Ready for a good bedtime story? A classic fairy tale filled with wicked stepmothers, beautiful princesses, buffoonish clowns, a minor war and divine interventions, look no further than Shakespeare's take on the fairy tale - Cymbeline. Based on the doings of a minor king of Britain during the later days of the Roman Empire, Shakespeare took a second crack at a new experimental genre that was just coming into vogue in the later end of his career - the Tragicomedy or what later became known as his Romances. Beginning a year or two before with Pericles, Shakespeare's company began producing larger, lavish spectacles that featured exotic time periods and locations, larger than life characters in sometimes fantastical situations. The trend was set off by huge court productions by Shakespeare's literary rival, friend and one time company protégé Ben Jonson. Jonson, who had been writing works for the professional theaters for about a decade, found a niche in producing elaborate showings or "masques" specifically the King's court that would involve casts of thousands and many royals would were itching to act, but socially weren't able to such as many aristocratic women. In relation these productions had a budget 10 times more than what Shakespeare's or similar companies would spend on one show. A modern day parallel would be a production of Disney's The Lion King vs. an off Broadway play. In order to compete and a make use of their own newly available upscale theater, the Blackfriars, Shakespeare turned his writing toward shows away from the tragedies and more toward the spectacular.
As the play appeared in the 1623 First Folio
King Cymbeline had three children from his first marriage. His two sons Guiderius and Arviragus are kidnapped as infants by a disgruntled courtier named Belarius who then raises them as his own. Daughter Imogen is the king's remaining child lives only with her father for several years until he remarries the wicked stepmother simply known as The Queen and rounding out the family is her evil, but stupid son Cloten. Imogen, longing to get out of her bad family situation, falls in love with and marries the poor, but upright Posthumous. Enraged, the king exiles Posthumous to Rome, and tries to have the marriage annulled, allowing Cloten puts the moves on Imogen. When not dealing with his daughter's love life, the king entertains, Lucius, a long time ambassador from Rome who has come to collect an overdue tribute. At the behest of Cloten, the king refuses saying there is no debt to pay. Lucius reluctantly leaves knowing that this will mean his boss the emperor will declare war.
Bidding his time in Rome, Posthumous meets the sleazy Iachimo, to whom he recounts his plight. Iachimo, looking for adventure and to win a quick wager states that no women can be as virtuous as Posthumous is making Imogen out to be and could seduce her easily. Posthumous takes up the bet having faith in his love. Worming his way into Cymbeline's court and Imogen's bedroom via a bedroom trunk, Iachimo observes a mole on Imogen and reports back the rather intimate feature to Posthumous. Thinking he has been cheated on Posthumous sends a letter to his faithful servant Pisanio to kill Imogen. Pisanio, thinking something is amiss, tells Imogen. He instructs Imogen that they must flee to escape what is becoming an unsafe court and reunite with Posthumous. On the way and with Cloten in pursuit, Imogen encounters her two lost brothers, who have grown up with Belarius as peasants as well as an unexpected dead body. The Roman Army invades with Posthumous in tow as an officer and Cymbeline mobilizes his army to meet the invasion. In the process a king is reunited with his lost sons, the truth of Iachimo's "lustful evening" is revealed and prince and princess are reunited through a little help from the gods.
Cymbeline was written approximately in 1608 and based on several different sources. Shakespeare drew on his favorite historical source Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland for information on the historical King Cymbeline, more commonly known as Cunobelinus and two novellas for the main plot featuring Imogen, Giovanni Boccaccio's anthology Decameron and the Dutch tale Frederyke of Jennen. The play and the genre followed structurally the same ground describing a tale of family and lovers in a far off land and time, split apart and then reunited through fantastical or divine means. Competing with the larger court dramas, these new productions included more music, special effects scenery changes and overall spectacle. This was a notable change from the simple no set approach at the Globe that can be seen in more elaborate stage directions and reflecting the new indoor more controllable environment at the company's Blackfriars theater. One of the more elaborate "special effects" that was first utilized in Pericles was the "God Machine" or lowering winch, that would lower a divine character from above which allows Jupiter, king of the gods, to make an appearance at the end of the play. While filled with larger than life characters, setting and spectacle, Cymbeline has never been one the Bard's more popular works as it seemed to be making fun of the fantastical genre that it depicted and has taken a back seat to more accomplished Romances such as The Tempest. The play has been sporadically done throughout the centuries and only recently has gain a toehold with modern audiences that are used to parodies of fairy tales. In the age of The Princess Bride and Shrek, Cymbeline has had a bit of renaissance as theater goers have enjoyed its subversive charm and dazzling poetry.
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