Why This Play?:

If I’m being honest, I read it because this was the next DVD that came up in my Netflix queue.  So let’s continue on the late romance trend!

Cymbeline is known as the single play that includes all of Shakespeare's greatest hits -- a woman disguised as a man, a villain who incites jealousy without cause, reunion of family members, war.  And that's just to name a few.  There's a theme that takes over the entire final scene, with more examples than I've ever seen in any other Bard play -- forgiveness.  Repentance/forgiveness happens in many other works (Hero forgives Claudio, Othello is devastated by his actions, etc).  But in Cymbeline, we see it in spades.  Nearly all the characters get into the game of apologizing and showing mercy.  Which of course, gets me thinking about forgiveness in our own lives.  Is there some secret formula to letting go of past issues and moving on without malice?

So What Happens?:

[Brace yourself, dear reader, for the longest re-cap of a play that I've written thus far.]  Once upon a time, in the long, long ago wilds of Britain prior to being sucked into the Roman empire…

Hadrian hasn't built his wall yet...

Two lords bring the audience quickly up to speed on events of the past 20 years.  King Cymbeline had two sons (ages 3 and 2) who were kidnapped and never heard from again.  He was saddened by that, but did go on to have a daughter, Innogen, who’s still in the kingdom.  Their mother died at some point, but he eventually remarried the current Queen, who has a son of her own (Cloten).  Also in that time somewhere, the King adopted an orphan kid named Posthumus Leonatus and raised him in the court, making him a gentleman in manners but not by birth.  According to these two lords, Posthumus is a pretty great guy, and he and the unparalleled Princess Innogen have eloped, much to the dismay of the King and Queen.  See, the parents intended for Innogen to marry her step-brother, Cloten, to eventually rule the kingdom.  Innogen’s in hot water, and Posthumus is banished for his perceived social climbing.  Now the real action begins.

The Queen pretends to be sympathetic to the lovers, saying she’ll take matters up with Cymbeline.  Posthumus arranges for his servant Pisanio to stay behind to take care of his wife.  As the couple bids their tearful goodbyes, Innogen gives her husband a diamond ring to wear, and he presents her with a bracelet.  Cloten hangs out with some lords, in a scene that’s really only to highlight what a cretin he is.  Posthumus sets off for Rome to meet up with an old family friend, Filario.  They meet up with Iachimo and some other dudes who are all bragging about the women from their respective lands.  Posthumus hastens to claim that his wife is the ideal lady, and Iachimo doesn’t want to hear it.  He challenges that their absence will undo Innogen’s faithfulness – and the two men decide to wager on it.  Iachimo bets that he can seduce Innogen, winning Posthumus’s diamond ring if he succeeds (losing 10,000 ducats of his own money if she is true).  A gentlemen’s agreement, huzzah!

Back in Britain, the Queen is up to some strange tricks, trying to convince the local doctor to give her deadly poison so she can study it (what kind of feeble reason is that?).  He doesn’t trust her so he pretends to comply, giving her a sleeping potion instead.  The Queen presents the “poison” to Pisanio as “medicine”, hoping he’ll use it so that Innogen will lose the last of her allies in her marriage.  Iachimo arrives in the kingdom, meeting with Innogen to relay letters from Posthumus.  He slyly says that Posthumus is having a grand ol’ time in Rome, yukking it up while she’s alone and chastised at home.  He then offers up his services – he’s happy to sleep with her so she can be revenged on such a bad husband.  Appalled, Innogen tries to send him away.  He hastily apologizes, saying that he was just testing her fidelity.  Innogen’s appeased with his flowery praise of Posthumus, and consents to let Iachimo stay in the kingdom for the night.  He asks her to keep hold of a trunk of valuables (gifts for the Emperor), and she states it will be safe in her room.

Cloten is waltzing around, complaining about nothing, while the lords in attendance wonder how the sneaky Queen could be mother to such an idiotic son.  In her chamber, Innogen sleeps in her bed…while Iachimo sneaks out of the trunk she’s kindly stashed in her room.

Way creepy.

He takes notes on all the features of the room so he can report it back to Posthumus as “proof” of his seduction of Innogen.  He admires the sleeping Innogen, takes the bracelet (from her hubs!) right off her arm, and notices a mole on her breast before he stows away back into the trunk.  In the morning, Cloten arrives with musicians to serenade Innogen.  This move is wholly unsuccessful: she appears only to implore him to desist his attentions.  She rails against her step-brother when he speaks ill of her husband, saying that Cloten isn’t worth Posthumus’s “meanest garment”.  Cloten is scandalized by this comparison.

