The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Cymbeline (which following an engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is now playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington) vindicates the stageworthiness of what has come to be one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays. Once a favorite of the playhouses, frequently and sometimes lavishly revived as a vehicle for stars from Mrs. Siddons to Ellen Terry, Cymbeline nowadays seems to be remembered chiefly for its two songs “Hark, hark the lark” and “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” and for its much-admired heroine, the princess Imogen. Among critics, whether the play is really much good has remained an open question, tactfully implied by such terms as “experiment” and “transitional work.” Productions have been rare enough to suggest that Shakespeare might, this once, have fumbled in realizing his intentions.

The RSC production, directed by Adrian Noble, refutes any notion that Cymbeline is unplayable, without in any way exhausting our possible responses to this most enigmatic Shakespearean work. There will soon be an opportunity for further response: in an unlooked-for bounty, another production, directed by Andrei Serban, will play in Central Park later this summer. These revivals, together with another this winter at Princeton, directed by Mark Lamos, suggest that Cymbeline may be undergoing the sort of rebirth supposedly characteristic of Shakespeare’s late romances. But experiencing the play live does not alleviate the oddness that has always clung to it. In fact it seems odder than ever.

Cymbeline poses distinct perplexities to any director, even when the problem of its inordinate length (it runs some four hours uncut) has been dealt with, as here, by extensive, mainly imperceptible pruning. In the first place, what is it about? A Shakespeare play can generally be at least crudely blurbed in the manner of a TV Guide listing: A young man is led to suspect his stepfather of his father’s murder. Comical complications ensue when a brother and sister, identical twins, are shipwrecked in a strange country. An exiled duke with magical powers has an opportunity for vengeance when his enemies fall into his hands. An embittered army officer plots to wreck his commanding officer’s marriage.

When it comes to Cymbeline, any such attempt precipitates a scene-by-scene recapitulation: An aging ruler whose second wife prevails on him to marry his daughter by his first marriage to her son is enraged when she defies him by marrying an orphan of low rank who was raised in the palace because his father and elder siblings died heroically defending Britain against her Roman invaders, and who is after the marriage forced into exile in Italy, where he stays with an old friend of his father’s, at whose house—but I have forgotten to mention the princes abducted by a disgruntled retainer, and the unpaid tribute to Rome, and the poison prepared at the behest of the queen but transmuted without her knowledge into a harmless sleeping potion.

Any production must first establish some credibility for a dramatic setup whose demerits were summed up in Dr. Johnson’s curt dismissal:

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.

In this mix of disparate elements, flung together with what could pass for disdainful carelessness—ancient Britain and Renaissance Italy, a wicked stepmother out of a fairy tale, and a divine vision out of Roman mythology—anachronism and coincidence are operating principles. What elsewhere in Shakespeare is seamlessly fused here seems almost deliberately separated out; artifice is exposed as if to foster incredulity.

Quite aside from his dramatic premises, Shakespeare’s execution has been faulted: the play has been variously deemed trivial, heavy-handed, digressive, prolix; its language as uneven, and sometimes as downright awkward, as its actions are banal and implausible. The characters have been described as puppets, weak, unstable, or barely developed, their most expressive moments no more than flattened echoes of earlier works. Notoriously, the play sets up as hero one Posthumus Leonatus, Imogen’s low- born husband, whose resplendent virtues are proclaimed at ornate length in the opening scene, but who after falling from grace with stunning speed proceeds to disappear for most of the duration. Resurfacing in Act Five more or less with his tail between his legs, he passively receives an elaborate vision of Jupiter (a pageant whose merits, either literary or dramatic, have also been viewed with extreme skepticism).

If Shakespeare washes his hands of characterization and embraces the mechanics of a puppet show, might it be a matter of momentarily diminished capacity, of tired indifference to the springs of motive? Harley Granville-Barker, in his brilliant preface to a play he finds it impossible to completely admire,1 detects “a certain leisured weariness of mind,” and hypothesizes that the playwright, newly retired to Stratford, might have been slowing down a bit. Perhaps, it has been surmised, Shakespeare was at pains to demonstrate his continuing viability in a rapidly changing marketplace? Did he make an appeal to changing tastes, whipping up a novel sort of comical-melodramatic masque of which he had not quite gotten the hang?


