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: