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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

    Sources, related texts, and analogues

    Shakespeare seems to have drawn upon, or to have been influenced by, a wide variety of kinds of texts when composing Cymbeline. Sources and analogues of note include Holinshed's Chronicle Histories, Plutarch, Ovid, Boccaccio's Decameron,Frederyke of Jennen, Westward for Smelts, and Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller. The variety of the sources—not limited to a single genre but spanning multiple categories—feeds into Cymbeline's nature as a heterogeneous narrative.

    The first source is Raphael Holinshed's chronicles, which provide character names, details of historical background for England, and some of the political material. The names derived from Holinshed include Cymbeline (spelled variously, including "Kimbeline" and "Cunobellinus"); Guiderius and Arviragus; Guiderius' alias, Polidore; Posthumus; Clotten (also called Clotenis Claten); Belarius' alias, Morgan; probably at least the inspiration for Imogen (Innogen, the wife of Britain's legendary founder Brute); and possibly Iachimo, if, as has been suggested, his name is indeed related to "Iago." Cadwal, Arviragus's alias, also occurs in Holinshed, but it is a common name as well. The names appear to be significant primarily for their associations with Roman Britain around the time of Jesus' birth and with the Pax Romana.

    Besides the brief allusions in Holinshed to Cymbeline, his sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, and the question of Cymbeline's paying tribute to Rome, the chronicles are the primary location for the story of Hay and his two sons' defense of Scotland against an invading Danish army, inspiring the rallying of the troops by Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus in Act 5, Scene 2. The essential story (also discussed in the context of Cymbeline's date of composition) is retained by Shakespeare although he alters the names and nationalities. According to Holinshed, Hay, a husbandman, and his sons, were working nearby as the Scottish army was attacked by the Danes and beaten back on both wings. When Hay saw King Kenneth in the middle under assault, he led his sons on the attack. They stopped the fleeing Scots by blocking their escape route, "neere to the place of the battell, a long lane fensed on the sides with ditches and walles made of turfe, through the which the Scots which fled were beaten downe by the enimies on heapes" (Bullough 48), and then Hay and his sons offered their less-brave countrymen the choice of dying fighting the Danes or being slain by Hay and his sons in punishment for their cowardice. The troops rallied and won the day. The clear verbal echoes in "Close by the battle, ditched and walled with turf" (TLN 2942) and throughout the episode provide evidence of Shakespeare's utilization of this story. Given the fact that James was from Scotland and Queen Anne was from Denmark, recasting the two armies from Scottish and Danish to English and Roman is hardly surprising.

    20In January of 1607, James Hay, one of King James's Scottish favorites, commissioned Thomas Campion to write The Lord Hay's Masque to celebrate his wedding to the English lady Honora Denny. While the language, characters, and plot do not resemble those of Cymbeline, the epigram on the marriage—"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. 220)—mirrors the sentiments of unity between two formerly warring countries and 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.

    In addition, Cymbeline partakes of numerous classical sources, most prominently in the trunk scene with Iachimo. Shakespeare explicitly evokes two rape scenes, Tarquin's rape of Lucrece (found in various early modern sources, based on Ovid's Fasti) and the story of Tereus' rape of Philomel, from Ovid's Metamorphoses. After a single sentence reinforcing the nighttime setting, Iachimo invokes the rape of Lucrece: "Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded" (919-21), and the audience is prepared for the idea of Iachimo's assault. This intertextual association further reinforces the idea that husbands should beware of praising their wives too much to other men; in the beginning of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, Lucrece's husband Collatine inadvertently spurs Tarquin on by his praises of his wife's chastity and perfection. Iachimo's attack on Imogen is ocular rather than physical, but the consequences—the shaming of an innocent victim, and her (symbolic) death—continue to evoke Lucrece. A reference to a second rape, when Iachimo observes that Imogen is reading the story of the rape of Philomel and had set aside the story "where Philomel gave up," brackets the end of Iachimo's note-taking (953).