Yet however casually imagined the plot’s devices, its feints and disguises, faked letters and providential encounters—however prone its characters to explanations after the fact, or sudden recollections of things that they should have brought up earlier—I am unable, along with many readers, to doubt that the play’s effects are intentional, and that the mystery is not whether but why Shakespeare planned it that way. As G. Wilson Knight, an ardent twentieth-century partisan, remarked: “Even its anachronisms appear to be planned.”2

The apparent flaws and unresolved difficulties may serve to make those of us who love the play somewhat protective of it, more than is usually required for a writer who rarely calls for special pleading. If Cymbeline differs radically from the rest of the oeuvre, it requires a certain faith to affirm that this was no aberration but a purposeful reversal of Shakespeare’s own habits, rigorous, almost brutally forceful, and still capable of astonishing.

The RSC production at least makes it clear that Cymbeline is a singular masterpiece of stagecraft, whose theatrical pleasures are distinct from other Shakespearean plays. The disjunctions and contradictions of the text, far from interfering with its dramatic life, create its jagged rhythms, its air of brimming over with the excess of its own situations. As the audience files in, extras in Druidic white robes are already sprawled around a wok-like brazier, from which the smell of incense rises. At the back there is a vague cloudy-blue backdrop. We are far from any sense of location and indeed, with the white robes and the incense, could be in the midst of some New Age commune affecting extraterrestrial fashions. (The incense, which lingers throughout the performance, distractingly prolongs that impression.) At length one among their number begins to speak, not the words with which Shakespeare opened the play, but a newly crafted line of exposition: “There was a king named Cymbeline…” The dialogue of the original opening has been reworked to provide a rundown of the status quo while doing away with the two Gentlemen (never seen again) who in Shakespeare’s version provide the information. As each character is referred to, he stands, throws off his robe, and makes an introductory flourish. However ingenious this may be as a device for straightening out the dramatis personae right from the start, my heart sank a little at the tone of cozy good humor. To get the upper hand of the material by kidding it would be a dangerous move, even (or especially) when the material appears to kid itself. Was this to be a comic opera Cymbeline, under the sign of the knowing wink?

Like anyone who has spent a long time thinking about an unacted play, I was initially reluctant to sacrifice a familiar text, and couldn’t help regretting what was lost in reframing that prologue: the two anonymous Gentlemen, whispering commentators on the spectacle of misused power, who establish the sense of an actual polity suffused with an atmosphere of public mistrust. Cymbeline’s court may have about it an air of almost comical dissolution, but such weakness carries with it a reminder of real enough dangers. That the King’s children were stolen away becomes an occasion to gripe about inefficiency and inadequate security: “That a king’s children should be so convey’d,/So slackly guarded, and the search so slow/That could not trace them!” It is but the earliest indication that this fantasy kingdom is curiously defined by grievances and insufficiencies.

The risk of overdoing the laughs is that once an audience is encouraged to find the very notion of abducted princes and wicked stepmothers uproarious, it will be difficult to get them to take much of anything that goes on very seriously. How are they to react when the king of the gods descends with something resembling a menu from a high-class restaurant? Then again, it may be that contemporary audiences take few artistic effects more seriously than the unforced laugh; it is a sort of certification that they are watching something real. The recent revival in London and New York of Ionesco’s The Chairs with Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan made powerful use of music-hall style, eliciting gales of laughter while inching the audience toward a bleakness that might otherwise have remained an inert concept.


In Cymbeline it isn’t a matter of progression. The comic does not give way gradually to the somber; there is rather a constant careening in and out, following a law of maximum contrast at maximum speed. What is required is a decisive registration of these shifts, an acknowledgment of how radically we are asked to change gear at each turn, and here the RSC manages quite well. A single excessive pratfall nearly breaks the rhythm of the frenetic last scene, already—with its piling up of breathless last-minute revelations—close enough in form to the finale of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta not to need any underscoring of the point.

