Ross:

For fans of maps, Calmgrove has charted the paths of Cymbeline’s various characters. To match the time frame of the play, he’s cut out the unimportant Midlands, putting London west of Offa’s Dyke and well into modern Wales.

Originally posted on calmgrove:

Roman Britain according to Ptolemy c. 90--168

Roman Britain according to Ptolemy c. 90rx–168

The first thing to remember is that The Tragedie of Cymbeline is, despite its published title, a comedy. It’s certainly not a Shakespearean ‘history’ so we mustn’t expect any degree of accuracy or verisimilitude. If anything it belongs to a genre we’d nowadays happily accept as Fantasy if it was to be written up in modern language. And its sources, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth’s so-called History of the Kings of Britain, were pure fantasy, in the broadest sense, albeit with some authentic pieces like nuts or fruit included in the baking of a cake.

The map I’ve used is a Renaissance edition of Roman geographer Ptolemy’s great work, mapping the world as known at the time. Everything appears distorted but at least north is to the top instead of to the left as in most medieval maps. I’ve marked in Milford Haven…

View original 243 more words

Posted in Cymbeline, Shakespeare | Leave a comment

450 years old and still great

Courtesy University of Florida

Courtesy University of Florida

Today I have Shakespeare for kids on my mind. Because WS’s language, with its old words and complicated syntax, is a challenge for young readers, it isn’t unusual to find versions of these tales re-penned specifically for children.

Charles Lamb (1775-1834) and Mary Lamb (1764-1847) may have been the first to do this. Their 1807 Tales from Shakespeare (2 volumes to include all 36 plays), is “meant to be submitted to the young reader as an introduction to the study of Shakespeare,” sticks as closely as possible to WS’s language, trying not to use “words introduced into our language since his time.” The larger challenge, however, arises not in language but in plot. “Very young minds”, especially young girls’ minds, might find the plays too … well, suggestive. The Lambs call on these girls’ brothers to help with the difficult plots and to “read to them — carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear — some passage which has pleased them.”

To help these solicitous brothers, the Lambs redact the tales, omitting the salacious and overly violent parts. In Mary Lamb’s version of Cymbeline, for instance, the mole that Iachimo sees while taking her bracelet from the sleeping Imogen is on her neck rather than her breast, and Cloten is barely mentioned (presumably so that we don’t need to see his head sans torso).

E. Nesbit’s  , with its much shorter versions of only 20 plays (no histories), is for much younger readers, and even the illustrations (in the US edition, at any rate) portray the characters as children rather than adults.


First US edition

Nesbit (1858-1924), author of several YA books (the Bastable series, the Psammead series, etc.), explains in her Preface that she’d written these stories to help her own children find their way through the maze of language to the lovely stories underneath. At first she was stumped:

In truth it was not easy to arrange the story simply. Even with the recollection of Lamb’s tales to help me I found it hard to tell the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in words that these little ones could understand.

Nesbit’s Cymbeline, like the Lambs’, omits Cloten and simplifies even further, for the sake of brevity. Iachimo’s dark of night visit to Imogen’s room is brief:

So the trunk was carried into Imogen’s room, and that night she went to bed and to sleep. When she was fast asleep, the lid of the trunk opened and a man got out. It was Iachimo. The story about the jewels was as untrue as the rest of the things he had said. He had only wished to get into her room to win his wicked wager. He looked about him and noticed the furniture, and then crept to the side of the bed where Imogen was asleep and took from her arm the gold bracelet which had been the parting gift of her husband. Then he crept back to the trunk, and next morning sailed for Rome.

As I read through Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, I sometimes find myself yearning for the simplicity of the Lambs’ or Nesbit’s versions. WS’s syntax is at times so convoluted that I need a map to guide me through each sentence. Which is the subject, which the verb; what’s the referent for that pronoun? Even the experts can’t agree (my Pelican version is rife with notes that end with question marks).

But that’s the trade-off. In exchange for the hard work of careful reading, we’re rewarded not just with lovely tales, but with language full of puns, humor, irony, and beauty. Sadly, these are lost in the children’s versions. The stories are there, and perhaps knowing the stories will, as the Lambs hoped, encourage young readers to dig into the original, if only to find out what was thought too racy for their “very young minds.”

Many thanks to the University of Florida and The Gutenberg Project for making editions of these books, complete with illustrations, available online.