    When Iachimo later describes a tapestry of Cleopatra meeting Antony as one of the pieces of evidence to prove that he had been in Imogen's bedchamber, Shakespeare draws upon North's translation of Plutarch:

    It was hanged
    With tapestry of silk and silver; the story,
    Proud Cleopatra when she met her Roman
    And Sidnus swelled above the banks, or for
    The press of boats or pride -- a piece of work
    So bravely done, so rich, that it did strive
    In workmanship and value, which I wondered
    Could be so rarely and exactly wrought
    Since the true life on't was--. (TLN 1228-36)

    Some of the piquancy of the Cleopatra references does not require knowledge, or even awareness, of the source to understand that for Iachimo, a Roman, to mention Cleopatra's passionate meeting with "her Roman" (1230, emphasis added) in a description of Imogen's bedchamber might well increase Posthumus' jealousy. The story of Cleopatra and Antony contrasts with the carving of "Chaste Dian, bathing" (1246); the tapestry and the sculpture serve to illustrate the two competing narratives in play here, Iachimo's claim that Imogen, wallowing in sensuousness like Cleopatra, welcomed a Roman, and Posthumus' (quickly abandoned) narrative of Imogen as so chaste that

    Me of my lawful pleasure she restrained
    And prayed me oft forbearance, did it with
    A pudency so rosy the sweet view on't
    Might well have warmed old Saturn that I thought her
    As chaste as unsunned snow. (TLN 1347-50)

    It is interesting to note, with Danielle Clark, that the "pavilion, cloth of gold of tissue" (Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.199) under which Cleopatra lay evolved into "silk and silver" (1229) in Cymbeline, and that Cupids not only figure in North's Plutarch but Antony and Cleopatra as well as Cymbeline (330).

    25Other resonances from the Cleopatra story persist in Cymbeline. Despite Iachimo's implication, the Queen actually shares more ties with Cleopatra than Imogen does. The Queen and Cleopatra are both queens who fight against conquest and marginalization by the Roman Empire, representing its northwestern and southeastern limits, respectively; who live at the time of Augustus; and who share an interest in poison. The parallels between Cleopatra's Egypt and the Britain of Cymbeline bear relevance in the political stories of tribute and war.

    The wager-plot parallels a number of contemporary stories on the same theme. Although no translation of Boccaccio's Decameron is known to have appeared in English until John Florio's translation was printed in 1620, the story and certain verbal parallels between Cymbeline and Day 2, Novel 9 correspond more closely than the other analogues. For instance, when the Iachimo character in The Decameron returns from his failed attempt to win the wager, the description of his actions also fairly accurately describes Iachimo's actions:

    To make good his protestation, first he described the forme of the Chamber, the curious pictures hanging about it, in what manner the bed stood, and every circumstance else beside. Next he shewed the severall things, which he brought away thence with him, affirming that he had received them of her selfe. Bernardo confessed, that his description of the Chamber was true, and acknowledged moreover, that these other things did belong to his Wife. (Bullough 55)

    But it is the language of the husband's response which demonstrates the parallel even more powerfully: "But (quoth he) this may be gotten, by corrupting some servant of mine, both for intelligence of the Chamber, as also of the Ring, Purse, and what else is beside; all which suffice not to win the wager, without some other more apparent and pregnant token" (Bullough 56), which resembles Philario's comment, "It may be probable she lost it, or / Who knows if one her women, being corrupted, / Hath stolen it from her" (TLN 1288-90) and Posthumus's agreement, ". . . Render to me some corporal sign about her / More evident than this" (TLN 1293-94). Finally, the Iachimo character refers to the evidence of the "small round wart upon her left pappe, and some few little golden haires growing thereon," comparable to Iachimo's assertion that "under her breast / (Worthy her pressing) lies a mole, right proud / Of that most delicate lodging" (TLN 1311).

