You Might Well Ask
Cymbeline, King of Britain
Shakespeare can’t be accused of becoming less obscure as he approached the end of his career. Cymbeline is described in the Norton introduction as “baffling muddled” (page 2963) and Shakespeare seems to have tried to get all previous ingredients into this one play. He succeeds. There are loyalties, betrayals and intrigues, gender and class cross-dressing, a rebellious daughter and a hateful vicious king, faithfulness and chastity, believed infidelity and villainy, genetic nobility in rustic disguise, false death, history and kings and Romans and battles and war, visitations by ghosts and gods, and battered but reunited families and lovers.
It’s a muddle, yes, but one that is quite gripping. There is much I would like to write about. But in the midst of it all, one thing jumps out at me as the most intriguing aspect of the play.
Britain and the Roman Empire.
It just so happens that while reading Cymbeline I am also reading Boudica by Vanessa Collingridge. Historically Cymbeline was king of Britain when Augustus was emperor of Rome in the first century B.C., though the natives of the island did not call themselves British or English for a long time; they considered themselves natives of their local kingdom. Boudica rose up against the Romans, sacking Colchester, London and St. Albans, in 60 A.D. She thus has no role in this play. Nevertheless the connection is there and I’ll get back to Boudica. But first Cymbeline.
In the play’s third act the Roman Lucius has come to Britain to collect the tribute of three thousand pounds demanded by Augustus. Cymberline has refused to pay. Lucius repeats the demand very politely and the Queen replies promptly that it “shall be so ever.” Her son Cloten adds:
Britain’s a world
By itself, and we will nothing pay
For wearing our own noses.
A kind of conquest
Caesar made here, but made not here his brag
Of ‘came and saw and overcame’ ...
...he was carried
From our coast, twice beaten.
She goes on to call Caesar’s ships “eggshells” and describe how Cymbeline’s uncle King Cassibelan had defeated Caesar’s troops and, “Made Lud’s town with rejoicing fires bright, / and Britons strut with courage.”
Cloten: “Come, there’s no more tribute to be paid. Our kingdom is stronger than it was at that time...Why should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for light; else, sir, no more tribute, pray you now.”
Cymbeline, the king, concludes:
Till the injurious Romans did extort
This tribute from us we were free. Caesar’s ambition,
Which swelled so much that it did almost stretch
The sides o’ the world...
Did put the yoke upon ‘s, which to shake off
Becomes a warlike people, whom we reckon
Ourselves to be (all quotes here from Act 3.1)
And shortly thereafter, as Lucius is taking his leave, Cymbeline explains:
Our subjects, sir,
Will not endure his yoke, and for ourself
To show less sovereignty than they must needs
Appear kinglike (Act 3.5).
You might ask, “What’s so strange about this? A patriotic queen, a prince proud of his country, a noble king defending his nation’s liberty and humbly following the wishes of his people?”
Ah. Yes. Taken out of context these quotes could all function well for any and all patriots throughout the ages. But here Shakespeare puts these stirring words into the mouths of:
The Queen, who is plotting murder if she can’t get the king’s daughter Innogen (already married to Posthumus) married to her son –
Cloten, who is not only an ignorant fool, scorned by lord and servant alike, but a vicious tyrant, planning the murder of Posthumus and the rape of Innogen.
Cymbeline, who is a tyrannical father who has banished his beloved adopted son Posthumus and ordered Innogen to be locked up to languish and die after calling her “disloyal”, “past grace”, “vile”, “mad”, and “foolish” for having gone against his commandment to marry Cloten to instead of the man she loved.
Why would Shakespeare put such noble and stirring patriotic sentiments into the mouths of such unsavoury characters in a play about a historical British king written in a time when Britain is just becoming a world power and would be in need of noble and stirring patriotic sentiment to justify the flexing of its not always such noble muscles?
That you might well ask. Because that is the paradox of this play.
And you might also ask why Cymbeline, at the end of the play, having defeated the Romans in battle, so casually says:
My peace we will begin; and Caius Lucius,
Although the victor, we submit to Caesar
And to the Roman empire, promising
To pay our wonted tribute, from the which
We were dissuaded by our wicked queen (Act 5.6).
Ah, blame it on the wicked queen. A common ploy in a patriarchal society.
But is it that simple? I don’t think so. In the Norton introduction, Jean E. Howard observes that, “The British characters most eager to repel the Romans and to treat them as an enemy are the evil Queen and the evil son” (page 2967) but this is not further explored. Nevertheless Howard gives a clue to the paradox when she goes on: “There is, in fact, a pronounced tension in the play between Britain’s desire to defeat the Romans and to emulate them” (page 2967).
It’s no secret that the upper crust of Renaissance society had great admiration for the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. Shakespeare was not immune to this fascination. Why then this tension? Because – oh, this gets complicated and my reasoning here is a mishmash of Howard and Collingridge and I apologise for not giving proper page references, but my point is that there is an explanation for the paradox. So here it is:
- England had recently been governed by a queen under whose reign Boudica had been promoted from wicked queen to national hero. Boudica, who had been allied with the Romans and benefited from Roman ways, waged a violent war against the Romans. Elizabeth waged various kinds of battles against Roman Catholics throughout her entire reign and could thus identify with Boudica. Not the same but still.
- England now had a Scottish man on the throne. Though the gender identification of James was questionable – or perhaps because of this – misogyny increased with a vengeance, and here I have a good quote from Collingridge: “Boudica now became the focus of an attempt by playwrights and authors to reclaim the monarchy for men and put women back in their rightful realm of powerlessness...English playwrights were...facing more censorship than ever before” (pages 314-315). Shakespeare never wrote about Boudica (a pity – if he’d written about her while Elizabeth was still queen it could have been very interesting), but he put some very interesting patriotism into the mouth of Cymbeline’s queen. And then, like the early Romans did to Boudica, killed her off.
- England, or rather Britain since the king was from Scotland, was now a major power and, as previously mentioned, needed some good nationalistic jingo. Shakespeare provided it. But he muddied the picture by having it come from the mouths of villains. Is this a sly way of undermining the power of King James? No, I wouldn’t go that far. Would I? We know that Shakespeare could be, and often was, clever and devious. Hmmmm.
- And although the questions I (and you) have posed in response to the paradox in this play have far from properly been answered, and while there are vast areas of gendered nationalism left to be explored, all’s well that ends well. The wicked queen and her son are dead, evil Italian Giacomo is imprisoned and chastened, the real British heroes Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus have defeated the Romans in battle, the lovers Innogen and Posthumus – both sort of serving the Romans and sort of loyal to the king – are reunited. And the king, old blustery but indecisive Cymbeline neatly declares British independence while submitting to the Rome so admired by the Renaissance. We’re all satisfied, thinking that the paradox has been solved.
Neatly done, Shakespeare!
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Howell, Jean E. “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition.
- Collingridge, Vanessa. Boudica 2005.
- Cymbeline, BBC, 1982. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Cast: Cymbeline – Richard Johnson; Innogen – Helen Mirren; Posthumus – Michael Pennington; Cloten – Paul Jesson; Giacomo - Robert Lindsay; The Queen – Claire Bloom; Belarius – Michael Gough; Lucius – Graham Crowden. This is one of the best of the BBC box. The play itself is complex and hard to follow but the acting here is superb and the production really brings it to life. Helen Mirren is always good but especially well done are Paul Jesson’s Cloten and Robert Lindsay’s Giacomo. This performance brings the play up to somewhere on my top ten list (if I actually had such a thing).
Seen on stage:
- Sadly, no but a new film is soon to be released if it hasn’t been already.