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]

Launch & Review

25 09 2013

I name this sheep …

Champagne flowed, cameras blinked, nibbles were nibbled and sighs of relief and satisfaction sighed as the great ship Anne Line: Shakespeare’s Tragic Muse trundled down the slipway of time into the steadily rising ocean of literature that threatens to engulf us all. Barely had the book been officially released than I received notice of a review by that venerable Jesuit, Fr Peter Milward, who, unbeknownst to me, had been sent one of the pre-release copies. He has now emailed me his piece and as it is not yet published I have an excellent excuse for only quoting the nice bits (with his permission). Fr Peter is the author of Shakespeare the Papist and numerous other books and articles, many on related subjects. An Englishman who studied literature at Oxford in the days of C.S. Lewis one can imagine him slipping in and out of other worlds with the ease of making a slice of toast. He is currently emeritus prof at Sophia University in Tokyo and chairman of ‘The Renaissance Bulletin’.

Peter Milward’s Verdict

On the biography of Anne Line:

Indeed, the author has gone to great pains to find out all that can be found out about Anne Line … he leads us on a fascinating journey into the highways and byways of Essex, especially … to the South of Maldon, … in a region of England with deep historical roots in the capital city of Camulodunum (since corrupted to Maldon) and its ruler in early Roman times, Cunobelin (alias Cymbeline). And so we are led on a line of exploration, not without a Shakespearian pun, from Anne Line to Cymbeline.

Fr Peter’s main interest, not surprisingly is in the Shakespeare connections. He remarks:

It may be said that the author is well in line with the thought processes of the Bard, as when he sees in ‘more rare’ a pun on the Latin orare, when he relates the name Posthumous in the play to the fact that Roger Line had long since died in exile before his wife’s martyrdom, and when he detects in the words of Jupiter to his eagle, ‘Mount, eagle, to my palace crystalline,’ an allusion to Lord Monteagle, the recipient of the letter of warning which was said to have revealed the Gunpowder Plot to the English authorities. Such puns only elicit a series of tut-tuts from academic readers, but they are so characteristic of the playwright no less than of the author. After all, in interpreting the plays of Shakespeare, one has to adapt one’s mind to that of the Bard – in his own age no less than ‘for all time’.

Fr Peter appears to accept the key part of my thesis – ‘the heroine Imogen is indeed frequently characterized in terms of Anne Line’ – but he wishes to emphasise that ‘in the plays there may be a plurality of identities implied in the characters.’ Moreover, ‘his interpretation might well be richer by looking beyond this one play of Cymbeline to the plays composed about the same time and in the same jet of inspiration.’ No doubt. But the book is first and foremost a biography of Anne Line, and it is in Cymbeline, not The Winter’s Tale or King Lear, that I believe we find Shakespeare’s clearest portrait of the ‘neat-herd’s daughter’.

See ‘Addendum’ post for various other points of clarification supplied by Fr Peter.


25 09 2013

RE Anne Line: Shakespeare’s Tragic Muse. Please let me know of any errors that may have sneaked through the proof-reading and fact-checking, or any significant clarifications. I intend to add to this post as I receive relevant feedback.

Superfluous comma – I know, I know …

p.49. ‘Where the author notes that Shakespeare “parodies the too-ready resort to exorcism” in The Comedy of Errors, he might have added that this parody is underlined by the name of Dr. Pinch, which happens to be the name of the Puritan critic of the Jesuit exorcisms’. Milward.

pp.137ff. ‘Sicilia is, of course, the three-cornered isle (or Trinacria) of England’. Milward – referring to The Winter’s Tale.

p.27n14. ‘My authority in mentioning the name of William Allen as usher at Stratford Grammar School in 1564 is E.I.Fripp, Shakespeare, Man and Artist (1938)’. Milward.

p.143n30. Robert Catesby had been involved in the Essex Rebellion, ‘but he was let off rather leniently thanks to Sir Robert Cecil, who must have seen in him a convenient object of blackmail’. Milward.

p.119. The Earl of Rutland is wrongly given as Duke. The latter title was not granted until after the period in question. The reference to the MSS of the Duke of Rutland is correct as the papers were published with this title. (h/t Milward).

