By Charles Matthews

Thursday, February 9, 2012

6. Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare, pp. 152-196

Act V 
Scene I

Posthumus is back in Britain and the Romans have got him. He is wearing "Italian weeds," and is supposed to be fighting on their side. But sometime in the two acts he has been gone, he has somehow undergone a change of heart about Imogen, or at least about having Pisanio kill her: "Every good servant does not all commands: / No bond, but to do just ones." He looks at the "bloody cloth" Pisanio has sent him as evidence that he has done the deed, and wishes that the gods had "saved / The noble Imogen, to repent, and struck / Me, wretch, more worth your vengeance." And so he decides to change his clothes, dress as "a Briton peasant," and "die / For thee, O Imogen," or at least for her country.

Scene II

And look who else has undergone a change of heart: Iachimo, with the Roman army, fights a skirmish in which the disguised Posthumus disarms him but spares his life, leaving him to soliloquize:
The heaviness and guilt within my bosom 
Takes off my manhood: I have belied a lady, 
The princess of this country; and the air on't 
Revengingly enfeebles me, or could this carl, 
A very drudge of Nature's, have subdued me 
In my profession?
The battle resumes when Iachimo exits, but the Britons retreat and Cymbeline is captured. Then Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus enter and call on the Brits to stand and fight. Posthumus joins them and the tide of battle turns. They rescue Cymbeline and exit. Then Caius Lucius enters, accompanied by Iachimo and Imogen, who is still disguised as Fidele and has joined Lucius's service. They flee from the victorious Britons.

Scene III

Posthumus enters with a British lord, who had been one of the troops that retreated from the Romans. Posthumus explains how he has come across "an ancient soldier" and "two striplings" who were standing their ground and that he joined them to turn a retreat into a victory. The lord marvels that such a reversal of fortune should have come about with "A narrow lane, an old man, and two boys," but his surprise brings out Posthumus's irritation with the man: "you are made / Rather to wonder at the things you hear / Than to work any." He imagines the lord making up rhymes about it: "Two boys, an old man twice a boy, a lane, / Preserv'd the Britons, was the Romans' bane." The lord gets uneasy at Posthumus's angry sarcasm, especially when Posthumus keeps speaking in rhyme, and exits.

Posthumus now decides that the best thing to do now is die, to end his life "by some means for Imogen," so he puts off his disguise as a British peasant and becomes a Roman again, expecting to be captured by the Britons and executed. Sure enough, two British captains and their soldiers enter, talking about the valor of "the old man, and his sons," as well as the "fourth man, in a silly habit." ("Silly" means "simple" here -- i.e., the peasant clothes Posthumus was wearing.) Posthumus yields to them, and is handed over to the British when Cymbeline and company appear.

Scene IV

Posthumus, in chains, longs to be freed by death. He falls asleep and has a vision in which his father, Sicilius Leonatus, his mother, and his two brothers who were killed in battle appear, and speak a rather ricky-ticky rhyming account of Posthumus's marriage and Iachimo's villainy, then call on Jupiter to right the wrongs done to him. As Nosworthy observes, there are a lot of critics who question whether Shakespeare wrote the scene. Then "Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. The Ghosts fall on their knees." He admonishes the "petty spirits of region low" for offending his "hearing" -- which maybe hints that Shakespeare knew the verse in their plea wasn't top-notch stuff -- then tells them everything will turn out all right, gives them a "tablet" to lay on Posthumus's breast in which he explains the future, and flies off again, charging them "no farther with your din / Express impatience, let you stir up mine. They leave the document and vanish.

Posthumus wakes from his dream, expecting as usual to find that it was just a dream, but discovers "A book?" He reads the prophecy in it, which has to do with "a lion's whelp" being "embrac'd by a piece of tender air," and "a stately cedar" having its long-dead "lopp'd branches" restored, and decides he is still dreaming because he can't make sense of it.

His jailers enter and tell him to prepare to be hanged. (The First Gaoler is one of those annoyingly garrulous "comic relief" characters like, Nosworthy suggests, the Porter in Macbeth.) Then a messenger arrives to say that Posthumus is to be taken to the king.

Scene V

Nosworthy mentions that one scholar has counted "twenty-four distinct denouements" in this scene. You could say it moves at twenty-four revelations per minute.

We start with Cymbeline wishing that they could find the fourth "poor" soldier who aided Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, but Pisanio says that there's no trace of him. So Cymbeline goes ahead and proclaims the three "the liver, heart, and brain of Britain" and knights them. Then comes the first revelation, when Cornelius arrives to report that the Queen has died. Moreover, on her deathbed she revealed that she never loved Cymbeline, that she had Imogen poisoned, that she was planning to give Cymbeline a slow poison that would weaken him gradually while she made him promise to name Cloten his heir. But when Cloten disappeared she "repented / The evils she hatch'd were not effected: so / Despairing died."

Then the Roman prisoners, including Posthumus and the disguised Imogen, enter. Caius Lucius pleads for Cymbeline to spare his page, "a Briton born," meaning Fidele/Imogen. Cymbeline looks at Fidele and thinks he looks "familiar," and decides not only to pardon him but also to do him a favor, whatever he requests. Lucius tells Fidele not to beg for his master's life, "And yet I know thou wilt," but he's surprised when Imogen says she won't do that: "The boy disdains me," Lucius says, "He leaves me, scorns me." But Imogen asks the king if she can make her request privately.

