Thoughts on “Cymbeline”

As I proceeded with reading the complete works of Shakespeare, I roughly divided his plays into ones that I called “historicals”, and then into the comedies and the dramas/tragedies.  This, as it turns out, is pretty much how the experts divide Shakespeare’s plays as well.  It’s possible that at some point in time someone mentioned these distinctions to me, but I didn’t remember them when I started reading the plays and so to my mind I definitely ended up “reinventing” them, with my own takes on what properties each of those categories contained.  Some of them, of course, didn’t seem to neatly fit into those categories … but then the experts also have a selection of “problem plays” that, well, don’t neatly fit into each category.

The categories actually take on some extra importance for me, because as it turns out I tend to like or dislike the plays in certain categories.  The comedies, as I suppose most comedies end up being, are a bit hit-and-miss for me.  I tend to like the dramas/tragedies, although some don’t really seem to pass muster.  But the historicals are plays that I generally dislike, with only “Julius Caesar” being one that I actually really enjoyed.  The others get to the level of “tolerable” at best.

“Cymbeline” has the properties that I’ve come to associate with the historicals.  The title character is not at all the focus character and barely appears in the work, although his actions are what instigates the other plots.  There are also a number of plots that are barely interrelated but that seem to follow in some sense from the historical events.  It also seems to not really end, with lots of openings for a sequel, and while there’s drama and sometimes even tragedy the plays don’t seem to focus on them in any real way, and usually don’t resolve them.

The plot here is that Cymbeline the king is upset with his daughter because he wanted to marry her to the son of his new queen — so her stepbrother — but she, instead, went ahead and married someone of noble birth but with no money who had been raised in the king’s home.  So the king exiles the beau and imprisons his daughter until she comes to her senses.  The stepbrother is a braggart and a thoroughly disreputable person — Shakespeare in a couple of places makes hay with this with a lord mocking him behind his back over things like this — and the queen is two-faced and working against the wishes of the daughter and the king.  The beau ends up meeting another person who takes offense to the beau’s bragging about how wonderful the daughter is and bets that he can bed the daughter, offering the wealth that the beau would need to impress the king against a diamond ring that the daughter gave him.  Of course, when that person arrives he discovers that the virtue of the daughter is indeed impregnable, so he steals a bracelet and pretends that he was successful, which enrages the beau enough that he tells his servant to kill the daughter for her unfaithfulness, but the servant ends up faking her death because he can’t go through with it.  At the same time, a legate from Rome has come to collect what he claims is tribute owed to him from Julius Caesar’s time, but Cymbeline won’t pay it which will trigger hostilities.  The servant tries to arrange for the daughter to enter into his service, but she goes astray and ends up at a cave with an outlaw from Cymbeline’s time and, as it turns out, her own brothers who were abducted by that outlaw in revenge for being banished from court and have been raised from children by him.  She then takes a drug that the servant got from the queen which sends her into a stupor that looks like death, and the stepbrother shows up in the beau’s clothes and is killed by one of her brothers for, basically, being a hot-headed boor, and they lay the two bodies together so that when the daughter wakes up she thinks that her beau has died.  She does end up in the retinue of the Roman official, who ends up attacking her father, but he is saved by the beau returned to find her out of regret for what he had ordered done, the outlaw, and her two brothers.  This leads to a big final scene where everything is revealed — including the queen’s perfidy — and everything ends up being resolved, even the matter of the tribute.

It seems to me that the last few plays in the collection have the same traits, as they show Shakespeare’s ability to craft plays but don’t have engaging plots or characters.  As you can see from the above summary, the play is overstuffed with content which means that we don’t really get enough of a sense of each characters to really care about them.  About the only character that is consistently sympathetic is the daughter, and that’s only because she has to be a complete paragon of virtue for the plot to come off at all.  The stepbrother is more an ass than any kind of threat, and so is only fun at all when he’s being made fun of and is just annoying at any other time, and the queen and the purported seducer don’t get enough development to make for good antagonists, and the Roman official isn’t an antagonist in any way.  The dialogue works and the play flows, but the plot and characters just aren’t interesting enough to make it a classic work.  I’d sit through a performance of it, probably, and didn’t mind reading it, but it wasn’t going to be memorable.  Then again, for a professional playwright that might have been more the goal than creating works that truly stood the test of time, so perhaps that’s only to be expected.

Next up is “The Winter’s Tale”.

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