Thursday, April 26, 2007

Week 13, Cymbeline

Notes on Cymbeline.

Act 1.

A main difference between tragedy and romance has to do with the disposition of each genre towards time. In a tragedy, time is never on the side of the good characters. But in a romance, if you trust in something that is worth trusting—such as a good person or a charitable desire—you will be rewarded, and even situations that seemed hopeless will yield felicity, given the generosity and fullness of romance time. There will be time for the workings-out and realizations necessary to a happy ending, even if tragedy threatens strongly. Time is a benevolent agent, and the order of romance is indirectly providential. Characters can, like Viola in the comedy Twelfth Night, “commit their cause” to time and chance, in the belief that things will turn out for the best. The only inexorable thing is perhaps the grand, trans-human cycle of the nature-world and its seasons. In romance, if winter comes, spring can’t be far behind. We know that Imogen’s father, though he acts “like the tyrannous breathing of the north” (1.2.36), will give way and assent to the play’s harmonies and reconciliations.

Imogen’s main virtue is her loyalty towards Posthumous, and through the adventures she undertakes she only reconfirms what was already inside of her. In the romance world, sheer adventure and happenstance turn out to have magic properties, or in a broadly Christian scheme, they turn out to be providential with regard to the discovery of truth and the fulfillment of desire. Indeed, Cymbeline’s reigning passion is loyalty: as William Hazlitt says, Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus Leonatus sets the play’s tone and centers its action. Belarius has not been similarly loyal to Cymbeline—he paid him back by kidnapping his sons—but he is loyal to those sons and in the end helps save Britain from the Roman invaders.

In King Lear, by contrast, there is no time for Lear to recover power along with insight, and little time for reconciliation with Cordelia. That play begins with a fairy-tale-like motif, with an elderly king surrounded by three daughters who must compete ceremoniously to show their love for him. But the play’s romance possibilities are soon cruelly frustrated and at the end, Lear’s hopes for transcendence are raised only to be crushed. The once imperiously irrational royal father is given time to recognize what he has done to the most deserving of his daughters, as well as what he has allowed those who love him least to do to him and others, but that is all. Moments too late, the rescuers reach Lear with the hanged Cordelia. They had been surrounded by an inexorably cruel enemy determined to snuff them out as if their lives were of no value, and their “tragic insight” a mere trifle.

I n Cymbeline law and custom only seem implacable, but are revoked with a mere change of heart, a word. Lear’s decrees are not reversible, but Cymbeline’s are. The romance play begins with an irrational old king vexed with his stubborn but virtuous daughter, surrounded by less-than-savory royal family—this should sound familiar to anyone who knows King Lear, where the king and Cordelia are torn asunder while the vulturous Regan and Goneril gobble up their fortuitously enlarged helpings of British land to rule. Posthumus is the virtuous obverse of Edmund of Gloucester—not that he’s illegitimate, but rather that his “gentle” but less than royal lineage diminishes his influence at Cymbeline’s court. Imogen’s vocabulary is much more expansive, however, than Cordelia’s—she fights back spiritedly when the King puts her suitor down as a “basest thing” (124) and banishes him. Cymbeline, she says, has failed to realize that bringing the two of them up together might lead to this situation, and he will not recognize merit as anything but a property of noble birth.

As for Posthumus Leonatus and the “trial of virtue” plot, it is a Medieval commonplace, probably because of the “martyrdom” patterns established in Christian narratives . Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale,” which validates the Marquis Walter’s long and painful testing of his wife Griselde, illustrates this penchant for putting female virtue to the test. Posthumus decides to put Imogen’s virtue to the test, and he allows Jachimo to tempt her. Posthumus isn’t an evil character, but from our modern perspective, we may well question his judgment. As Albany says in Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, “In striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” For all his protestations about her innocence, Posthumus’ proof-by-temptation scheme seems ethically dubious. Shakespeare’s regard for this old plot device doesn’t seem wholehearted. No less a moral authority than Jesus led his flock in prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” It’s hard to argue with a statement like that. In modern times, we call what Posthumus does “entrapment.” And then there’s his exhibition of that green-eyed, smothering, all-encompassing passion jealousy. Iago of Othello villainy pins this passion to the wall with his line about Desdemona’s misplaced handkerchief: “Trifles, light as air, are to the jealous confirmations strong as proof of holy writ.” This powerful emotion admits of no going back, and Posthumus must act upon it. Only the fullness of romance time allows for this situation to be made good.

The romance genre emphasizes the necessity of alienation: you don’t know the value of a person or quality or happy situation until you are threatened with its loss. Alienation is one of the main ways we discover what we are. Imogen must leave the court in order to return to it on a firmer basis. The issue isn’t so much growth and development in romance; the characters tend to received confirmation of and insight into what they already were, thanks to their willingness to commit their cause to time, to take a worthy risk and admit the inevitably of accident, time, and change. Imogen confirms her character, and the result seems to Posthumus a happy miracle that happens right at the play’s end, all at once. He recovers her just when he thought she was irrevocably gone.

