Shakespeare Saturday: Cymbeline

Pardon’s the word to all.

Cymbeline is a play full of fantastical (or fantastically convoluted) plot twists, creative character names and sort of knowing winks to his earlier plays. There’s a cross-dressing woman! Mistaken identities! Evil Queens! And a title that is ever so slightly inaccurate – in fact, so much so that when staging this play Globe’s Emma Rice renamed it Imogen.

The main storyline concerns Imogen, or Innogen, depending on which edition you’re reading, the daughter of King Cymbeline of Britain, who has married Posthumus against the wishes of her father and stepmother Queen who had hoped she would marry her son Cloten. The second plot is about Cymbeline’s refusal to pay tribute to Rome, and the consequent Roman invasion of Britain.

In the beginning we are given some backstory. The King’s only daughter has upset things by marrying Posthumus Leonatus; we learn that he’s a gentleman of modest but perfectly respectable background, who after his family died, has been brought up by Cymbeline himself. The King is nonetheless set against the marriage, and has chosen to banish Posthumus. We also learn that the son had two sons, who were some twenty years ago stolen from their nursery and never seen again.

Innogen and Posthumus exchange love tokens – she gives him a diamond ring, while he gives her a bracelet. He then flees to Rome. While she frets, he has befriended one Giacomo (or Iachomo) who, bored of his talk of the virtue of British women, wagers him that he can seduce Innogen. Posthumus confidently takes the bet. Giacomo goes to Britain, where he tries to seduce Innogen with talk about her husband’s merry ways in Rome, and when that fails, sneaks into her bedroom, memorises the look of it for evidence, and steals the bracelet, taking it back to Rome and pretending he got it after sleeping with her.

Cymbeline’s wife, the evil Queen, has tried to procure some poison, but has been given powerful sleeping potion instead; she gives it to Posthumus’ servant Pisanio pretending it’s a tonic of sorts.

Giacomo presents the bracelet to Posthumus, who is jealous, sad and melodramatic as a result. He sends letter to Pisanio, instructing him to kill Innocen. Pisanio likes her better, and tells her about it; she discovers that Posthumus thinks her unfaithful, and begs Pisanio to go through with it. Instead, he tells her to dress up as a man and go to Rome. She does just that, but rather than making it to Rome, she meets Belarius somewhere in Wales, and is taken in by him and his two sons, who think her a man.

Belarius reveals in a soliloquy that Cymbeline once wronged him and as revenge he took his two sons, bringing them up as his own. He and these not-sons then encounter Cloten, who has gone after Innocen (wearing Posthumus’ clothes), and kill him.

Feeling weak, Innogen takes the “tonic” given to her by Pisanio, and falls asleep. Thinking s/he is dead, Belarius and his not-sons lay her next to Cloten’s headless corpse. She of course then wakes up, recognises the clothes and thinks the corpse to be Posthumus. Before she can make any harsh decisions, she meets Lucius, the Roman ambassador, and goes with him.

The second plotline concerns Cymbeline’s refusal to pay tribute to Rome, and the war that follows. Posthumus is lead to believe that Innogen is really dead, and feeling guilty, he switches back to the English side. He also wants to die, so he disguises himself as a Roman, and is taken prisoner. The British defeat the invasion, and the various characters are brought together before Cymbeline – Posthumus, Giacomo, Lucius and Innogen as prisoners, Belarius and his not-sons as heroes. A word comes that the evil Queen (her devilry revealed) is dead. Innogen confronts Giacomo about his deceitful ways. The husband and wife are reunited, and Belarius reveal the truth about his not-sons, who are embraced by their real father, who has decided to start paying the tribute.

srvrI don’t really have much idea what Cymbeline is really about. The plot is overly complicated mostly for the sake of being overly complicated. It progresses as a tragedy – doomed lovers! jealousy! murder! – but the conclusion is almost too simplistically happy one, and there’s a sense of tongue-in-cheek every now and then. There isn’t a main character really. Cymbeline is not a hugely large part, even if his actions, present and historical, have set the events in motion. Innocen doesn’t have the depth of character Desdemona (the other wronged wife) has, nor the pluck the rest of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines have. Posthumus is not Othello – he is histrionic rather than passionately jealous, and his tasking of Pisanio with killing Innocen seems a bit cowardly. Giacomo is some way from being the frightful villain that Iago is. As a text, Cymbeline feels a bit flat and a bit too long, but may be another play that could be brought to life by a good staging.

srvr-2Is it any good?

I think Cymbeline has been fashionable lately, with few “alternative” stage adaptations around, which has made people think it better than it actually is. To me, it doesn’t work as a comedy, nor does it particularly work as a tragedy.

Fun fact

This post was written on the night before Christmas Eve, the main day of Christmas celebrations in Finland, while in Finland. In short, can’t think of anything on top of my head.

Best character

Probably Innocen – she’s quite harmless.

What say thou?

I thought Cymbeline to be full of quotable lines, but it isn’t, although the expression “the game is up” comes from this play. There are few nice soliloquies, like the one Innocen gives when she wakes up from her death-like sleep. But I’ll pick as my favourite passage Cloten’s morning song to Innocen, and the brief speeches flanking it – some crude sex talk, followed by a cheesy ballad. What’s there not to like?

I would this music would come: I am advised to give
her music o’ mornings; they say it will penetrate.

Come on; tune: if you can penetrate her with your
fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too: if none
will do, let her remain; but I’ll never give o’er.
First, a very excellent good-conceited thing;
after, a wonderful sweet air, with admirable rich
words to it: and then let her consider.

Hark, hark! the lark at heaven’s gate sings,
And Phoebus ‘gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies;
And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes:
With every thing that pretty is,
My lady sweet, arise:
Arise, arise.

So, get you gone. If this penetrate, I will
consider your music the better: if it do not, it is
a vice in her ears, which horse-hairs and
calves’-guts, nor the voice of unpaved eunuch to
boot, can never amend.


My last BBC Television Shakespeare, with Helen Mirren as Innocen, Michael Pennington as Pothumus and Richard Johnson as Cymbeline. The setting is part Jacobean England, part a Rembrandt (or perhaps Caravaggio) painting, part Russian novel. The pace is slower than slow, and so it works only occasionally, even if it looks better than most of these.


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