    Further close parallels exist in the scene where the servant is supposed to kill the wife. In The Decameron, the story-teller says,

    When the servant was come to Geneway, and had delivered his Letter and message, Genevra gave him most joyfull welcome, and on the morrow morning mounting on Horse-backe with the servant, rode merrily towards the Country house; divers things shee discoursed on by the way, till they descended into a deepe solitary valey, very thickly beset with high and huge spreading Trees, which the servant supposed to be a meete place, for the execution of his Masters command. . . .

    This is closer to the action of Cymbeline than that of the analogue Nosworthy favors as the closest source, Frederyke of Jennen. In Cymbeline, Imogen responds with what can be called "most joyfull welcome" to Pisanio's arrival with Posthumus' letter, and she travels on horseback into the country; in Frederyke of Jennen, the wife is "glad" to hear from her husband, but the message is oral and she travels with a lamb; her method of travel—on foot or on horseback—is not mentioned. Also, the sultan (most closely corresponding to Cymbeline) orders the Iachimo character to pay the wife goods worth 10,000 double ducats; 10,000 ducats is the same value given for the falsely-won ring in Cymbeline.

    30Nosworthy reprints Frederyke of Jennen (translated from a German wager-story, Historie von vier Kaufmännern) in an appendix to his edition (Arden 2). The basic story is quite similar to both The Decameron and Cymbeline: Johan of Florence, like Iachimo, tempts a husband, Ambrosius, into wagering on his wife's chastity. Johan is conveyed in a trunk into Ambrosius's wife's chamber, where he emerges, takes three items, and sees a personal mark on the wife. Upon learning that his wife was apparently unfaithful, Ambrosius orders a servant to kill his wife, but the servant (as in Pisanio's case) only pretends to do so. Ambrosius's wife dresses as a man, calling herself "Frederyke of Jennen." She eventually gains the confidence of the king, reveals both her identity and the deceit practiced by Johan, and is reconciled with her husband.

    The author of Frederyke of Jennen chose to make the result of the wager absolutely private: Johan takes Ambrosius aside, supposedly in order not to shame him while they decide the matter, and nobody else knows what the outcome is. In contrast, the presence of the conciliating Philario in Cymbeline (or of all the other merchants in The Decameron) demonstrates the thoroughness of Iachimo's deception by throwing into relief the fact that it is not simply Posthumus' judgment that is in doubt. Philario, who has been conservative in his speech and actions since Posthumus' arrival, helps prevent Posthumus from jumping to hasty conclusions through Iachimo's first several pieces of evidence, but at the end also accepts that Iachimo has indeed won the wager, helping to portray Posthumus' conclusion as logical.

    Cymbeline follows The Decameron in underlining the resourcefulness of the villain more than in Frederyke of Jennen. Unlike Iachimo and his counterpart in Boccaccio, Johan of Florence does not even attempt to seduce Ambrosius' wife since she appears so "womanly" that he knows without even asking that she would rebuff him, and when Johan desires to gain access to her bedchamber by being delivered in a trunk, he cannot think of how to get the trunk to the bedchamber and must ask an old woman because "the dyuell can not do that an olde woman can do" (Nosworthy 194). He may be the villain, but he is no Machiavellian mastermind. The old woman asks Ambrosius' wife to keep her jewels and plate in a trunk while the old woman goes on a pilgrimage. Johan thus has to stay in the trunk for three days, not three or four hours, and he gathers three items as proof (a purse, a girdle, and a ring) in addition to seeing a black wart on her arm which he concludes will win him the wager. In all stories, the intimate mark convinces the husband, as the other evidence cannot, that his wife has been unfaithful.

