Cymbeline, Day 1

Cymbeline, Day 1 Herbert Schmalz. Imogen from The Graphic gallery of Shakespeare's heroines. Color print, 1896. Shelfmark ART Flat a24. Folger Shakespeare Library

I have fallen about a week behind with the Summer Reading list, so I have adjusted the dates accordingly. Do check it out.  If you have any interest in reading and discussing something from earlier on the list, such as Faustus or Mariam, please do so…I am more than happy to continue discussing previous works in addition to the current one…ideally, we will be able to make some points of connection between all the works on the list over the course of the summer.

With all this said, it is time to start our discussion of Cymbeline. Here are the questions for consideration.  

Some initial reactions:

As was the case with Pericles, I am also just reading Cymbeline for the first time. I am surprised to discover the ways in which this play echoes some of its comic and tragic predecessors.  Act 4.2, in which Imogen disguised as a boy unknowingly happens upon her long lost brothers, calls to mind earlier plays with cross-dressed or disguised heroines, such as Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice (4.1), Rosalind in As You Like It (2.4, 3.2), and Viola in Twelfth Night (1.2, 1.4, 1.5).  The gullible, rash, and jealous Posthumus Leonatus reminds us of Othello, Antiochus and Simonides in Pericles, and also anticipates Leontes, arguably Shakespeare’s most jealous male character, who appears in The Winter’s Tale, which most critics date just after Cymbeline. Guiderius’s defeat of Cloten and presentation of his head to Arviragus and Belarius is reminiscent of Macduff’s display of Macbeth’s head.  The big difference here lies in the fact that we expect such bloody brutality in the Scottish play; the battle that arises between Guiderius and Cloten seems to spring suddenly and inexplicably, interjecting harsh violence into an otherwise pleasant scene of imminent sibling reunion.  Of course, it has it’s place in the plot; Imogen awakens from her potion-induced sleep to discover a headless man wearing what appear to be Posthumus Leonatus’s clothes, and she assumes the body before her is indeed that of her husband and that Pisanio has done the murderous deed and betrayed her.

The nameless Queen has also captured my attention in this initial read.  I am always curious about the characters Shakespeare consciously chose not to name; if she is nameless in the source material, Holinshed’s “Descriptions and History of Scotland,” that’s a different story, but of this I am not aware.  In which case, the Queen is at once the evil stepmother of fairy tale lore (the box of potions she scores from the physician, Cornelius, brings to mind Snow White while her insistence  that her son Cloten wed her step-daughter Imogen reads like a reversed Cinderella scenario), AND she is also a symbol of what would have then been considered the worst kind of power-hungry tyrant: a female one.  She orchestrates and directs underhanded plots with as much self-serving ill will and determination as Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra as well as some of Shakespeare’s worst male villains, such as Iago in Othello, Edmund in Lear, and even Iachimo in Cymbeline, only her feigning and contriving doesn’t succeed nearly as well as that of her predecessors.  Phylicia Rashad of Cosby Show fame performed the role of the wicked queen in the 2007 Lincoln Center production.  Thoughts on this?  What other actors might be well-cast in this role? 

Online Resources:

Here is a summary of the play.

E-text compliments of MIT.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater‘s 2007 production of Cymbeline. This page has several useful links to scholarly perspectives and performance history.

NYT review of 1984 Jean Cocteau Repertory production of Cymbeline. 

A review of a current production in California.

Discussion of play by Folger Shakespeare Library. (Above image cited from Folger.)


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