It seems obligatory when discussing Shakespeare’s late romance Cymbeline to begin with Samuel Johnson’s dismissal of it:
This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the 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.
That is true to a point, but it does fully not account for the play’s many moments of memorable poetry (not necessarily “natural,” pace the neoclassical critic) and genuine pathos, nor for the amusingly farcical effect of what I can only assume is its deliberate absurdity.
Laid in ancient Britain during the Roman empire, Cymbeline’s story is too busy to recount in great detail. The primary plot concerns the troubled romance of King Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen, and Posthumus. Posthumous is an orphaned commoner who had been adopted by the titular king, whose own two sons were kidnapped in their infancy. When Imogen prefers the lower-born Posthumus to her loutish stepbrother, Cloten, the king banishes his adopted son to Italy. In Italy, he falls into the poor company of Iachimo (“little Iago”), who wagers him that he will be able to seduce Imogen in Posthumus’s absence. He tries and fails, but, by sneaking into Imogen’s chamber, gathers enough specious evidence to convince Posthumus that Imogen has indeed betrayed him; convinced of her guilt, Posthumus orders his servant, Pisanio, to murder her. Pisanio pretends to have done so—and sends more false evidence of the deed back to Italy—but in fact he hastens Imogen to Wales, disguised as a man. There, she meets some robust young rustics under the tutelage of a putative Welsh shepherd, and these men take to her instantly, a quick trust and intimacy growing among them. While all this is going on, Imogen’s wicked stepmother is gathering poisoned flowers in order to dispatch Pisanio (little does she know that her physician, mistrusting her, has substituted a harmless sleeping potion for her fatal drugs, which she claims to want to test on animals). And her son, Cloten, incensed at Imogen’s preference of Posthumous to him, schemes to rape her in Posthumus’s clothing. In the background, still another narrative is developing: war is in the offing between Rome and Britain over the latter’s non-payment of tribute. By the third act, one of the brave rustic brothers has beheaded the vile Cloten, Imogen—disguised as a man—has taken her stepmother’s potion and fallen into a coma, leading the brothers, thinking her dead, to sing her a dirge. But she wakes up and is adopted by the commander of the Roman forces as he marches toward Britain. Act four belongs largely to Posthumus as he wrestles with guilt over what he has done and, in disguise as a beggar, joins the Welshmen in dispatching the Romans; then he throws off his disguise and turns himself over to the British to be executed. In his cell, he has a dream or vision of his forebears and of Jupiter himself, promising him a happy future. Finally, in the extraordinarily long fifth act, a pageant or indeed an orgy of exposition, all these knots get untwisted: Imogen lives and is innocent, Iachimo is guilty, the queen is dead, the Welsh boys are really Cymbeline’s long-lost sons (abducted in vengeance against the king by the shephered, really a virtuous courtier who’d been banished by Cymbeline for no good reason), the Britons decide to pay their tribute and make peace with Rome after all, and all the guilty are pardoned.
I recount this at such length first to remind myself of what happens, and second to demonstrate its patent absurdity. The first folio labels Cymbeline a tragedy, which is about the only genre of which it does not partake (none of the heroes or heroines die); but it is a romance, a history, a pastoral, and a comedy. As Harold Bloom comments, the play is an elaborate self-parody, almost overtly rehearsing themes, motifs, characters, and plot points from Othello, King Lear, Much Ado about Nothing, Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, and probably still more. Bloom associates this with the experimental or metatheater of the twentieth century, but goes on to say that Shakespeare has in fact advanced beyond such late modernist or postmodernist devices, because he combines them with the richly portrayed, winning Imogen, a character beloved of the Romantics and Victorians, and as persuasive a heroine as any in Shakespeare’s comedies. In other words, it is a drama both mimetic and meta, in which neither tendency can fully subsume the other; this, at the level of form, recapitulates the play’s theme of nature vs. artifice, to which I will return.
