Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: Cymbeline: General Introduction
  • Author: Jennifer Forsyth
  • ISBN: 1-55058-300-X

    Copyright Jennifer Forsyth. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Jennifer Forsyth
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    General Introduction


    Toward the end of his career, after years of fame as one of London's leading playwrights of history, tragedy, and comedy, William Shakespeare turned to a new genre, tragicomedy, during the period around 1608-1611. Most critics believe that Cymbeline was one of his earliest forays into the field of tragicomedy (also called "romance"). Like the term "tragicomedy," Cymbeline is a blend of elements, and critical responses to the play have been mixed as well. Audiences and critics have variously considered Cymbeline either one of Shakespeare's greatest works, drawing upon the best elements from his other plays to combine them in one ultimate drama, or an unsatisfying hodgepodge, cobbled together in a cynical bid for playgoers' money by appealing to a "greatest hits" mentality. The play mingles ancient and contemporary societies with total disregard for the resulting anachronism, jumbles moods together so incongruously that spectators may find themselves cynically analyzing their own emotional responses even as they laugh or cry, and presents a plot whose baroque intricacies are rivaled only by its implausibility. Still, even the most skeptical are willing to acknowledge that this "experimental" art form would lead to such acknowledged tragicomic masterpieces as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Ironically, modern popular and critical audiences often prefer genre-crossing works like Cymbeline to the "pure" forms rejected by earlier eras and appreciate the subtle, often satiric moods produced by such nuanced dramas more than the blatantly farcical or heartrending aspects of comedy and tragedy. For a period such as ours that celebrates experimental form, ambiguity, intertextuality, and, above all, sensational drama, Cymbeline offers rich territory for exploration.

    In its original printed form, Cymbeline was not classified as a tragicomedy. The editors of the 1623 First Folio placed it among the tragedies; later editors classified it with the comedies, with the histories, and with the anachronistic category of "romance." "Romance" has the benefit of highlighting the connection between plays like Cymbeline and the prose romances on which they were often based, but since people in the early modern period did not use this term to refer to dramas, "tragicomedy," which was used at the time as a generic label, more accurately describes Cymbeline.

    Extrapolating generic criteria from the taxonomy of the First Folio allows us to see how Cymbeline may have been difficult to categorize even for the editors of the Folio. Despite Cymbeline's essentially comic ending, which suggests the first category, "Comedies," Cymbeline is set in a very specific historical context, which is not true of any other comedy. Nor does it fit easily with the "Histories," though: every play in that category tells the story of a king of England since William the Conqueror, but Cymbeline's reign was around a millennium before that time. The two other plays besides Cymbeline named after legendary kings, King Lear and Macbeth, appear in "Tragedies" along with Cymbeline, but Cymbeline is the only play in this category without a tragic ending involving the death of its protagonist(s). Given the absence from the Folio of a "Tragicomedies" genre, the decision to place it with the tragedies offers as much logic as either of the other options.

    The fact that the genre of tragicomedy was not universally embraced may provide another hint as to why the editors of the First Folio did not simply employ it as a fourth category. The value of tragicomedy was hotly contested in both Italy, where Battista Guarini employed the term and defended the genre, and in England, where Sir Philip Sidney disparaged tragicomedies as "neither right tragedies nor right comedies . . . so as neither the admiration and commiseration, nor the right sportfulness, is by their mongrel tragicomedy obtained." Not everybody believed that seriousness and mirth needed to be separated, however: at some time probably slightly before Cymbeline was written, one contemporary English playwright, John Fletcher, wrote an impassioned defense of the genre. His first attempt at importing tragicomedy to the English stage in The Faithful Shepherdess was a spectacular failure, precipitating its publication as a literary text with an extended defense of his work and an allegation that the genre was simply too sophisticated for the common playgoer. The defense seems to have been more successful than the play, as the number of tragicomedies written for the English stage increased and became a significant portion of the dramas produced until the closing of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642.

    10Fletcher's comments on tragicomedy are worth repeating in the context of Cymbeline, particularly because Cymbeline and one of Fletcher's plays, Philaster, are so similar that it has been impossible to determine which came first. It has been a commonplace of literary criticism for the past century that Cymbeline and Fletcher's Philaster share a similar date of composition, along with similar themes, conventions, problems, and incidents. It is not possible to determine the direction of influence; but it is undeniable that Shakespeare was, at the very least, alert to the same kinds of influences that moved Fletcher, and possibly by Fletcher's plays and theoretical position.

