"Cymbeline" as Resolution of a Tragic Cycle


Cymbeline has not been among the best received of Shakespeare's plays on the stage or in the study. Editors have tended to share Samuel Johnson's views in his preface about "the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life." More modern opinions have moved slowly in its favor with G. Wilson Knight leading the way via his unexpected claim that Cymbeline is "to be regarded mainly as a historical play . . . concerned to blend Shakespeare's two primary historical interests, the Roman and the British," in which "the heritage of ancient Rome falls on Britain" (129; 166). Perhaps one can validate that claim insofar as the play pursues a trajectory initiated in earlier history plays. One of the attributes of Shakespeare's last plays is that they follow the pattern illustrated by the English history plays of falling into a chronological sequence. The Two Noble Kinsmen is a Theseus play with a slightly later starting point than that of A Midsummer Night's Dream: the marriage procession of Theseus and Hippolyta. Henry VIII is a political sequel to Richard III, with similar structure and even many recurring names from the earlier play's cast list. Similarly, Cymbeline follows chronologically from Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra in presenting a later episode in the administration of Octavius Caesar, now Caesar Augustus, who dominates the outcomes of the two earlier tragedies, but whose administration verges on near defeat in this one.

It may seem strange to claim that this play belongs together with the two earlier tragedies, but it seems clear that after questionable success with the Aristotelian model of single-plot tragedy in Coriolanus and Timon, Shakespeare moves decisively towards the two-plot form of tragedy favored by Cinthio and Lope de Vega, in which the wicked mostly die and most of the virtuous prosper, while the odd villain, like Iachimo, is reformed. Many commentators have found this pattern so peculiar that they invented a new category for such plays, classing them as "romances", in which they grouped with Cymbeline such comparably erratic late plays as Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The term is quite appropriate as various medieval romances provided sources for these plays and romances often ended with the triumph of virtue and the defeat of vice, as at the end of The Winter's Tale—though not without tragedy, such as the death of Hermione's innocent son, Mamillius, in that play; or the just deaths of various tyrants in Pericles. It is not certain that this new dramatic category was needed, since Harvey Granville-Barker had perceived earlier that there was a relevant genre already available, that of "tragicomedy." Unfortunately, he also showed little awareness of the history and nature of that genre, opining, "But tragicomedy—in this phase in its development, at least—is a bastard form of art; better not judge it by too strict aesthetic law," and went on to call parts of the play "futile and dramatically inexcusable." Of course, the first use of the term "tragicomedy" is attributable to the preface of Plautus to his Amphitryon more than two thousand years earlier and fully developed in sixteenth-century Italy, well before Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline.

Despite all these reservations about Cymbeline's plausibility, the play hardly differs from characteristic effects in many previous Shakespeare plays, both comedies and tragedies. The main setting, at the court of a British king prior to the Roman occupation is shared with King Lear, which also telescopes British history by including an Anglo-Saxon figure in Edgar, comparable to the introduction in Cymbeline of the later-dated Italian Machiavellian persona of Iachimo. And even Posthumus is a name borrowed from a later, Northern-European rebel who led Britain against Rome, as found in Holinshed's Chronicles (see 10.c.12). The theme of the alienated daughter, who is at some point presumed dead like Imogen, also has earlier variants in Shakespeare's work: Juliet, Hero, Helena, not to mention Marina and Hermione later. The theme of the misjudged wife is equally recurrent in various forms: Mariana, Desdemona, Katherine of Aragon, Hermione, even briefly Portia and Nerissa. The issue of the invasion of Britain from Europe (usually France) figures in Richard III, Richard II, King John, and King Lear. There is hardly anything in Cymbeline without such analogues elsewhere in Shakespeare.

In Lope de Vega we also find precedents for Cymbeline's incidental effects, which he accepts as preferable to those accommodating serious academic specifications. Of course, Imogen's male disguise verges on a requirement by Lope: "Let ladies be in keeping with their characters, and if they change their costume let it be in a manner that can be excused, for male disguise is very pleasing" (Gilbert, 546). As a result of this disguise, on occasion, Imogen also lives up to the contrary behavior proposed for ladies by Lope, to be "full of fraud and lies" (Gilbert, 548). Both her lovers, Posthumus and Clothen match their model in Lope: "How wretched, unhappy, foolish, and inept the lover!" (Gilbert, 548). In more serious terms Cymbeline also lives up to Cinthio's fatal specifications for tragedy with a double plot: "in this sort of play often for the greater satisfaction and better instruction of those who listen, they who are the cause of disturbing events, by which the persons of ordinary goodness in the drama have been afflicted, are made to die or suffer great ills" (Gilbert, 257). This requirement of fatality notably covers the killing of Clothen and the desperate death of the wicked queen, both of whom attempt murders, while the humiliation and repentance of Iachimo approaches the alternative of great suffering as a penalty for his slanders.

