Shakespearing #35.1 by John King

More Thoughts on Cymbeline


1. Cymbeline is, admittedly, a strange play, as David Foley explained in its theatrical and historical context last week.

Cymbeline is a fairy tale, with comic and tragic turns that has some dead bodies at the end, but ends as a comedy, with some reconciliations and a recognized marriage if not a wedding. The subplot of an exiled subject with two adopted sons who then adopts the heroine who is disguised as a man seems to amplify the threatening sense of alienation of almost every character in the play.

Outside of the geopolitical intrigue, though, the theme of the play could be seen as a precursor to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Cymbeline is completely smitten with the woman who he married, while she, as a newly-minted queen, is scheming to poison both Cymbeline and his daughter, Imogen, so that her clout of a son, Cloten, would become king. Imogen has secretly married the man of her dreams, the unfortunately-named Posthumous, who is banished when he is suspected of merely fraternizing with Imogen.

Cymbeline has two sons who he believes are dead, but whom were hustled out of the royal court by the exile Belarius, who was wrongly suspected of conspiring with the Romans.

The queen has encouraged Cymbeline, already wary of Roman treachery, to send the Roman ambassador away with an insult rather than a tribute, a move that will lead to war.

What such a story obviously needs is a petty melodrama about romantic jealousy and suspicion worthy of the show Cheaters.

While in exile in Italy, Posthumous can’t stop prating on about his separation from Imogen, and won’t shut up about her beauty, so a mischievous rake named Iachimo wagers Posthumous that Imogen can be easily seduced (an echo of Much Ado About Nothing will ensue). Basically, the silliest part of this play’s plot is meant to elevate everything else (and frankly, that everything else seems borrowed from previous Shakespeare plays). Only a visitation from Jupiter himself can jolt the thing out of its own bizarre rut.

Except that Iachimo is a fine mischief-maker, like Iago, except that this Iago will not go silent at the end. Iachimo makes an emotional accounting that is harrowing in its language. That the true love of Imogen and Posthumous is seen as disingenuous by the king whose own respectable queen is poisoning him is bad. That the true love of Imogen is made to seem disingenuous to Posthumous himself is much, much worse.

Iachimo goes to great lengths to violate Imogen’s privacy, to discover the intimate details of her body so he can relate them back to Posthumous as evidence for their wager.

Imogen From Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline'. Wilhelm Ferdinand Souchon. (1825-1876). Oil On Canvas, 1872.

Imogen From Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’. Wilhelm Ferdinand Souchon. (1825-1876). Oil On Canvas, 1872.

This “evidence” of Imogen’s infidelity is a violation not only of her privacy, but ultimately of her self–as an audience, we become voyeuristic, and our outrage at this violation of an innocent, loving young woman is perhaps commingled with our thirst for plot. Will Iachimo succeed? Will he be caught? And what is his motivation here? Is this the exploit of a gambler? Is this the ruse of a sexual creep who wanted someone’s permission to try to invade this woman’s locked bedroom? Is he merely a misanthrope who loathes the idea of anyone finding happiness on earth?

2. I’ve not seen Joanne Akalaitis’s infamous 1989 production of Cymbeline. In 2012, though, I reviewed Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s production in Shakespeare Bulletin (Volume 30, #3). As usual, OST did not disappoint.

Iachimo, portrayed by Geoffrey Kent, managed to pull of slapstick humor in sneaking into Imogen’s chamber, and managing to collect his evidence. This production also staged the slaying of Cloten with wickedly funny nonchalance.

Besides making the queen something like a Disney villain, and staging the visitation of Jupiter as a psychedliec deus ex machine, OST made the scene in which the men make the wager, in something like a Roman bath house, quite memorable. The masculine swagger of those present made the misogyny of the premise clear, since the ability of women to be worthy of adoration is called into question–a question simultaneously begged since women were expected to be given their identities and agency by men, such as Cymbeline to Imogen.

Geoffrey Kent’s emotional turn, the villain’s mea culpa, was delivered so believably, though, that the rough humor of so much of the play warps back into a world of consequences, a world that we can believe in, a world that is less funny than we thought, a world in which happiness is as fragile as our minds.

3. Of course, one could just try to make the play as stupid as possible, and Michael Almereyda was just the artist to do it.

In 2000, he released a Hamlet whose successes included Bill Murray as a subtle Polonius and Julia Stiles trying her best and mostly succeeding to be a worthy Ophelia. Ethan Hawke as Hamlet seemed like he was simultaneously stoned and constipated, and tended to be outmaneuvered by a silly knit cap with earflaps he insisted on wearing.

Silly hat

When the story seems to channel Hamlet’s point-of-view, the home video camera Hamlet uses for his experimental films dominate the scene. Almost none of the actors seem to know the meaning of Shakespeare’s language, and the lack of affect (what professionals sometime call acting) make this really dull as camp.

In last year’s Cymbeline, Almereyda again champions a slacker aesthetic, with motorcycles and skateboards updating Shakespeare in all sorts of essential ways. Instead of being a king of England, Cymbeline is the leader of a biker gang that runs a meth lab because … Breaking Bad, I guess?

As Imogen, Dakota Johnson, in her pre-Fifty Shades of Gray glory, gives off the impression of being a rather clean mop that has forgotten where it has left its keys.


What emotion am I supposed to be feeling? Wait, What’s my line again? Somebody send me a text…

Vondie Curtis-Hall puts in an appearance as one of the actors who can actually speak Shakespeare’s language perfectly (reprising his role of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-in-this-stupidity from Baz Lurmann’s Romeo + Juliet).

cymbeline 3

The girlfriends of motorcycle gang leaders always wear tiaras, kind of ironically, kind of not.

Almost every decision in this film looks ludicrous.

One gets the feeling, though, that Almereyda accidentally renders the tragic silly, and the humor gravely. It’s like listening to music that’s off-key.

Talented actors seem as psychologically lost as George Lucas actors in front of a green screen. Ed Harris comes off totally flat. John Leguizamo (another Romeo + Juliet alumnus) comes off flat. Whoever played Posthumous was too insufferably whiny and wimpy for me to look up his name.

And the crucial part that the entire drama hinges upon, Iachimo? Ethan Hawke, of course. He took the knit cap off, but the same stoned, billion-yard stare of affectless existence is his gift to the story.

Milla Jovovich does okay–she can say the lines with some conviction and emote–but I couldn’t help but wonder when she would start aerobically killing these zombies, one of whom is actually named Posthumous.



John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.