Wednesday 20 March 2013

Devouring Books: Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

"Those that I reverence, those I fear, the wise:
At fools I laugh, not fear them."

I read Cymbeline for a few reasons.
  1. I'm trying to read ALL THE SHAKESPEARE, so, you know, why not Cymbeline?
  2. Last Friday was 'The Ides of March' and I was going to post this the day before (not on the ACTUAL day, because Harry Potter) but then I didn't finish reading it in time and now it's now, and 
  3. When I went to that Shakespeare exhibition that one time, I read a quote from Cymbeline that made me think it was totally related to Stephen King's Dark Tower series, and I've wanted to read it to investigate ever since.
I realise that third reason is slightly... A mix of highbrow and lowbrow, shall we say, but hey- I'm a Stephen King-ologist, and any connections I find, I really should investigate. As it turns out, I don't think there is much of a connection- both mention 'Lud' as a place, but in Cymbeline it pretty much just refers to London, whereas in The Dark Tower, it's a place where the machines have either failed or gone crazy, and it's all gone to shit. 

Sometimes, though, things that you go into looking for one thing, can end up giving you something else. In Cymbeline, I didn't find the seedlings of a Stephen King idea, but I did find a Shakespeare play that, because it's one that no one talks about, felt like my very own discovery of awesomeness. Which, when we're talking about Shakespeare, means that I'm like a literary archeologist who has just unearthed a lost Shakespeare play that... Just happens to be in a big ole book with some plays that have been discovered. Hm. There's no getting around this really, is there?

Anyway! Back to the point. According to Wikipedia, "Though once held in very high regard, Cymbeline has lost favour over the past century", and to be honest, I can't really see why. It's got all the things you'd look for in a Shakespeare play- there's cross dressing, mistaken identity, sword fights, lovers who can't be together, an evil Queen (SO EVIL), a moron, a lusty Italian, attempted murder, ACTUAL murder, so much he-said-she-said that it's insane, and an ending that's maybe the smoothest (and quickest) wrapping up of any story ever. It's in the First Folio as a tragedy, but it's got a lot of the hallmarks of the best comedies, and it also feels a bit historical. It's got everything!

To give you a teeny summary of the story, Cymbeline is the King of England, whose daughter Innogen has just married Posthumus Leonatus (his mother died in childbirth, so... I guess that's where the name comes from?), a good guy but not fitting for someone who will be Queen one day since her brothers disappeared when they were tiny (ooh, I wonder if that'll come up sometime in the play...). Additionally, Cymbeline is married to an EVIL lady, and they both want her son to marry Innogen, but unfortunately he's an idiot. But a really really good Shakespearean idiot. Even the servants know he's an idiot! Observe:

"That such a crafty devil as his mother
Should yield the world this ass: a woman that
Bears all down with her brain, and this her son
Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart,
And leave eighteen."

And, I mean, he's not only bad at maths, he's also a terrible all-round person, and we really really don't want Innogen to marry him. At the start of the play, though, Posthumus is banished from England and Innogen is confined to, well, her room in the palace, and it's all very terrible and middle-of-Romeo-and-Juliet-like. And it makes you really really want to read on, let me tell you!

This stuff is SHAKESPEARE, so I won't bore you with how it's all well written and blah blah blah. I would say that I enjoyed it a lot more than, say, Antony and Cleopatra, which is a much more famous play, and I'm sure it would be even better on stage- there's kind of this whole battle that has absolutely no impact when you're reading it, but would probably be really cool on stage, (or the screen- IMDb tells me there was a TV movie with Helen Mirren as Innogen, so that's clearly spectacular) but a lot of Cymbeline is about the talking, and the pining, and the very very stupid man they want Innogen to marry.

I think the bottom line is, I enjoyed Cymbeline a lot more than I was expecting to for a more-or-less unknown Shakespeare play, and now I feel indignant about its neglect. I'm sure, positive in fact, that Shakespeare scholars and readers and, you know, just people who are smarter than me have their reasons for thinking that Cymbeline is kind of not-that-worthy of recognition, but in terms of pure enjoyment and entertainment, I think it's kind of great. Was this what Shakespeare was aiming for when he wrote it? I'd say probably. 


  1. Three things:
    You are so smart.
    Cymbeline sounds like a girl's name.
    You didn't including the fingering quote :(

    1. Haha, I'm not so smart.
      I don't know that Cymbeline sounds like anything except for cymbals, maybe. But he's WAY boring, and his wife is all awesome and villainous. I love it.
      I didn't! I think I tried to think of a way to fit it in, and then I couldn't be bothered? Something like that. But it's still hilare. And gross.

  2. Now I wish you had been in my Shakespeare class when we read this and everyone was tearing it apart for being awful. And not awful in the Titus Andronicus way (I love that play) but in the "wtf why am I reading this?" way. I don't remember much except for Cloten.

    That said I do prefer this to A&C cos uuuuggghhh why isn't Cleo just in every scene?

    1. Aw man, I would have been so sad in that class! I would have been like 'but, I thought it was funny and stuff...' and everyone would have been like 'you pleb' and I would have been like :(. Dude, I totally haven't read Titus Andronicus, I should huh?

      Antony and Cleopatra would have been SO GOOD if it was just about Antony and Cleopatra and their love. But there were all those battles and like politics and stuff, and, you know, SNORE. DAMMIT SHAKESPEARE.

  3. So it's a comical-tragedy or tragic-comedy. It means I have to read it too. My favourite tragedy-full-of-comedy from Shakespeare is Hamlet by far. Hope Cymbeline is just as hilarious - or even better.

    1. Seriously- Cymbeline is way less tragic than Hamlet (I wouldn't really consider it a tragedy at all, but it's totally classified as one, and who am I to argue with classifiers?) AND it's really funny! I just really don't know why it's so non-liked by the Shakespearey people. Cause I really like it.

      It's probably not actually better than Hamlet though. But it might be funnier... Maybe.

  4. I love a lusty Italian. I might have to add this one to the ol' classics club list because as much as I like to think I've read all the Shakespeare, I think I've probably only read about half of the Shakespeare. I've had a good stab at it but really I'm just a massive failure of a Lit graduate. I do love a good historical-ish tragi-comedy mish mash. Also, hold the phone, Cymbeline is a dude? Tough break.

    1. Oh, I've definitely not read anywhere near all the Shakespeare. And, like, literary studies-wise, I've only read, like 2 plays? But I really really super love Shakespeare, so I just have to teach myself! (Or, you know, just read it.)

      Cymbeline is indeed a dude! He's not very important though, you can probably just ignore him.

  5. This just makes me wish I'd been more exposed to Shakespeare. Besides reading (and forgetting) Hamlet in school, I have zero Shakespeare experience. And I'm so laazzzzyyy now.

    I DID however just get Much Ado About Nothing from the library (the kind that has modern-day language on the opposite page, because I need that) and I'm hoping to try it soon cause I wanna see the Joss Whedon movie.

    ... that's all I have to contribute :-(
    *walks away whistling*

    1. Awww, I don't think you necessary need school Shakespeare experience, cause I have very little but I just read my way through the plays and enjoy it in my own little way :). I feel like Hamlet is a pretty harsh play to read at school though, it's like the longest one!

      I think I'm going to read Much Ado About Nothing next! Mainly for the vagina jokes, rather than because of the film. Which, by the way, will obviously be awesome because JOSS WHEDON! :)