Once the robes are off, we discover that Adrian Noble has adopted the accoutrements of an imaginary Orient, a mélange of gestures and visual cues from kabuki and Chinese opera and Javanese shadow play. Nothing remotely Asian is proposed; the audience is merely given notice that the play occurs within the same purely theatrical realm as, say, Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges or Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (or even, at moments, The Mikado). A room in the palace, a road in the forest, a jail cell: all are made from the same interchangeable elements, with a billowing white canopy serving alternatively as wall or carpet, curtain or clearing or cave mouth. A walkway extending into the audience mimics the hanamichi of kabuki, forming a path along which servants, soldiers, courtiers, and prisoners variously march, amble, or race. There is a good deal of racing; the velocity of the play’s narrative development—the startling rapidity with which situations reverse themselves or personalities turn inside out—is conveyed first of all by a literal speeding up of exits and entrances.

The promiscuous mixing of Asian styles suits the Roman-British-Italian amalgam of the play; the design achieves its unreality with very palpable chunks of the real, recognizable swords and caps and pirouettes yanked from their source and rearranged into a new pattern, a calculated mishmash. The effect is to permit rapid shifts from awestruck immobility to farcical tumbling, from swordplay to shows of grief; the jostling of extremes is constantly maintained through five acts in a play where no theatrical emotion survives in its pure form for more than a few moments.

The hint of kabuki provides an opening for the degree of stylization in the acting that the play’s extreme situations necessitate: a stylization that the production does not always achieve, but toward which it at least strongly points. If the characters do not wear masks, or sing their lines, then some other way must be found to hoist them, when necessary, to the proper level of emblematic abstraction. Like the Japanese actor frozen at select moments in an archetypal pose, these characters move in and out of a sort of statuesque repose in which they assume their type: the Choleric Ruler, the Virtuous Wife, the Designated Hero. From within these types they dart out periodically, awkwardly individual and ill at ease with their predestined roles. It is as if one play were superimposed on another, a heroic play in which it is the type of the hero that fails most: or rather, not merely two plays superimposed but the full range of possible performances, enacted simultaneously.

The play’s superficial enchantments—all that is evoked by the colors and incense, the plaintive music and the courtly ceremonies—are dispelled continually. We are immersed in the trappings of a fairy tale only to find it by its own plot elements. There is no trace of the elfin or sprightly, or for that matter the otherworldly or demonic, in a play more at home with themes of disappointment and betrayal. This time out we find no enchanted island, no seacoast of Bohemia, only the desolate backwoods of Wales, somewhere in the vicinity of that Milford Haven whose name recurs often enough to serve the RSC as a running gag, and around which the play’s events converge, or—more precisely—close in.

Even when it broaches the supernatural, in the sleeping Posthumus’s jailhouse vision of Jupiter, Cymbeline remains a stubbornly earthbound play, in which no one can escape from the perils and embarrassments of being human. The much-criticized vision doesn’t accomplish more than an ordinary human dream: the hero receives a visit from his dead parents and siblings (RSC has omitted the siblings), and then is vouchsafed a glimpse of the great god, who limits his intervention to imparting an inexplicable message. He delivers it, admittedly, in the miraculous form of an elegantly bound chapbook which remains with the hero after he wakes—but this amounts to something like the cryptic verbal residue of any dream. The god’s message serves no real function in resolving the play: its hidden meaning is clarified in hindsight (with the help of a rather pedantic soothsayer), but by then the matter is pretty much beside the point. To all appearances, the characters, who exhibit bad judgment all around, are redeemed by little more than lucky accident.

