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  • 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


    Although scholars of the period can rarely pinpoint the precise time a play was written, all of the significant factors used to determine the dating of Shakespeare's plays agree that Cymbeline is a late play, written approximately in the period 1608-1611. Attempts to date any Shakespeare play must keep in mind that composition may occur over an extended period of time, be set aside temporarily for the author to work on other projects, or include periods of significant revision. Nevertheless, recent consensus places Cymbeline's composition between 1608 and 1611 based on multiple factors. In terms of subjective criteria, similarities in style, theme, and content suggest that the tragicomedies (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest) were written in close proximity to each other. However, as might be expected from works by the same author, Cymbeline also shows numerous similarities to works from all previous stages in Shakespeare's career as well, such as Two Gentlemen of Verona, an early play; Twelfth Night, generally considered to be a comedy from the height of Shakespeare's powers; and the late tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. Extrinsic and stylistic traits also confirm the general time frame.

    85The primary extrinsic piece of evidence for the date of Cymbeline is Simon Forman's diary entry recording his memories of a performance. While the entry has no specific date, Forman's death on September 8, 1611 does set an absolute last possible date for the first performance. The other play entries in Forman's diary (on Macbeth, The Winter's Tale, and a play of uncertain authorship about Richard II) were dated in the spring of 1611, implying that he saw Cymbeline around the same time. The earliest composition date, sometimes placed at 1606, is suggested by the possibility that Shakespeare's historical research in Holinshed's Chronicles for Macbeth (dated at 1605 or 1606) resulted in the inspiration for at least some of the plot (Nosworthy xv). Others believe that composition more probably began at the point in 1609 or 1610 when a serious outbreak of plague subsided enough to allow public performances, and the King's Men began performing at Blackfriars (Warren 64). Marvin Butler points out that the average successful play might have stayed in the company's repertoire for around two years, so if Forman saw Cymbeline in 1611, it was probably written at some time in the previous two years (4).

    Roger Warren also claims a date of 1610 as the most likely period of composition based on connections to events that year and on a literary association. The first of the significant events occurs at court. Warren cites Geoffrey Bullough's theory that, as a member of the royally-sponsored King's Men, Shakespeare might well have been asked to write a piece to be performed at the investiture of James's son Henry as Prince of Wales, which occurred amidst festivities spanning the week between May 31 and June 6 of 1610. In addition, James Hay, a descendant of the men recorded in Holinshed as responsible for inspiring the "two boys, an old man" anecdote (discussed further in the Sources section), was dubbed Knight of the Bath during the same time span. Warren supports this association, though he also suggests that Shakespeare might have been inspired to write the scene with Hay's forebears rather than having written the scene specifically for the occasion. If so, this would place the date of composition after June 4, the date of Hay's knighting (65). Finally, even if the reference to Hay's ancestors had been written for the occasion, it could have been a later addition to make a play from the King's Men's repertoire more suitable for a specific court performance.

    While the apparent concreteness of specific dates surrounding the investiture is appealing, the King's Men may or may not have performed at Hay's knighting, and the plot and characters of Cymbeline do not immediately suggest themselves as thematically appropriate for the occasion. Furthermore, Hay, one of the most influential courtiers during James's reign, was far from a newcomer at court; Shakespeare's use of the tale may have had less to do with the date of the knighting and more to do with flattering a man who, whether he had just been made Knight of the Bath or not, was a friend of the king's. If Cymbeline was an occasional play, another significant date for Hay around the same time (though on the early side) which could also be a candidate for a theatrical performance would be when James created him baron for life (though with limited rights) on June 21, 1606.