Posted in Shakespeare, YA Lit | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Cymbeline IV: The Head

George Dawe, early 19th century.

George Dawe, early 19th century.

Now we’re cooking with gas, as they say. To shift metaphors, the tangle of plot threads is starting to form a coherent pattern.

Act IV is packed with action: Imogen — still with Belarius, Guiderius and Arbiragus; still disguised as a boy — falls ill. The others go out hunting, she takes the potion Pisanio has assured her will speed her recovery, and we know how that will turn out.

Cloten, dressed as Posthumus and searching for him and Imogen, comes upon Guiderius. Insults fly, swords are drawn, and they exit fighting. Guiderius returns, Cloten’s head under his arm, still flinging insults at the dead man: “Not Hercules/Could have knocked out his brains, for he had none.” He later tosses “Cloten’s clotpoll down the stream/In embassy to his mother”. (Clotpoll is an excellent Shakespearean insult. Variations include clod-poll/clod-pole and clod-pate, all basically meaning thick-headed. Feel free to use any of these when addressing people with whom you disagree.)

After Guiderius dumps the clotpoll, Arviragus carries in the body of Imogen (don’t forget — they still think she’s a boy, despite her great skill at cooking): “The bird is dead/That we have made so much on. I had rather/Have skipped from sixteen years of age to sixty,/To have turned my leaping time into a crutch,/Than have seen this.”

They decide to bury her, and Belarius, in a fit of pity, argues that Cloten’s head-less body must be laid with hers in the grave: “Our foe was princely,/And though you took his life as being our foe,/Yet bury him as a prince.” Then over the double grave, the three men sing one of the more beautiful songs from the Shakespearean canon. Here is Gerald Finzi’s setting*:

Don’t forget: Cloten was dressed in Posthumus’s clothing when he was beheaded. You can guess what happens next.

Imogen comes to, at first confusedly thinking she is yet to reach Wales. Then her memory restores itself, she glances around, sees the body next to her, and then looks at it again: “O Posthumus, alas,/Where is thy head? Where’s that? Ay me, where’s that?” She’s certain that Pisanio and Cloten have conspired to kill her husband, and she collapses in tears on the body.

The Roman General, Lucius, arrived in Wales with his soldiers, comes across Imogen (still disguised as a boy). She lies about who she is and whose body she’s mourning. Lucius asks her to join him, and she agrees. Back at Cymbeline’s court, the queen is ill with worry about her missing son, Cymbeline anxious for news of his daughter, and Pisanio suspected by everyone of knowing where the missing royals are to be found.

Act IV ends with Belarius being convinced by his two sons to join the fight against the Roman invaders.

BTW: Iachimo is one of the Roman officers arriving in Wales — as long as no one kills him in battle, perhaps he’ll be useful in reuniting Imogen with Posthumus (whose name is now more than apt).

*Finzi, a 20th Century British composer, died in 1956, age 55. This song, the third in a Shakespearean song cycle (Let Us Garlands Bring, Opus 18), was completed in 1942. Visit his official website here.

Next up: the final act, which somehow has to reunite Imogen and Posthumus. And if you haven’t done so already, check out what Calmgrove has been blogging about this play.

Posted in Cymbeline, Shakespeare | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Cymbeline III: The Brothers


Globe Theater. Courtesy

Aha! The long-lost princes appear in this act, as does the box of poisons (remember — not actually dangerous, just sleep inducing), and even hints of war appear at the edges. Plot lines start to cross, with complications ensuing.

In brief: Cymbeline, encouraged by his Queen and Cloten, refuses to pay the annual tribute to Rome first arranged by Julius Caesar. They’re quite welcoming to the Roman ambassador, General Lucius, and all but Cloten are polite in their refusal to pay. Then we see an unhappy Pisanio with a letter from Posthumus telling him to kill Imogen. He delivers another letter to Imogen in which Posthumus asks her to meet him in Wales, and she leaps at the chance. Next the two missing princes appear, just outside a Welsh cave where they’ve been raised by Belarius (long banished from Cymbeline’s court — he stole the babies as revenge). Although ignorant of their royal birth, they yearn for the lights and excitement of the big city, but Belarius temporarily satisfies them by saying, basically, “If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t be so eager to leave this calm and restful cave.”