Perhaps because modern audiences enjoy these picturesque and satisfying effects, the play is now being increasingly revived: its unexpected storyline proves seductive when those of other Shakespeare plays become overfamiliar. Cymbeline's sheer unpredictability is now proving a theatrical virtue. In this it exactly matches Cinthio's specifications for the mixed kind of tragedy with a happy ending: "This holding of the spectator in suspense ought to be so managed by the poet that . . . the action goes on unrolling the plot in such a way that the spectator sees himself conducted to the end but it is uncertain how the play is coming out" (Gilbert, 257). Lope de Vega is doubly concerned with this issue of keeping the audience on tenterhooks until the last possible moment: following his three-act structure he urges: "In the first act state the case; in the second entangle the incidents in such a way that until the middle of the third act no one can even guess at the solution. Always deceive anticipation and so it may come about that something quite remote from what is intended may be left to the understanding" (Gilbert, 546). Elsewhere he is even more emphatic about holding the audience to the last moment: "do not permit the denouement until you arrive at the last scene: for when the crowd knows the end, it turns its face to the door, and its back on the conclusion it has waited for three hours to face" (Gilbert, 245). The last scene of Cymbeline is so notorious in its convolutions that George Bernard Shaw typically felt it should be rewritten more sensibly, by himself. However, the incredible tortuousness of this scene's resolution seems to have been written exactly to Lope's specifications.

This last scene runs to 485 lines and involves a bizarre number of reversals of characters' expectations for which the previous plotline is perhaps merely a preliminary justification. Yet the audience's awareness as the scene progresses always remains a jump ahead of the understanding of the onstage characters. This foreknowledge gives spectators an extreme opportunity for the smug satisfaction in being better informed and competent which is inherent in the specifications for audience enjoyment by devotees of "the new art of making plays." This procedure may have been over-exploited in Victorian melodramas to the displeasure of sophisticated intellectuals, but the effect may still please general audiences as the increasing revival of these nineteenth-century scripts suggests.

However, one of Lope's precepts for the new drama of the Renaissance was the audience's ultimate and involuntary discovery of some concealed truth in the script and its performance: "so it may come about that something quite remote from what is intended may be left to the understanding" (Gilbert, 546). This discovery can be the most powerful resource for ultimate audience satisfaction, for we have seen how detection of such a latent truth about the positive legacy of Coriolanus might allow the play to end with recognition that, despite his death, Coriolanus has achieved something missing at the start of the play in the relationship between Romans and Corioli: they have progressed from war to compromise. This kind of discovery is missing in the Aristotelian view of tragedy which deals only with the handling of dangerous emotions, purged or refined perhaps, but not with the more clearly encouraging implications which I have suggested that Cinthio, Castelvetro and Lope de Vega see as needful for successful audience involvement.

In Cymbeline, the lag of awareness on stage is finally transcended when the plot's seemingly endless stream of confusions proves the inadequacy of human judgment and justice to accommodate such complexities. At this point Cymbeline outraces even the spectators with a discovery revealing an intuition of the new order born during the time of Augustus Caesar, as he pronounces the magic phrase: "Pardon's the word to all" (5.5.422), even to Iachimo. In this spirit he also ends the war in which he has so far been victorious by wisely making peace with Rome. This brings the play into accord with the contemporary event always synchronized by historians with the peaceful hegemony of Caesar Augustus: the birth of Christianity. Detection of the compatibility of this latent coincidence with the resolution of the play may leave the seventeenth-century spectator with the possibility of a near mystical revelation of why the play ends so paradoxically: with the indiscriminate forgiveness of a child-abductor, of a villainous slanderer, of the murderer of a prince, of the abuser of his wife, and with a mass surrender to a defeated empire by the victor in battle. Such a religious interpretation of these eccentric verdicts may not be accessible to a modern skeptic, but many scholars are now toying with the idea that Shakespeare may have been covertly sympathetic to traditional religion after all, like his family and associates from Ben Jonson to the Earl of Southampton.

Aristotle may claim his preferred mode of tragedy fails in the theatre "because of the weakness of the spectators," but I think that the success of Shakespearean tragedy with audiences may lie in its nearer affinity with positive, double-plotted outcomes. Probably because the author of As You Like It instinctively adopts the axiom that "the poets in their compositions follow the wishes of the audience" (Gilbert, 87), we find an almost absolute recurrence of a positive element in Shakespeare's "tragic" conclusions: Richard III is discredited and Henry Tudor comes to the throne; the feuding families of Verona are reconciled; Hamlet rises above mere compulsive revenge as grounds for the overthrow of Claudius, and finally votes for the accession of the more pliant Fortinbras; Othello admits his guilt and punishes the criminal all too severely, and Iago can anticipate an even worse fate, while a chastened Cassio succeeds as ruler of Cyprus; Edgar triumphs over Edmund physically and psychologically, bearing a popular name with good auguries; Malcolm, acutely aware that human fallibilities are potentially his own, overthrows his father's murderer. To do justice to the effects on audiences of such Shakespearean versions of his own "new art of tragedy," scholars, critics, and performers may need to pay more attention to these affirmative elements in the scripts' endings. They are a part of Shakespeare's inheritance from the medieval world in which so many of his plays are set. In such a context the ultimate fate of humanity is not tragic, as Dante confirms in his Divine Comedy: ultimately the wicked are punished and the virtuous rewarded, and this ratio is also the formula governing "tragedy with a happy ending." This tradition applies to most of Shakespeare's plays to a greater or lesser degree, and its affirmative terms powerfully affect the positive responses of Shakespeare's audiences, from his own time to the present. © HMR


Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Knight, G. Wilson. 1965. The Crown of Life: Essays in Interpretation of Shakespeare's Final Plays. London: Methuen.

Related Play: 

Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond