Sunday, April 3, 2011

Discussion: Cymbeline

The play: Cymbeline

The plot tweet: Plot-heavy self-parody concludes with reconciled lovers, reunited siblings, vanquished enemies and confessing villains. Happily ever after (except for Cloten).

My favorite line: What an infinite mock is this, that a man should have the best use of eyes to see the way of blindness.


Anglophile that I am, I have a small weakness for BBC melodramas with low budgets and terrible special effects. Hence, "Merlin," which I watch each week with a friend. We enjoy the show, but lately we've been noticing that the writers rely on a mash-up of the same plot points in every episode.

We decided the show would be more entertaining with "Merlin" bingo cards, where we check off these over-used plot points until somebody has five in a row. (For the win: mysterious sorcerer arrives in Camelot, King Uther goes on a witch hunt, Merlin sneaks into visitor's room at night, Morgana walks down hallway in flowing cape, Gwen has angst-filled moment with Arthur.)

I mention this because the same bingo game could be played with Cymbeline, where Shakespeare rehashes many of his already over-used plot points. You might win with a series like: Heroine dresses up as boy, long-lost family members are reunited, sleeping potion creates appearance of death, somebody gets decapitated, British army wins against impossible odds. Shakespeare is known for his skills in characterization rather than plot, but even for him this seems a bit lazy.

Unless it's intentional. Many scholars believe Cymbeline is a deliberate self-parody, written by a man who was approaching the end of his career and perhaps a bit tired of the whole thing. Harold Bloom calls the play "a revenge by Shakespeare against his own achievements." He continues, "Compulsive self-parody does not exist elsewhere in Shakespeare; in Cymbeline it passes all bounds."

The exception is Imogen, who has more consciousness than other characters in Shakespeare's late plays and who seems to transcend the rampant self-parody of her play. Many scholars -- especially male scholars of previous centuries -- have been madly in love with her and presented her as an ideal woman. As a 21st-century woman, I can't quite agree, but she is sweet and lovely and altogether too good for this play.

I have seen Cymbeline performed only once, several years ago at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. It was staged as high camp, with an evil Queen dressed as Maleficent from Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" and a Cloten (played by the wonderful Giles Davies) as a bow-legged buffoon with an overbite. The sleeping potion was actually an apple, a la "Snow White." But, again, Imogen was a universe unto herself, untouched by the campy antics.

Cymbeline is not considered one of Shakespeare's masterworks, and it certainly doesn't stand up to Hamlet or King Lear. But, even if his motive was artistic exhaustion or disillusion with his craft, there's something wonderful about the idea of Shakespeare mocking himself. Scholars say that every diligent Shakespeare reader has a secret favorite among the "lesser" plays, and perhaps Cymbeline is mine.

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