Here’s my last word on Cymbeline, posted on this 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism. Calmgrove has very kindly saved me the trouble of writing an extensive analysis (read his post here), so I’ll just speculate a bit about the play’s title, and then have some YouTube fun.
The confusion about the title arises because King Cymbeline, although the catalyst for nearly all the misery in the play, is actually a secondary character. Imogene and Posthumus, the thwarted lovers who appear in most of the scenes, are clearly the protagonists. But I’d argue that the challenges they face (separation and doubts of each other’s fidelity, not to mention threats on their lives) don’t change their basic characters. Imogene never wavers from her role as faithful and loving daughter and wife; Posthumus acts rashly but reverts to his true self: loyal to Britain, the King, and Imogen, despite perceived and actual affronts to his honor.
No, it’s the King whose character undergoes the most drastic change. As the play starts, we learn that Cymbeline has a history of suspecting treason where none exists, and then of acting forcefully and without hesitation. Long ago he banished his friend, Belarius, from Britain (and suffered the loss of the two princes as a result), and now he is exiling Posthumus, the young man he fostered from childhood, and placing his daughter on, essentially, double secret probation.
By the end of the play, Cymbeline has learned it isn’t wise to be so quick in his decisions: he could easily have executed all his prisoners, never learning that Posthumus and his own daughter were among them. Now that would have been a tragedy worthy of Lear. Seeing how close he came to disaster turns his mind and makes it possible for him to free all the prisoners and restore amicable relations with Rome. I don’t know if that justifies naming the play after the King, but really, who can fathom the whys and wherefores of WS?
Especially for Calmgrove, here’s a BBC blog post from 2011 discussing the links between Shakespeare and Wales. I was happy to read here that Shaw and I shared similar responses to Cymbeline’s Act V.
And now for that promised YouTube fun. First off, a clip from a 1982 production of Cymbeline, part of the BBC series of the Shakespeare canon. That’s Paul Jesson as Cloten, and of course you recognized who’s playing Imogen.
Now that I’ve read the play, I might actually want to see the upcoming movie. Here’s the trailer:
The Geeky Blonde needs only 9 minutes, 29 seconds to whip us through a synopsis. I think she gets the mood of Act V just right:
The students at Wright State University (Ohio) posted a two-hour video of their performance:
And just for the fun of it: Double Secret Probation, from Animal House:
Looking forward to these clips this evening on a laptop rather than a mobile. The BBC link was very interesting, especially the detail about his maternal grandmother being Welsh. (Would Oxford or Bacon have been remotely interested or interesting on these matters? I wonder.)
Thanks again for all the links and retweets — hope these will have spread the word about a lesser-known play of the Author’s…
I knew you’d find something to ponder on the WS-Wales BBC post. I didn’t watch the college’s video all the way through — just enough to see interesting casting choices (forced by not enough males in the company) and Cloten’s head in a burlap bag, which should have dripped blood, but one can’t have everything.
Missed the original BBC broadcast of Cymbeline, but from this clip it looks good, with Helen Mirren playing it just right. It’s hard to tell from the trailer exactly what’s going in the modern dress version, and exactly which audience it’s aimed at — violence, explosions, bikes?!
The Geeky Blonde sequence is a hoot and, maybe inadvertently, brings out the Snow White theme very well: wicked stepmother — faked murder of Snow White in the wilderness and the bloodied ‘evidence’ — the stepmother’s poison which causes the semblance of death for the princess — the final righting of wrongs as stepmother is punished and princess reunited with the ‘prince’ who turns out to be the one chosen by Fate.
I have to admit I didn’t watch the WSU rendition, and I’m unclear about the double secret probation concept, but thanks for posting these. It’s clear attending a live performance of the play is a must.
Incidentally, I found some vindication for my view of the purpose of the play from Alexander Leggatt’s Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love (1974) (though he doesn’t specifically include Cymbeline among the comedies he discusses in detail):
“Behind the moral design is the wish fulfilment pattern of comedy: after all the loss and sorrow, the broken family is miraculously restored … The finale is an intricate, beautifully efficient machine in which an astonishing number of disguises are removed, misunderstandings swept away and re-unions accomplished.”
The author adds, “The sheer scale of the achievement … identifies the final vision of harmony as artificial. But within the play … there is no serious challenge to artifice; this fantastic vision is the only kind of reality the play is prepared to show.”
In other words, the play really is a sophisticated fairytale.
Thanks for the Snow White connection — I hadn’t made that one. Fairy tale is the perfect term for this play, and perhaps for all WS’s romances, with their mixture of familiar genres and fairy tale tropes. More proof of Bettelheim’s contention that fairy tales help readers address troublesome but normal thoughts and feelings. Now I have to reread what Bettelheim wrote about Snow White.
Re “double secret probation” — just an obscure reference to a seminal American film, where anarchy rules in the best comic tradition. Although there’s no anarchy in Cymbeline, the King’s overreaction to any perceived threat reminded me of Dean Wormer’s “that foot is me” comment. A natural offshoot is Imogen’s confinement being seen as “double secret probation”, although it was actually not secret at all.