God’s Secret Agents

23 08 2013

God’s Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot (Harper Collins, 2005)

My copy with the original cover – there are at least three different versions out there.

This is one of the books that I return to. It is a highly readable and well-researched account of the story of the forbidden Catholic priests in England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the early years of James I, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with its grim aftermath during which Garnet was executed and the Jesuit lay-brother Nicholas Owen was tortured to death in the Tower of London. I return to it now because I have just had the pleasure of meeting the author, Alice Hogge, at the Second Spring Summer School in Oxford (The Tempest of the Times: the Dilemma of Catholic England from the Reformation to the Modern Age). She gave a presentation broadly on the same subject as her book but with special reference to Oxford which had a strong association with Catholicism. To my surprise I discovered that she had studied Art History and Architecture and it was not one of the priests who had first caught her interest but Nicholas Owen the master hide-builder. It was his matchless ability to trick the eye, rather like a renaissance artist but in the three dimensions of a house, that first fascinated her. But this man’s extraordinary craftsmanship was matched by an astonishing courage. He knew the secrets of Catholic houses up and down the land but refused to divulge them under torture that continued until his body was literally broken after his capture in 1606.
Alice Hogge (on right) at the Second Spring Summer School with Leonie Caldicott

Alice Hogge writes,

Owen’s genius was to exploit the main structure of a house, burrowing deep into the masonry of its interior, lodging his hide within the very framework of the building, within what to the practised eye of the pursuivants, could only be solid wall or ceiling. His hides are three-dimensional puzzles of Max Escher-like complexity. And, for maximum safety, every one of them was different. John Gerard summed up Owen’s career: ‘he was so skilful both to devise and frame the [hides] in the best manner, and his help therein desired in so many places, that I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those that laboured in the English vineyard’.
It was impossible for Owen to build every hide for every priest stationed across England by the Jesuits. It seems he concentrated on those hides used by the Jesuits, themselves, and on those hides destined for ‘the chiefest Catholic houses’, while elsewhere acting as an advisor.

On the subject of Owen’s capture and death, Hogge quotes the sources. First the ‘rumoured’ response of Robert Cecil: ‘No dealing now with lenient hand. We will try to get from him by coaxing, if he is willing to contract for his life, an excellent booty of priests. If he will not confess he will be pressed by exquisite torture, and we will wring the secret from him by the severity of his torments.’ The priest Tesimond wrote: ‘the result of this brutal, indeed bestial torture was that, in the course of it, Owen’s belly burst open, his bowels gushed out and in a short while he died.’ On 1 March 1606 a gentleman visiting the Tower left with the news that Owen had been tortured to death. However, according to the official account later put out, Nicholas Owen had taken his own life by cutting himself open with a knife when the gaoler’s back was turned – on 2 March. The gentleman visitor who asserted otherwise was hauled before the Star Chamber charged with treasonable speech. According to Gerard, the interrogators, ‘girded his belly with a plate of iron to keep in his bowels, but in the extremity of pain (which is most, in that kind of torment, about the breast and belly) did force out his guts, and so the iron did serve but to cut and wound his body, which, perhaps, did afterwards put them in mind to give it out that he had ripped his belly with a knife.’

One can’t help but be struck by the gruesome details of their deaths, and it is all very quotable, but of course, it was in the quiet, hidden lives of people like Nicholas Owen and Anne Line that their work was done.

Reactions to Tragic Muse

10 08 2013


(Responses by readers of the manuscript and pre-release review copies)

‘This is going to be huge – can’t not be’

‘I have to have this book’

‘I’ll buy one’

‘Can I order two please? One for me and one for my friend who is a vicar’

‘I read it with shouts of ‘Yesss’ and ticks and underlines.  A lot of it really made me think, and though initially I was sceptical … I was convinced by the end.  Some real rabbits out of hats on the way … A great work, most exciting read.’