Iachimo returns speedily to Rome.  Posthumus is at first glad to see him, certain of his wife’s honor and happy to receive letters from her.  Iachimo says that he has won their wager, and describes Innogen’s chamber as proof.  Posthumus dismisses his evidence.  Iachimo then produces the bracelet, and Posthumus is immediately heartbroken and angered by Innogen’s supposed betrayal.  Filario tries to reason with Posthumus, saying Iachimo could have obtained the jewelry by crafty means.  But Posthumus is already convinced and hands over the diamond ring, with Iachimo’s remarks on Innogen’s mole sealing his dismay.  Posthumus condemns his wife and women in general, and vows to get his revenge on her.

The Roman empire has sent representative Caius Lucius to Britain to collect on an old promised annual tribute.  Cymbeline brushes off this agreement and refuses to pay, while Cloten is generally rude.  Lucius warns them that this will most likely lead to war.  Pisanio is all at sea due to letters from Posthumus.  The master reveals (withholding details that would incriminate the obviously lying Iachimo) that he believes Innogen has cheated, and he asks his servant to do him the favor of killing his wife.  Innogen has a letter from Posthumus as well, claiming that he’s stolen to Milford-Haven in Wales.  Excitedly, she arranges to steal away to reunite with her husband, and sorrow-laden Pisanio is in tow.

Milford-Haven...only I don't think that Belarius & Sons were kicking it in this castle.

Out and about in Wales, an old man known as “Morgan” sends his two grown sons “Polydore” and “Cadwel” out to hunt.  The two lads comment on how the rugged, simple life is a good one, but they don’t have any other experience to compare with it.  Alone, “Morgan” reminisces on his past: he’s really former soldier Belarius.  Years ago, Cymbeline banished him due to his incorrect belief that Belarius was a traitor who supported Rome.  In retribution, Belarius kidnapped the two young princes and has been raising them as his own sons deep in the wilderness.  That hasn’t stopped their princely love of good battle tales and desire for glory, however (nature over nurture argument?).  Innogen and Pisanio arrive in Wales, where Pisanio finally shows her the horrid letter from Posthumus.  Innogen is grief-struck at his accusations against her honor, and commands Pisanio to carry out his master’s death order.  Pisanio refuses (he knows she’s innocent!), and suggests an alternate plan.  Innogen should pose as a man, offer her services to Caius Lucius when he passes through on his way home, and hitch a ride with him out to Rome to go check on Posthumus.  Oh, and she should take this medicine that the Queen so kindly offered him, just in case. 

I picture the wicked Queen flashing poison around just like Izma in The Emperor's New Groove. Mostly because she didn't do the dirty work herself, and check to make sure it's not extract of llama/a sleeping potion.

Lucius bids farewell to Cymbeline, and everyone’s pretty cordial considering that they all agree denial of tribute payment will surely lead to war between Britain and Rome.  Cymbeline wonders where his daughter is.  The Queen pretends concern, but is pleased that the path to Cloten being king is clear with the princess gone.  Cloten meditates on his love/hate for Innogen (she’s pretty…but she’s snubbed him!), then comes across the newly-returned Pisanio.  Pisanio gives him the letter that was from Posthumus to Innogen (more to get Cloten out of the way to Wales on a wild goose chase than anything else), and decides to send Posthumus word that Innogen is dead.  Cloten decides dress himself in Posthumus’s left-behind clothes, and he plans to head to Wales to kill Posthumus and rape Innogen in the very clothes she said she valued more than his own glorious nobility.  Out in Wales, Innogen is dressed as a man and stumbles upon Belarius’s cave, where she searches for food.  Belarius and the boys return home to cook the spoils of their hunt, when they find Innogen.  She apologizes for her intrusion, calls herself “Fidele”, and they welcome the “boy” to spend the evening meal with them as friends.  The sons feel some mysteriously strong brotherly affections for "Fidele",  Oh, and Roman senators declare that war is definitely on.

