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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 31 October 2016

"Cymbeline" by William Shakespeare

This is a play full of mythical motifs: a wicked step-mother, princes stolen as babies. It is mixed with the story of the bet to test a lady's honour. Shakespeare works hard to set up a few dramatic scenes: the evil Iachimo creeping out of the chest in Innogen's bedroom; Posthumus becoming convinced that his wife is adulterous, Innogen discovering a headless corpse dressed in her husband's clothes. Cloten makes a wonderful clown-villain who will fight a duel with anyone at a moment's notice, he is rude and coarse and so stupid that he never seems to realise that the dialogue around him, including what he himself says, can be reinterpreted to suggest that he is stupid. I love Cloten. But the final scene in which everything is reconciled is just a little too contrived.

The version I saw performed by the RSC at the Barbican Theatre in the City of London November 5th 2016 (matinee performance) changed Cymbeline into a Queen and the wicked step-mother into a suitably growling wicked step-father; Pisanio became Pisania, Cornelius Cornelia and one of Cymbeline's sons became a daughter all of which worked well. Posthumus was played by an actor of Sri Lankan descent (Hiran Abeysekara, who appeared as Puck in the BBC TV production of Midsummer Night's dream) and Cloten by Marcus Griffiths, of West Indian descent which worked well enough for Innogen's confusion over the headless body to be believable.

Act One starts with a dreadfully clunky bit where First Gentleman explains to a remarkably ignorant Second gentleman ("What was his name and status?" etc) the back story. Cymbeline, King of Britain though paying tribute to the Roman Emperor, had two sons who were stolen as babies and a daughter, Innogen, now grown up, who has just defied him by marrying penniless courtier Posthumus instead of step-brother Cloten. Posthumus is banished to Rome.

Innogen's wicked step-mother who asks her doctor to procure for her poison (but he supplies only a potion which will make the drinker appear to die).

In the RSC production the Italian scene started with a tacky party with the characters speaking Italian and translations projected as subtitles onto the scenery. There is a definite auro of young man bullishness around. Posthumus boasts of Innogen's virtue. Iachimo thinks all women fickle ("strange fowl light upon neighbouring ponds") and wagers Posthumus that he can travel to Britain and bring back "sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress." 

Iachimo travels to Britain and is entertained by Innogen. He tells her that Posthumus is spending her money on prostitutes and then offers himself as her revenge; she scorns the suggestion. But she does agree to look after his chest for him.

Act Two has some of the best bits of the play. In a wonderfully melodramatic scene, Innogen goes to sleep and Iachimo climbs out of the trunk. He notes the details of her bedroom, steals a bracelet and spots a mole on her breast. This is a moment of perfect theatre.

In a brilliant double entendre whose rude meaning possibly only Cloten does not see, Cloten hires musicians to woo Innogen, suggesting they can "penetrate her with your fingering". The RSC put on Cloten and his companion lords as a boy band. But she spurns him and tells him that he is worse than the "meanest garment" of Posthumus which really winds him up.  This insult really gets under Cloten's skin; he keeps asking "his garment?"; "his garment?"; "His meanest garment?"; "His meanest garment? Well!" This was really well done in the RSC version; the audience really saw the bragging Cloten brought low by this single comment of Innogen's. Of course, it is of immense significance to the plot. In the middle of this Innogen suddenly realises she had lost her bracelet

"...I do think

I saw't this morning: confident I am.

Last night 'twas on mine arm; I kissed it."
This again was played in a beautiful manner, by a slightly distracted Innogen as an aside in the middle of insulting Cloten.
In Scene 4 Iachimo convinces Posthumus that he has seduced Innogen unleashing wonderful, wonderful poetry from the devastated Posthumus:

"Let there be no honour
Where there is beauty: truth, where semblance: love,

Where there's another man. The vows of women

Of no more bondage be to where they are made

Than they are to their virtues, which is nothing.

O, above measure false!"
"...I thought her

As chaste as unsunned snow ..."

"... for there's no motion

That tends to vice in man, but I affirm

It is the woman's part: be it lying, note it,

The woman's: flattering, hers: deceiving, hers:

Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers: revenges, hers:

Ambitions, covetings, change pf prides, disdain,
Nice longing, slanders, mutability,
All faults that may be named, nay, that hell knows, 
Why, hers, in part or all: but rather all,
For even to vice
They are not constant ..."

Act Three
In Scene 1: Egged on by the evil Queen, King Cymbeline declares war on Rome because "Britain's/ A world by itself, and we will nothing pay/ For wearing our own noses." (Brexit?)
In the middle of the play we finally discover the two baby princes, now grown men living in the mountains but growing tired of the rural life, longing for a new untasted excitement:
"we poor unfledged
Have never winged from view o' th' nest, nor know not

What air's from home. Haply this life is best,

If quiet life be blest; sweeter to you

That have a sharper known, well corresponding

With your stiff age; but unto us it is
A cell of ignorance, travelling abed,
A prison for a debtor that not dares
To stride a limit."

Meanwhile Innogen flees from the court and, discovering that Posthumus thinks her adulterous

"False to his bed? What is it to be false?

To lie in watch there, and to think on him?

To weep 'twixt clock and clock? If sleep charge

To break it with a fearful dream of him, 
And cry myself awake? That's false to's bed, is it?"
 is persuaded to disguise herself as a boy and seek service with the Roman army come to invade Britain (this seems a little improbable; the allegiances in this play do seem somewhat confused). But she stumbles into the cave of the lost princes.

Act Four
When the court discover Innogen gone, Cloten, still smarting from Innogen's insult, dresses in the clothes of Posthumus and rides out after what he thinks will be the eloping couple. However, the lost princes kill Cloten and behead him. Meanwhile Innogen has drunk the potion supplied by her step-daughter and appears to be dead. So the lost princes dump Innogen with the headless corpse in some sort of open tomb and chant:
"Fear no more the heat o' th' sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages,

Thou thy wordly task has done,

Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."
Of course, when Innogen awakes she assumes from the clothes that the corpse is that of Posthumus. Fortunately the Romans bobble along and Innogen (still disguised as a boy) takes service with the Prince. Not that grief-struck then.

Act Five
Remorseful Posthumus has come to Britain with the Italians but decides to disguise himself as a British peasant and fight on the side of the Brits. Iachimo, fighting for the Romans, repents of his badness. Thanks to the lost princes and Posthumus, the Brits win the war and there is a long scene in which all those who were disguised are revealed and everything is happy ever after (except for the wicked step-mother who has died off-stage and her evil son Cloten.

November 2016

Arthur Quiller-Couch, in Shakespeare's Workmanship, suggests that some critics (he cites Dr Johnson) consider Cymbeline to be inferior to Shakespeare's greatest works. Johnson complained about the bits where the action seems absurd and confused and even, at times, impossible. Against this QC retorts that impossibility of fact is  commonplace in fiction, especially in fairy-tales and allegories, which Cymbeline resembles. QC acknowledges that Iachimo is inferior to Iago and that the character Cymbeline is inferior to the character Lear but he suggests that being inferior to two such great plays is hardly a damning indictment. He suggest that Shakespeare was endeavouring to produce what he had not managed to produce in the great tragedies and that is a picture of a women wronged but who forgives (unlike Ophelia or Cordelia) and that the character of Imogen is a triumph. And, in addition, he points out that for all the absurdities in the plot the final scene of 485 lines contains no fewer than 24 dénouements.

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

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