Belarius and the princes head off to catch dinner just as Imogen and Pisanio appear. When Pisanio reveals Posthumus’ desire for her death, Imogen doubts her husband’s fealty and begins to excoriate all men (in echo of her husband’s rant against women). It takes all his wiles for Pisanio, who believes his master innocent, to calm her and explain his plan: Imogen is to disguise herself as a young man and travel to Rome to learn the truth about her husband’s behavior. Pisanio must return to court, but he leaves the box of poisons (he thinks they’re medicinal potions) with Imogen, in case she feels ill.

The three hunters return with a deer and discover her (already disguised) inside their cave — “I’ll love him as my brother,” says one of the princes; Imogen, in an aside, wishes these men had been her father’s sons.

Situational irony, anyone?

Back at Cymbeline’s court, Cloten hatches a plot to kill Posthumus (whom he believes is in Wales with Imogen) and rape her. Oh, and in Gaul, General Lucius is gathering forces to attack Britain.

The disguises (a common Shakespearean plot device) promise confusion, so I predict Cloten will be nearly killed by someone who mistakes him for Posthumus, and Imogen may find herself thrown into battle against the invading Roman army.

Side notes: In Scene i, reference is made to Julius Caesar, “whose remembrance yet/Lives in men’s eyes and will to ears and tongues/Be theme and hearing ever”. I can imagine above the Globe during this performance would be flying a black flag, advertising a performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Julius Caesar, on the following day.

And Calmgrove will be pleased to read “I have not slept one wink” (Pisanio to Imogen in scene iv) and “The game is up” (Belarius’s soliloquy at the end of scene iii) come from this act. However, connecting “wink” with sleep doesn’t originate with Shakespeare; it’s found three centuries earlier, in Robert Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne (1303): “Ne mete ete, ne drank drynke, Ne slepte onely a-lepy wynke.”

Posted in Cymbeline, Shakespeare | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Cymbeline II: The Trunk

Adam Haas Hunter as Cloten, from

Adam Haas Hunter as Cloten, from

I’m starting to see the comic potential of this play. Cloten, the princely prat, has the best line so far. He’s just come in from a night of carousing and beating up his inferiors, and reviews his latest adventures with his two lordly buddies (who make it quite clear that Cloten came out worse than he claims). Suddenly one companion draws the prince’s attention to the approaching King and Queen. “I am glad I was up so late,” Cloten says, “for that’s the reason I was up so early. He cannot choose but take this service I have done fatherly.”

But I’m forgetting the trunk. In the first scene of this act, Imogen retires to her bedchamber, where she is keeping Iachimo’s trunk. Her maid leaves, the lights fall, and Imogen utters her bedtime prayer: “To your protection I commend me, gods,/From fairies and the tempters of the night/Guard me, beseech ye!”

Picture this: all is quiet as Imogen sleeps. We hear a creak and look at the door. Who’s coming in to disturb the princess? But the door remains shut. Then, from the corner of our eye, we see the trunk’s lid rise.

H A Saintsbury as Iachimo, 1906

H A Saintsbury as Iachimo, 1906

I knew it! That fiend Iachimo hops out of the trunk and prances around the room like Peter Pan chasing his shadow. If there were cell phones in Ancient Britain, he’d be Instagramming Imogen’s bedroom as evidence that he was there. Lacking technology, he must memorize the scene — the bed, the fireplace, the window, the embroidered hangings. Remorselessly he takes Posthumus’s bracelet from Imogen’s wrist, at the same time noticing a mole on her breast. The perfect detail to prove he has bedded her, without actually committing the deed. Then back into the trunk, to make his escape later.

When next we see Iachimo, he is back in Rome, regaling Posthumus with the story of Imogen’s fall. The bracelet and mention of the mole are enough to convince Posthumus that he’s been cuckolded, and Act II ends with his vitriolic soliloquy about evil women: “I’ll write against them,/Detest them, curse them. Yet ’tis greater skill/In a true hate to pray they have their will;/The very devils cannot plague them better.” Imogen may need Iachimo to back up her defense, for it doesn’t seem possible that Posthumus can ever trust her again.

I’m still waiting for those two missing sons to make their appearance, still waiting for some military action. For now, it’s only Iachimo’s machinations and Cloten’s oafish bragging and ineffectual wooing of Imogen. The Queen’s poisons are still waiting in the wings, but you can be sure they’ll show up at some point to cause confusion and dismay.