    While Johan of Florence is less inventive than Iachimo, Ambrosius's wife is more resourceful than Imogen. When Ambrosius's servant reveals his order to kill the wife, it is the wife, not the servant, who suggests the alternative of killing a lamb for its tongue and blood to serve as evidence of his obedience and who then decides to dress in man's clothing. In terms of finding employment as a man, Ambrosius's wife again goes farther than Imogen, working her way up, as Frederyke of Jennen, from falconer to protector of the land, discovering and eventually avenging the deception played upon her. Meanwhile, during those twelve years, she "governed the realm worshipfully, so that all the lords and knights loved him [sic] all and all the commons. And he [sic] reigned xii year with great honor, and daily getting more thereto" (qtd. in Nosworthy 199). Ambrosius's wife even defeats enemies in combat; but, like Imogen, she relinquishes her part readily, surrendering control of the king's lands at the conclusion of the tale when she reveals her true identity. The villain is executed at the wife's request, and "all his goodes giuen to Ambrose and his wyfe" (cited in Nosworthy 202), which runs almost completely counter to the ending of Cymbeline, where Iachimo is pardoned at Posthumus' request, and no mention is made of the goods aside from the ring and bracelet.

    Early editors proposed Westward for Smelts, another tale similar to Frederyke of Jennen, as a source, but editors since the 18th century have been unable to locate a reputed 1603 edition that would have made this version of the wager story available to Shakespeare as a source; only a 1620 version of Westward for Smelts is extant. Despite its late date, however, the story remains germane. The similarities between Cymbeline and Westward for Smelts are possibly even stronger than with the wager stories of The Decameron and Frederyke of Jennen and include many verbal echoes that indicate a closer relation, especially in the laying of the wager, in the scene between the wife and the servant ordered to kill her, and in the battle which provides the anagnorisis and denouement. The villain also, notably, is not killed but is ordered to "restore the money treble which he had wrongfully got from him; and so was to have a year's imprisonment." If Westward for Smelts is not a source, it is an important analogue.

    35One of the more mythical possible sources of Cymbeline is the fairy tale Snow White. A shared element in each is an evil stepmother who is also queen; a young woman who travels into the woods with a servant who has been ordered to kill the young woman and return with some physical sign of her death, but who ultimately spares her life; friendly and helpful people living in the wilderness who accept the young woman into their household, where she keeps house for them; and the death-like state the young woman falls into after consuming a poison prepared by the queen. Because no written versions exist for most common early modern folk tales, it is impossible to know what versions of Snow White may have been current in England that Shakespeare might have been familiar with. It is easy to assume that there would have been at least a version of the story, since a glance at a folk motif index reveals the quantity and variety of such stories, one of which might have inspired Shakespeare, at least in part. As they exist around the world, it seems credible that England must have had a variation which might have inspired Shakespeare.

    Contemporary prose narrative may also figure as a source or analogue. Several minor episodes and some characterization in Cymbeline may owe a debt to Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveler, first published in 1594. If this is the case, however, the characters resist easy equation. Jack Wilton, the narrator, is much like Iachimo in being a man willing to use deceit to provide for his own comfort. The character of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (based on the historical figure) is, like Posthumus, praised as a model of virtue. Both Surrey and Posthumus are described as grave, and both exalt their mistresses over all other women and are prepared to go to great lengths to defend that assertion. More specifically, thinking of the idealized woman prompts associations with the idea of the phoenix, though the context is substantially different in each case.

    An early episode with a chaste woman (chaste, at least, at the time of their first encounter) also prefigures the action between Iachimo, Imogen, and Posthumus with its attention to coining, false accusations of unchastity, sexual jealousy, and stolen rings. Falsely imprisoned for coining, Jack meets Diamante (suggestive of diamonds), who has been wrongfully imprisoned for adultery. Her accuser had shown Diamante's husband rings he had borrowed from a "light courtesan" which "he would feign to be taken from her [Diamante's] fingers" (253), provoking "an ungrounded jealous suspicion which her doting husband had conceived of her chastity" (252). Jack overcomes Diamante's chaste scruples using the same argument Iachimo tries with Imogen: "Her husband had abused her, and it was very necessary she should be revenged" (255). Iachimo's "Be revenged, / Or she that bore you was no queen, and you / Recoil from your great stock" (741-43) echoes and elaborates upon Nashe's line.

