Cymbeline (/sɪmbəliːn/) is a play by William Shakespeare, based on an early Celtic British King. Although listed as a tragedy in the First Folio, modern critics often classify it as a romance. Like Othello, Measure for Measure, and The Winter's Tale, it deals with the themes of innocence and jealousy. While its date of composition is unknown, the play is known to have been produced as early as 1611.
Some have taken the convoluted plot as evidence of the play's parodic origins. In Act V Scene IV, "Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt," then commands an untangled plot and goes back up.
Though once held in very high regard Cymbeline has lost favour over the past century. Some have held that Shakespeare, by frivolously spinning absurd tales, merely wrote it to amuse himself. William Hazlitt and John Keats, however, number it among their favorite plays. It is sometimes referred to as a "problem play", because its central character confronts a specific moral or social concern.
The editors of the Oxford and Norton Shakespeare believe the name of Imogen is a misspelling of Innogen—they draw several comparisons between Cymbeline and Much Ado About Nothing, in which a ghost character named Innogen was supposed to be Leonato's wife (Posthumus is also known as "Leonatus", the Latin form of the Italian name in the other play). Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson point out that Holinshed's Chronicles, which Shakespeare used as a source, mention an Innogen, and that Forman's eyewitness account of the April 1611 performance refers to "Innogen" throughout. In spite of these arguments, most editions of the play have continued to use the name Imogen.
QUEEN, Wife to Cymbeline
CLOTEN, Son to the Queen by a former Husband
IMOGEN, Daughter to Cymbeline by a former Queen
POSTHUMUS LEONATUS, a Gentleman, Husband to Imogen
BELARIUS, a banished Lord, disguised under the name of Morgan
GUIDERIUS & ARVIRAGUS, Sons to Cymbeline, disguised under the names of Polydore and Cadwal, supposed Sons to Morgan
PHILARIO, Friend to Posthumus
IACHIMO, Friend to Philario
HELEN, a Lady attending on Imogen
CAIUS LUCIUS, General of the Roman Forces
PISANIO, Servant to Posthumus
CORNELIUS, a Physician
A Roman Captain
Two British Captains
A French Gentleman, Friend to Philario
Two Lords of Cymbeline's Court
Two Gentlemen of the same
Lords, Ladies, Roman Senators, Tribunes, a Dutch Gentleman, a Spanish Gentleman, a Soothsayer, Musicians, Officers, Captains, Soldiers, Messengers, and other Attendants
Posthumus, a man of low birth but exceeding personal merit, has secretly married his childhood friend Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline. Cymbeline, upon finding out, banishes Posthumus from the kingdom. His faithful servant Pisanio, however, remains.
Iachimo (or "Little Iago"), a soldier in the Roman army, makes a bet with Posthumus that he can tempt Imogen to commit adultery. Iachimo sneaks into her bedchamber and examines her while she sleeps. Then he tells Posthumus he has won the bet, offering as proof details of Imogen's bedchamber and naked body. Posthumus orders his faithful servant Pisanio to murder the falsely besmirched Imogen. Pisanio warns her instead, then helps her fake her death (as Hero does in Much Ado About Nothing), helps her to disguise herself as a boy (as do Rosalind, Portia and Viola, in As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night, respectively), and sends her to Milford Haven on the West Coast of Britain. There she befriends "Polydore" and "Cadwell," who, unbeknownst to her, are really Guiderius and Arviragus, her own brothers.
Twenty years before the action of the play, two British noblemen swore false oaths charging that Belarius had conspired with the ancient Romans, which led Cymbeline to banish him. Belarius kidnapped Cymbeline's young sons in retaliation, to hinder him from having heirs to the throne. The sons were raised by the nurse Euriphile, whom they called mother and took her for such.
At the play's resolution, virtually the entire cast comes forth one at a time to add a piece to the puzzle. Cornelius, the court doctor, arrives to dazzle everyone with news that the Queen, Imogen's stepmother, is dead, reporting that with her last breath she confessed her wicked deeds: she never loved old Cymbeline, she unsuccessfully attempted to have Imogen poisoned by Pisanio (without Pisanio's knowledge), and she was ambitious to poison Cymbeline so Cloten, her own son, could assume the throne.
Cymbeline concludes with an oration to the gods, declares peace and friendship between Britain and Rome, and great feasting in Lud's Town (London), concluding "Never was a war did cease, / Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace."
The play entered the Romantic era with John Philip Kemble's company in 1801. Kemble's productions made use of lavish spectacle and scenery; one critic noted that during the bedroom scene, the bed was so large that Iachimo all but needed a ladder to view Imogen in her sleep. Kemble added a dance to the Cloten's comic wooing of Imogen. In 1827, his brother Charles mounted an antiquarian production at Covent Garden; it featured costumes designed after the descriptions of the ancient British by such writers as Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus.
William Charles Macready mounted the play several times between 1837 and 1842. At the Theatre Royal, Marylebone, an epicene production was staged with Mary Warner, Fanny Vining, Anna Cora Mowatt, and Edward Loomis Davenport.
The play was also one of Ellen Terry's last performances, with Henry Irving at the Lyceum in 1896. Terry's performance was widely praised, though Irving was judged an indifferent Iachimo. Like Garrick, Irving removed the dream of Posthumus; he also curtailed Iachimo's remorse and attempted to render Cloten's character consistent. A review in the Athenaeum compared this trimmed version to pastoral comedies such as As You Like It. The set design, overseen by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, was lavish and advertised as historically accurate, though the reviewer for the time complained of such anachronisms as gold crowns and printed books as props.
