Cymbeline, Day 2
Symbols & Themes: Clothing, Being, and Seeming
In 5.4, Posthumus Leonatus awakens from a dream, wherein he is visited by the ghosts of his parents, brothers, and Jupiter, to find a book has been placed upon his chest; his remarks invoke the moral of the now hackneyed expression about not judging a book by its cover: “A book? O rare one, be not, as is our fangled world, a garment nobler than that it covers. Let thy effects so follow to be most unlike our courtiers, as good as promise.” This passage encapsulates one of the central themes in Cymbeline, and in our lives to this day: humankind’s perennial skepticism of appearances, exteriors, surfaces and whether or not they accurately, truthfully, convey what lies beneath them, at the core. The extent of the play’s preoccupation with this subject is attested to by the numerous characters that question appearances or adopt alternate ones. The nameless Queen is the first character we encounter who is guilty of seeming virtuous, while being inherently evil. As an audience, we are aware from the start of this disjunct in her character; she makes this plain herself through her frequent use of asides that reveal her true intentions, and honest Imogen informally indicts her in the first scene: “O dissembling courtesy! How fine this tyrant can tickle where she wounds.” However, Cymbeline, her husband, remains oblivious to her dissimulation until the fifth and final act of the play, when Cornelius hits him with the truth: “First she confessed she never loved you, only affected greatness got by you, not you; married your royalty, was wife to your place, abhorred your person.” And this is just the beginning, for the physician continues, disclosing the Queen’s intention to murder both Imogen and Cymbeline. Cloten and Iachimo, the other obvious villains in the play, artfully maneuver the gap between being and seeing. Angered by Imogen’s claim that Posthumus Leonatus’s “meanest garment that ever hath but clipped his body is dearer in [her] respect than all the hairs” on Cloten’s head, Cloten purloins PL’s attire with the intention of murdering PL and raping Imogen while wearing her husband’s clothes. His plan, of course, backfires when he gets lost and ends up losing his head, literally, during a battle with Guiderius. Imogen then awakens to find the headless body of Cloten dressed in PL’s clothes and, of course, believes it is, in fact, PL. Jealous of the genuine love between PL and Imogen, Iachimo wagers a bet that he will get Imogen to sleep with him; though he never actually succeeds at this, he gathers enough evidence to make it appear he has Imogen of her chastity. Unlike Iago, he fully repents in act five and reveals himself for the conniving liar he is.
Disguise and dissimulation are not reserved for villains only in Shakespeare’s drama; in fact, some of his most virtuous characters resort to such measures in order to protect themselves and others, access power to which they might not otherwise have access, or implement comic resolutions into tragic situations. Kent and Edmund in King Lear are shining examples of positive prevaricators. In Cymbeline, we have Imogen; her husband’s servant, Pisanio; her brothers; and their foster father, Belarius. Before embarking on her journey to find her husband, she disguises herself as a boy fittingly named Fidele, and when she later encounters the Roman Lucius, she claims her name is Richard du Champ. Adopting male aliases and attire allows her agency and refuge, though it is sadly shortlived, for patriarchal prerogatives ultimately prevail in the play, and her reunion with her father and brothers also marks her demotion as next heir to the throne. Significantly, she is the first in the play to provide apt commentary of class politics; in 3.6, hungry and lost, she questions the veracity of the two beggars who provided her directions: “Will poor folks lie, that have afflictions on them, knowing ’tis a punishment or trial? Yes. No wonder, when rich ones scarce tell true. To lapse in fullness is sorer than to lie for need, and falsehood is worse in kings than beggars.” Pisanio practices dissimulation in a fashion similar to Cornelius, remaining faithful to PL and Imogen throughout the play by concealing the truth: “Wherein I am false I am honest; not true, to be true” (4.3.42).
Sumptuary laws in early modern England forbade people of lower classes from wearing certain fabrics, such as silk. The play makes a valiant attempt to highlight the corrupt interiors of royals politicians who bear fine, lavish exteriors and likewise the honorable qualities of the poor and poorly clad. For example, during the fatal battle between Guiderius and Cloten in 4.2, Cloten assumes his courtly clothes will indicate to his opponent his royal station, but having been raised in a cave, Guiderius is unimpressed by these status symbols. When Cloten makes plain that he is the son of a queen, Guiderius remarks: “I am sorry for’t, not seeming so worthy as thy birth.” Of course, the irony of this scene lies also in the fact that Guiderius and his brother are, in fact, princes.
Not to be silly, but, ladies, can you imagine today feeling that you have to pass for a man in order to accomplish a particular result, uncover the truth, etc.? Author Barbara Ehrenreich spent over a year working minimum wage jobs as a form of firsthand research for her writing. This I can conceive of, but the former? Hmm.
*Image from Folger Shakespeare Library.