Secrets of Cymbeline

18 10 2013
Cymbeline Film 2014

Filming began in New York in August 2013 with Ethan Hawke as Iachimo, Ed Harris as King Cymbeline, Milla Jovovich as the Queen, Penn Badgley as Posthumus, and don’t-you-dare-type-cast-me, Dakota Johnson (recently handed the lead in Fifty Shades of Grey) starring here as Shakespeare’s image of chastity, the princess Imogen. This new film, we are told,

Unfolds as an epic battle between dirty cops and a drug dealing biker gang set in a corruption-riddled 21st century America. In the vein of Sons of Anarchy and in the style of Romeo + Juliet, Cymbeline is a fresh take on a universal story of love, betrayal and revenge.

So, no cliche’s then. That’s a relief. These modern directors are so much more professional than the bard. But then he apparently didn’t have an expensive education like Downton Abbey director Fellowes (ex-Cambridge). In fact it is a wonder that he understood his own plays. For some pics see the Daily Mail here.

The Play

Dr Johnson famously described Cymbeline in scathing terms:

This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, 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.

Basically, he didn’t get it, and neither do modern critics. I have searched in vain for anything like a convincing interpretation of this play in the critical editions. The reason could be very simple: that it is an allegory and they never found the key. Of course, as always, valiant efforts have been made to read Shakespeare’s work in universal terms such as ‘love, betrayal and revenge’ and Hollywood is currently getting in on the act with a movie adaptation of Cymbeline due for release in 2014. I am looking forward to it. I hope they succeed in transforming ‘unresisting imbecility’ into a highly entertaining escapist smorgasborg – the signs are good so far – and it might prompt a few more people to wonder what Shakespeare was really doing with this play.

Cymbeline first came to my attention when I was delving into Shakespeare’s cryptic poem ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’. I went through the list of all Shakespeare’s use of phoenix imagery to satisfy myself that I understood how he was using it in each case. When I came to Iachimo’s words – ‘All of her that is out of door most rich! / If she be furnish’d with a mind so rare, / She is alone the Arabian bird’ – I was quite sure that this was nothing more than a conventional usage of the day. The ‘Arabian bird’ is the beautiful and unique phoenix and to describe someone in such terms is a form of extravagant praise. For many months I did not delve any deeper, because I told myself (fool that I am) that there was nothing to be found by digging there. However, in the back of my mind I had a nagging feeling that I might have missed something, because I had read that Coleridge believed there was a symbolic link between ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ and Cymbeline and I did not know why – he died before explaining his theory.

I now believe that Imogen, the principal female character, is based partly on Anne Line and that this is key to a subtext to the play that was written for a sophisticated coterie audience. The general audience, including many of the highly educated elite, would have perceived the somewhat absurd but entertaining surface of the play, but the caviar was reserved for the in-crowd. This dynamic is a product of the religious and political tension of the day that made a Catholic Shakespeare into an artist ‘tongue-tied by authority’.

Innogen and Leonatus

Here is an issue I didn’t get round to in the book but I’ve been thinking about recently. It has been suggested that Shakespeare originally called his heroine Innogen but a typo in the First Folio edition led to her name being changed to Imogen. This is certainly possible as the First Folio contains the first published version of the play. There are three other pieces of evidence cited in support of this. Firstly, we have an account of the play by the diarist Simon Forman that dates from around 1611 and in which he refers throughout to the character ‘Innogen’. Secondly, an ancient British ‘Innogen’ appears in Holinshed – an acknowledged source for Shakespeare. Thirdly, in Cymbeline, Imogen is married to Posthumus Leonatus and in the First Folio version of Much Ado, the character Leonato has a wife called Innogen. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Shakespeare had some purpose in pairing these two names, and this has been enough for the editors of some critical editions to conclude that Imogen is indeed a miss-spelling of Innogen. They may well be right. On the other hand…

We are dealing with a culture imbued with symbolism, where allegory is almost a habit of thought. First: Leonatus/Leonato could relate to the heraldic lion of England. Second point: according to the pseudo-histories that remained part of the culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, Britain had been founded by Brute (or Brutus) the grandson or great-grandson of Aeneas who had fled from the fall of Troy. Innogen was his wife. Therefore Innogen becomes the mother of the British nation, and this is clearly the symbolic significance of the name. If an actor voiced the unfamiliar name ‘Imogen’ from the stage, Forman may well have assumed he had heard ‘Innogen’ because that is precisely the kind of name he would expect – particularly in a play which features Britain as a theme. So why the pairing in Much Ado? It is very simple. The play is set in the household of a Leonato whose wife is Innogen. This is telling the audience that the setting is really England/Britain. Italy is just a cover.

I have pointed out the following:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this new interpretation is what it has to say about the text of the play. There are at least three instances where an oddity in the text of the First Folio has been corrected by editors of the critical editions but where the Folio text fits the precise detail of the subtext [re Anne Line]. So far from being mistakes, these anomalies may be significant hints to the sophisticated reader. There is a fourth ‘oddity’ that some assume is a mistake in the name ‘Imogen’ that echoes that of Innogen, mother of the British nation. However, it may be that this slight change is intended to provide a key to other names that occur in the play that also appear to be slightly corrupted versions of the names of ‘historical’ figures. For example, ‘Belarius’ appears to correspond to Belisarius, Justinian’s loyal soldier, unjustly banished from the emperor’s presence.

It is not certain, but it seems to me very likely that this is precisely what is happening. Imogen is meant to evoke Innogen, but the slight change is deliberate. It is a sign that Imogen in some way represents something fundamental to England/Britain, (but with a twist or something added) and at the same time Shakespeare is giving his discerning readers a key to unlock the significance of other names in the play which are similarly altered versions of names from the sources. This sounds more complicated than it really is. It is actually very intuitive but one has to be sensitized to the possibility that Shakespeare can operate in this way.

[edited 22/10/13]