Similarly lavish but less successful was Margaret Mather's production in New York in 1897. The sets and publicity cost $40,000, but Mather was judged too emotional and undisciplined to succeed in a fairly cerebral role.
Barry Vincent Jackson staged a modern-dress production for the Birmingham Rep in 1923, two years before his influential modern-dress Hamlet. Walter Nugent Monck brought his Maddermarket Theatre production to Stratford in 1946, inaugurating the post-war tradition of the play.
London saw two productions in the 1956 season. Michael Benthall directed the less successful production, at the Old Vic. The set design by Audrey Cruddas was notably minimal, with only a few essential props. She relied instead on a variety of lighting effects to reinforce mood; actors seemed to come out of darkness and return to darkness. Barbara Jefford was criticized as too cold and formal for Imogen; Leon Gluckman played Posthumus, Derek Godfrey Iachimo, and Derek Francis Cymbeline. Following Victorian practice, Benthall drastically shortened the last act.
By contrast, Peter Hall's production at the Shakespeare Memorial presented nearly the entire play, including the long-neglected dream scene (although a golden eagle designed for Jupiter turned out too heavy for the stage machinery and was not used). Hall presented the play as a distant fairy tale, with stylized performances. The production received favorable reviews, both for Hall's conception and, especially, for Peggy Ashcroft's Imogen. Richard Johnson played Posthumus, and Robert Harris Cymbeline. Iachimo was played by Geoffrey Keen, whose father Malcolm had played Iachimo with Ashcroft at the Old Vic in 1932.
Hall's approach attempted to unify the play's diversity by means of a fairy-tale topos. The next major Royal Shakespeare Company production, in 1962, went in the opposite direction. Working on a set draped with heavy white sheets, director William Gaskill employed Brechtian alienation effects, to mixed critical reviews. Bernard Levin complained that the bare set deprived the play of necessary scenic splendor. The acting, however, was widely praised. Vanessa Redgrave as Imogen was often compared favorably to Ashcroft; Eric Porter was a success as Iachimo, as was Clive Swift as Cloten. Patrick Allen was Posthumus, and Tom Fleming played the title role.
A decade later, John Barton's 1974 production for the RSC (with assistance from Clifford Williams) featured Sebastian Shaw in the title role, Tim Pigott-Smith as Posthumus, Ian Richardson as Iachimo, and Susan Fleetwood as Imogen. Charles Keating was Cloten. As with contemporary productions of Pericles, this one used a narrator (Cornelius) to signal changes in mood and treatment to the audience. Robert Speaight disliked the set design, which he called too minimal, but he approved the acting.
In 1980, David Jones revived the play for the RSC; the production was in general a disappointment, although Judi Dench as Imogen received reviews that rivalled Ashcroft's. Ben Kingsley played Iachimo; Roger Rees was Posthumus.
At the Stratford Festival, the play was directed in 1970 by Jean Gascon and in 1987 by Robin Phillips. The latter production, which was marked by much-approved scenic complexity, featured Colm Feore as Iachimo, and Martha Burns as Imogen. The play was again at Stratford in 2005, directed by David Latham. A large medieval tapestry unified the fairly simple stage design and underscored Latham's fairy-tale inspired direction.
At the new Globe Theatre in 2001, a cast of six (including Abigail Thaw, Mark Rylance, and Richard Hope) used extensive doubling for the play. The cast wore identical costumes even when in disguise, allowing for particular comic effects related to doubling (as when Cloten attempts to disguise himself as Posthumus.)
The play is rarely performed, and has so far not been made into a theatrical film. However, there have been some well-received major productions of it, such as 1998's Public Theatre production in New York City directed by Andrei Serban. Cymbeline was performed in Cambridge in October 2007 in a new production directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, which sought to re-capture the essence of the play as a story narrative, and was done in November 2007 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
William Hawkins revised the play again in 1759. His was among the last of the heavy revisions designed to bring the play in line with Aristotelean unities. He cut the Queen, reduced the action to two places (the court and a forest in Wales). The dirge "With fairest flowers..." was set to music by Thomas Arne.
Nearer the end of the century, Henry Brooke wrote an adaptation which was apparently never staged. His version eliminates the brothers altogether as part of a notable enhancement of Posthumus' role in the play.
George Bernard Shaw took aim at what he saw as the defects of the final act in his 1937 Cymbeline Refinished; as early as 1896, he had complained about the absurdities of the play to Ellen Terry, then preparing to act Imogen.
Probably the most famous verses in the play come from the funeral song of Act IV, Scene 2, which begins:
These last two lines appear to have inspired T. S. Eliot; in "Lines to a Yorkshire Terrier" (in Five-Finger Exercises), he writes:
The first two lines of the song appear in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. The lines, which turn Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts to the trauma of the First World War, are at once an elegiac dirge and a profoundly dignified declaration of endurance. The song provides a major organizational motif for the novel.
At the end of Stephen Sondheim's The Frogs, William Shakespeare is competing against George Bernard Shaw for the title of best playwright, deciding which of them is to be brought back from the dead in order to improve the world. Shakespeare sings the funeral song of Act IV, Scene 2, when asked about his view of death (the song is titled "Fear No More").
The last two lines of the Act IV-scene 2 funeral song may also have inspired the lines W. H. Auden, the librettist for Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress", puts into the mouth of Anne Truelove at the end of the opera: "Every wearied body must late or soon return to dust".