Later, Innogen’s not feeling so hot.  Maybe it’s the heart, maybe it’s the head – either way, she’s sick.  Time to take Pisano’s restorative medicine and relax.  Belarius’s crew bids her feel better and they are off to hunt.  They run into Cloten, who Belarius recognizes (because he hasn’t changed in 20 years in the time he was growing into a man??).  Cloten confirms he’s the Queen’s son and therefore better than any mountaineer peasants.  Guiderius isn’t about to take the insults, and they fight.  Cloten loses his head, literally, and Belarius isn’t too happy about the murder of a prince (the brothers, however, are resolute that it was the right thing to do).  Guiderius tosses the head into the river, and they return to their cave home.  Innogen appears to be dead, and the men are distraught over the loss of their spiritual brother.  The brothers sing a lovely funeral song while Belarius retrieves Cloten’s body to place alongside Innogen’s.  They all leave to dig the graves, when Innogen awakens from her drug stupor and finds Cloten’s headless body alongside her.  He’s decked out in Posthumus’s clothes, and she immediately takes the corpse for her husband, blaming Cloten and Pisanio for his death.  She faints from grief, and Caius Lucius (traveling through the woods with his entourage) finds her.  He’s impressed by her fidelity to her master, and induces her into service.  Back at the castle, Cymbeline is dealing with all kinds of drama – missing daughter, missing step-son, and a Queen who’s ill due to her son’s disappearance.  Oh, and the Roman troops are starting to invade, so the king’s ready to hide his head under the duvet.  Guiderius and Arviragus persuade Belarius that they should all join up with the army to defend Britain against the Romans.

King Cymbeline is having a no-good-very-bad day.

Posthumus lands in Britain with the Roman troops.  He carries a bloody handkerchief, confirmation from Pisanio of Innogen’s death.  He’s still heartbroken over his wife, and he mourns his rash decision to commission her murder.  He wants to die, so he courts death by dressing as a British peasant and joining in the warring fray.  All hell breaks loose as battle begins, and we have an unusual series of short scenes with far more detailed stage directions than dialogue.  During the fighting, Posthumus disarms Iachimo but spares him, and Cymbeline is nearly taken by the Romans but is rescued by Belarius and sons.  Posthumus witnesses this act of bravery and tells the story to a lord, before posing as a Roman to surrender to the British army.  At this point, he’s doing anything he can to hasten death, and prisoners of war are usually killed, right?  So off to prison, where he argues with a jailer about the futility of life.  Then he sleeps, and the ghosts of his immediate family visit, pleading with Jupiter to intervene and make things right for Posthumus.  Jupiter hears, and descends from heaven on a bad-ass eagle.  He’s full of righteous anger, appalled that the plebian would dare question his way of ruling fate (according to Jupiter, he prefers to make the road hard on his favorite humans, so that they’ll appreciate their happy ending all the more).  He sends the ghosts away, leaving behind a cryptic tablet for Posthumus that indicates his fate.

Jupiter on a badass eagle!!!! (I would pay so much money to see this live, or to have it on a t-shirt.)

Cymbeline is grateful to “Morgan” (Belarius) and sons, basically stating that he’ll set them up for life.  The doctor from way back in the beginning arrives to report that the Queen has died, but first she confessed all sorts of stuff: she never loved Cymbeline, she hated Innogen, and everything she did was only to further getting her idiot child crowned as king.  Major strike to humble King Cymbeline.  All prisoners are brought before the king now, including Lucius, his page “Fidele”, douchebag Iachimo, and the disguised Posthumus.  Belarius and the boys think they recognize “Fidele”, but keep quiet since they think he’s dead.  And now that all the players are on stage together the knots are all about to unravel, in the densest dénouement there ever was in the history of theatre (probably).  

Lucius begs Cymbeline to spare Innogen, which the king does since he feels strangely drawn to the “boy”.  Innogen spots Posthumus’s diamond ring on Iachimo’s finger and calls him out to explain.  Iachimo, suddenly apologetic, honestly recounts the entire story of his innocent meeting with Innogen and his tricks on Posthumus.  Everyone’s pissed, and distraught Posthumus then admits to his order to execute Innogen.  “Fidele” triest to comfort him, but he strikes her down.  Pisanio (who’s also there!) tries to help her up, but Innogen freaks since she thinks he tried to poison her.  The doctor (who’s still there!) clarifies that the potion was really from the evil Queen, so Pisanio is cleared of wrong-doing.  The lovers reveal themselves and finally reunite, letting bygones be bygones.  But what about Cloten?  Pisanio verifies that Cloten ran off to Wales to rape Innogen.  Guiderius figures this is where he comes in, and he admits to Cloten’s murder (basically saying “sorry, not sorry”).  Cymbeline’s sad to have to put him to death (commoners can’t be killing princes, even if they’re terrible people), but Belarius interrupts to reveal his/Guiderius/Arviragus’s true identities.  Cymbeline forgives Belarius and is reunited with his progeny; Posthumus forgives Iachimo and is reunited with his wife.  For good measure, Cymbeline decides to end the war by telling Lucius that he’ll just go ahead and keep paying the tribute to Rome.  Peace for these reunited families, and a more honest future for Britain!  We hope!

Check This Out:

So, Imogen or Innogen?  [I also came across Iachimo vs. Giacomo.]  I love that scholars still debate semantics 400 years after the plays were written.  I wrote this blog using my own personal preference of Innogen, which was also the name used in my Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works.  

