Cymbeline: Essay Q&A

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1. The eighteenth century English critic Dr Samuel Johnson disliked Cymbeline intensely. He wrote: "To remark the folly of this fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation." What is he missing?
To look to this play for realism or historical consistency is to be disappointed. The play draws on the ancient fables of the Fisher King, an afflicted king whose kingdom shares his sickness until he is restored to health by a young hero. Cymbeline is such a fable-derived king, married to a fairy-tale wicked Queen. In such fables or Romances, the events described are so improbable as to preclude any logic or consistency in the characters. This play has royal sons who are stolen and found again, by impossible coincidence, in the Welsh hills. Posthumus has a dream which involves the god Jupiter appearing on stage. Imogen, disguised as a boy, is recognized neither by her husband nor her father. Iachimo is an Italian Renaissance type in manners, whereas his fellow soldiers are ancient Romans whose classical temperaments are ill suited to the Britain of fable or to Renaissance machinations.
Cymbeline is full of impossible events if one judges by everyday life, or by more realistic plays, but it is not about realism in that sense. Its theme is of tragic mistakes leading to suffering and finally redemption. Shakespeare's Romances are deeply, though not traditionally, religious, and operate through lifting the audience onto another plane of reality. Beyond many of Cymbeline's "imbecilities" is a deeper meaning. It is indeed unlikely that Posthumus and Cymbeline would fail to recognize Imogen, but this is symbolic of their failure to see her true worth and her consequent need to "disappear." It is absurd that two royal sons should be lost, but the Gentleman's incredulous reaction alerts us to a symbolic undertone. The event was concomitant with Cymbeline's wrongful banishment of the loyal Belarius, and shows that this mistake of judgment effectively cut him off from the regenerative elements of youth, love, and forgiveness.
2. Why do many people regard Imogen as their favorite female character in Shakespeare?
Imogen stands out as one of Shakespeare's most engaging creations. This is because, out of sheer vitality, she insists on breaking out of the mold of the idealized, passive heroine of Romance tradition.
On one hand, she is the "divine Imogen" who becomes the helpless puppet of Iachimo when, in Act 1, scene 7, she unquestioningly swallows his ridiculous excuse for proposing adultery.
But on the other hand, we have already seen her vigorously repulse Iachimo when it becomes clear to her that his motive is seduction. And in Act 2, scene 3, she deals with Cloten's attentions in an entirely believable way. She begins with controlled politeness. When this does not work, sarcasm creeps in. When Cloten insults Posthumus, she erupts in fury, delivering a verbal blow which afffects Cloten for the rest of the play: she says Posthumus's "meanest garment" is more dear to her than a million Clotens. When Pisanio enters, she has cooled down and reflects with shame on her loss of self-control, which, however, she feels was justified.
Imogen continues to express real and moving emotion, such as when she demands that Pisanio kill her according to Posthumus's command. Some find it jarring when she then retreats into the frivolous Romance convention of disguising herself as a boy. Symbolically, it perfectly expresses Imogen's need to "die" to her old self. But this is at the expense of the human version of the heroine, whom we only see again in flashes, such as in Act 4, scene 2, in her heart-wrenching soliloquy over Cloten's headless body, and in Act 5, scene 5, when, entranced by seeing Posthumus, she tells Lucius that his life "Must shuffle for itself."
3. Why is Cymbeline seldom performed?
Many critics see Cymbeline as Shakespeare's flawed experiment with the Romance tradition, before he perfected the genre in The Winter's Tale and The Tempest.
The Romance tradition consisted of improbable, magical or supernatural events remarkable more for their symbolic effect than for realism. Most Romances took the form of poems or stories designed for reading aloud, enabling scenes to be created in the listeners' imaginations. Characters are subordinate and are reduced to one-dimensional emblematic figures: ethereal maidens, wounded kings, evil monsters and brave heroes. However, drama requires living, breathing characters with whom we can identify. But it is difficult to confine complex characters within the symbolic world of Romance.
In Cymbeline, Shakespeare was faced with the problem of marrying these two worlds. Most critics feel he did not entirely succeed. The King is a mere cipher, the "wounded king" of Romance, and never fills out as a character. The "hero" Posthumus begins as the noble knight of Romance but rapidly descends into crazed sexual jealousy. The lost sons fit the model of the brave young heroes of Romance, but it is hard to care about their fate. As befits Romance but as does not befit stage drama, none of the characters is seen to develop. We are presented with the various reformations of characters at the end, but none are psychologically convincing because we have not been a party to the process.
It's no coincidence that several modern productions of the play have adopted the ancient Japanese Kabuki tradition of masked actors and ritualized actions. This can present problems for modern Western audiences, who are used to identifying strongly with characters' emotions. But it can arguably shift the focus to the strongest elements of the play: the transformations in perception that mask and unmask truth.
4. Is the structure of Cymbeline too disjointed for the play to work?
The first scene of Cymbeline sets up two plotlines to be resolved: the Posthumus/Imogen marriage and subsequent banishment of Posthumus; and the disappearance of the royal sons.
The Posthumus/Imogen plotline, having started as a conflict between the young newly-weds and the older generation represented by Cymbeline, rapidly metamorphoses into a tale of sexual jealousy. This shifts the main conflict away from Cymbeline and makes it a triangular conflict between the newly-weds and the villain Iachimo. This adds considerably to the problem, which applies throughout the play, of Cymbeline's weak presence. Posthumus's disappearance from the middle parts of the play also creates a structural vacuum, as there is no strong male presence to support our interest in the plotline involving him. There is even a danger that the villainous, though far more interesting Iachimo steals the audience's attention and loyalty. However, given that many people have serious reservations about Posthumus as a character, in particular his worthiness to be the husband of the remarkable Imogen, his absence until the final scenes may be counted a relief.
The vanished sons plotline disappears completely until Act 3, scene 3. In the meantime, another plotline, Cymbeline's conflict with Rome over the tribute, is begun in Act 2.
All the plotlines, which are separate throughout most of the play, are only brought together and resolved in the final scene. Dramatically, this is an extraordinary feat by Shakespeare. For the audience, it can either come over as ridiculously improbable or an experience full of wonder. Much depends on the quality of the production.
5. Compare and contrast the characters of the three villains: the Queen, Cloten and Iachimo.
The Queen initially promises more than she delivers as a character. She is introduced as a brilliant schemer who pretends one thing and does another. In the scene where Cymbeline meets with the Romans (Act 3, scene 1), she takes the lead and confirms the opinion of the Second Lord in Act 2, scene 1, that she is a woman who "Bears all down with her brain."
However, apart from these scenes, the Queen is given little to do or say except plot to poison Imogen. Her one-dimensional character does not develop and we remember her only as the kind of pantomime villain traditional to Romance, worthy our hisses but not rewarding further attention.
Cloten is a vain and stupid boor who lacks his mother's clever mind. But he has some lively moments, as when, during the negotiations with Rome, he insists that "we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses." He is a precursor of Caliban in The Tempest but lacks Caliban's complexity and pathos. We feel no more sympathy or regret when Guiderius decapitates him than we would for a monster in a fable who is slain by a knight.
Iachimo is the most interesting villain, and some would argue the most interesting character. He is intelligent, articulate and has more psychological awareness than anyone-which, however, he misuses. His main disadvantage is that he lacks depth, his motive being to win his wager. We get no sense of complex motivations such as are seen in Iago in Othello. His response to Imogen is deeply felt, to the extent that it is more interesting to view her through his eyes than through Posthumus's. His final repentance is sincere and conveys inner change and regeneration, which is unfortunately lacking in the King who gives his name to the play.

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