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
    Not Peer Reviewed

    General Introduction

    Theater and performance

    Assuming the date range of 1608-1611 is accurate for Cymbeline, it presumably fell into that category of plays which were performed in Blackfriars in the winter and the Globe in the summer. Unfortunately, while the only contemporary eyewitness to a Cymbeline performance, Simon Forman, specifies that Macbeth and The Winter's Tale were performed at the Globe, Simon Forman's entry is silent on the site of Cymbeline's performance. This may suggest that he saw Cymbeline at the same theater as Macbeth and The Winter's Tale and that he omitted the theatre name because it would have been redundant; however, it is also possible that, as some have argued, he saw Cymbeline at Blackfriars, or else he would have mentioned it with the others. Most modern editors assume that Shakespeare had one theater or the other in mind when writing Cymbeline, either the familiar large Globe theater with its open roof, or the "new" indoors Blackfriars theater. (Blackfriars had in fact been used as a venue for boys' companies. After a hiatus of some time, the King's Men had acquired the rights to perform there in 1608, but an outbreak of the plague prevented its opening before the end of 1609 or early 1610.)

    Because Cymbeline appears to have been around the time the King's Men acquired the right to use Blackfriars for performance, it is tempting to look to Cymbeline for a flagship text that would, virtuosically, exploit the capacities of the new theater—its intimate space, the variable lighting, the improved acoustics for musical performances, and the proximity of the high-paying customers in contrast to the lower-paying customers who were relegated to the back—but there is little indication that Shakespeare tried to exploit every advantage of this kind of space in Cymbeline, especially in comparison to the more innovative The Tempest. However, this does not necessarily mean that Cymbeline was written for the Globe, or that it was not performed at Blackfriars: perhaps Shakespeare only gradually discovered the capabilities of the new space, or perhaps the sharers had already created the plan of alternating between having plays alternate between summer performances at the Globe and winter performances at Blackfriars, and too much adaptation to the special properties of the Blackfriars theater might well prevent a play's success at the Globe.

    95Some critics find in the "experimental" quality of Cymbeline the suggestion that Shakespeare was trying to adapt his composition practices to the coterie audience they assume would have been present at Blackfriars. "Hark, Hark, the Lark" and its musical accompaniment, along with Guiderius' and Arviragus' song may represent the kind of musical interlude or performance often believed to be not only better suited to the smaller, indoor playing space at Blackfriars but also to have been expected by private audiences: the boys' companies which had previously performed at Blackfriars and other private playhouses were descendants of boys' choirs, and the boys' companies evidently performed music before and after the play, and also during intermissions between acts.

    On the other hand, some indications also show that music and dancing were performed after at least some plays at the Globe. A poem by John Davies from 1593 associates the end of a play with "the daunce and song" (qtd. in Gurr 57), and Thomas Platter, visiting from Switzerland, recorded that when a 1599 performance of Julius Caesar finished, "they danced marvellously and gracefully together as their custom is" (qtd. on 54). In fact, almost all of Shakespeare's plays, for the Globe as well as for Blackfriars, contain songs. The increased prominence of music in later plays may have more to do with the talents of the recently-acquired actors (Robert Armin, for example) than with audience expectations or the acoustical advantages of the theaters in which they were performed. While more subtle music would have been better suited to Blackfriars, common sense suggests that a play which could be performed in either of two theaters would be a better investment than a play which was only suitable for one.

    Scholars who have studied early modern references to the Globe Theater for the building of the replica Shakespeare's Globe in London have uncovered a number of practices of the Globe which may influence the way in which we imagine Cymbeline's earliest performances. One simple example of such an issue is whether the stage would have been covered by rushes, as some evidence suggests the Globe stage might have been: Iachimo's comment that "Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded" (919-21) would carry even greater immediacy if the theater's floor were actually strewn with rushes, for instance (Ronayne 130; Gurr, "Staging" 166-67); another would be the painted cloths that the King's Men might routinely have used to represent arras or tapestry, as referred to in Iachimo's highly detailed inventory of Imogen's chamber (150, 162-63).

    Simon Blatherwick, writing about archaeological work on the Bankside, discusses the nature of the land on which the Globe was built, describing the area as "an area of channels and marshy, alluvial clays and silts." He further notes that "The surrounding area has been constantly subject to inundation from the Thames and reclamation from the Roman occupation of Southwark (AD c.43-410) onwards" (69). Additionally, ditches bordered the plot on which the Globe stood to the north and south, which Blatherwick associates with Jonson's description of the Globe as "Flancked with a Ditch and forc'd out of a Marish" (73). Blatherwick takes a 1606 order to replace some wood on the wharf to suggest that "the theatre may have been constructed on a piled wharf" (73). In general, the physical situation of the Globe is reminiscent of Imogen's lines regarding Britain, that "I'th' world's volume / Our Britain seems as of it but not in't: / In a great pool, a swan's nest" (TLN 1824-26). The round, grassy and reedy mound of a swan's nest might well resemble the essentially round, thatched Globe, and for the early modern audience, who are likely to have connected "world" with "Globe," the comment that Britain was of the world (read: Globe) but not init may have been another of Shakespeare's self-referential comments on the theater itself. Of course, these specific allusions would be lost if the play were performed at Blackfriars, but the lines would continue to make sense.