As Imogen and Cymbeline confer, Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus express surprise that Fidele is alive, and Pisanio wonders what she is up to. When they have finished speaking, Cymbeline asks Iachimo to step forward, and Imogen asks his where he got the diamond he is wearing. And Iachimo launches into a florid confession that is, as Nosworthy says, "at once boastful and apologetic." It was "Leonatus' jewel," he says, and he got it by "villainy." He embroiders the tale so much that Cymbeline keeps interrupting is with "Come to the matter" and "Nay, nay, to th' purpose." Among other things, Iachimo says, "mine Italian brain / Gan in your duller Britain operate most vilely," and he pauses to relish his own scheme in obtaining the bracelet: "(O cunning, how I got it!)"

At the end of Iachimo's confession, Posthumus steps forward to reveal his identity, and to denounce not only Iachimo but also himself, breaking down in grief: "O Imogen! / My queen, my life, my wife, O Imogen, / Imogen, Imogen!" But when Imogen steps forward to try to calm him, Posthumus lashes out in his grief, thinking that the "scornful page" has something to do with Iachimo's plot. He hits her and she falls.

Pisanio comes forward then to beg someone to help Imogen and to reveal her identity: "O, my lord Posthumus! / You ne'er kill'd Imogen till now." But when she revives, Pisanio is the one who has some 'splainin' to do. (What? Shakespeare's the one who is turning tragedy into farce, with more revelations than an episode of "I Love Lucy.") She accuses him of trying to poison her with the Queen's drugs. Whereupon Cornelius remembers "one thing which the queen confessed," which is that if Pisanio gave Imogen what the Queen told him was medicine, "she is serv'd / As I would serve a rat." But he goes on to say that he suspected that the Queen was up to no good, so he made up a potion that would produce only the temporary illusion of death.

This revelation causes an aha! moment for Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, who have been wondering how their Fidele, whom they left for dead, has shown up with Caius Lucius. Imogen now embraces Posthumus, who has suddenly recognized that Fidele is really his wife. "Hang there like fruit, my soul," he tells her, "Till the tree die," which was one of Tennyson's favorite Shakespeare lines, Nosworthy tells us.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline is still trying to fit all the missing pieces together, starting with Cloten. Pisanio does what he can to explain Cloten's disappearance, saying that he "came to me / With his sword drawn, foam'd at the mouth, and swore, / If I discover'd not which way she was gone, / It was my instant death." So he gave Cloten the letter in which Posthumus claimed to be in Milford-Haven, and Cloten borrowed Posthumus's clothes and headed off there "With unchaste purpose." Other than that, he doesn't know what happened to him.

Guiderius does know, however, and steps up to say, "I slew him there." Cymbeline, who has just knighted Guiderius, is appalled; this means he'll have to execute Guiderius. Imogen, meanwhile, realizes that the headless body she was lying next to was Cloten's, not Posthumus's. But when Cymbeline orders Guiderius seized, Belarius steps up to tell Cymbeline, "Stay, sir king. / This man is better than the man he slew." At risk of being executed himself, he reveals not only that he is Belarius, "a banish'd traitor" in Cymbeline's words, but that the young men who think they are his sons are in fact Cymbeline's.

The king admits, "I lost my children: / If these be they, I know not how to wish / A pair of worthier sons." Belarius has proof, he says: Arviragus "was lapp'd / In a most curious mantle, wrought by th' hand / Of his queen mother, which for more probation / I can with ease produce." And Cymbeline remembers that "Guiderius had / Upon his neck a mole, a sanguine star," which of course this Guiderius also has. Cymbeline is happy with this denouement, and inclined to forgive Belarius for the kidnapping. His only regret, he says, is that Imogen has "lost  by this a kingdom."

Imogen now wangles a pardon for Caius Lucius, and Iachimo kneels before Posthumus, returning his ring and giving Imogen "the bracelet of the truest princess / That ever swore her faith." Posthumus replies, "The power that I have on you, is to spare you: / The malice towards you, to forgive you. Life / And deal with others better." Cymbeline then pardons the Roman prisoners, but Posthumus has a question for Lucius's soothsayer, whose name turns out to be Philarmonus: What does this message from Jupiter mean?

Philarmonus reads it and explains that the "lion's whelp" is Posthumus himself, whose name, Leonatus, means lion-born. "The piece of tender air," he claims, refers to Imogen, asserting that the Latin for woman, mulier, is derived from mollis (i.e., tender) aer (air). The "stately cedar" is Cymbeline, who has had his "lopp'd branches," Guiderius and Arviragus, restored to him. And finally, he recalls the earlier prophecy that he had interpreted as meaning a Roman victory. In fact, he says, it was a prophecy of a peace between Rome and Britain:
                                      For the Roman eagle, 
From south to west on wing soaring aloft, 
Lessen'd herself and in the beams o' the sun 
So vanish'd; which foreshow'd our princely eagle, 
Th' imperial Caesar, should again unite 
His favor with the radiant Cymbeline, 
Which shines here in  the west. 
So let's go celebrate, says Cymbeline, "Never was a war did cease / (Ere bloody hands were wash'd) with such a peace." 
Act V of this 1982 BBC-TV production begins at about 2:04:57.

Richard Johnson as Cymbeline; Helen Mirren as Imogen; Michael Pennington as Posthumus; Claire Bloom as the Queen; Paul Jesson as Cloten; Robert Lindsay as Iachimo; John Kane as Pisanio; Hugh Thomas as Cornelius; Geoffrey Lumsden as Philario; Patsy Smart as Helen; Alan Hendrick as the Frenchman; Graham Cowden as Caius Lucius; Michael Gough as Belarius; Geoffrey Burridge as Guiderius; David Creedon as Arviragus; Marius Goring as Sicilius Leonatus: Michael Hordern as Jupiter

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