    Some light verbal echoes also suggest a connection. Having exchanged identities earlier, Jack travels under Surrey's name to Florence with Diamante, where Surrey finds them. Surrey merely asks that Jack not harm Surrey's reputation by publicly maintaining a courtesan. In his request for Jack to give up either his assumed title or his courtesan, he uses the word "ape" frequently: "though I am well pleased thou shouldest be the ape of my birthright (as what nobleman hath not his ape and his fool), yet that thou be an ape without a clog, not carry thy courtesan with thee" (260); Iachimo likewise associates apes with courtesans "It cannot be i'th' eye, for apes and monkeys / 'Twixt two such shes would chatter this way and / Condemn with mows the other"; Iachimo likewise verbally links apes with courtesans when he imagines Imogen and Posthumus' supposed whore being compared by "apes and monkeys," who would be able to recognize Imogen as superior (636-38). Both men also conjure the same stereotype of prostitutes in windows.

    Surrey then

    published a proud challenge in the Duke of Florence's court against all comers (whether Christians, Turks, Cannibals, Jews, or Saracens) in defence of his Geraldine's beauty. More mildly was it accepted in that she whom he defended was a town-born child of that city, or else the pride of the Italian would have prevented him ere he should have come to perform it. (261)

    40Iachimo's response to Posthumus' bragging recalls "the pride of the Italian" in this scene: "You must not so far prefer her 'fore ours of Italy" (379-80), he cautions Posthumus. Jack says that Surrey "would praise her beyond the moon and stars, and that so sweetly and ravishingly as I persuade myself he was more in love with his own curious forming fancy than her face; and truth it is, many become passionate lovers only to win praise to their wits" (254), which also resonates with Iachimo's skepticism of Posthumus' rhetorically skillful praise of love: "he began / His mistress' picture, which, by his tongue being made / And then a mind put in't, either our brags / Were cracked of kitchen trulls or his description / Proved us unspeaking sots" (3454-58).

    It is not only Iachimo, Posthumus, and Imogen who bring to mind The Unfortunate Traveler, however; Clotten also recalls a distinctive scene. Locked in a room by a bandit, Jack witnesses the rape of a chaste matron named Heraclide. "Backward he dragged her, even as a man backward would pluck a tree down by the twigs, and then like a traitor that is drawn to execution on a hurdle, he traileth her up and down the chamber by those tender untwisted braids...Her husband's dead body he made a pillow to his abomination...His boorish lust was glutted, his beastly desire satisfied" (278-79). Clotten's threats of rape and violence against Imogen recall this scene in its brutality and the husband's corpse being the locus of posthumus assault and humiliation: "With that suit upon my back will I ravish her: first kill him, and in her eyes. . . He on the ground, my speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and when my lust hath the court I'll knock her back, foot her home again" (2054-61).

    The aftermath of Heraclide's rape also provides a telling counterpoint to Imogen's seeming death and awakening. Clotten believes that the next time he sees Imogen he will rape her in the presence of Posthumus's corpse; in fact, the next time they are together, Imogen awakens next to Clotten's dead body, which juxtaposition serves as a reminder of his threats. Because Imogen believes Clotten's body to be Posthumus', the threat seems almost to be coming true. Also, just as the drugged Imogen appears to be a corpse and is first covered in flowers and then rises as though from the dead, Jack describes Heraclide arising after her rape as "a corpse rising from his hearse after he is carried to church" (279). Another association surfaces in the classical associations with each of the women; Nashe and Shakespeare both compare Heraclide and Imogen to Hecuba.

    Finally, Jack, like Posthumus, is nearly hung for a crime of which he was innocent, with emphasis on the physical means of death (halter and gallows), and both are saved by the testimony of exiled courtiers.

    Given the combination of chronicle history, classical allusion, Italian novella, folk tale, and English narrative that provide much of the literary context of Cymbeline, it is easy to see why Sir Philip Sidney characterized tragicomedy as a "mungrell" genre. To a formalist, of course the text resembles a Gordian knot that frustrates when it cannot be disentangled. To others, the threads seem braided felicitously, echoing, perhaps, the motif of the separate nations which James I hoped would be united under his ideal "Britain."