With Cymbeline, Shakespeare continued to develop the Romances, an experiment with a new genre that began with Pericles and culminated in his two late masterpieces, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. His attempt to blend the features of Tragedy and Comedy with the magical fantasy of romance, a literary mode familiar from 16th-century prose and poetry, was not yet successful. The play is a veritable anthology of motifs and situations from romantic literature: a wicked stepmother, long-lost children, the discovery of bodily identification marks, a decoded riddle, the appearance of a god, and so on. These motifs appear in a profusion intended to generate a seductive fairy-tale world. However, in Cymbeline vestiges of earlier modes remain—from the tragedies, in particular—and the effect of the romantic features is seriously undercut. The realism in character and setting that creates our emotional involvement in the tragedies is not appropriate to the idealization of the new genre, and the domestic pleasantries of comedy are not yet sublimated in the unreal world of romance.
Cymbeline therefore exhibits a jarring set of components that distract from the play's themes. The central message of the play is that order transcends chaos and that ultimately, despite our human ineffectuality, peace and love can triumph in a grand reconciliation of disordered elements. This idea is present throughout the romances. Here, marking an advance on Pericles, the emphasis falls on forgiveness of others: it is necessary for humans to act with mercy, rather than justice, in keeping with the behavior of the gods. However, the potential for catastrophe is too strongly presented in Cymbeline, and by the time Jupiter appears to reassure us that all will be well, a state of near chaos has steadily grown and events appear to be entirely out of control. Iachimo's scheme has succeeded; Imogen believes Posthumus has been killed by Pisanio, who is in fact her only ally; Guiderius and Arviragus remain unrecognized as princes; and Britain is locked in a foolish war against Rome. Most dire of all, perhaps, Posthumus is suicidal because he believes Imogen is dead, a situation appallingly suggestive of Romeo and Juliet. The generally romantic context suggests that these problems will be resolved, but the tone is almost as anarchic as that of Macbeth. The play's final sequence of revelations and reconciliations therefore seems confusing, if not simply arbitrary, and its message is accordingly weakened.
Nevertheless, the play has many real virtues, one of the greatest being its variety of attractive characters. Imogen's considerable charm, which we shall consider later, heads the list, of course, but several of the other characters are also quite entertaining. For instance, Cloten's offensiveness is of an intriguing sort. His vice and violence are accompanied by great foolishness—he inspires the Second Lord's mockery and is several times referred to as a fool—and he is clearly intended to be a humorous grotesque. He is a predecessor of The Tempest's Caliban. Along with his mother, the archetypal wicked stepmother of fairy tale, Cloten manifests the other-worldliness of romance. The other comic villain of the piece, lachimo, is a pleasing creation who also helps maintain the play's tone. He is a stock Machiavel and is often downright comic—for example when he emerges from his trunk like a jack-in-the-box and compares himself vaingloriously to the
truly menacing Tarquin. His humorous aspect takes the edge off his villainy and permits us to recognize that Imogen's disgrace can have no lasting consequences in the world of romance. In 5.5 Iachimo's long confession, as boastful as it is apologetic, constitutes a plea for forgiveness and entitles him to share in the play's final reconciliation. Pisanio is another sort of figure, the loyal and clever servant of tradition who stands firmly for common sense, truth, and resourceful continuance. Finally, however, as the chaos of the plot builds, he throws up his hands and commits himself to providence. 'Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer'd' (4.3.46), he declares.
Cymbeline is very exciting to watch on the stage, for the complexities and improbabilities of its plot yield many splendid surprises. The role of the central figure, Imogen, shifts constantly. The plot turns from the theme of separated lovers, to that of a wager on the maiden's chastity (and two different, equally repellent, assaults on it), to the maiden's ambivalent journey—she braves the wilderness to find her lover but is actually being ambushed by him—and finally to a traditional comic ploy, the maiden disguised as a boy. In the meantime, two other plots have been introduced, either of which might be central in a more conventional play. One concerns lost princes raised in the wild, and the other offers high politics and war as Britain refuses tribute to Rome.
Particular episodes offer individual surprises as well. Iachimo's first appearance, in 1.5, is entirely unanticipated, and he later startles us again when he emerges from the trunk in Imogen's bedroom. The first presentation of Belarius' cave suddenly introduces a very different sub-plot, just as the main plot is growing increasingly complicated. We are shocked (though probably delighted) when Cloten's head is borne on-stage by Guiderius, and while we are prepared for Imogen's false death, its conjunction with Cloten's headless corpse is a pleasantly novel complication. Not least, Posthumus' supernatural vision in 5.4 is probably the most spectacular eruption of the unexpected in Shakespeare. Shakespeare's earlier works had occasionally offered surprises—the final episode in Love's Labour's Lost is a famous example—but a great emphasis on novelty is distinctive to the romances, and the dramatic excitement produced is strongly felt by audiences. This emphasis on the playwright's artfulness has inspired many commentators to insist that Cymbeline is merely an artistic experiment undertaken for its own sake. However, the play's marked esthetic aspect generates a sense of unreality that is important to the central theme of the romances—humanity's dependence on providence—and to their major motif—magic and the supernatural. We are notified that the play is not about real life, and if we permit it, a state of timeless suspension is the result.