    Regardless of who was the originator and who the copier, or who the hack and who the perfecting artist, Fletcher's defense of tragicomedy is important because it attempts to justify some of the aspects that critics most frequently condemn in Cymbeline: the mixed mood, the schism between the court and pastoral plots, and the deus ex machina. Fletcher says that a tragicomedy

    . . . is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy, which must be a representation of familiar people, with such kind of trouble as no life be questioned; so that a god is as lawful in this as in a tragedy, and mean people as in a comedy.

    That is, in his view, tragicomedy does not simply alternate tragic and comic elements (creating Sidney's "mongrell" genre) but melds them more thoroughly, drawing characters from all walks of life to create a new mood that showcases suspense while still guaranteeing a happy resolution.

    For the first factor, it would be a challenge to find a play for which the description that "it brings some near" death is more true than of Cymbeline. Imogen takes the sleeping potion which makes Belarius and her brothers think she is dead; Imogen also believes Posthumus is dead (incorrectly, as it turns out, but nonetheless psychologically true for her at the time); Posthumus is almost hung; he nearly kills Imogen when he thinks she is a page and hits her; Clotten nearly kills Pisanio; Pisanio is supposed to kill Imogen; the Queen tries to kill Pisanio and/or Imogen with poison; the Queen also has plans to kill Cymbeline; Posthumus and Iachimo duel and Posthumus refrains from killing him during battle; Posthumus has another chance to kill Iachimo when Iachimo confesses how he has wronged Posthumus and especially Imogen, but Posthumus (and Cymbeline) spare him; Cymbeline nearly puts Belarius to death for returning from exile as a traitor and Guiderius for having killed Clotten; Imogen fears that she will die of hunger; the larger concern looms over the play of the impending war in which multitudes will die; Guiderius attacks Clotten in hot blood; and Cymbeline determines in cold blood to put the Roman prisoners of war to death instead of ransoming them. The specter of death hovers over the entire play; despite that, only two characters actually die, and both of those deaths occur off-stage, helping to diminish the immediacy of their deaths for the audience.

    In practice, "bring[ing] some near" death can create some peculiar moments when the audience is not perhaps sure what to feel, or, perhaps more accurately, whether the emotions they are feeling are appropriate. When Imogen discovers what she believes to be her husband's beheaded corpse, for instance, her grief is so poignant and genuine that even while it often moves people in the audience to tears, they may simultaneously be snickering guiltily at the dramatic irony that the dead man is actually the malevolent Clotten, which adds a hefty dose of the ludicrous to Imogen's plight. Critics have tended to reduce the emotional significance to a single effect and thus have hailed it either as one of the most poignantly touching scenes ever written or as a scene so howlingly funny that it can only be a satire. Either can be true, of course, partially depending on how it is played, but both can be true as well, and those feelings of emotional ambivalence in response to particular moments on stage may transfer over to ambivalent critical responses of the play's success.

    15For Fletcher's second element, the action in the pastoral plot, viewers today are probably less concerned with the realism of the shepherd's behavior than Fletcher was; ironically, based on his observation that the crowd was angry because they expected "a play of country-hired shepherds, in grey cloaks, with cur-tailed dogs in strings, sometimes laughing together, and sometimes killing one another" along with "Whitsun-ales, cream, wassel, and morris-dances," it becomes evident that this is not what he intended. In fact, he says that the pastoral element should be limited to "such improper ones [gifts] as nature is said to bestow, as singing and poetry; or such as experience may teach them, as the virtues of herbs and fountains, the ordinary course of the sun, moon and stars, and such like." This description also matches what Shakespeare portrays in the Welsh scenes of Cymbeline. Aside from the fact that Guiderius and Arviragus are hunters rather than shepherds or goatherds, Imogen's brothers adhere to Fletcher's idea of the pastoral: we are told they have the grace of singing; Arviragus can play at least one instrument, Belarius' "ingenuous instrument"; they know some about herbs, as Belarius and Arviragus demonstrate in their speeches while strewing Imogen's body with flowers; and Belarius's opening lines, which touch on the sun, the weather, and the heavens, characterize him as closely in touch with nature.

    Finally, Fletcher's remark that it is legal to put gods into tragicomedies provides further support to the idea that Cymbeline conforms well to contemporary definitions of tragicomedy, the more so because Jupiter's appearance in Act 5 is one of the least popular scenes with Cymbeline detractors. The mere fact that Fletcher assumed that people might object to a god's appearance does suggest that not everyone in the early modern period was any more eager to suspend disbelief over a god's appearance than twenty-first century audiences are. Fletcher's defense of tragicomedy cannot relieve the play of the burden of a deus ex machina, but it at least provides a rationale. Separately, Shakespeare and Fletcher helped to develop and popularize the new dramatic genre of tragicomedy; and eventually they would collaborate on Henry 8, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost Cardenio.