There’s a moment in Ali Smith’s Winter where Lux (a woman pretending to be Charlotte because Art [Charlotte’s ex] doesn’t want to tell his mother they broke up) recounts the plot of a play she cannot remember the name of. She claims it is Shakespeare, and launches into a page-long recap of the plot as she remembers it, with a king, evil stepmother queen, a man hiding in a box, popping out to spy on a naked woman, and a woodsman who kidnapped children. Art thinks, “Oh God. To make herself seem more like the imagined Charlotte, presumably, Lux is making up a terrible bland fairytale plot that’s nothing like Shakespeare” (Smith 198). The joke of course is that the “terrible bland fairytale plot” is Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, King of Britain: a play so crammed with plot that Dr. Samuel Johnson referred to it with the wonderful expression “unresisting imbecility”; a phrase that needs to be used more in daily life. Incidentally, there are only a few people who can get away with calling Shakespeare’s work imbecilic—Johnson is one of them.
When Art’s mother realizes what play Lux is talking about, she summarizes it more succinctly by describing it as:
A play about a Kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, power mongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self poisoning (200)
Which is far less bland fairytale, and far more Shakespeare. For while this is an accurate summary of Cymbeline, it is also an accurate summary of many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and some of his tragic histories. Particularly Hamlet, and despite the fact that I tend to look for Hamlet in everything Shakespeare, I did not expect to tie these two plays together.
The focus question for this play shall be “How can we reconcile Smith’s two summaries of the play—the ‘unrelenting imbecility’ of the surface plot, and the Shakespearean model of chaos, lies, and poisoning and self-poisoning?”
The Terrible Bland Fairytale Plot
There seems to be a tradition, amongst those who analyze this play, with trying to summarize the unresisting imbecility. So here is my poor attempt at presenting just the plot of Cymbeline, having reread it a few days before writing.
We begin in Britain, during the time of Augustus Caesar, with a lot of exposition between two nameless characters. From one we learn a few facts: Posthumous Leonatus is being exiled because he secretly married Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline. Turns out, Imogen was supposed to marry the new queen’s son, Cloten. We also learn that the king’s two elder sons were kidnapped at birth. When the play proper begins, Imogen and Posthumous bid farewell, exchanging love tokens (Posthumous gives Imogen a bracelet, she gives him her ring). Posthumous goes into exile, heading to Renaissance Italy to stay with a friend. Here he meets Iachimo, and the two get into a debate about the fidelity of women. Iachimo bets Posthumous that he can go to Britain and convince Imogen to sleep with him. Posthumous takes the bet. Iachimo meets Imogen, talks about how unfaithful Posthumous has been, throws himself at her, back-peddles by saying it was all a test to see if she was faithful to Posthumous, goes away, but comes back that night stuffed in a trunk. He pops out of the box, surveys her room and her naked body, gets her bracelet, and back to Italy to convince Posthumous that he slept with Imogen. Posthumous flies into a murderous rage, and writes to his servant Pisanio with instructions on how to kill Imogen. Speaking of Pisanio, he was given a “sleeping potion” by the Queen to help him relax. Except, it’s actually poison, because the Queen is desperate that Imogen should marry Cloten, and having Pisanio around just reminds her of Posthumous. And if he doesn’t drink it, Imogen might—because the Queen is evil and wants us to know that. Except, it’s not poison but actually a sleeping potion, because the doctor who made the potion knows that the Queen is evil and thought “this lady shouldn’t have poison.” So Pisanio unfolds Posthumous’s trap, convincing Imogen that Posthumous is waiting for her in the wilderness of Wales, where Pisanio will kill Imogen. But he chickens out and confesses the whole plot. He convinces her to disguise herself as a boy (Fidele) and go find Posthumous in Italy to see what is really happening. Meanwhile, he sends Posthumous Imogen’s clothing, bloodied, as proof that he killed her.
Back in Britain, the ambassador to Augustus Caesar is trying to persuade Cymbeline to pay tribute to Rome. He and Cymbeline are diplomatic, but the Queen and Cloten aren’t and antagonize the ambassador, Lucius. So off Lucius goes to raise an army against Cymbeline.
Back in Wales, Imogen gets tired and takes a nap in a cave, belonging to a wild man, Belarius, and his two sons, Guiderius and Arviragus. While Imogen is frightened of them, things settle quickly when the two sons basically fall in love (platonic) with Fidele, and they can’t explain why. Spoilers, it’s because they are Cymbeline’s two sons, whom Belarius kidnapped after he was wrongly exiled from court. The next day (or so…time is difficult), Belarius et al go hunting while Fidele is left to rest. To help her rest, she takes the calming potion that Pisanio gave her and in the tradition of Friar Lawrence’s potion from Romeo and Juliet, this puts Imogen into a death-like sleep. This is how Belarius and sons find her, and immediately bury her, delivering probably the best song to appear in a Shakespeare play, as performed here by Loreena McKennitt.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, Cloten has cornered Pisanio and in his oafish bravado, forces him to reveal what happened to Imogen. Pisanio “admits” that Imogen ran to Wales to be with Posthumous. So off Cloten goes, dressed in Posthumous’s clothing for…reasons. His plan is to kill Posthumous, rape Imogen, then bring her back to Britain to marry her. But before he can find them, he runs into Guiderius (I think, the two sons are interchangeable), and after some verbal sparring, Guiderius kills and decapitates Cloten. They toss his headless body (dressed as Posthumous) in the hole with Fidele, who wakes up, and freaks out (naturally) because she thinks she is lying beside headless Posthumous. At this point, Lucius is marching his Roman army to Britain (don't try to understand the geography), and Lucius sees Fidele in distress and takes him into his service.
What has happened to Posthumous this whole time? He initially joined the Roman army, but upon receiving Pisanio’s “proof” of Imogen’s’ death, he is suddenly overwhelmed with grief, dresses up as a peasant, and vows to die in battle. Before that, though, he has it out with Iachimo.
The Romans are doing well. Most is lost. Cymbeline is captured. Then Belarius and sons, with Posthumous, show up and rescue Cymbeline and turn the tide of battle. Despite this, Posthumous is taken for a Roman soldier, thrown in prison, has a weird dream, and then, instead of being executed as he wanted, is brought to the king along with everyone else in the play. All the mysteries are revealed (although while he still thinks Imogen is Fidele, Posthumous nearly kills her after she tries to calm him after Iachimo reveals his plot). Still, all is well in the end. Cymbeline even agrees to pay the tribute to Rome, saying that this not paying business was the queen’s idea. Right, the queen dies offstage after admitting to her “evil deeds”, including her plan to poison Cymbeline. The end.
A perfectly simple plot, wouldn’t you agree?
It is easy, from this summary, to see Johnson’s frustration, or Art’s claim that this is nothing like Shakespeare. What separates Cymbeline from other plays of its time and genre, beyond the plethora of plot, is that the characters seem less developed than the standard Shakespeare had set. On the surface, it appears that only Imogen is granted any character depth, following in line with other jilted lovers in Shakespeare’s comedies, most akin to Julia (Two Gentlemen of Verona) and Helena (either Midsummer Night’s Dream or All’s Well that Ends Well). However, even Imogen doesn’t have much agency in the play. She falls into the plot, as opposed to Helena (All’s Well) who drives it. Meanwhile, Posthumous is more Claudio from Much Ado About Nothing than any other male lead. His murderous rage after believing Iachimo and sudden repentance to the point of self-destruction following Pisanio’s “proof” is reminiscent of Claudio in Acts IV and V of his play. Cymbeline, the titular character, is barely a presence. Iachimo (clearly trying to be Iago in some ways) is a villain the same way Proteus (Two Gentlemen) is. The Queen doesn’t get a name, and has to be the worst Shakespeare villain. Besides Imogen, the only character that has the complexities we have come to expect from Shakespeare, is Belarius, but he doesn’t get too much to do.
Beyond the paler imitations of previous characters, why is Cymbeline distinctly Shakespeare? Why does it work?
Lies, Poisoning and Self-Poisoning
Bonnie Lander, in her 2008 article “Interpreting the Person: Tradition, Conflict, and Cymbeline’s Imogen” begins to frame her thoughts about Imogen by examining the two models of person in Shakespeare which she borrows from Professor, and person whose work is hard to get a hold of, Paul Yachmain. Lander sets up the dichotomy between a person who is influenced by the world around them, often pigeon-holed into a “role”, and a person with self-autonomy. She explores how Imogen’s recent representation shapes her into whatever role society expects of her, from the model of Victorianism in the 19th century to the postmodern heroism of the mid-20th century. All this is to say that I find myself in good company.
I wish to play upon this dichotomy, but extend it beyond Imogen to the play as a whole. For it is easy to look at the summary I presented, as well as my initial character assessment and come to the conclusion that the characters in Cymbeline lack autonomy. But they do not lack autonomy, and our view of the jealous lover, evil queen, or ever-virtuous woman is not based on these characters being only victims of their world or their prescribed roles. What is missing from this play, to an extent and late enough in Shakespeare’s career that it can only be seen as intentional, is communication. To say that a play lacks communication may seem counterintuitive, but this play presents us with a group of characters who do not or cannot speak to each other as equals. There is a power struggle to most exchanges in this play, as though nearly every scene is a recreation of the one between Hamlet, Gertrude, and the Ghost in act three of Hamlet.
