Cymbeline – Back to Britannia


Apart of me felt that it was a little ironic, with all the furore over Brexit, that this play was being performed by the Royal Shakespeare company around this time. Mind you, unless they had a crystal ball, I have a feeling that it may have been a coincidence that Cymbeline was being staged, though we must remember that Brexit didn’t happen in a vacuum, and there was a huge debate over Britain’s role in the EU and the European community in the lead up not only to the referendum but also the general election of 2015. The thing is that one of the major themes of the play, and it as just as important back when it was first performed as it is now, is the role of Britain in Europe, and how much influence should Europe have over British (or more precisely English) sovereignty.


One of the main reasons that I ended up seeing this film was because Cymbeline is not only one of those plays that are rarely performed, but also because I have not had the opportunity of seeing it, or even reading it. Mind you, while I knew that the play was going to appear in the cinema screens, I didn’t know when and it was a freak accident that I decided to check up on when King Lear was going to be released that I realised that this was playing, well, that week, which meant that I pretty much changed my entire plans for Saturday (which basically involved me lounging around at home, as well as going to a church dinner, and a morning Bible study) on a moments notice. Fortunately, the play was being screened at the Palace Westgarth, which is not all that far from where I live, so it didn’t mean travelling halfway across town.
This is a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company and was filmed at their playhouse at Stratford upon Avon. As I was walking into the theatre the one thing that came to mind was that I have yet to see a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company, that is until I realised that I saw The Alchemist at the Barbican, and also saw a production of Midsummers Night Dream when they did a tour of Australia. So, I guess I should be more specific and suggest that I haven’t seen one at Stratford upon Avon, which is not surprising considering that I have yet to go to Stratford upon Avon. However I have seen two Shakespeare plays at The Globe, and I must admit that The Globe is by far the most uncomfortable, and annoying, playhouse to watch a play at, though I will say more about that when I get around to writing a piece on the Scottish Play.



Okay, first I probably should write a synopsis on the play, though since I have discovered that a movie was released back in 2014, though after watching the trailer it looks like it will be different enough (it is about bikies and cops, and looks pretty awesome) that I probably won’t be covering a lot of ground again. Anyway, Cymbeline is set during the Reign of Augustus when Britain (or Britannia) is under the rule of the Roman Emperor, and Cymbeline is basically a puppet monarch. Cymbeline has three children, however, the elder two were kidnapped as babies leaving Imogen as the sole heir to the kingdom. Imogen has secretly married Posthumous, much to Cymbeline’s horror, namely because Imogen is supposed to marry a proper British noble so as to produce a legitimate heir, and as such the marriage is annulled and Posthumous is banished.


We then follow Posthumous to Rome where he is hosted by Philario at a party and talks about his love for Imogen. As is typical with Shakespeare Posthumous talks about how loyal and faithful Imogen is, whereas Philario doesn’t believe him and as such makes a bet with Posthumous that she will be unfaithful. Philario then travels to Britain, meets with Imogen, and through guile and trickery, removes the bracelet from her wrist that was given to her by Posthumous as a sign of their eternal friendship. When Philario arrives in London he pretty quickly discovers that seducing Imogen isn’t going to be all that easy, particularly when she rebuffs all of his advances, so he instead hides in a chest and in the middle of the night steals the bracelet, and also has a peak under the sheets and discovers a mole on her breast.
Meanwhile the queen (or as is the case with this production, the Duke) wants to get rid of both Cymbaline and Imogen so arranges for Colten, the duke’s child from an earlier marriage, to poison them. However the poison is switched by the doctor who realises that the Duke is up to no good with a harmless sleeping potion. Philaro returns to Rome, shows Posthumous the bracelet, and in his rage arranges to have Imogen taken to Milton Haven on the Welsh Coast where she is to be murdered, though their servant, Pisano, decides to reveal Posthumous’ orders to Imogen, who proceeds to disguise herself as a man (named Fidelio), and disappears into the Welsh wilderness.


Cymbeline decides to stop paying tribute to Rome, and in response, Rome sends troops to Britain to remove Cymbeline from the throne. At Milton Haven, we meet Belarius, Guiderius, and Arvirargus, who are living as hermits in the wilderness. They encounter Imogen, who at this time has become gravely ill, and takes her back to the cave, but she ends up drinking the sleeping potion, and when they return to the cave they believe that Imogen is dead. Clotis also arrives at Milton Haven but is ambushed by Guiderius who proceeds to remove Clotis’ head, and throws it into the river, while leaving the body next to the sleeping body of Imogen. However, Clotis is wearing Posthumous’ clothes, so when Imogen awakes she believes that it is Posthumous’ corpse lying next to her, and when she is discovered she pretends to be the page boy of her dead master.


