The text of Cymbeline appears only in the 1623 folio, where it is grouped with the tragedies, and given the title The Tragedie of Cymbeline. Some think that this mistake means that it was received late in the process of printing the folio. Its style indicates that it was written late in Shakespeare's career, and in 1611, a schoolmaster named Simon Forman recorded it among the plays that he had seen in London. He doesn't record the date or place of the performance, but most of the plays he mentions were at the Globe Theatre, and Forman died in September of that year. The earliest date of composition is probably about 1606, owing to a detail that seems to be drawn from Holinshed's account of the reign of King Kenneth of Scotland in Chronicle, a source for Macbeth, which is usually dated 1606. Nosworthy concludes "that Cymbeline has sufficient points of contact with Antony and Cleopatra on the one hand, and with Pericles and The Winter's Tale on the other, for it to be certain that all these plays belong to one fairly narrow area of Shakespearean chronology."
The sources for the play, in addition to Holinshed, are complicated. Spenser's Faerie Queene, with its reference to "Kimbeline," is obviously one that Shakespeare would have known. Other details appear to have come from Boccaccio, but there was no English translation of the Decameron until 1620 and little evidence that Shakespeare knew Italian well enough to read the original. There were, however, two French translations, though no evidence that Shakespeare was familiar with them. There is an English retelling of the story from Boccaccio called Frederyke of Jennen, that was published in Antwerp in 1518 and in London in 1520 and 1560. Its popularity in the later sixteenth century makes it possible that Shakespeare had read it, and there are details in the tale that differ from Boccaccio and parallel ones in Cymbeline. Another possible source is a play, The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, performed for the queen at Windsor Castle in 1582 and published in 1589. There are some verbal parallels between the plays, and Love and Fortune also includes a character named Hermione, a name that Shakespeare used in The Winter's Tale.
Nosworthy also finds Love and Fortune significant in that it is a romance, a genre in which Shakespeare is just beginning to work when he writes Cymbeline:
He was no longer concerned with historical drama or with comedy of intrigue but with the golden inconsequences of romance, which is a thing per se, existing in undefined dimensions of space and time, and is devoted, to the exclusion of more mundane affairs, to the adventures of princes and princesses, to the finding of long-lost children, to wizards and witches and hermits dwelling in desert places, to the righting of old wrongs and to the life that is happy ever after. Of the various sources that we have considered, it is Love and Fortune which presents this scheme of things most fully and most consistently, and which should, in consequence, be regarded as Shakespeare's primary source or impulse.Some critics think Shakespeare had a collaborator on Cymbeline, an explanation for some of the structural weakness and inconsistency of the play. But Nosworthy argues that Cymbeline is by nature "experimental." "Shakespeare, who had proved himself the supreme master of both tragedy and comedy, was yet unpracticed in the art of blending the two in the service of romance." Although prose romance had thrived throughout the Elizabethan era, the genre had not taken the stage as thoroughly as had tragedy and comedy. Nosworthy asserts, "It is important that we should recognise from the outset that Pericles, Cymbeline and, to a certain but insignificant extent, The Winter's Tale were the pioneer colonizing efforts of a Shakespeare more completely without a reputable model than he had ever been."
The portrayal of idealised characters in unreal situations must have represented, to the Shakespeare who for some eight or ten years had been occupied almost exclusively with individual relationships, psychological probability and the terrible logic of human destiny, a change so fundamental as to be perplexing and, at first, detrimental.Eventually, he would solve the problem in a masterly fashion in The Tempest, which shows up the clumsiness of Cymbeline, in which "Shakespeare has not yet solved a novel and complex problem." Twelfth Night had been his last "orthodox comedy," and after it he had turned his hand mostly to tragedy. Now he was attempting something like a fusion of the two.
Others argue that Posthumus's vision and the appearance of Jupiter in Act V show the hand of a collaborator. But Nosworthy points out "that theophanies are common to all the romances. Diana appears in Pericles, and The Tempest presents Juno, Iris and Ceres," and that the personified Time in The Winter's Tale "goes half way towards a theophany." Since Beaumont and Fletcher would also become masters of the theatrical romance, some suggest that similarities between their Philaster and Cymbeline may hint at collaboration. But Nosworthy thinks that Philaster was influenced by Cymbeline rather than the other way around: "Philaster is clearly a play written in the shadow of Shakespeare, and its echoes of Troilus and Cressida, ... Hamlet and King Lear can point only one way."
Cymbeline was pretty thoroughly dismissed by Samuel Johnson for "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." And at the time Nosworthy was preparing the edition had been subjected to critical neglect. There was something of a cult of Imogen* in the nineteenth century, which produced Swinburne's "rhapsody" on the character as "the immortal godhead of womanhood." This produced a riposte from the great anti-Victorian Lytton Strachey, who found Cymbeline an example of Shakespeare in decline, "half bored to death" by writing plays. Nosworthy comments,
The charge that The Winter's Tale and The Tempest are the work of a man half bored to death seems to me to require only a categorical denial, and the detailed analysis of Cymbeline which the present edition has imposed has convinced me that it is the creation of a man perpetually fascinated by his dramatic experiment, surprised and exhilarated by the new sensations and discoveries which the elaboration of his unfamiliar material has yielded.Much post-Victorian criticism has focused on the themes and ideas set forth in the play, such as E.M.W. Tillyard's assertion that the late plays focus on "regeneration," moving beyond tragedy into atonement. Others, such as Wilson Knight, see the play in historical and political terms, interpreting "the conflict between Posthumus, who symbolises what is best in British manhood, and Iachimo, the representative ... of the corrupt Italy of the Renaissance." F.R. Leavis, on the other hand, thinks such critics are "attempting to impose a profound significance upon a play whose scope does not, in fact, extend beyond that of conventional romance."