To focus this analysis, I will narrow in on a pivotal moment beginning in Act I, scene vi. Iachimo, having bet Posthumous that he could convince Imogen to be unfaithful, comes to Imogen with a fake letter from Posthumous. The scene between the two is a diversion from the source material, Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which the Iachimo figure spies on the Imogen figure but never speaks to her before sneaking into her room in a chest (dropped off by a go-between). Shakespeare, for both practical and character purposes, inserts a scene between them in which Iachimo initially tries to assault her before abandoning that plan, “admitting” it was a test devised by Posthumous to test Imogen’s fidelity, and finally asking Imogen to store his chest in her room that night, for Posthumous’s sake. It is an interesting scene, and admittedly one of the few between two “strong” characters in this play. Yet, while they may be similar in status and intelligence, there is a power imbalance between them, for Iachimo is playing her the entire time. Or is he?
Iachimo is a good character, but mainly due to his name, Shakespeare cursed him to Iago’s shadow. Othello was written around 1603–1604; Cymbeline is often placed around 1608–1610, although I have seem some try to date it earlier (around 1604). Regardless, Iachimo was written shortly after Iago, and so the comparison must be made. For they are both malicious, and enact their evil plan by playing on their victim’s jealousy Othello and Posthumous both demand that Iago and Iachimo prove, not just claim, that their wives are unfaithful, and when they do, by some physical token, the cuckolded husband flies into a murderous rage to the seeming delight of the two villains. The key difference between Iago and Iachimo is that fourth wall, which Shakespeare seemed to resurrect towards the end of his writing career. Richard III laid the groundwork for confiding in the audience: the Bastards Phillip and Edmund, as well as Iago followed. Iago took every opportunity, when alone, to remind us how evil he was. Iachimo is put in a similar position to invite us into his schemes, but he doesn’t. Just as Cymbeline lacks communication between characters, it lacks communication with the audience, thus robbing us a bit of that internalization that brings characters out of their stock roles.
Returning to the scene in question, we are never truly sure how much of Iachimo’s actions in this scene are carefully plotted as Iago had done, or his reactionary attempts to keep on top of the situation. From a theatrical perspective, Iachimo’s goal in this scene is to win Imogen’s trust so that he might get the chest (containing himself) into her room. And yet, immediately after he enters and sees Imogen, we get this strange interaction.
There are a few interesting aspects to this exchange that address both the power dynamics and sense of communication in this play. Asides are not uncommon in Shakespeare, however for the most part when a character speaks an aside we understand that this is a theatrical trick, and that in a sense the character is either removed from the scene for a moment, or that the audience is for this moment inside the character’s head. The best example of this is probably in Julius Caesar, when Brutus is confronted by the conspirators and asked to lead them. Shakespeare shifts between Brutus’s thoughts and words without altering the reality of the scene. Compare this to Macbeth’s asides when the witches reveal their prophecy. Again, we are transported into his thoughts, but here, Macbeth is not removed from the scene the same way Brutus is, for Banquo comments on how rapt he looks. Banquo acknowledges that Macbeth is speaking an aside. We get the same thing here, although to a greater extent. Iachimo’s mind is spinning, and to Imogen, his silent facial expressions or gestures seem strange. There is only one other moment I can recall in Shakespeare when a character directly calls out another for their aside. At the end of 1 Henry VI, Margaret questions Suffolk after he spends a moment silently revealing his thoughts. That awareness of a theatrical trick is a bit out of place in such a straightforward play as 1 Henry VI, but in Cymbeline it speaks volumes. Between Iachimo’s two lines to Imogen—in which all he does is thank her—is what would be in Othello another Iago soliloquy. But Iachimo is not alone and Imogen will (rightfully so) not let him be. What makes this moment interesting, beyond the rare use of the aside, is that this is one of the few moments when a character cares about what another is thinking, or what their motives are. For example, in the first interaction between Imogen and her wicked stepmother, the Queen promises to help reconcile Posthumous and Imogen with Cymbeline, and reunite the lovers in happiness. Her first words to Imogen are,
The audience soon learns that the Queen is here lying, but Imogen doesn’t discover this between the opening scene and I.vi. Yet, in her soliloquy that starts I.vi, she complains about “a father cruel and a step-dame false”. Either before the start of the play, or between scenes one and six, Imogen has learned that her stepmother is a liar, but Shakespeare does not care to dwell on this. Yet, with Iachimo, Imogen constantly questions him as he tries to tear her down. Imogen snaps Jachimo from his asides, and we are given no indication whether that awkward moment was part of Iachimo’s plans, but I would argue that no, he was legitimately caught off-guard. Iachimo then enacts phase one of his plans: telling Imogen of the jolly Posthumous who cares not a wink for loyalty to women, and derides a Frenchman for professing his love and loyalty to his wife. Incidentally, Jachimo here places Posthumous in the Iachimo-figure from The Decameron, who bets the Parisian, Bernabo, that he can prove his wife unfaithful. During Iachimo’s story, Imogen plays into his hands, asking questions, and bemoaning her state:
