A play of politics and prophecy, masques and magic, gods and ghosts, nightmares and nationalism, Cymbeline (c. 1609-11) resists categorization.
Like The Winter’s Tale it traces a fine line between comedy and tragedy; like Antony and Cleopatra it vacillates between the epic scale of the histories and the intimate focus of the romances. But perhaps speculations about genre have no place around Cymbeline. The words of Arviragus, a kidnapped prince raised in a cave, suggest that the play takes a less genre-directed approach to storytelling:
What should we speak of
When we are as old as you? When we shall hear
The rain and wind beat dark December, how,
In this our pinching cave, shall we discourse
The freezing hours away? We have seen nothing.
The whole action of the play is motivated by the desire to create a great story. Shakespeare seeks out the intrigue that creates narrative, and pursues complexities of genre and theme with abandon. Like the princes straining at their “pinching cave”, the play expands from the enclosed gardens of the English court circa AD 5 to 42, to the Welsh wilderness, via Rome – all in pursuit of a good story.
When the Roman Caius Lucius cannot wrest tribute from Cymbeline’s court, he tells the Britons, “The day was yours by accident”. Cymbeline relishes accident, chance, and hazard: bed-tricks, cross-dressing, and disguises lead to the birth of political Britain, resurrections, and a beheading.
Accidents create stories with which to “discourse / The freezing hours away”. The long-view of epic which, in Act III, sees Britain imagined as “a swan’s nest” in “a great pool”, zooms in, in Act V, on a lovers’ embrace. Posthumus, finally embracing Imogen, says, “Hang there like fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die”. The newlyweds have travelled far; they have mistaken each other for an adulterer and a headless corpse, but in the final scene they are reunited, and tell each other their stories.
Cymbeline is characterized by a fascination with dramaturgy. It often provokes elaborate staging, particularly when Jupiter descends from the heavens riding an eagle! Spectacularly elaborate productions have included Peter Hall’s (1988) and JoAnne Akalaitis’s (1989), while Mike Alfreds (2001) let the audiences’ imaginations negotiate the scope of the story, using only 6 actors and no scenery.
Since George Bernard Shaw’s description of Cymbeline as ‘exasperating beyond all tolerance’ (1896), the play as been considered difficult to stage. However, modern cinema is surely equipped to negotiate the twists and turns of the fantastical plot of Cymbeline. Considering the 21st century’s taste for epic tales like The Lord of the Rings and Avatar, a film which unleashes the diverse potentials of Cymbeline is long overdue.
Contributed by Hazel Wilkinson