I watched the recent Ed Harris-helmed film.  Oh, goodness, it’s a mess.  Having read the source material, I definitely didn’t go into the film being confused about the labyrinthine plot.  Yet the film still manages to be confusing.  The romance plays all embrace an element of magic and the unbelievable, it’s one of their unique and interesting traits, but this movie omits that.  The tone of the film was so dire and quick to dismiss the supernatural and humorous elements of the source play (you know, the fun stuff) in favor of keeping with a gritty setting (biker gang drug war in upstate New York). Not to mention the fact that everyone except Ethan Hawke simply mumbled their lines.  Perhaps I’m just disappointed I didn’t get to see Jupiter sail in on an eagle.  I do appreciate that this complex play isn’t entirely ignored, though – in addition to this recent film, NYC’s Public Theater performed it just last summer (as did my local Bay Area company, Marin Shakespeare) and it’s currently playing in London through Shakespeare’s Globe.  These sound like much more entertaining and coherent productions than the movie!

George Bernard Shaw famously hated the final act, and rewrote it (retaining 89 of Shakespeare’s original lines), calling it Cymbeline Refinished.  You can read the whole thing online, like I did.  This update certainly makes the play more palatable for 20th and 21st century audiences.  It allows Innogen the chance to tell off Posthumus (who has just struck her): “You dare pretend you love me.”  They’re not so easily reunited, and Cymbeline is not so easily granted willing heirs to his throne.  It’s a hoot, and I’d love to see this performed in a joint Shakespeare/Shaw billed production.  But it would almost entirely negate the theme of forgiveness upheld in the original.

The funeral song that Guiderius and Arviragus sing for Fidele is really some stellar poetry, so simple and poignant.  You can hear a choral version of it here.

Thoughts and Themes:

Oof.  This is one of the first plays that has really stumped me; I had to dwell on it for awhile.  Not because I didn’t understand the plot or language, but because I find this to be the least emotionally resonant play I’ve read thus far on this project.  At least, upon first reflection.  This blog is meant to display that Shakespeare is still relatable because he writes about the human condition – sure, usually under exaggerated circumstances, but the emotions are all true.  I, thus far, have been able (clumsily?) to relate each play back into events in my own little life as a means of demonstrating that premise.  The themes, motifs, or emotions are ones that parallel everyday occurrences, even 400 years later.   But Cymbeline?  Good lord.  It would be pretty hard to parallel any of this story into your own life.  Overall, I’m thinking that this is one rough play on 21st century sensibilities.

It reads like a fairy tale, full of evil schemers and tested love.  There’s even a royal wicked stepmother.  But every fairy tale has a moral, some guidance for the reader’s behavior or lesson to be learned.  And I find that the lesson I see here most really boils down to very last moments of that convoluted final scene.  These characters, to varying levels, have put each other through hell.  It takes getting them all on stage in the same moment to have them all fully understand the extent of their own mistakes and their own heartache.  Perhaps the recent death of Glenn Frye had me on an Eagles kick, but a song kept resonating in my head upon further reflection of Cymbeline.  Let’s hand it o’er to the wise words of Don Henley: “You keep carrying that anger, it’ll eat you up inside”.  I think the best and purest point of Cymbeline is the moments of earnest remorse and forgiveness.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

  • Innogen shows she forgives Posthumus (even after he strikes her down) by getting back up to embrace him. “Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?  Think that you are upon a lock; and now throw me again.” – Lines 261-263
  • Innogen acknowledges her continued subservience to Cymbeline: “Your blessing, sir”  (which is a request for blessing, and Cymbeline then cries with happiness to be reunited) – Lines 267-269
  • Belarius asks for Cymbeline’s forgiveness and apologizes for his harsh words: “I am too blunt and saucy.  Here’s my knee.” – Line 326
  • Cymbeline (to Belarius): “Thou art my brother; so we’ll hold thee ever.” – Lines 399-400
  • Posthumus (to Iachimo, after his story is told): “Kneel not to me.  The power that I have on you is to spare you, the malice towards you to forgive you.  Live, and deal with others better.” – Lines 418-421

The only one who doesn’t ask/grant forgiveness in some way is Guiderius – he’s still unrepentant about killing Cloten (eh, you can’t blame him).  With other parties, either their guilt or their magnanimity is palpable.  This is a full tonal switcheroo from The Tempest, where Prospero uses his magic to be fully revenged on all parties who have wronged him before he speaks of forgiveness.  Let’s face it, Prospero’s a megalomaniacal bastard, making sure everyone knows full well how they wronged him so that “forgiveness” can be completely on his own terms…until he honestly asks for the audience’s leniency with him in the epilogue.  Here in Cymbeline we see villainous Iachimo repent and offer up his life as payment for wrongdoing, a king admit his errors in judgment, and Posthumus bemoan his ill thoughts towards his wife.  Many happy and amazed tears are shed, and vows of kinship uttered as a result.  These many examples show the text doesn’t lie – these characters earnestly plead clemency, exonerate one another, and move forward.