    An occasional masquer himself, as in Ben Jonson's Haddington's Masque, Hay has been called "the trend-setter in conspicuous consumption at the Jacobean court" (Brown 546), and Hay was not adverse to sponsoring performances of drama himself as parts of the sumptuous entertainments for which he was known (Schreiber 10), raising the possibility of him being a patron rather than an honoree. For instance, after months of negotiations with her father, Hay finally married the English lady Honora Denny amid lavish entertainment reckoned at over £2000 (Brown 570); one of the pieces of entertainment was a masque Hay had commissioned Thomas Campion to pen. The Lord Hay's Masque was performed on Twelfth Night, 1607. Campion presents the kind of pastoral setting popular at court, with Flora, Zephyrus, Night, and Hesperus descending, and knights rising encased in trees from beneath hills. The language, characters, and plot do not resemble the action in Cymbeline. The epigram on the marriage, however, is reminiscent of the symbolism many modern critics have located in Cymbeline: "Haeredum (ut spes est) pariet nova nupta Scot' Anglum; / Quem gignet post hac ille, Britannus erit, / Sic nova posteritas ex regnis orta duobus / Utrinque egregios nobilitabit avos." ("The newly-wed bride shall, as is the hope, produce an Anglo-Scottish heir; the one whom he hereafter shall beget shall be British. So a new posterity, from two kingdoms sprung, shall ennoble its goodly forebears on both sides" (Lindley 20 and n. p. 222). This recalls the legend that Cymbeline's son was the first king of Scotland, establishing a legitimating line of descent to support James, whose desire to unite England and Scotland is well documented. Even transposed onto the need to reconcile Britain and Rome, with the attendant shifts in ideological implications, the reflected ideal of bringing nations together cannot be escaped.

    Even aside from James Hay, as Bullough notes, others in the Hay family were attracting attention around the same time. James Hay had a cousin, George, also a courtier of James I, who was knighted in 1609, and another relative, Francis, Earl of Errol, who "in 1608 was imprisoned at Dumbarton for religious contumacy" (12) and freed in May of 1611. It would seem that the descendants of Hay were much in the courtly eye during the period generally ascribed to the writing of Cymbeline.

    90The other date Warren offers to support a composition date of 1610 is Arbella Stuart's marriage. In July Arbella Stuart, a close claimant to the throne and therefore a potential threat to James, secretly married William Seymour, who also had a more distant claim to the throne. When James discovered the marriage, he imprisoned both for marrying without his consent. In Warren's analysis, Imogen's marriage to Posthumus would have been seen as a "tactless" reminder of this scandal (65). Besides the parallel of Arbella marrying in spite of her sovereign's forbidding it, the main parallel between Arbella and Imogen is that Arbella, like Imogen, dressed as a man in order to escape. This episode occurred in June of 1610. However, any reference to Arbella Stuart's escapades was apparently not considered too tactless to be allowed on stage in 1611 when Forman saw it.

    Finally, Warren also cites the literary evidence of parallels in a Thomas Heywood play, The Golden Age, as evidence that Cymbeline was written before late 1610 because The Golden Age also contains instances of Heywood borrowing from other plays by Shakespeare, including Othello and Titus Andronicus, which may make it likely that Heywood borrowed from Cymbeline as well. The date of The Golden Age remains in some doubt, however, for while Warren argues that it was composed in 1610 and published in 1611 (65-67), Butler dissents, pointing out that The Golden Age was entered in the Stationer's Register in late 1611, but "there had already been two sequels, The Silver Age and The Bronze Age" (5). Two plays in a year would certainly be feasible, so Warren's suggestion remains tenable.

    The intrinsic stylistic evidence also supports a date of composition in the proposed range. Pause patterns, stressed syllables, feminine endings, and vocabulary tests all place Cymbeline as one of Shakespeare's later plays, with the most stylistic links to other late plays, such as Winter's Tale, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen (Jackson, "Pause Patterns" 39; Jackson, "Another Metrical Index" 454; Brainerd, "Chronology" 228, e.g.). The only firm conclusion that is possible is that Cymbeline was composed sometime before 1611, most probably after 1608. The years of 1609-1610 remain the most persuasive for Cymbeline's first appearance on the Jacobean stage, but pinning the play's date more firmly relies on possibility rather than provability.