Cymbeline (1590-1)

Cymbeline is one of eighteen plays that were not published until its inclusion in the first folio play derived largely from Raphael Hollinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland & Ireland (2nd edition 1589). Classified or catalogued as the last of the Shakespeare tragedies it features a brave Scot who with his two sons defeats a Danish invasion. The inclusion of “the wager” is again taken from Boccacio’s Decameron or possibly from another Genoan version which in the Dutch translation was called “Frederycke Jennen”. The wicked stepmother motif is probably derived from the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty”, while the imprisoned damsel derives from Rapunzel. However, a former Elizabethan play (The Rare Triumphs of Love & Fortune) might have been another eclectic source. We know the earliest recorded performance of the play was at the Globe from Simon Forman’s record in his “Booke of Plaies” which approximates it to sometime in April 1611. To account for the story of Guiderius the playwright might have consulted Mirror for Magistrates (1578), and for the wager involving Giacomo and Imogen Boccacio’s Decameron which had not been translated until 1628. Historically, this play has an indirect tribute to the family of James Ist and of course to Queen Elizabeth Ist although harking back to the historical British King (Cunobellinus who died 42 AD) the chief of the Catuvellauni tribe who founded the city of Colchester. The son of Cymbeline was the legendary rebel leader Caractacus who organised resistance to the Roman invasion of Britain. As a fugitive he was eventually betrayed by the mercenary Queen of the Brigantes (Cartimandua) in N. Yorkshire. This means that according to Hollinshed the play is set around the same time as the birth of Jesus Christ although it also features anomalous scenes from 16th century Italy. In actual fact it was King Cymbeline’s son Guiderius who refused to pay tribute to Rome alongside the Pax Romana which provoked the Roman Invasion. By many academics the play was thought to have been written sometime around 1609-10 and transcribed by the scribe Ralph Crane who was also responsible for “The Merrie Wives of Windsor and “A Winter’s Tale”. He makes several changes of name for example Iachomo becomes Giacomo, Filario becomes Philario, and Innogen becomes Imogen. This is substantiated by Simon Forman who wrote of seeing a performance of the play in April 1611 at the Globe Theatre with the name of the princess being Innogen. Nevertheless, an earlier date should not be ruled out for several reasons. An anonymous play entitled “The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune”, recorded to have been played before the Queen might have been the original source for Cymbeline. Another entitled “History of Love and Fortune” was played at Windsor on the 30th December 1582 could have been the same. More recently some similarities have been found in a Greek romance by Thomas Underdowne entitled “Aethiopica” (1569) and that of Tatius’s romance “Clitophon & Leucippe” translated into English in 1597. Although no definitive evidence exists for its date of composition, the Oxfordian view is that the Earl of Oxford was the most probable author and had finished the play by 1578. In particular the narrative of Posthumus appears to parallel Oxford’s visit to Italy.

Some academics have assumed, rightly or wrongly that the play was issued to commemorate the investiture of Henry, Prince of Wales in 1610 but it may well have been written and already performed some time before that. It has all the romantic, magical and dramatic overtones of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Consequently it is usually agreed or argued among academics that it was a late play. However, it coincides with the period in Edward de Vere’s life when his son died and much later his wife, Anne Cecil passed away.

Children of the New Sun

The mysterious solar illusion of a double sunset

Set in ancient Britain the play begins with King Cymbeline imprisoning his daughter Imogen for marrying against his will or consent and banishing her unlawful husband a certain Posthumus Leonatus. The King has himself re-married to another who has brought her own son Cloten to the court. It seems the Kings own sons were stolen from him when very young. On their enforced parting Imogen gave Posthumus a ring and he gave her a bracelet. Posthumus retires to Rome where, with his friend Philario, he becomes inextricably involved in a love-wager with a certain associate Iachimo. Posthumus wagers Imogen’s diamond ring against Iachimo’s 10,000 ducats that he could not in any ways seduce his wife Imogen. Meanwhile the wicked/step-mother and Queen is planning the disposal of her daughter by way of poisoning her. The royal physician Cornelius suspects her true intentions and only gives the Queen a sleeping potion. Iachimo arrives in Britain in the hope of winning his wager, but when he manages to make her acquaintance realises she is chaste and that his money lost to Posthumus. He decides some cunning and informs Imogen that not only has he met Posthumus but knows him to be unfaithful often frequenting the beds of Roman harlots. However, he is mistaken in thinking this will allow him closer access to Imogen’s affections. She immediately rebukes him and he cleverly excuses his behaviour by saying that he was sent by Posthumus to test her loyalty. He begs her forgiveness and asks that he may leave a chest, laden with tributes to the Emperor of Rome in her bedchamber for safe-keeping. Again she graciously accedes to Iachimo’s request not realising he has planned to conceal himself inside it. That night while the princess is asleep, Iachimo emerges secretly from the chest and freely observes the sublime beauty of Imogen, noting in particular the mole on her breast and removing the bracelet that was given her by Posthumus.