    The decoration of the heavens is another area in which Cymbeline might make reference to specific attributes of the theater in which it was performed. Andrew Gurr points out that although Shakespeare occasionally invoked gods in his earlier plays, none of the gods descends until Jupiter in Cymbeline and Juno in The Tempest. He also mentions that boy companies frequently employed such "spectacle," concluding that "Shakespeare seems to have avoided using descents at least partly out of his own reluctance to exploit the Globe for static 'spectacles'" (166). He does not raise the possibility that Shakespeare did not use the descent machinery until Cymbeline and The Tempest because it was not available to him, if Blackfriars was the first time the King's Men had access to such a mechanism. Keenan and Davidson also cite Jupiter's descent in Cymbeline as evidence that the Globe had a trapdoor in the Heavens which opened to permit the descent, and suggest the probability that Sicilius Leonatus' command to Jupiter to "Peep through thy marble mansion" (3121) could indicate some symbolic or representational depiction on the ceiling of the Heavens. Again, they do not investigate the possibility that, if true, this line could refer to Blackfriars' Heavens rather than the Globe's—or, if the plays were performed at each theater, it could apply to either.

    100After Simon Forman's diary entry and the discussion of Cymbeline's early performances at the Blackfriars and/or at the Globe, the record of Cymbeline's performance history remains blank until January 1, 1634, when the Master of the Revels recorded that the King's Players performed it and it was "well liked" by Charles I, which brief statement tells us almost nothing except that it was considered suitable for holiday entertainment at court. No further Cymbeline performances are known until the Restoration, when Shakespeare's play as printed in the Folio gave way to adaptations such as Thomas D'Urfey's The Injured Princess, or the Fatal Wager (1673) throughout the eighteenth century. Shakespeare's Cymbeline is not known to have been performed again until 1746, and then was modified by Garrick again in 1761 for performances in which he played Posthumus.

    Barbara L. Eaton theorizes that the male-centered politics and traditions of Restoration and post-Restoration theater prevented Cymbeline from achieving its potential until Sarah Siddons played Imogen in 1787; before then, the productions favored Posthumus over Imogen. In Siddons's performance, however, Posthumus was played by her brother, John Kemble, who was a junior actor at the time, thus reversing the typical theatrical view of the play as a star-vehicle for the male role. For perhaps the first time--certainly for the first time since the Restoration began, Eaton suggests--the star of the play, as acknowledged by contemporary reports, was Imogen, not Posthumus.

    This breakthrough did not persist continuously throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the trend for male actors shifted away from a desire to star as Posthumus and toward a desire to play Iachimo. The increasing emphasis on the villain, in Eaton's opinion, "mov[ed] romance closer to the realm of nineteenth-century melodrama" ("Shakespeare's Imogen" 28). In the well-known production of 1843, the popular actress Helena Faucit played Imogen opposite William Charles Macready's Iachimo, thereby delivering a performance with at least some balance between leads, though Faucit was charged with being not beautiful enough. This accusation may have been aggravated by her having followed Siddons in refusing to portray Imogen as conforming to the contemporary ideal of the innocent, passive, and weak woman; Faucit, like Siddons, created an Imogen who was vulnerable yet capable of great strength (28). Then, in a significant late Victorian performance of Cymbeline, Henry Irving played Iachimo, and Ellen Terry, a star who was almost fifty at the time, performed a spirited, exuberant young Imogen in 1896, demonstrating that even in the Victorian period an actress could gain acclaim not by mirroring the ideal woman of the time but by running counter to it and portraying a more active Imogen, full of "self-reliance," Eaton notes.

    Many twentieth-century productions seem to have been characterized more by the ways in which they confront the difficulties engendered by the unusual mélange of times, locations, and fantastic and realistic story elements than by unusual portrayals of the lead roles. In modern productions, many directors have turned to various framing techniques to strengthen continuity throughout the play, as Pam Holland Seeman alludes to. The numerous small parts, which makes doubling desirable, also carry the potential for increased continuity. First Gentleman, Second Lord, Cornelius, Philario, the Soothsayer, and Jupiter have all been doubled, either by a single actor or by just a few, to create a knowledgeable narrator with a choric function. The means the director employs for conducting the narration has obvious repercussions for the production, as a "storyteller" narrator contributes to a fairy-tale atmosphere and emphasizes the play's constructed nature. With the greater number of productions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, providing notable performances not only at Stratford-upon-Avon and in London but in such diverse arenas as Ashland (Oregon), Seattle, and New York as well, the presence or absence of a framing narrative marks only one of a number of ways of classifying productions. Choices regarding setting, period, and genre, to name a few, determine others; but all modern productions offer the challenge of presenting a little-known but engaging narrative in a manner which will captivate and provoke.