Shakespearing #35 by David Foley
“Staggeringly, unremittingly, unconscionably absurd,” wrote John Simon. “Reckless,” “a travesty,” “a waste,” said Frank Rich. Joanne Akalaitis’s production of Cymbeline, which I saw at the Public in May 1989, was notoriously excoriated by every critic in the city without exception. I saw it before the reviews came out and fell in love, with both the production and the play.
I don’t know what to make of this except that Akalaitis created, from a play I’d previously struggled with, a world that moved and excited me. I still remember Joan Cusack whirling about in grief and confusion when she understands that Posthumus has ordered Pisanio to kill her. And I remember her delivery of what instantly became one of my favorite lines in Shakespeare. When Pisanio says that since receiving his orders “I have not slept a wink,” she retorts, “Do’t, and to bed then.” (I also remember the king’s sons running around in what were essentially fur dance belts.)
It’s surprising, actually, on re-reading Cymbeline, to see how much of that excitement is there in the text. For a play that has a reputation for being baggily constructed, it makes a remarkably cohesive world. It counters loss with restitution, death with resurrection, nobility of position with nobility of soul, and infidelity of many kinds with forgiveness. It ends in a world renewed, and it feels like Shakespeare has renewed himself. Echoes of previous plays abound. Once again, a pre-Christian British king has a falling-out with a beloved daughter, but here the daughter claims the story as her own. As in Much Ado, we have a false accusation of infidelity, but Posthumus, before he learns of Imogen’s fidelity, must understand the horror of having his wife murdered “for wrying but a little,” and wish the gods had instead “strook/Me, wretch, more worth your vengeance.” And in Imogen it’s as if all Shakespearean heroines have reached their apogee: smart and spirited, sorrowful and funny, skilled at parrying the thrusts of father, stepmother, wooers, but possessed of a lyricism that sounds Dickinsonian at times: “O, learn’d indeed were that astronomer/That knew the stars as I his characters;/He’ld lay the future open.” Or, rebuking Pisanio for not watching Posthumus’s parting ship longer:
I would have broke mine eye-strings, crack’d them, but
To look upon him, till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle;
Nay, followed him till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air.
It’s interesting to read Cymbeline in context of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Tamburlaine. Those plays, written after and before Shakespeare respectively, are easier to read. Their language doesn’t tax us the way Shakespeare’s does with his coiled images and wordplay. If you need another reason to believe that Shakespeare wrote his plays (and you really shouldn’t), think of a line like this: “Stand,/Or we are Romans and will give you that/Like beasts which you shun beastly.” Only a playwright intimate with his actors can help them make sense of a line like that. (A great deal depends on how you hit the “we.”)
The line comes from Posthumus’s account of the rout of the Romans, itself a reminder that Shakespeare is often quite dramatic when by rights he shouldn’t be. He makes narrative dramatic. Robert Brustein has called the long final scene “unarguably the dullest…recognition scene in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare himself knows he’s going on. (Cymbeline urges the digressive Jachimo, “Nay, nay, to th’ purpose.”) But done right it’s moving and beautiful, a drama in itself. I don’t remember how Akalaitis did it. But it must have worked.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.