Attempted seduction, attempted rape, unwarranted suspicion, injured pride, unsuccessful marriages, unpaid debts: the story-within-the-story begins to sound like some sort of Elizabethan kitchen-sink drama, with very little probability of any happy ending. In the impossible working together of its madly mismatched parts, the play evokes a magic that none of its characters can quite live up to. The weight falls heaviest on Imogen, whose emotional devastation at the supposed death of Posthumus is indeed tragedy realized rather than merely threatened, and darkens the mood irredeemably despite all subsequent reunions and pardons. No matter what happens in the fifth act it is hard to avoid the feeling that—if the events we have seen were in any sense real—she has been crushed.

Imogen was the object of widespread sentimental admiration in the Victorian era and beyond, an icon in whom Swinburne, for instance, discerned “the immortal godhead of womanhood…, the woman best beloved in all the world of song and all the tide of time.”3 She is a bit of everything: robustly chaste, daintily down-to-earth, at once the most active character in the play and a personage who plays one scene (the most striking of all) asleep, and another transfixed in a semblance of death. She carries most of the play before fading into near-invisibility in the final stretch. It is both a magnificent role (played with all the required enthusiasm and emotional openness by Joanne Pearce) and a character so all-encompassing as to be almost generic, a paragon of virtues imagined as being fully alive, and therefore capable of suffering on a level beyond the fairy-tale character who from time to time she becomes. If Cymbeline’s characters are puppets with deep feeling—all the more tragic in their sneaking awareness that they are, in the end, puppets—Imogen is the one almost permitted to escape from the narrative.

She is defined negatively by the men who surround her, a set of variations on male ignobility: the would-be seducer Iachimo, with his “Italian brain,” the would-be rapist Cloten, a clown too believable in his murderous resentments to be altogether funny (and brilliantly incarnated in the RSC production by Guy Henry in a play-stealing performance which realizes the paradox of a nuanced brutality), the stick-figure virtuous husband Posthumus who folds at the first hint of uncertainty, the petulant, henpecked, hopelessly misjudging father. There are no Prince Charmings in sight, unless you count the forest-raised, half-savage royal heirs, near-impossible parts played here, somewhat desperately, for laughs.

There is not even laughter to be extracted from the central oddity of the play, the not-quite-there titular character. Edward Petherbridge, with the help of gorgeous flowing white locks, succeeds in making the enfeebled king a striking enough presence to compensate for his being almost wholly inarticulate. He fusses with his coattails, trembles with conflicting emotion, grows short of breath in the midst of calls to battle: a king for whom crown and chair of state must take the place of diminished vital force.

By merely occupying the stage Petherbridge makes visible the hidden subtheme—how to uphold the father’s power in light of his actual weakness, how to save the King as figurehead—exemplified by the paradox of a play named after its most passive and unsatisfying character. It is precisely the weight put on such wordless elements that distinguishes Cymbeline. The play does not merely lend itself to balletic and pictorial effects, it insists on them.

The RSC recognizes this by positioning the nearly silent battle scene between Romans and Britons in Act Five—described in a few sentences in the First Folio text—as a major episode, enacted with Javanese trappings, a ballet of giant shadows and waving banners, with the king—a sacred prop—held aloft and whisked about the stage on his chair of state. The text as we have it seems insufficient to present the whole of Shakespeare’s theatrical art here more than elsewhere. Only, for instance, in experiencing a full-scale enactment of the shock effect of the seducer emerging into Imogen’s bedchamber can one gauge the expressiveness of the simple stage direction: “Iachimo comes from the trunk.”

Do we detect in Cymbeline a nostalgia for the simplistic, a refined taste for crude rhymes and makeshift tales of wonder, dumb show and tumbling acts? This sort of rough-and-ready material, an amalgam of exotic fantasy and clownish humor, would have been made to order for Robert Greene or George Peele, the sort of playwrights whose creaky old plays, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay or The Old Wives’ Tale, Shakespeare’s had so effortlessly surpassed. But here the tacky, random materials of popular narrative are accorded an absolute seriousness—a solemnity—of attention, as if all the powers of art were employed to examine the nature of artlessness.

