Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Cymbeline (1983)

By William Shakespeare (c1610)
Recorded July/August 1982
BBC TV, 10 July 1983

Sometime in 1611 Simon Forman, astrologer, quack, womaniser and ardent theatre-goer, made an entry in his ‘Bock of Plaies and Notes thereof’. He’d just been to see a play about ‘Cymbalin king of England’. We don’t know where – it was probably at the Globe, where he also saw Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale – but we can be sure it was Shakespeare’s play that he saw, for he records the plot in great detail. Frustratingly, that is all he sets down. The aspects of the production that would interest us – the staging, the acting style, the audience reaction – go unmentioned. What his account does show, and in this he may have been a typical member of the audience, is that he was swept up in the plot, not stopping to notice either the poetry or the characterisation.

Four hundred years later, Cymbeline still seems plot-heavy: a succession of strange and fabulous events strung together with the intention of evoking shock and awe, an unsatisfactory retread of themes that Shakespeare had dealt with rather better before. Sexual jealousy had been treated with a comic outcome in Much Ado About Nothing, with tragic results in Othello. Here we are closer to the anti-realism of the Jacobean masque. I’m attracted to Frances Yates’s approach (although I’m not sure it finds much favour with modern scholars.) She viewed the play in historical terms, as a court entertainment, its contrived plot designed to flatter King James and his heir, Prince Henry, on whose young shoulders rested hopes for a Greater Britain and European peace under Protestant hegemony. Why, in the play, do the Romans land in Wales, not the most obvious point of arrival for a march on ‘Lud’s town’? Because the young prince had recently been invested as Prince of Wales and because Milford Haven was the port at which Henry Tudor had landed in 1485 to establish the Tudor dynasty, a dynasty to which James I was keen to claim his own succession.

Once again, the ‘female’ lead adopts male disguise. But unlike Julia (Two Gentlemen of Verona), Portia (Merchant of Venice) or Rosalind (As You Like It), Imogen is a more assertive presence before she dons male attire. In his last treatment of the cross-dressed heroine, Shakespeare seems, in Michael Shapiro’s words, “to reverse his usual polarities by having an assertive female character become a shy and vulnerable boy”. If All’s Well That Ends Well canvassed the possibility of the heroine as free agent, in Cymbeline I sense a resurgent conflict between psychological realism, which is hospitable to Free Will, and Romance, which is deterministic, a genre where characterisation is subordinated to the working out of a providential plot.

Poetry was somewhat of a casualty in the 1983 BBC production, which made heavy cuts to the text. For example, we lost these crisp lines where Imogen, exiled from the court, contemplates a new life abroad, prefiguring the vision of international harmony with which the play ends (and strangely prophetic of our love-hate relationship with Europe in the twentieth century):

I’th’world’s volume
Our Britain seems as of it but not in’t,
In a great pool a swan’s nest. Prithee think
There’s livers out of Britain. (3.4.138-41)

As Imogen, Mirren gave an impassioned performance, but as she admits in the DVD interview accompanying the reissue of her BBC work, she had an uphill task. The play contains one of the toughest challenges in all Shakespeare, “horrendously difficult… the hardest, hardest scene in the world to play.” Imogen, recovering from the effects of a sleeping potion, wakes up next to a dead body. From the clothing she supposes it to be the headless corpse of her husband, Posthumus; in fact, it is that of the oafish Cloten, who has put on the other man’s clothes. Implausibly, she then confirms the misidentification by enumerating the body parts (“I know the shape of’s leg; this is his hand”, 4.2.310). Mirren played this more literally than other actresses; where others have delivered these lines turned away, only half-looking at the body, she went so far as to nod with an increasing, terrifying certainty as she proceeded with the identification. Roger Warren suggests that, while other readings may be more convincing, “it takes great courage to play the scene Mirren’s way, and it makes the valuable point that what is factually untrue is nevertheless horribly real for Imogen.” In similar vein, the line “Give colour to my pale cheek with thy blood” (4.2.331) was literalized by following a stage direction in the Oxford Complete Works, “She smears her face with blood”; other editions suggest “Falls on the body” or “She embraces the body”.
Mirren says that her approach to Shakespeare is to look for her own “secret story… what is it speaking to me about?” From this she derives her “internal energy”. In Cymbeline the story concerned “learning about love, learning all the fault-lines in love and how to repair them”. Certainly, the director, Elijah Moshinsky, was concerned to present Imogen as a fallible character. When Giacomo, her husband’s false ‘friend’, whispered poison in her ear (“I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure”, 1.3.136), she almost fell for his seductive charm, almost allowed him to kiss her before breaking away.

If Forman heard ‘poetry’ on stage in 1611, he doesn’t record the fact. “Hang there like fruit, my soul, | Till the tree die” (5.4.263-4) – Posthumus’s words of reconciliation addressed to the wife whom he has wronged: Tennyson considered these to be “the tenderest lines in Shakespeare” There is much else to admire in the play’s tissue of language. I have always loved Guiderius’s elegy to the supposedly dead Imogen/Fidele, which I first encountered in the musical setting by Stephen Sondheim:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. (4.2.259-64)

Jonathan Bate points out that the final couplet acquires additional meaning when one realises that, in the Warwickshire dialect of Shakespeare’s day, a flowering dandelion was a ‘golden lad’ while one about to disperse its seeds was a ‘chimney-sweeper’.* Proof – and conspiracy theorists still demand proof – that the author of the ‘Shakespeare’ plays was originally a country boy and not some toff in a stately home. But the couplet also tells us something about interpretation. You don’t need the footnote about Warwickshire dialect to appreciate those lines; the contrast of light and dark, of the exalted jeunesse dorée and the begrimed working man, is already pregnant with metaphor. Yet, coincident with vague and ambiguous signification, with intimations of death as universal leveller, the lines are actuated subterraneously by a precise, directed image which roots us in the realities of field and hedgerow. If I labour this point it’s because elsewhere, in my efforts to explicate popular song, I am attacked for marring people’s listening pleasure by suggesting that lyrics can have precise meanings that complement – but do not cancel out – the subjective meanings that all of us bring to our experience of the arts. It’s always a smart move if the defence counsel can call in Shakespeare as an expert witness.

Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World As A Stage (2008)
Michael Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages (1994)
Roger Warren, Staging Shakespeare’s Late Plays (1990)
Frances A Yates, Shakespeare’s Last Plays: A New Approach (1975)
*Bate as quoted in Bryson, p192. I’ve been unable to locate Bryson’s exact source for this. Anyone know, apart from the man himself? 

1 comment:

  1. I've recently seen as you like it and Cymbeline- with Helen mirren, and thank you for your helpful comments.