The Roman force then meets the British troops and a battle ensures, however Belarius and his companions join battle with the Romans and with their help the British managed to win the day. The Roman commanders are captured, and the general is to be executed, however, Cymbeline decides to hold off. To cut what has turned out to be a really long and pretty complex story short, everybody reveals who they are to everybody else (including Arvirargus and Guiderius revealing themselves to be Cymbeline’s lost children and Imogen’s lost siblings), Philaro reveals his treachery to Imogen, and everybody ends up living happily ever after.



A Rather Complex Play

As I have mentioned Cymbeline is rarely performed, but that probably has a lot to do with it being incredibly complex plotwise. Actually, looking at where it comes in with regards to Shakespeare’s plays it is quite late in the piece (being the third to last play ever produced). There are actually three, or even four, plots which slowly intertwine to what turns out to be a pretty complex ending – the missing children, the treacherous duke, the relationship between Cymbeline and Rome, and the love story between Imogen and Posthumous. However, what I noticed is that there are quite a lot of things that appear in a lot of Shakespeare’s other plays to the point that in many cases it doesn’t actually feel original – in fact, it feels as if Shakespeare took the successful elements from his previous plays and wove them into one play – Cymbeline.


For instance, we have the story of the woman who disguises herself as a man, though unlike the other plays Imogen isn’t actually as strong-willed as some of Shakespeare’s other characters. In fact, Imogen is much more feminine, to the point that she barely survives her ordeal at Milton Haven. Compare this with characters such as Rosalind from As You Like It, or Viola from Twelfth Night – they seem to be much stronger characters, and much more capable of being able to pass off as a man. It isn’t as if Imogen isn’t mistaken for a man – she is – it is just that she doesn’t come across as strong as some of the other characters, even though the other characters, Rosalind in particular, did come from a courtly background.


We also have the action moving from the city into the wilderness, which once again is similar to As You Like It, and also A Midsummers Night Dream. The poison that is switched for a sleeping potion, and the character drinking the potion and then being mistaken for being dead is taken straight out of Romeo and Juliet. Of course, we also have the deceived lovers, which comes from Merchant of Venice and Othello, as well as the missing siblings, twins no doubt, which come from A Comedy Of Errors (and I believe there is another play that deals with missing siblings, but the name escapes me at this stage).


The other interesting thing about this play is that it was initially labelled as a tragedy, but some have suggested that it is a comedy or even a romance. The problem with it being a comedy is that people (such as the Duke/Queen, and Clotis) die, and characters do not die in Shakespearian comedies. However, it is technically not a tragedy either because everything works out well in the end, and that generally never happens in a tragedy (and the fact that the stage is not littered with bodies also supports that). In the end, I would probably lean more towards the comedy element, though by this time Shakespeare’s play is much more complex.


The RSC Production

Well, the major thing that stood out with this play is that Cymbeline was played by a woman, which mean that the evil queen was now the evil duke. Apart of me feels that there may have been another reason being this change that simply didn’t involve it being what could be considered a creative license. In my mind, it has more to do with the wicked Queen being female than anything else – in a way it sort of paints a rather bad picture of women. It is interesting that all of the female characters in the play tend to be good, while all of the villainous characters are played by males. Actually, that is another reason I am leaning away from categorising this play as a comedy and that is because the villains are actually quite villainous.


The production is set in a dystopian future which sort of relates to the modern nature of the play, though I will touch on that when I look at the political elements in the next section and how they relate not just to Shakespeare’s time, but also to ours (and how the Roman setting reflects that). However, a part of me also felt that there was a lot of modernity in the play – it felt as if it were one of those modernist productions that you see that completely destroys the original setting so that us moderns can sort of understanding it better. This surprised me a little because I generally wasn’t expecting something like this from English Theatre, though I have seen National Theatre productions that have used a modern setting for a Shakesperian play. Mind you, the plays that I have seen in England (and in the cinema) do tend to retain the traditional setting (though not always – mind you the Globe is incredibly traditional, but then again it is The Globe).


One of the biggest problems that I found with the play, and they indicated it in the introduction, is that it can be a bit confronting when the play begins and you are struck with the Elizabethan language. Okay, I have always claimed that it is still English, and you can generally work out what is going on (it is sort of like reading the King James Bible – it is archaic, but you can generally understand it – though Shakespeare is actually poetry, which throws a further spanner into the works). However, since I am not at all familiar with the play it is actually really easy to get lost in the action (which I why I read the synopsis on Wikipedia during the intermission). Okay, not having a huge amount of sleep the night before didn’t help either, but that is beside the point.