Nosworthy's position is that Cymbeline "accommodates its comic, tragic, national, regenerative and other patterns within the strict formula of romance, yet is able to resolve them into a unity in which their individual qualities no longer matter." As for the defects enumerated by Samuel Johnson, these are "among the prime virtues of conventional romance. They crave to be accepted, not excused." In this view, Cymbeline is an experiment that ultimately led to a triumph, The Tempest, which "is generally admitted to verge on the miraculous."
Where Cymbeline fails is in its imperfect fusion of tragedy and comedy. Its plot extends disorder and the potential for tragedy far longer than it should: "It is very significant that chaos in The Winter's Tale does not extend beyond the third act: more significant still that, in The Tempest, the cataclysm is reduced to a single introductory scene." Shakespeare also has difficulties making dramatic sense out of characters who are merely symbolic. In a prose narrative, symbolic figures such as Arviragus and Guiderius don't need to come to life. But on the stage they are presented by live performers and are therefore "unconvincing, an embarrassment to actor, producer and audience."
Since he gives his name to the play, Cymbeline should, strictly, be regarded as a central controlling force, and that, if we accept him at his nominal value, is what he is, fulfilling as he does the function of the symbolic king of fairy tale. He is a puppet who never comes to life.The Queen, as an "embodiment of malevolence," suffers from comparison to such vivid creations as Goneril and Lady Macbeth, but she "bears little or no relation to every-day experience." Cloten "is a more complex symbol, but is not presented with sufficient clarity. Caliban, later, is the thing itself." Iachimo, on the other hand, comes closer to the rounded figure exemplified by Edmund and Iago, but he is "a stock figure, a reduced pattern of the Italian villain." In the end, his villainy is excused and he becomes merely a fool. He "stands, in relation to Shakespearean character patterns, about midway between Shylock and Autolycus."
As a figure who should by rights achieve some depth, Posthumus "is quite one of the dullest of Shakespeare's heroes." His about-face, his denunciation of women, comes off as "a clumsily executed tragic soliloquy," and it is significant that after it he disappears from the play for two whole acts. Only Imogen* succeeds, almost accidentally, in coming to life:
At one moment she assumes the temper of Beatrice, at another, the resourcefulness of Rosalind. She plays Cordelia to her father, but Desdemona to her husband. She is, to adopt a phrase from Keats, continually informing and filling some other body, though her primary symbolical meaning is never really lost. She is, we must cheerfully admit, a character sadly out of character in this play of Cymbeline, and analysis shows her to be a various and erratic tissue of inconsistencies. Yet the cumulative effect is enchanting, and if, on occasion, we are content to forget the play and concentrate on its heroine, no great harm is done, provided that the disproportionate response remains a private one.Just as Shakespeare is feeling his way toward a new method of creating characters, so he is experimenting with style, not always successfully. Posthumus's soliloquy, Nosworthy asserts, "degenerates into an incoherent rant" that "is bad tragedy and, what is worse, bad tragi-comedy." On the other hand, "the master craftsman ... emerges in Imogen's* soliloquy over the headless body of Cloten, which, in my opinion, is the finest thing in the play."
After beginning the play in the tragic mode, Shakespeare seems to feel his way toward "a tragi-comic utterance" that is "a new kind of poetry, frankly lyrical in tone, characteristic of the Elizabethan Renaissance." He seems, in fact, to have gone back to his own Venus and Adonis for inspiration: "Both play and poem exhibit the same Arcadian features, extensive use of the pathetic fallacy and the long episodic sentence, and both move within the same range of imagery." But at the same time that he looks backward, he also moves forward: "Iachimo's speech in Imogen's* bedchamber ... undoubtedly belongs to Shakespeare's maturity and ranks with the loveliest poetry that he ever wrote."
The play also exploits a kind of sensationalism that seems new in Shakespeare: "Iachimo emerging from a trunk, an old man and two boys living in a cave, a seemingly dead heroine coming to life again, a parade of ghosts and the descent of Jupiter: these are all surprising and thrilling circumstances." Most of his previous plays had been based on well-known stories and "were notable for richness of treatment rather than novelty of incident." Cymbeline seems designed to upend expectations, to surprise. At points it seems to be going in the tragic direction of Othello, and then the story shifts so that, when Posthumus believes that Imogen* is dead, "the Romeo and Juliet catastrophe seems imminent."
Still, it's something of a mess -- or is that what Shakespeare intended it to be?
I believe that Cymbeline, no less than the last works of Beethoven, is a comprehensive piece of impressionism, that it finally expresses something which Shakespeare never quite achieves elsewhere, and that, when all the still valid objections have been taken into account, it must yet be reckoned among his supreme utterances.One critic, Nosworthy tells us, says "that it reads ... as if Browning had written it." (To which my marginal comment is: Ouch!) But Nosworthy persists in finding something transcendent about its ending, something approaching "a vision of perfect tranquillity."
*Or Innogen, if you will. Discussion of the name will follow when we talk about the play rather than Nosworthy's introduction.