Cymbeline by William Shakespeare.

1900 edition.
I found classifying William Shakespeare's Cymbeline (1611) was not so easy: it is regarded now as a comedy, or more accurately a romance, and not thought of as a problem play (like The Winter's TaleAll's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida). However it's full title was The Tragedy of Cymbeline, suggesting of course that it is a tragedy, and what's more it is based on a real king of England: Cunobeline (about late first century B.C. - 40s A.D.).

I wanted to read Cymbeline again having read Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) in which there's a brief account of King Kymbelinus or Cymbeline (and King Lear, which I read last week). So short is Geoffrey of Monmouth's account I can more or less quote it in full here: Geoffrey writes about his father Tenvantius, and that Cymbeline succeeded him (during this time Jesus was born). Cymbeline was a friend of Augustus  and the Romans. Geoffrey of Monmouth goes on,
When he had ruled Britain for ten years Cymbeline became the father of two sons, the older of whom was called Guiderius and the second one Arvirargus. As his life drew towards its end, Cymbeline handed over the government of his kingdom to Guiderius.
A coin of Cunobeline.
© Museum Victoria.
Geoffrey of Monmouth then goes on to write about the reign of Guiderius, and does mention Cymbeline's third son Caractacus (who is mentioned in John Fletcher's play Bonduca, 1613), nor is there a mention of Imogen, the central character of Shakespeare's Cymbeline but his sons Guiderius and Arvirargus both have roles. In Shakespeare's account, Imogen is the daughter of Cymbeline from a former wife, and Guiderius and Arvirargus were both kidnapped by a Belarius, an exiled traitor. Imogen secretly marries her lover Posthumus Leonatus however Cymbeline does not approve, refuses to recognise the marriage, and banishes Posthumus. As Imogen appears to be his only heir he wishes her to marry well, and Cymbeline's selfish and deadly queen wishes her to marry her son (of a former marriage) Cloten, and then poison both Imogen and Cymboline.

Imogen Sleeping by Norman Price.
Meanwhile Posthumus is exiled in Italy and he encounters Iachimo who makes a bet he will be able to seduce Imogen, who has secluded herself in her room to avoid Cloten. He travels to England and makes his attempt however fails, so he hides in her bedroom as she sleeps and takes note of all the details, including the sleeping Imogen's body. He then steals her bracelet, returns to Italy, and tells Posthumus he has won his bet. Posthumus, furious, orders his servant Pisanio to murder Imogen,  telling her to meet him at Milford Haven (Pembrokeshire, Wales) however Pisanio believes her innocence and persuades her to disguise herself as a man and find Posthumus.

On her journey Imogen encounters Belarius who is living in Wales with Cymbeline's two sons. Cloten arrives and duels with Guiderius, who kills him. Imogen drinks the potion given to her by the queen, who herself believes it is poison however it is merely a sleeping draught. Imogen sleeps, a sleep that resembles death, and her brothers lay her beside the body of Cloten (when she awakes she mistakes Cloten for Posthumus).

As this is going on the Roman Army enter Britain following the apparent refusal of Cymbeline to pay a tribute (ensuring non-aggression). It's probably worth mentioning at this point that according to Geoffrey of Monmouth he did pay the tribute:
This King was so friendly with the Romans that he might well have kept back their tribute-money, but he paid it of his own free will.
Amongst the army are Posthumus and Iachimo: Posthumus deeply regrets the 'murder' of Imogen (for he does believe her to be dead) and he switches his uniform to resemble English fighters. Because of him, Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, and the intervention of Jupiter, the Roman army are defeated. King Cymbeline wishes to thank them, and here the confusion is all sorted out: Belarius is forgiven (as is Iachimo), his sons are reinstated, and Imogen may live as the wife of Posthumus.

I must confess this is absolutely not a favourite. It did seem quickly to become tedious, which is problematic because Shakespeare, for me, requires a good deal of concentration. It was over all disappointing, it should have been a play I loved, but it was not be. I would even go so far as to suggest perhaps Shakespeare himself was bored with it, hence the deus ex machina appearance of the Roman god Jupiter! This technique worked beautifully in Aeschylus' Eumenides, but sadly not here. Nevertheless, as I'm reading Shakespeare's histories at the moment it was good to take a little break and re-visit the old kings of times gone by.

Comments

  1. i remember when i read it, it seemed kind of soap-operish, like he was tired when he wrote it, or distracted, maybe. soap opera of a high order, though. still, it's still shakspeare and the language is a challenge and an interesting one....

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    1. It is an interesting one - as far as old or mythical kings go, I did prefer King Lear, but I liked this well enough.

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  2. Ack, you're putting me to shame! I haven't read one Shakespeare play yet for the challenge. I'm trying to finish up some books and then get more focus with my reads.

    I'm loving how your reading is "leaking" into each other. You've now interested me in reading Cymbeline. I expected it to be the same as Coriolanus, which I loved, but perhaps not. It sounds more like my experience of A Winter's Tale.

    Didn't these mistaken identities get old? Didn't Shakespeare's audience groan, "Oh Shakespeare! Another mistaken identity!" Or was the culture so different that they loved repetition? I'm curious ......

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    1. It's a weird kind of coincidence that I'm reading so much Shakespeare at present - certainly not planned (on the whole, some were planned). I do plan to read the Histories and two or three comedies this year, but Cymbeline was simple curiosity after Geoffrey of Monmouth.

      And yes, I'm enjoying the linked books! I wish I had a bit more time to read more that 'leak' into each other :)

      As for the mistaken identities.. I know! I'll be interested to read some other comedies of the time to see if that is a feature!

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