Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Shakespeare’s plays have traditionally been classified as either comedies, tragedies, or histories. Under those terms how can we classify Cymbeline? Most people probably shelve it under comedy because it has a happy ending. But it wasn’t a happy ending for Cloten. He wanted to be king but lost his head instead. It wasn’t happy for his mother. She wanted him to be king too. And it wasn’t happy for the Roman general Caius Lucius. He lost the battle to enforce Rome’s rule over Britain. For those folks the play was more of a tragedy than a comedy. It all depends on whose side you’re on. But the play could also be classified (somewhat loosely) as history. Apparently the plot of Cymbeline is based on a story by Geoffrey of Monmouth about a real-life ancient British king named Cunobelinus. As usual, Shakespeare only uses the historical account as a basic plot to take off from. Then he makes it his own dramatic adaptation. He adds a few sub-plots, adds dialog, and then the story becomes an entirely new creation. But this play is no more British history than Julius Caesar is Roman history. It’s based on things that may have really happened but it’s still just a play. It’s not history. Anyway, is it really important how we classify drama? Scholars might think it’s important. But the important questions for amateur readers are simple things like: how does this play stack up as entertainment? Is it a good story? Is it believable? If it’s not believable, is it still entertaining? Does it have lessons about real life that I can take away with me? In short, does this play appeal to me on a personal level? The answer: some people will like this play, others won’t. An evil stepmother plots to put her son (Cloten) on the throne. But the princess (Imogen) already loves, and marries, another man (Posthumus Leonatus). Posthumus is a commoner and this infuriates her father (Cymbeline, the king). So the evil Queen (Imogen’s stepmother) gives what she believes to be poison as a gift. Here’s the deal: if Posthumus takes the poison and dies, then Imogen would have no husband and would have to marry Cloten. So Cloten would become king. If Imogen takes the poison and dies, then Cloten is next in line for the throne anyway. Either way, Cloten would become king once Cymbeline is gone. There are subplots about Posthumus suspecting Imogen of being unfaithful; two long-lost sons of Cymbeline are really alive and eventually save Britain from the Roman invasion; and a couple of curious incidents along the way. One is a dream of Posthumus where Jupiter appears: Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. No more, you petty spirits of region low, Offend our hearing; hush! How dare you ghosts Accuse the thunderer, whose bolt, you know, Sky-planted batters all rebelling coasts? This sounds a little like the image of Yahweh in our readings of Genesis and Exodus. God destroys the world by a flood, appears in a burning bush, and parts the sea. Jupiter, like Yahweh, has to establish order amongst rebellious men on earth: Be not with mortal accidents opprest; No care of yours it is; you know 'tis ours. This reminds us of the book of Job where God tests Job beyond the powers of human understanding. The reader knows that Job is being tested by Satan, but Job doesn’t know that. The divine message from God is basically: this is my business, not yours. The divine remains inscrutable, unsearchable, by human beings. The other curious incident in this play is an oracle given concerning Posthumus: When as a lion's whelp shall, to himself unknown, without seeking find, and be embraced by a piece of tender air; and when from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches, which, being dead many years, shall after revive, be jointed to the old stock and freshly grow; then shall Posthumus end his miseries, Britain be fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty… Like most oracles, from Greek tragedy onwards, these words don’t make any sense. But then one day everything happens just as the oracle predicted. In hindsight it all makes perfect sense. In Cymbeline everything works out in the end. Order is restored. The good guys win. Love prevails. Shelve as comedy.


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