The play's complications and surprises also serve another purpose. Tragedy and comedy each enact events that lead towards a conclusion, be it the triumph of love or of disaster. In Cymbeline, however, the pattern is so complicated and the turnings of fate so unpredictable that we can only rely on the final surprise of 5.4 (final to us; 5.5 offers a long series of surprises for the characters), the literal dens ex machine of Jupiter's appearance, to resolve the situation. Jupiter's descent is significantly climactic. It follows the battle scene that envelops all the characters, and precedes the all-too-human fumbling that is revealed in the comically complicated final scene. We are reminded of Pisanio's prediction—fortune, not steering, will bring in the boats—and that humanity is dependent on providence.
The play's seeming peculiarities reflect this message. Its variety of characters and tonalities—comic or tragic, realistic or fantastic—all are reconciled in a positive and unifying vision. The comic is never farcical, and the potentially tragic remains merely potential. The realistic does not preclude abstraction, and the elements of romance do not give way to an entirely escapist retreat from reality. Cymbeline thus suggests and attempts to demonstrate, in not completely effective fashion, a vision of human weakness transcended. Shakespeare more successfully accomplished this vision in less complicated and more homogeneous plays. The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. For though its themes are dramatic, Cymbeline is nevertheless decidedly Hawed. As we have seen, it leans disconcertingly towards tragedy, as if the author's intentions had been uncertain. Similarly, several of the characters seem to reflect too many differing ideas, and are inconsistently presented. lachimo, for instance, while a conventional comic villain, also offers glimpses of tragedy, as when he envisions infidelity in terms of passion and damnation and invokes 'all the plagues of hell' (1.7.111). Here, as when he fleetingly identifies himself with utter evil—'hell is here' (2.2.50)—he sounds more like Othello or Macbeth than the play can bear. Posthumus, likewise, is presented to us as the traditional romantic hero—the 'most prais'd, most lov'd' of men (1.1.47)—but when he accepts the wager, believes Iachimo, and finally takes revenge through Pisanio, he is immature and ignoble. He resembles Othello, also, in his insecurity; he believes that Imogen would find it easy to betray him. His tirade against women with its vividly bestial image of Imogen and lachimo strikes a horrifying note that is as unromantic as lachimo's earlier evocations of evil. Posthumus' ultimate decision to seek death in battle is also unsuitably grim.
Imogen is subject to similar inconsistencies, and the main plot seems to have caused Shakespeare to revert to familiar modes of creation. The heroine is the traditional, idealized princess, 'more goddess-like than wife-like' (3.2.8), and the proper mate to Posthumus' glorious prince. However, in her resourcefulness and wit, Imogen is plainly a typical Shakespearean comic heroine, capable of disguising herself as a man and going in search of her lover. She sharply—and wittily—rejects the unwanted attentions of Cloten; she acknowledges—and overcomes—her feminine fear of swords. She resembles Rosalind of As You Like It, Beatrice of Much Ado, and Viola of Twelfth Night, rather more than she does the passive object of adoration and intrigue that is the central figure in traditional romance. Imogen is enchanting, and her transformations onstage are delightful, but while she captures our affections, the fashion in which she does so is contrary to the general direction of the play.
Further, the presence of differing character types seems similarly disjointed. Fairy-tale figures such as the queen and the lost princes coexist with more psychologically developed figures. The more peripheral characters seem more appropriate to the essentially comic optimism of romance, while the central situation has the potential for tragedy. The play is also disjointed in its setting. No fewer than four distinct worlds are evoked: classical Rome, Renaissance Italy, pagan Britain, and the abstracted countryside of pastoral romance (represented by Wales). The intricate reconciliation of these venues in the final scene requires such extraordinary ingenuity that it has inspired equal measures of praise and ridicule, as perhaps no other scene in Shakespeare has. Another device, the use of comic relief, such as in 2.1, reflects the need to dilute a mood of growing tragedy that is counter to the play's general thrust.
In Cymbeline the seams of Shakespeare's construction show—they don't in The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. We should not reject the play altogether, however, for as we have seen, it has magic. Samuel Johnson complained of the play that 'to remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity . . . , the confusion ... were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection . . .'. However, these evident faults also provide, along with folly and confusion, the escapist charms of romantic literature in general and of Imogen's world in particular. They need not be apologized for but merely accepted, and Cymbeline may be enjoyed for itself as well as for its place as the immediate predecessor of Shakespeare's last two masterpieces.
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