‘Not just a patient archaeologist, Dodwell is also a bold pioneer, advancing a theory which might just cast the sharpest of all lights on a character whose importance to her time would otherwise be lost.’

‘compelling and entertaining … a good deal of elegant writing … a lively tempo and a wealth of intriguing detail … compelling textual analysis.’

‘The writing strikes me as often elegant, at times witty, with colloquial idioms mingling to good effect with academic rigour.’

‘Haven’t they done a nice job’ (of the production)

‘excellent book on Anne Line’

‘really splendid’

[After the general release]

[From a Scottish relative of the author] What I am really wanting to tell you is that my local bookseller was able to obtain for me, in two days Martin’s Book! I have read only the first few pages so far but already I have learned the meaning of the word “recusant” and also “limbeck”, which I had to look up after I had recovered from the phrase “whatever mysterious idea distilled itself in the opium-fuelled limbeck of Coleridge’s brain.” That must be worthy of the Oxford Book of Quotations. [Thank-you, but credit must go to Lady Macbeth!]

Research Summary

9 08 2013


The key findings presented in my May 2013 article “Revisiting Anne Line” (Recusant History, Vol.31, No.3, 375-389.) are as follows:

1. ‘Anne Line’s father is more accurately described as ‘William Higham of Jenkyn Maldon’ than ‘of Dunmow’, as Jenkyn Maldon was his principal inheritance and the place where it is most likely that Anne Line was brought up.’ (386)

2. ‘Anne Line was the elder daughter of William Higham and officially her name was Alice, as this is the name that consistently appears on legal documents. Notwithstanding this, she was known as Anne by her Catholic friends and associates.’ (386)

3. ‘Anne and Roger Line were connected through Roger Line’s aunt to a wide network of Catholic Guldefords, Fitzwilliams, Shelleys, Gages, and others, including the household of the Earl of Worcester.’ (386)

4. ‘Anne Line was closely related to Giles Aleyn of Hazeleigh, the Puritan landowner who engaged in a dispute over Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch that was a very important venue for Shakespeare.’ (386)

The manor house of Jenkyn Maldon (also called Maldon Jenkyns) was just south of Maldon in the parish of Hazeleigh though it does not appear on modern maps or in Anne Line biography up to this point. On google maps it is at Jenkyn Maldon (now Bury Farm). You can see the Woodham Mortimer Brook running alongside the site and east towards the marshes. This house was almost certainly where Anne Line was born and brought up. Presumably she was baptized in the Hazeleigh parish church of St Nicholas sometime in the late 1550s or early 1560s though there is no record of this because the baptism register only goes back to 1590.

Anne Line’s father inherited both the Jenkyn Maldons manor house and the associated estate of perhaps 100 acres of land when he was nineteen years old. There are two manor houses in the parish of Hazeleigh marked on an eighteenth century map that date from at least two hundred years earlier: one is Jenkyn Maldons and the other is the manor of Hazeleigh Hall that was owned by Giles Aleyn, a man described as ‘Lord and patron of this parish’ on his death in 1608. The two manor houses have a footpath running the approximately one mile distance between them and it is not greatly surprising that the eligible young William Higham, Anne Line’s father, would marry a relative of Giles Aleyn. This was Agnes Aleyn, the mother of Anne Line, who was, as far as I can establish, Giles Aleyn’s first cousin. The connection to Giles Aleyn is potentially very significant as it gives us a link to Shoreditch and Burbage’s Theatre, and a means by which William Shakespeare could have become aware of Anne Line’s story. I intend to do a separate post on Shoreditch.