Even leaving aside Imogen, though, there is remarkable poetry throughout Cymbeline, poetry that has resonated in subsequent English literature. In the scene where Iachimo, having hidden himself in a trunk, emerges to spy upon Imogen’s bedchamber and upon her person, the farce blends with menace via the allusion to the myth of Tereus and Philomela, an intertext that joins Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Eliot’s Waste Land across the body of this play. As Iachimo slips off her bracelet to show to Posthumus later, he narrates to himself:
‘Tis mine; and this will witness outwardly,
As strongly as the conscience does within,
To the madding of her lord. On her left breast
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip: here’s a voucher,
Stronger than ever law could make: this secret
Will force him think I have pick’d the lock and ta’en
The treasure of her honour. No more. To what end?
Why should I write this down, that’s riveted,
Screw’d to my memory? She hath been reading late
The tale of Tereus; here the leaf’s turn’d down
Where Philomel gave up.
Iachimo, a figure never very strongly characterized in the play, here becomes a voyeur-poet, a sexually-passive eye-rapist. If Cymbeline is metatheatrical, this should disgust us with theater, with all prying into the minds and affairs of others, as we have no one to identify with here but the invader. (Likewise, the queen—the play’s other intelligent villainous schemer, as opposed to the asinine Cloten—is a proto-decadent figure, with her poisonous flowers that will, later in cultural history, be wafting their fatal perfumes through the prose of Hawthorne and Wilde.)
The play indulges, through the speeches of the ex-courtier and faux-shepherd Belarius, a rhetoric of disgust with the artificialities of court life:
Did you but know the city’s usuries
And felt them knowingly; the art o’ the court
As hard to leave as keep; whose top to climb
Is certain falling, or so slippery that
The fear’s as bad as falling; the toil o’ the war,
A pain that only seems to seek out danger
I’ the name of fame and honour; which dies i’the search,
And hath as oft a slanderous epitaph
As record of fair act; nay, many times,
Doth ill deserve by doing well; what’s worse,
Must court’sy at the censure:—O boys, this story
The world may read in me: my body’s mark’d
With Roman swords, and my report was once
First with the best of note: Cymbeline loved me,
And when a soldier was the theme, my name
Was not far off: then was I as a tree
Whose boughs did bend with fruit: but in one night,
A storm or robbery, call it what you will,
Shook down my mellow hangings, nay, my leaves,
And left me bare to weather.
Since the court is destructive to nature, best to leave the city and go where nature can flourish. And such naturalism is a fantasy of the play’s, and perhaps of its author’s: that Posthumus, though poor, is a paragon of men “[m]oulded” so by “[g]reat nature”; that Imogen is naturally good; that her brothers, despite their rural upbringing, show themselves princely; that not all the deceptions of the plot can alter the bloodlines of authority—all this bespeaks a faith, or at least a wish, that goodness is implicated deeply enough in the design of things to triumph at last.
But then paradoxes abound, for it is their natural destiny that will return the changeling princes to the court masquerade, just as the drama’s ideological naturalism can only be conveyed to us in a play of flagrant, even aggressive artificiality, with its comic chaos of genres and its authorial self-references. Perhaps these paradoxes can be resolved in the higher unity that Shakespeare’s subsequent and more important play, The Winter’s Tale, suggests in the famous speech of Polixenes:
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.
And the character of Posthumus, anyway, implies by his very name the belatedness that characterizes the play itself, the inexorably deathward tendency of nature, and the uncanny quality of those who have been reborn—as Posthumus, Imogen, and the princes have been by the end. Perhaps the most famous lines from Cymbeline—which Clarissa Dalloway, notably, repeats to herself on her stroll through the London crowds—come from the dirge that the brothers sing over Imogen, whom they think dead:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
In this song, our consolation for dying will be that we can finally leave the menace of nature behind, just as the play eschews “natural” representations (these lines significantly conclude with a pun, a figure in which language shows itself beautifully artificial). The play’s only real image of nature, the critics agree, is Imogen, and she is at her best when speaking with a kind of wild freedom that charms how else but through poetry, through imagination:
IMOGEN.Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?
Think that you are upon a rock; and now
Throw me again. [Embracing him.]
POSTHUMUS. Hang there like a fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die!
All poetry, if it is good, will eventually be posthumous with respect to its writer, as to its reader. But it is still good to read poetry on these dead tree leaves, I think, till we die. Until then, there is this advice from Posthumus, upon pardoning Iachimo:
The power that I have on you is, to spare you;
The malice towards you to forgive you: live,
And deal with others better.