Almost every critique of Cymbeline begins with Samuel Johnson's almost unanswerable criticism:
The play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogue, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark 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, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.And then they try to answer it.
From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom:
Bloom is certainly no exception to the rule. "Johnson was both right and wrong," he says. Like Nosworthy, he sees Cymbeline as an experimental play, and in particular he sees Shakespeare as trying to set himself apart from his greatest contemporary, Ben Jonson: "Shakespeare wants us to remark his freestyle audacity, his iimproviser's freedom from the scruples that sank without trace Ben Jonson's laborious tragedies." Cymbeline is a "wild play" in which "Nothing fits, anything goes." It "is more a dramatic poem than it is a play."
Bloom's thesis, that Shakespeare invented the portrayal of human complexity in literature, is belied by Cymbeline, in which almost none of the characters has anything of the depth of humanity that mark his greatest works. Except for "Imogen, who almost alone in Shakespeare's late romances is represented with something of the inwardness that had been the playwright's greatest strength." And even she, in the scene in which Iachimo attempts to seduce her, sometimes falls short of credibility.
"Everything about Cymbeline is madly problematical, as Shakespeare, in a willful mood, evidently intended." Even his villains are problematical: "To call Iachimo even a 'comic villain' overrates him; Iago and Edmund are abysses of nihilism, endless to meditation. Iachimo is a zany, like the ridiculously unpleasant Cloten." Bloom thinks that the play amounts to "a pungent self-parody on Shakespeare's part: we revisit King Lear, Othello, The Comedy of Errors, and a dozen other plays, but we see them now through a distorting lens."
But does the play work even as self-parody, or does the comparative depth and humanity in the character of Imogen throw it out of whack? Posthumus is certainly no one's ideal romantic hero, and even though many of Shakespeare's romantic heroes don't seem to deserve the women they win, "he portrays Posthumus as a very painful character." Bloom sees him "as something bordering upon Shakespearean self-punishment," perhaps a sour parody of the Orlando who doesn't quite seem right for Rosalind. "The wonder again is why Shakespeare so consistently labors to make Posthumus so dubious a protagonist, so estranged from the audience that we simply cannot welcome his final reunion with Imogen."
Other characters, such as "the wicked Queen and the rotten Cloten," are used to parody Shakespeare's superpatriots, such as John of Gaunt and Henry V, with their jingoist excesses in urging the British king to defy the Romans. But whenever "Imogen speaks in Cymbeline, self-parody stops and the beautiful voice that reinvented the human returns to us." The other exception is Belarius, who, although he remains a limited, even stock character, often speaks to us in a voice that is very much, Bloom thinks, like "Shakespeare's own." As for the plot, that too, especially in the unraveling complexities of Acts IV and V, seems to Bloom to be parody, "since after Cymbeline Shakespeare will seem as weary of plot as of characterization. The Winter's Tale has a much simpler design, and The Tempest is virtually plotless."
Bloom's determination to find "Shakespeare himself" in the play also extends to what he calls "the finest thing in a peculiarly uneven play": "Since the song 'Fear no more' is too grand for its context (Imogen merely sleeps), I have no difficulty hearing in it Shakespeare's own stance toward dying, and regard it as the locus classicus of Shakespeare upon death." But he can't join in the attempts of critics such as Wilson Knight to find the "doggerel" of the scene with the family ghosts and Jupiter as anything but "outrageous parody."
In the final scene, Iachimo's recapitulation of almost the entire play is "the travesty of a chorus." But here, in the character of Iachimo, Bloom senses a kind of "shrewdness" on Shakespeare's part"
Iago, like Hamlet and Macbeth, is beyond us, but we are Iachimo. Our bravado, malice, fearfulness, confusion are all in Iachimo, who is not much worse than we are, and whom Shakespeare intends to spare. About two years before Cymbeline, Shakespeare would have attended Ben Jonson's masterpiece Volpone, where the savagely moralistic Jonson shocks us at the end of his play (or at least me) by harshly punishing Volpone and Mosca, two marvelously likable rogues. Iachimo's reprieve by Posthumus seems to me another of Shakespeare's smiling rejoinders to Jonson's ethical ferocity.In any case, the play ends nonsensically: "After bloodily defeating the Roman Empire, in a war prompted by his refusal to continue paying tribute, Cymbeline suddenly declares that he will pay the tribute anyway!" There is something tired about the play, Bloom thinks, as if Shakespeare were "alienated from his own art." His art is epitomized in the play by "Imogen, who deserves to have been in a better play."
From The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966):
Of all Shakespeare's women [Imogen] is perhaps the most tender and the most artless. Her incredulity in the opening scene with Iachimo, as to her husband's infidelity, is much the same as Desdemona's backwardness to believe Othello's jealousy. Her answer to the most distressing part of the picture is only, "My lord, I fear, has forgot Britain." Her readiness to pardon Iachimo's false imputations and his designs against herself, is a good lesson to prudes; and may shew that where there is a real attachment to virtue, it has no need to bolster itself up with an outrageous or affected antipathy to vice.Hazlitt initiates what would become a chorus of praise for Imogen over the next century, but perhaps for the wrong reason, seeing her as an exemplar of virtue rather than as the only human being in the play.
--William Hazlitt, 1817
The charm of [Imogen's] divine purity and tenderness is finely blended with the rapid but enchanting glimpses we obtain of her personal grace and attractiveness. She is undoubtedly one of the most exquisite of all Shakespeare's female creations. But we still cannot class such a figure among the greatest achievements of his genius, for it is evidently one that arose out of a refined sensibility rather than out of the highest creative imagination.Following Hazlitt's lead, the high-Victorian emphasis on "purity" and "refined sensibility" is very much at work here.
--Thomas Kenny, 1864
[Cymbeline] is for the most part stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order, in parts abominably written, throughout intellectually vulgar, and judged in point of though by modern intellectual standards, vulgar, foolish, offensive, indecent, and exasperating beyond all tolerance.... With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespear when I measure my mind against his.... To read Cymbeline and to think of Goethe, of Wagner, of Ibsen, is, for me, to imperil the habit of studied moderation of a statement which years of public responsibility as a journalist have made almost second nature to me.A famous diatribe. The play almost deserves it. Shakespeare not so much.
--George Bernard Shaw, 1896
James is here reviewing Henry Irving's production, one of the scenery-heavy stagings of the day. The sense is that the play itself doesn't hold up under the weight of the sets.The thing is a florid fairy-tale, of a construction so loose and unpropped that it can scarce be said to stand upright at all, and of a psychological sketchiness that never touches firm ground, but plays, at its better times, with an indifferent shake of golden locks, in the high, sunny air of delightful poetry.--Henry James, 1896
Granville-Barker, like most of those who think the play a collaboration or a reworking of somebody else's drama, picks and chooses the parts he likes and gives them to Shakespeare.A fair amount of the play -- both of its design and execution -- is pretty certainly not Shakespeare's.... This relieves him of responsibility for the poor planning of the whole.... No one will rank Cymbeline with the greater plays. It is not conceived greatly, it is full of imperfections. But it has merits all its own; and one turns to it from Othello, or King Lear, or Antony and Cleopatra, as one turns from a masterly painting to, say, a fine piece of tapestry, from commanding beauty to more recondite charm.--Harley Granville-Barker, 1927-1947
I doubt that anyone else takes the play, or Posthumus, as seriously as Knight does.Cymbeline is a vast parable, with affinities to Lyly's Endimion, though far more compacted and weight and with no stiffness of allegory. A sense of destiny is pointed by two transcendental incidents: (i) the appearance of Jupiter and (ii) the Soothsayer's vision; the reference of the one being mainly persona; of the other national; although the two interests dovetail.... Posthumus's happiness is one with Britain's welfare. His marriage-happiness is assured by Jupiter, in whose 'Temple' he was married (V.iv.106); and indeed the will to preserve the marriage bond inviolate, so strong in Shakespeare's work, may well be derivative from Roman rather than Hebraic sources. So young Britain revives, through Posthumus, the blessing and protection of great Jupiter, the guardian deity of ancient Rome.--G. Wilson Knight, 1947
From Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate:
It is perhaps in Cymbeline that Shakespeare's art of natural observation is at its most acute. The supposedly dead Fidele is apostrophized with the phrase "the azured harebell like thy veins." The color and structure of the harebell do precisely resemble those of human veins.... And the mole on Imogen's left breast: "cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops / in the bottom of a cowslip. Is there any other English poet, save the countryman John Clare, who has such an eye as this? ... It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Shakespeare turned to pastoral romance in the plague years around 1607-10: of all his plays, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale are the ones that have the most distinctive air of having been written back home in Stratford.....
Imagine King James watching the play: he would have seen himself as a composite version of Cymbeline and Augustus, both a British king and a neo-Roman emperor. From the point of view of characterization, the part of King Cymbeline is astonishingly underwritten. His interior life is never opened to us, as is that of Lear or, in this play, Princess Innogen. All he seems to do in the long closing scene is ask questions, express amazement, and pronounce benediction. This makes sense if he is intended to offer an oblique representation of James, king of Britain. it would not do to inquire too closely into the monarch's interior life. Instead, Cymbeline is the ideal spectator: during a court performance, the king would have been sitting at the focal point of the hall.I do have to wonder how, if James is supposed to identify with Cymbeline, he would have responded to the king as so easily swayed by his conniving Queen and her rotten son.