In romance, as Northrop Frye says, there is a higher world of idyllic community and self-identity, and a demonic world of alienation and travail. There’s no need to banish characters from the real world, because they were never in one in the first place; and of course there’s no need for them to return where they’ve never been. The point of romance doesn’t seem to be character development: the characters in Cymbeline transform altogether and as if by magic. Iachimo doesn’t take baby steps; he just sees he was wrong and goes from darkness to light all at once. The play follows the broad spiritual path of alienation from identity and return to it in a more secure state than ever: romance is a kindly genre that promotes the magical power of “art” and adventure to transform the human condition. It represents a world that is all about the promise of desire’s fulfillment, and posits that desire lies at the root of each human being’s time on earth.

Act 2

Cloten interprets the actions of others as motivated by what motivates him: lust and avarice. We often find this oppositional representation of love in romance plays: true and charitable love versus the prideful and empty sort we find in Cloten. The confrontation of heightened, opposed absolutes seems characteristic of romance. Cloten fears losing face, or what he calls “derogation”; he won’t mix with those below his station. This fear is the law of his being; it drives him. This is interesting since the play in general emphasizes the inherent goodness of aristocratic characters such as Belarius and his sons Guiderius and Arviragus. Shakespeare is careful not to go too far in that direction, but he doesn’t deny the claim that blood bestows nobility, that virtue can in part be inherited. Cloten is rather like the dragon in the old romances—he is the monster who must be slain because he would cut off the quest for reunification and reconciliation, and stop short the generosity of romance time. And the “knight” who slays him is Guiderius. Cloten’s destructive lust and self-love are incurable, unlike the less damnable jealousy that besets Posthumus. The other villain is Iachimo, and his brand of evil consists in trying to foreclose upon Imogen’s and Posthumus’ love by means of a deceptive command of fact: he cheats at his wager with Posthumus, and is able to describe Imogen’s room and her personal characteristics. Facts, of course, don’t matter a great deal in a romance world. Cymbeline apparently existed around the time of Caesar, and in fact Holinshed mentions him in the Chronicles. But what of that? And the Romans in this play are hardly true to history—it seems as if Shakespeare deliberately mixes up modern Italians and “ancient Italians.”

Act 3.

Cutting off the King’s issue can be a vicious affair in ancient literature—recall the tale of Tereus, Procne and Philomela, but in this play things aren’t so bad: Belarius has merely kidnapped Cymbeline’s two sons, and they subsequently get their chance to prove the nobility that is their birthright. As for Wales, it was rough country and the Romans always had trouble with it. It’s hardly a green world of the “Forest of Arden” type, and the court from which Belarius was exiled doesn’t seem to have been particularly corrupt. The entire setting in romance plays tends to be unrealistic, so there’s no need to escape into the magical world to grow and develop, and then return to accomplish social reintegration. The value of the setting is that it gives Arviragus and Guiderius a martial edge: they are hunters, not shepherds. Belarius has raised them from their infancy, and has come to regard them as his own sons, so there will be some sadness at giving them back to Cymbeline.

Acts 4-5

All will be set right, and power, which had seemed to be so absolute and dreadful, turns out not to be so awful after all. Events are not inexorable, and the price of insight and the recovery of one’s identity isn’t death. At the play’s outset, Cymbeline’s behavior is as irrational as that of King Lear. But by the end, Cymbeline’s supposed enemies help him fend off the Romans. All the necessary identities are revealed. Guiderius must risk admitting that he has killed Prince Cloten—Cymbeline declares that there’s nothing to do but execute Guiderius. But this royal absolutism is pushed aside with a wave of the royal staff since, of course, Guiderius “just happens” to be Cymbeline’s son. Iachimo is found out as a villain, and simply renounces his villainy, so all is well. Generosity is spread all around, even to the point of silliness: at the end, Cymbeline is in such a good mood that he feels like paying tribute to the Romans even though he has beaten them in battle. This is in part a nod to historical fact since, after all, the Romans wielded much influence in the British Isles for quite some time. They had a permanent impact on English life. In the end, what had seemed to be nonsense—Jupiter’s prophecy—turns out to be true. Generosity reigns over chaos, intelligibility reigns over incomprehensibility. Jupiter rules, and so does Shakespeare, the artist as romance magician. Artistry, that is, plays a primary role in romance drama: we see artifice in almost providential and magical terms, an artifice that allows happiness and unity to be miraculously salvaged from misery and the threat of permanent chaos. Tragedy exposes the limitations of the aesthetic dimension, though it by no means deemphasizes that dimension. But in romance, we find it valued very highly for its good effects. It may be that Shakespeare turned to romance plays late in his career because such plays were in vogue, but I doubt if his choice was entirely a matter of market sense. The power of the stage as a means of representing and reflecting on life was a mainstay in Shakespeare’s drama of whatever kind, and romance offers him an especially fine opportunity to reinforce that emphasis.


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