If this be true,--
Iachimo offers a solution. Take revenge on Posthumous by sleeping with Iachimo. The text itself is unclear on how far Iachimo goes in regards to his assault on Imogen. Some more conservative productions downplay it, while others heighten it to an extreme probably not intended. But Imogen’s response to Iachimo’s advances are to call for help and immediately curse her ears for entertaining Iachimo’s tale. Iachimo’s next move is to repent and say that this was all a test to prove Imogen’s fidelity. Was this planned? I choose to believe not, but again, we are deliberately not told. If Jachimo were Iago, we would know every stage of his deception, but it seems that Iachimo is making it up as he goes along. First try to win her trust by bringing news of Posthumous, but then he becomes overcome by her beauty that he cannot help himself, so why not discredit Posthumous, but he goes too far, and so tries for this final tactic of “it was a test all along”, which ends up working, and he succeeds in getting the chest into the room. All this is done without an honest word spoken between Iachimo and Imogen, and with the audience left to read between the lines. Like Imogen discovering the true intents of the Queen, we are left to infer Iachimo’s skill or lack thereof. And it is these types of moments that get this play labeled as superficial. How can Iachimo be a well-developed character when we have to fill in his development? How can Imogen be smart when we don’t get to see her reasoning?
The next scene between Imogen and Iachimo solidifies the lack of communication between characters. In this scene, in which Iachimo pops out of the chest to survey Imogen’s room and person, we are not given any insight into Iachimo’s character; his speech is deliberately occupied by sensory imagery, in which every smell and sight is reduced to items in his inventory, to furnish the story he will tell Posthumous when he returns to Italy. However, at the end of the scene, Iachimo notices a book that Imogen was reading before bed. She had turned the page down at the story of Tereus and Philomela: an ancient Greek legend in which Tereus, king of Thrace, rapes Philomela, his sister-in-law, and then cuts out her tongue to prevent her from telling what he had done. This is not the only rape allegory in this scene. When he sees Imogen asleep, Iachimo notes that,
Our Tarquin thus
This refers to the story of Tarquin, Etruscan king, who raped Lucretia.
This is Iachimo and Imogen’s conversation: not through words, but through allusions and stories they predict and reflect each other’s motives, while we the audience are left to interpret like Imogen reading Iachimo’s asides. Cymbeline is not a play with shallow characters, but a play with a glass fourth wall.
Still, one scene later we get a different Imogen than the naive or sleeping version. Cloten tries to win Imogen’s love by singing (poorly) to her, and when that fails, he opts for the less subtle trick of “knocking on her door and telling her he loves her”. Neither works. Imogen tries for a bit of wordplay with Cloten, but when she realizes he cannot keep up she tells him,
I am much sorry, sir,
This rare piece of honesty in a play of “lies, poisoning and self-poisoning” only arises when a character is speaking to someone below them (such as a master-servant relationship) or when we are removed from the court, and in the pastoral Wales where Belarius’ two sons are free from the idea of lying.
Upon first seeing Imogen (disguised as Fidele) Guiderius and Arviragus have a similar reaction to Iachimo in I.vi, but they do not speak in asides, or try to hide behind a false sense of chivalry like Cloten. They say, honestly and without ulterior motive,
Communication is a luxury that does not exist in the civilized court, or gentleman’s society. Honesty, the foundation of communication, can only be found when removed from society, in this case in the wilderness of Wales. Yet, at the heart of these scenes is intentional and unintentional deception. Belarius stole his two sons, Imogen is faking her identity, and the sleeping potion she consumes makes it appear as though she is dead. Everyone or everything that comes from the civilized world is full of deceit, and their deceptions spill out off the stage into the audience, who are so consumed by the ceaseless plot that, without the luxury of reading the play or watching it, don’t have the time to stop and question what we truly know about many of the characters.
The characters of Cymbeline are not shallow. They are not pawns of their stories and roles. They are those viewed at from a distance, behind a transparent fourth wall. Why? Hamlet of course.
The prince of Denmark erected such a wall as we find in Cymbeline. This may seem like an odd comparison: Hamlet is probably only second to As you Like It when it comes to Shakespeare plays lacking a plot, and it is safe to say that we are more in Hamlet’s head than most other characters. And yet, Hamlet’s head is a maze. He is feigning madness, but is he? He loves Ophelia, but does he? Hamlet invites us into his world like Richard III does, but Hamlet does not need us. He does not talk to us, but to himself, trapping us in his web of thoughts. With Hamlet, Shakespeare seems to retreat from his audience. With Cymbeline, Shakespeare’s characters complete this journey, only to return for Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest.