Cymbeline Study Guide

Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's most ambitious and complicated plays, tells the story of a mythic king of England, Cymbeline, who reigned during the first century A.D. Its several plots trace the tribulations of the King and his royal family on several different levels: on one, the King's daughter, Imogen, marries Posthumus Leonatus, a noble but rather indigent lord, against her father's wishes; on another, Cymbeline defies Caius Lucius of the Roman Empire, who demands tribute from England. Another plot, adapted from Boccaccio's Decameron, concerns the framing of Imogen for adultery; and yet another traces the restoration to royalty of Cymbeline's long-lost sons, Arvigarus and Guiderius.

Cymbeline is generally thought to have been written and first performed in 1609-10, placing the play after his last period of tragedies such as Pericles (1608-9) and Timon of Athens (1607-8) and directly before his final sole-authorship plays, The Winter's Tale (1610-11) and The Tempest (1611). Those latter two plays are generally acknowledged to be masterpieces of Shakespeare's late Romance genre. Cymbeline, to be frank, isn't. For centuries it was looked upon as one of Shakespeare's weakest works--unnecessarily complex in its plot and unusually forceless in its poetry. The famous critic Samuel Johnson wrote in his General Observations on the Plays of Shakespeare (1756): "To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names...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." This damning judgment was echoed in the twentieth century by the playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Recent critics, however, have not been so quick to dismiss Cymbeline. The play's absurdities, which Johnson took umbrage at, are indeed abundant. But Johnson, writing during the so-called "Age of Reason", objected to A Midsummer Night's Dream--perhaps the most popular Shakespearean play of all--for the same sort of farfetchedness. Sympathetic critics have emphasized the way in which Cymbeline seems to be aware, so to speak, of its own excessive artificiality and theatricality. In other words, Cymbeline doesn't fail to be realistic because it isn't trying to be realistic. In this light, its wild disregard for continuity, baroque plot, and constant mixing of tragedy and comedy can be considered essential rather than detrimental to the play's purpose.

Cymbeline is best read, at least until one adapts to its peculiar attractions, in light of its place among Shakespeare's more well-known works. As J.M. Nosworthey argues, the play represents a great experiment of sorts: the invention of the Romance genre. Books upon books have been written attempting to nail down the niceties of Shakespearean Romance, but the hallmark of Shakespearean Romance is fairly simple: in his romances, Shakespeare mixes comic, historical and tragic qualities together, expressing all of them at the same time. He had already introduced tragic elements to comedy--think of the sex extortion in Measure for Measure--and comic elements to tragedy--the drunken porter in Macbeth or the gravediggers in Hamlet. However, he had never combined these two forces into one expressive mode until Cymbeline (or, some argue, Pericles, which is Cymbeline's direct precursor). Thus, in this reading, the play's overwrought absurdity is the understandable result of experimental genre-bending that Shakespeare would come to master in his final Romances.

It is not necessary to place Cymbeline in the context of Shakespeare's other, perhaps better plays to see that it has merits of its own. Foremost among these is the play's heroine, Imogen. Even while critics tended to dismiss Cymbeline as a whole, they tended to rescue Imogen for their praise. She is one of the most complex, fluid female roles in all of Shakespeare--as intelligent as Lady Macbeth or Beatrice, as virtuous as Desdemona. Even while the play tends to spin off course, Imogen remains an anchor of sorts, wholly convincing and moving despite the ridiculousness of her dramatic surroundings. She is the heart of the play, and even if Shakespeare's experimental approach to genres may dispose some readers to pooh-pooh it as a whole, it's worth reading for her character alone.