It is just possible to think of it as a cheap novel with speaking parts, Shakespeare’s own contribution to the pulp fiction around him, rooted in an intensely focused meditation on the pop art of popular romance. It is most prophetic in saluting the power of that literature of miraculous births and impossible coincidences, severed heads and princes abducted in the cradle, that would endure through centuries of opera, melodrama, and film, in the West’s ongoing puppet show.

But nothing is so simple, he makes difficulties for himself and for his audience, deprives himself of some of his usual tools. “I cannot delve him to the root,” the First Gentleman says of Posthumus in the first scene: no line is more indicative of the way language is worked here. It is a dialect of knots and roots. The simplest observations are distended and complicated in ways that do not obviously serve the forward movement of the play. Speech is gnarled and simplistic at once, the knottiness and naiveté not fused but intertwined in an odd double texture, as if the literalness of the intrigue allowed Shakespeare to savor sheer oddness of word choice, to make language strange in lines that swarm, ramble, knock about percussively. The verse has a life of its own regardless of who is speaking it; its pulse generates a sense of interconnectedness made more pronounced by the absence of anything like detachable poetic set pieces. Aside from the two famous songs there are remarkably few quotable bits in Cymbeline, and again this feels deliberate.

The play’s peculiar rigor involves the curtailment of Shakespeare’s—or rather his characters’—usual facility of utterance; these creatures, caught up in their circumstances, seem unable to generalize beyond them. The characters speak at times in proverbs and truisms, but are denied much in the way of extended philosophical speculation. There isn’t time for it, in a world so relentlessly circumscribed by contingencies. Little plot summaries are interpolated at every opportunity so that the thread is not lost. Meaning is not to be summed up; it lies outside the words spoken by any single actor, is perhaps more a question of the distances between what they say. The machinery, of plot and scene structure, speaks for them this once more eloquently than they can manage.

With all its dumb show, the language is sometimes an adjunct to the physical action. Cymbeline would have served admirably, as few other Shakespearean plays would, as a scenario for D.W. Griffith. The switching of bottles, the stolen glimpse in the bedchamber, the journey through the forest, the arrival of the Roman ambassador, the duel, the battle, the celestial vision: one can practically envision the camera setups, the floral designs on the intertitles.

The thread, here, is everything, and the means to sustain it—whether a borrowed suit of clothes or a purloined bracelet—a matter of convenience. Hazlitt, who loved Cymbeline and its air of “tender gloom,” wrote that “the reading of this play is like going on a journey with some uncertain object at the end of it.” Performance clarifies the hurtling impetus of that journey. The play moves almost senselessly toward its climax, or rather its extravagantly elaborated domino effect of climaxes, as if that headlong drive in which circumstance hooks into circumstance and drags all—including the audience—along with it were the final point of appeal. Cymbeline does not so much express as enact the blind and reckless forward movement of life. Shakespeare’s late plays are routinely supposed to embody some sort of ultimate acceptance, but of what? Some transcendent peace, or merely theater’s cunning ability to make a simulacrum of it? The peace celebrated at the end is, at best, limited and hard-won.

Cymbeline’s appeal lies to some extent in the discovery of another possible Shakespeare, not for the moment interested in articulating large humanistic concepts, working with gestures and shapes and stage spaces as if looking for an altogether different way of framing deep questions. If we think of Hamlet as drunk on speculation about being and Lear as shot through with terror at the futility of such speculation, then Cymbeline can be seen as an experiment in finding a way to forego such speculation, to get at things from another angle. Instead of the vertigo of infinite depths of character (given form by the infinite extrapolations of linguistic meaning in soliloquies that comment endlessly on newly discovered reaches of their own self-commentary) we find something nearly opposite: a newfangled opacity, expressed by means of human figures who at moments resemble paper cut-outs. For this particular play, it is a matter of fixing on the here and now, the solid and limited, the dumb show of what is: a here and now which for Shakespeare’s purposes is one and the same with the theatrical illusion in its barest and most nearly risible form. In this way the extreme sophistication of Cymbeline can become nearly indistinguishable from the acting out of a children’s game.

This Issue

July 16, 1998