In his post on Act I, Calmgrove noted the absence so far of familiar phrases or lines. Whether this is the cause or result of the play being so rarely performed is up for debate. But one well-known song appears in Act II: Hark, hark, the lark*. Here’s Kat Carson singing Schubert’s melody.

As for Shakespeare’s language, I’ll take a moment to point out three unusual words. In Act I, “tomboy” is used to mean “whore”. According to the OED, this word dating from the mid-1500s refers to a rude boy, a “bold or immodest woman”, or an overly active girl. All three meanings were in use before 1600, so this is a word that quickly took on multiple meanings. Iachimo uses it during his first, failed attempt to seduce Imogen: “A lady/So fair, and fastened to an empery/Would make the great’st king double, to be partnered/With tomboys hired with that self exhibition/Which your own coffers yield”.

“Companion” is used as a term of insult: “It is not fit your lordship should undertake every companion that you give offense to.” (Although it must be noted here, that the insult is aimed equally at Cloten.)

“Minion” can mean anything from a prince’s favorite (as it’s used here to refer to Posthumus: “The exile of her minion is too new”), a darling, or a lover, to a fop or slave. One’s meaning must be very clear when throwing this word around.

BTW, 862 quotes from Cymbeline are used as exemplars in the OED.

Act III in 2 days.

*I will be forever the minion of the first person to identify the YA book in which one of the characters runs around crying “hark, hark, the lark”. My brain is not cooperating in helping me remember the book’s title, the character’s gender, or the scene in which it happens.

Posted in Cymbeline, Shakespeare | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Henry Pulling’s Middle Age Crisis

200px-Travelswithmyaunt1stcoverGraham Greene, Travels with My Aunt (1969)

Nestled in a playground near my apartment is a Little Free Library, to which I frequently contribute, and from which I frequently borrow, although I’ve yet to return any of the borrowed books. The other day I found a copy of Greene’s truly funny novel about Henry Pulling’s adventures with his Aunt Augusta, which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Treasure!

Henry, a retired banker, single and childless, devotes the evening of his life (at his age, more like the late afternoon) to cultivating dahlias in the garden of his quiet suburban London home. He has never traveled further than Brighton, never been in love, never done anything wrong.

But within a week of meeting his 75-year-old Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral, Henry finds himself on the Orient Express to Istanbul, smoking pot in a first class car with a pregnant American hippie whose father is a CIA agent, and wondering what his Aunt is smuggling into Turkey, and for what purpose. He’s also just learned from his aunt that his mother was, in fact, his step-mother.

Who then is his mother? A girl who refused to marry Henry’s father, is all that Augusta will say, but a clever reader will eventually put the clues together to discover Henry’s true parentage.

Aunt Augusta is one of Greene’s great characters (avoid the film version which, despite Maggie Smith’s Augusta, is a mess of Hollywood happy-ever-after). Augusta has led, and still leads, such a life that she envies no one, despite her frequent experiences with destitution. With Henry, she travels to Paris, Istanbul, Boulogne, and a small town in Paraguay. In her wake follows the faithful Wordsworth, a hotel doorman from Freetown, Sierra Leone, whom she has taken as a lover and then discarded when her one true love reappears.

Poor Henry. As he learns more about his aunt’s life, he soon realizes how she has made her way as a prostitute, smuggler, embezzler, art thief, and mistress, none of which she sees as wrong. She explains that she prefers the unsettled life, with death waiting around every corner, because it keeps her senses on edge. She belittles Henry’s yearning for his dahlias, which, for her, represent a smooth path with no mental or physical challenges. In a word, dull.

Augusta reminds me a bit of Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, who also lives on the edge of life, but without all the illegal shenanigans. But where Mame at her lowest point falls in love with a wealthy man who saves her from the worst of the Depression, Augusta falls in love with a thief and eventual war criminal who steals all her money and then abandons her. What does she do? For decades she keeps that candle burning for Mr. Visconti and puts Henry and Wordsworth in danger so that she can help her lover start his smuggling business in Paraguay.

Put that way, I find it hard to admire Henry’s aunt. But Greene makes us love her despite her amoral view of life. She is not just clever, she understands human nature, and she nearly always knows how to get herself and those she loves out of trouble.

Eventually Henry must decide if his future lies with his aunt or his dahlias. It amazed me that I wanted him to choose both.

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Humorous, Travel book | Tagged | 3 Comments