Book Review: Cymbeline

Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

Cymbeline is a late Shakespearean play that has not been particularly popular among critics, although it features an appealing lead female role in Innogen (often misspelled as Imogen) and a famously complicated plot.  As a pretty serious bardophile [1], I thought it worthwhile to read a solid critical version of this play and found myself pleased with both the play itself and with the strength of the criticism found of the play within its various essays.  When one is dealing with an old play that is considered as a minor work within Shakespeare’s oeuvre, the real question is:  why is this play with reading, remembering, and performing, and this book answers that question with aplomb.  To be sure, one can read a shorter books of half its size and just get Shakespeare’s writings alone, but I think it is worthwhile to examine Shakespeare’s works and see what deeper relevance can be found for them.  Fortunately, this book remains relevant even if its relevance is a somewhat uncomfortable one in our own time, as this play invites plenty of questions with unsettling and uncertain answers.

The organization of this play is similar to the Royal Shakespeare Company series in general, and it’s an organization I happen to enjoy.  The book begins with an introduction that explores some of the more unsettling aspects of this play including its convoluted plot (there are three plot strands interwoven into one here).  After that there is some writing about the text and some key facts before the full text of the play is included, which takes up more than 100 pages, more than half of the book.  After this there are some textual notes and a scene-by-scene analysis which does a good job at summarizing what is going on in the play.  Then there is a discussion of Cymbeline in Performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company and other theaters, including interviews with a couple of the directors who staged the play themselves and had some interesting thoughts on it.  After this comes a look at Shakespeare’s career in the theater (that is shared among the series as a whole), a chronology of his works, a chronological history behind Shakespeare’s tragedies, and some suggestions for further reading and reviewing as well as references, acknowledgements, and photo credits.

What makes Cymbeline both a worthwhile play as well as a difficult one.  The play has a complex triple plot that involves a conflict over tribute between Rome and a Celtic British kingdom, a wager plot about the fidelity of Innogen to her exiled husband Posthumous, and a plot about the fate of two kidnapped princes (Innogen’s brothers) who have been raised to adulthood without knowing their true identity (a hidden prince story).  All of these plots become mixed up with strong fairy tale elements like a wicked stepmother and a sleeping potion, some unsettling thoughts about the male gaze and the dangers of looking too closely beneath the surface of political leaders like the cypher king Cymbeline, and the unsettling question of why is the Celtic British kingdom so bereft of actual Celts (like the Welsh).  This play, therefore, weaves a lot of issues about theatricality and the politics of seemingly irrelevant literature, and it is possible that the fairy tale elements of the plot are designed to tone down some of the more unsettling implications of the writing.  Some may say that in this play Shakespeare was trying to do too much and could not fully command the complexities of the plot and genre, others may say that he was simply lazy and knew he could get by on writing a few amazing scenes and relying on dazzling stagework to overcome a creaky plot, while others are more likely to see method in the seeming madness here.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: Cymbeline

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Measure For Measure | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Julius Caesar | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Antony And Cleopatra | Edge Induced Cohesion

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