Today, we begin the romances! In my course, we read three of Shakespeare’s romances, all a little quirkier and more obscure. The first of those three is Cymbeline.
Cymbeline, King of Britain, has forbidden Imogen, his daughter, from marrying Posthumus, the man she truly loves. He, being influenced by the Queen, wants Imogen to marry her stepbrother, Cloten. Posthumus is banished and goes to stay with a friend in Italy. While he is there, he argues with a man named Giacomo about whether English women or Italian women are better. Posthumus bets that Giacomo could never seduce Imogen, and Giacomo accepts the bet. He travels to Imogen and unsuccessfully attempts to seduce her by giving false reports of Posthumus’ unfaithfulness. Not wanting to lose the bet, he sneaks into her room at night, steals a Posthumus’ gift to her and takes intimate notes of her body. His report back to Posthumus throws the couple into turmoil.
Cymbeline is a play that has several plots going on at once. The plot I chose to summarize is what takes place between Imogen and Posthumus, the love interests and heroes of the work. Cymbeline, the Queen, Cloten, Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus have their own problems that Shakespeare develops and resolves.
What may throw some readers off is that this play is classified as a romance, and while it has a love story in it, Cymbeline is no Sleepless in Seattle. Romance in our sense of the word means something different than what a Shakespearean romance is. First of all, romance was not one of the original categories used for Shakespeare’s works. Histories, tragedies, and comedies came first, but it was later decided that some of Shakespeare’s plays contained elements that made them different enough to form a new category characterized by their main similarity. What is this similarity? Reconciliation. The three romances we read in class all end with (usually) multiple reconciliations. It is true that they also contain love stories, but those stories are not the focus of the resolution.
Cymbeline sees reconciliations between lovers, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends, nations, and servants and masters. It is, as my professor loved to say, quirky, but overall it is entertaining, although suspending disbelief becomes difficult during some of the reconciliations. (I mean, really, would Britain just pay tribute to Rome despite defeating them in a battle over whether or not they should have to pay tribute?)
As far as adaptations go, I’ve seen one that I thought was good. It was done by BBC as part of their standard Shakespeare series, something I’ve written about before and won’t bore you with again.
An adaptation I didn’t see but would have loved to was done by the South Sudanese Theatre Company in May 2012 at the Globe to Globe Festival in London at the Globe Theatre. The Company translated the play into Juba Arabic and created a metaphor for their own struggle for independence within the conflict between Britain and Rome. The usual costumes were replaced by traditional Sudanese garb, and traditional Sudanese song and dance were incorporated into the action of the play. If you’re interested, here’s a trailer of sorts.
Cymbeline isn’t bad… But it definitely is not my favorite Shakespeare play. If I were to chose the from the romances we read, this one was probably the best, but I would take a tragedy or certainly a comedy over it.