Merriam-Webster dictionary’s primary definition of the verb “forgive” is “to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong): to stop blaming (someone)”. 

I stumbled upon an article in the NY Times from last year titled “How to Forgive in Four Steps”.  At first, it seemed so funny – isn’t that kind of title reserved for WikiHow articles or self-help books?  But the article itself is pretty practical, and gives some great examples.  It focuses primarily on rifts within families that go on for far too long…but it fails to address forgiving oneself.  Isn’t this sort of the first and biggest leap for any of us?

Personal story time!  In college I had the perfect boyfriend.  No, really.  He was handsome, sensitive, smart, driven, and a gentleman to boot.  We spent two great years together, during which our lives became completely intertwined.  We ran in the same circle of friends, did many of the same activities, even had majors within the same department so we shared some classes.  We planned our lives around one another, and started to plan our singular future together accordingly.  Around the end of our junior year, we each finally picked up our own separate activity – he studied to become an EMT (to help with his dream of going to med school), and I took up acting again after some time off from it (finding my Shakespeare troupe!).  We both thrived in these separate spaces as individuals, but our relationship started to suffer.  I wanted to spend more time in my new social sphere, and I started to leave the old (his) behind.  Eventually, I initiated a painful breakup at the end of the school year and proceeded to draw it out over the summer months as he tried to reconcile.  This isn’t an unusual story for most young lovers, but that doesn’t make it any less significant when it occurs.

I broke his heart, at the time.  I had once loved him very much, but I still caused him so much pain.  All because I ultimately decided to be selfish and chose myself.  It took me a good two years before I could fully articulate why I had made the decision to end things.  All I knew at the time was that I suddenly got very scared and felt overwhelmingly claustrophobic when we discussed our (previously agreed upon) future plans.  He knew what his future held – MCATs, interviews, being accepted to 2-3 med schools if he was lucky, then moving to whatever far-flung location had openings as his career developed.  Doctors in the US have a much more rigid education and career path than most other professions.  At age 21, it occurred to me that I had no idea what I wanted to do, but that I wasn’t prepared to follow blindly and just make something work for me wherever we landed.  I didn’t have direction, but I didn’t want to be bound by someone else’s.  And I was mad at myself for, to an extent, already having done that at university.  Having forgone studying abroad, not having stretched myself beyond our little circle of Greek life into other activities, not taking more chances because I kept things tidy in our little circle.  The loving boyfriend never asked me to give up anything for him – I used him as an excuse every time I closed myself off.  I didn't see that for a long time.

The whole situation brought about a long process of having to forgive myself.  Not for the choice I made to end that relationship (no regrets), but for the way I went about it.  I treated my boyfriend shabbily in the end of our relationship, pushing him away with a thousand small cruelties in effort to make him think I wasn’t the one for him.  That somehow, that would make a break-up easier if I could get him to want it too.  He never deserved anything less than honesty and kindness from me.  And I messed up in treating a great friend disrespectfully, because I was selfish and feeling trapped.  It took another year of being "just friends" with him before I realized that the kindest thing I could do for him was to remove myself from the picture fully and to let him move on.  And I had to forgive myself for the guilt I carried over that treatment.  To realize that I had made the right choice, even if the manner I executed it wasn’t at all considerate.  To learn from my own mistakes and to try to be more gentle with anyone else in future.

I’m happy to say that the boyfriend did move on.  He fulfilled his dream of becoming a doctor.  He’s married to another doctor, and he sounds very happy.  He wrote to me a couple of years ago, just to say hi and to catch up.  Our brief exchange was warm, friendly, and fond of the old days.  And through it, I realized that he had forgiven me for my behavior and moved on long ago, just as I had.  It was the final piece I needed to let go of that period and my actions.  It’s the kind of moral tale I’ll tell my kids when they reach their dating years – it's so important to treat others with kindness, yes, but but also to honestly repent and forgive yourself when you have failed to do so.

What are the issues with forgiveness that you all have dealt with?  Do you find it harder to forgive another party or yourself?  How do you move on and let go?  Time + writing about it is my proven method, it seems!  

I’m due a comedy, but I’m feeling up for a challenge.  How about Measure for Measure next time?  Stay tuned!