What kind of play is Cymbeline?

Written by

By Dr. Mary Ann Koory

Cymbeline poses category problems. The editors of the First Folio in 1623 listed it under “Tragedies,” which, when you consider that the play ends with:

  • joyful reunions between husband and wife and father and daughter;
  • the return of two sons and heirs to their father and king;
  • the deaths of an evil stepmother and her would-be rapist son; and
  • the achievement of no less than world peace;

seems to be a mistake.

I personally think the printer, a practical fellow undeterred by the need for theoretical consistency, suggested sticking it in at the end, after Antony and Cleopatra, for convenience’s sake, and that’s how it got into the Table of Contents as the last tragedy.

In the 20th century, for the most part, scholars settled on calling Cymbeline “experimental.” This is code for “plays our genius invented that we can’t describe, don’t understand and more or less disapprove of.”

In fact, “experimental,” meaning dramaturgical exploitation of the possibilities of a new theater building, is accurate. Cymbeline was developed for the newly acquired indoor Blackfriars Theatre in London, across the Thames from the much larger, outdoor Globe Theatre. The indoor setting was acoustically and visually more intimate. MSC’s Assistant to the Director, Merlyn Sell, attends college near the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia, built around a working replica of the Blackfriars Theatre. Merlyn told me that that, paradoxically, the smaller performance space seems to invite greater spectacle. Responding to his company’s new theatre and also to new Jacobean fashions, Shakespeare wrote plays for Blackfriars that made use of music, magic, mechanical stage effects, and spectacular vignettes, all of which Cymbeline exemplifies.

blackfriars 1608 reconstructed VA

Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, VA

Some of the critical disapproval of Cymbeline comes from the unrealistic plots and characters that Shakespeare developed for the Blackfriars experiments. In story-telling and character-types, Cymbeline is closer to fairy tale than it is the realpolitik atmosphere that you’ll see– and that you’ll recognize, sadly, as still utterly contemporary — of Richard III, coming up later in the MSC season. (When you do see Richard III, take a moment and wonder about the imagination of a dramatist that could write early on a historical play of political intrigue like Richard III and later, the fairy-tale-like romance of Cymbeline, and all the comedies and tragedies in between.)

I think the closest contemporary equivalent to Cymbeline is Steven Sondheim’s Into The Woods, complete with music and magic, plots that turn on coincidence, and characters that operate at an essential level of type. The story Shakespeare tells in Cymbeline is closer to myth than it is to Machiavelli.

Scholars in our culture seem to prefer more realistic plots and psychologically distinct characters, and that’s a fair aesthetic preference (though it is, of course, a narrow prejudice, too). But the critical sanction against mixing dramatic genres (i.e., comedy and tragedy) is far less justifiable. Like Sir Philip Sidney, critics think of tragi-comedy and its mixed dramatic cousins, as a “mongrel.” The preference for the literary equivalent of genetic purity continues to dog (with its pedigree in its mouth, please note) the exuberant plots, mythological elements and simplified characters of plays like Cymbeline.

Director Robert Currier introduced Cymbeline to the Season Preview audience as “tragical- comical-historical-pastoral.” The term demonstrates Polonius’ snobbish ignorance, but it happens to be an accurate description of the generic mixture in Cymbeline. In spite of the Folio, it’s not a tragedy, but it does have elements of tragedy, for instance, at key points Iachimo sounds like Iago and Posthumus sounds like Othello. Cymbeline also has elements of comedy, for instance, the end resembles the final scene of Twelfth Night as lost siblings are reunited; of pastoral romance, for instance, the princes growing up incognito in a cave in Wales; and of history, for instance, Cymbeline was an early British king, and Rome did occupy Britain during his reign.

Unlike his critics, Shakespeare doesn’t treat dramatic genres as purebred species: he often put comic plots in tragedy, like the opening scenes of Othello and Romeo and Juliet, tragic plots in comedy, like the terrible confusion of the lovers in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and character types outside their native genre, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Jacques in As You Like It, or the Fool in King Lear. I believe Shakespeare understood drama as a seamless arc of story-telling possibilities in which (to use the words of Northrop Frye) comedy is implicit in tragedy and tragedy implicit in comedy. There are often pivotal moments in a Shakespeare play when a tragedy might collapse into harmless chaos – what if Mercutio lived? — and comedy might turn to ugly cruelty – what if Orsino actually executed Cesario as he threatened? Those pivots, and the developments they imply if the play turned on them, are essential to Shakespeare’s mongrel practice.

I’ll leave you with the end of Plato’s great dialogue, The Symposium. In it, Socrates and his friends spend a long night of drinking and philosophizing; it climaxes in an explanation of the greatest human mystery, love, luckily while everyone is still awake and taking notes. Socrates keeps going and explains how comedy and tragedy – in the age when the definitive Classical plays for each genre were being written — are not distinctly different. But by then, Socrates had drunk his friends under the table, and they (and we) have to take the philosopher’s assertion at face value without understanding it.

Our more Puritanical critics have far less excuse.

When [Aristodemus] awoke, the others were either asleep, or had gone away; there remained only Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon, who were drinking out of a large goblet which they passed round, and Socrates was discoursing to them. Aristodemus was only half awake, and he did not hear the beginning of the discourse; the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also. To this they were constrained to assent, being drowsy, and not quite following the argument.

Plato, Symposium