Britain and Europe

Britain and Europe have always had an uneasy relationship namely because of what could be considered their moat. Being separated by the Channel has meant that they have in part grown-up separately from the rest of Europe, though that all changed when Julius Ceaser landed on their shores. It is due to the Roman occupation that we now have Scotland, Wales, and England, with England being the region that was occupied by Rome (and is why the old Gaelic languages are still spoken outside of England, though that are getting ever more scarce). However, up until 1066, England was the subject of a multitude of raids from the Vikings and the Danes, and for a period was occupied by the Danish. However, it was after 1066 that England really began to take on its own identity as opposed to being a whipping boy of the much stronger nations (and that probably had a lot to do with the Normans doing a pretty good job at subjugating the realm, though over the next couple of centuries Normandy effectively became England).


Before Rome England was basically little more than a collection of warring tribes – what Rome did was that it created a unified culture. Mind you, the Britons didn’t necessarily welcome the Romans, as was the case with the revolt of the Iceni under Boedecia. However, Rome generally held sway, and over the next couple of centuries Britannia (as it was then known) became civilised. However, when Rome left, they were quickly overwhelmed by the Scots to the north. The interesting thing is that even though Rome may have left militarily, they did bring in another massive cultural change – Christianity.


Let us then fast forward to Shakespeare’s time and we discover that England is facing another conflict with Rome – this time modern Rome. A century of so earlier King Henry broke away from the Catholic church under the pretext of wanting to divorce Anne Boylen. However, it goes much deeper than that as what was really happening was a power struggle between the Pope in Rome and the King in London – it was a question of who had ultimate authority, and whether England was little more than a puppet of the Vatican – in Henry’s eyes he wasn’t.
However, consider 1066, when William invaded Britain from France and made it part of Normandy. Before we know it the throne is moved from Rouen to London (though that happened over a century or so), and all of a sudden England is no longer under the rule of the Normans, but rather they are ruling Normandy from London – in a way, there is this rather independent streak that runs through the English people, which in part is why Henry reacted in such a way to the Pope’s interference.


Yet in Shakespeare’s mind England is still a backwater, which is the suggestion in the play. Italy is the heart of European culture, the birthplace of the Renaissance – this is probably why a bulk of his plays are actually set there. Notice that many of the tragedies are set in the wild fringes of Europe (Hamlet in Denmark, Othello in Cyprus, the Scottish Play, though Romeo and Juliet bucks that trend), while the comedies tend to find themselves placed in Italy or round-a-bout. What was happening at the time was that England was undergoing its own renaissance, and Shakespeare is pushing for England to embrace the culture of the continent – let them not isolate themselves, but rather integrate so that this budding renaissance may grow and flourish.


Life After Brexit

Yet, all of the sudden we find ourselves back in a time where Britain is trying to pull away from the European community and to exert its own influence – whereas in the past it was a reaction against rule from Rome, these days it is a reaction against rule from Brussels. It is not a question of the European Court of Human Rights (though that doesn’t help one bit) but rather a reaction against what is perceived as a foreign power exerting their influence over a sovereign nation (despite the fact that Britain was one of the key instigators of the modern European community). Okay, I have already written about Brexit in a previous post, so I won’t go other similar ground here.
This is probably why the play is set in such a dystopian world – like in Shakespeare’s time London was technically at the fringes of the world (though this was beginning to change as it was during Elizabeth’s reign that England began to develop what was eventually to become an unbeatable navy), and by rejecting integration she was doomed to miss out on sharing in what could well have been a prosperous Europe. Mind you, Spain had just conquered the New World, but after having lost it’s fleet on a bungled invasion of England, and an insurgent war in the Netherlands, her glory days had long gone. However, the United Provinces of the Netherlands had risen to take her place. Yet, what we see back then is that the Catholic realms were decreasing in influence to be slowly taken over by the Protestant realms.


So, now we find ourselves at another turning point, but this time at the other side of the glorious empire. The British Empire has now come and gone, and the prosperity and wealth that it enjoyed is now in the past. The question now is whether they integrate or they don’t integrate, and in many cases it is a question of not integrating. In a way it has a lot to do with do different political and economic outlooks – the continental nations tend to be a lot more left-wing than does Britian (and the rest of the Anglosphere, that seems to be drifting ever further towards the realm of economic fundamentalism), and this conflict with economic philosophies seems to be at the core of the debate. However, this is not necessarily the case with the people on the streets, who see it more in light of immigrants taking their jobs, and by booting out the immigrants they will get their jobs back – which is unlikely to happen.
As a final note, one interesting thing that emerged from the commentary on the play is the origin of the term ‘mother tongue’. Back in Shakespeare’s day educated people spoke Latin, and if you wanted to engage in high society you needed to have Latin (and here we have the Roman influence again). However, it was only the men who learnt and spoke Latin – the women didn’t – they spoke the vernacular tongue, which is why it is referred to in the feminine.
Creative Commons License


Cymbeline – Back to Britannia by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


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