The next day the boorish Cloten calls on Imogen in the foolish hope of wooing her affections and she realises the bracelet has gone missing. Iachimo returns to Rome as Philario and Posthumus discuss the matter of securing tributes from King Cymbeline. He describes Imogen’s bedchamber, her physical characteristics and finally as proof of his successful seduction, the bracelet. Posthumus naturally condemns her and curses all womanhood for their infidelities and treacheries to men. Act three opens with the Roman emissary Lucius at the court of King Cymbeline requesting the customary tribute which the King promptly refuses. Posthumus informs his servant, Pisanio by letter of Imogen’s betrayal and instructs him to murder her. He also writes to Imogen saying he will be in at Milford Haven and request her company there for a hunt. By way of background to the tale we are introduced to Morgan and two young men by the name of Polydore and Cadwal. Now Morgan was banished from the King’s court and in revenge he absconded with his sons Guiderius and Arviragus, now erroneously Polydore and Cadwal. When Pisanio and Imogen arrive in West Wales at the predetermined spot he shows her the letter from Posthumus and she being thus affronted and wrongly accused requests Pisanio murder forthwith. However he declines to such a hideous deed and suggests she put on some male disguise and seek service with the Roman emissary at Milford Haven the next day while he cleverly sends some bloodied clothing of hers as proof that the evil deed was now done.

At the King’s court, while Lucius prepares to leave, Cymbeline makes ready for war and when Pisanio returns and Cloten discovers her absence he corners the servant demanding an explanation. Pisanio then shows Cloten his master’s letter instructing him to kill Imogen, Cloten swears vengeance dons some clothing of Posthumus and leaves for Milford Haven in the hope of encountering Posthumus. Imogen meanwhile inadvertently finds herself in the cave of Belarius, formerly Morgan and somewhat wearied with the day’s revelations falls asleep. The three men return to the cave finding a “boy” at rest and make him a welcome guest to their humble abode. As the play progresses Belarius recognises Cloten on his arrival at Milford Haven and thinks he intends to expose them as outlaws. Cloten is killed by Guiderius and beheaded, while Imogen is believed dead in the cave. They are laid side by side and a funerary dirge recited over them as was customary. However, Imogen recovers consciousness and manages to secure a service with Lucius before he departs for Rome. Belarius reluctantly joins with Guiderius and Arviragus in the war against the Romans in the hope of a royal reprieve and an end to their outlawed isolation. Finally, Posthumus arrives in Wales and sick with grief over the murder of his wife repents and wages war against the invading Roman army. Posthumus is victorious in a confrontation with his arch rival Iachimo who expresses his own regret as he is beaten and imprisoned by British forces. King Cymbeline is captured and then rescued by the rebel band led by Belarius and the King’s long-lost sons. Posthumus while dressed as a Roman soldier is captured and arrested by the King’s men and thrown into prison. Here he receives a visionary experience, which he dismisses as madness, reassuring him that Imogen is still alive and that they will ultimately be reunited. Meanwhile as King Cymbeline celebrates the success of his three anonymous soldiers in the field against the Romans, the court physician announces the death of the Queen. Imogen makes her reappearance as the servant of Lucius and being recognised by Pisanio she then identifies Iachimo as a villain. Iachimo confesses his treachery, Guiderius is wrongly condemned for the murder of Prince Cloten despite his heroic part in the rescue of the King. This forces Belarius to reveal his own true identity and that of the King’s lost sons. In light of these joyous reunions Cymbeline releases Lucius, Posthumus spares the life of Iachimo and the King agrees to pay a tribute to Rome.

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,