It has long been assumed that Anne Line came from Dunmow because her father is associated with Dunmow later on, and it is possible that William Higham concurrently owned both the Jenkyn Maldons estate and a house in Dunmow, however, I consider it much more likely that Higham purchased a house in Dunmow with the proceeds of selling the Jenkyn Maldons estate and moved there later in life, perhaps to be in the healthier air away from the marshes, or maybe he was just fed up with Maldon – Who knows? But the Jenkyn Maldons estate had passed into other hands by the mid 1590s and there is no record of Higham’s connection to Dunmow earlier than the 1612 visitation of Essex.

& Shakespeare

The points above summarise findings of my biographical research but not the implications for understanding Shakespeare texts. The most significant new material of this kind (see Tragic Muse) relates to a fairly dramatic new interpretation of Cymbeline, a play that has often puzzled critics. If I am right, this play is constructed on an inner core of subtext that is directed at a coterie audience that knew about Anne Line. Even as I write this I can imagine readers inwardly groaning as they conclude that this is yet another wild fantasy about Shakespeare that is about as likely as Elvis Presley being discovered living happily on the moon. I honestly have no idea how to get beyond this perception other than to patiently present the evidence. Why has no-one seen it before? For two reasons that arise from two long-forgotten facts; firstly, that Anne Line came from Maldon (or just outside), and secondly, that in Shakespeare’s day it was believed that the ancient British King Cymbeline had his court at Maldon. Shakespeare used that “co-incidence” to smuggle a portrait of Anne Line past the censor.

There are very specific details in the text that support this argument. Indeed, I have identified at least three occasions where editors have ‘corrected’ the original First Folio text because they assume there has been a typo, but where the original makes complete sense in the light of the subtext. I believe I have also explained something that has been long suspected by certain critics, and that is the link between Shakespeare’s cryptic poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle”, and his enigmatic play, Cymbeline.


5 08 2013


I finally made it to Braddocks (not far from Thaxted). This is the manor house once owned by the Wisemans that was home to the Jesuit John Gerard in the early 1590s. The priest-hole, in which he remained undetected for three days while searchers battered paneling and plaster off the walls of rooms around him, is still there, although the false hearth that covered the entrance is now a reproduction. When Anne Line was bereft and facing destitution after her husband died (c. early 1594) John Gerard, ‘introduced her to the house where I was staying, and the family gave her board and lodging while I provided her with whatever else she needed (Autobiography, 83f)’. This certainly implies that she lived at Braddocks for some time before she began to look after the Jesuit safe-house in London, but the Wiseman family had another manor house at Northend where she may well have lived with the widowed Jane Wiseman. This is just south of Little Dunmow, and Anne Line’s presence there might account, at least in part, for the tradition that associates her with that part of Essex. The Black Chapel, a ‘peculiar’ controlled by the Wiseman family, is also in the hamlet of Northend and has living space attached.
Entrance to the hide
The hide with steps down to the lower part

I visited Braddocks as part of the group tour on the final day of the Catholic Record Society annual conference, held this year at Downing College Cambridge less than an hour’s drive away. Our guide was the peerless Michael Hodgetts, author of Secret Hiding Places, the go-to book on priest-holes, and contributor (of Intro and notes) to the 2006 edition of Gerard’s The Autobiography of an Elizabethan. The house is now in private hands and not normally open to visitors, but the current owners could not have been more welcoming to our party and seemed delighted with a group that made its way around their home like pilgrims at a shrine, which in a way we were. The priest-hole is accessed through an attic bedroom.

The manor with its outhouses is somewhat reminiscent of Lyford Grange, where Edmund Campion was captured. Braddocks is similarly isolated with flat land all around. Originally with a moat, only part of which survives, it would have been hard for searchers to approach without giving the occupants plenty of time to conceal incriminating evidence such as a priest and his paraphenalia.

Diagram of hide location high up behind the wall of the main chamber
The main chamber – the hide is directly ahead behind the upper part of the wall

Simon Johnson and Hannah Thomas walking through the walled garden