by David Bevington
Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline in about 1608-10, shortly before he retired in 1613. Like The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, it is very much a play of the author’s last years. These plays, and Pericles, are all “romances”—that is, comedies suffused with a sense of pathos and tearful reunion after long tribulations and separations.
A father’s eventual reunion with his estranged daughter is central to Cymbeline. King Cymbeline in effect drives his daughter Imogen from his court by his hostility to her banished husband, Posthumus Leonatus. The banishment of the son-in-law and the estrangement of Imogen lead to a tale of wandering and separation. Eventually all are reunited. The father acknowledges his error and gratefully receives both Imogen and her husband; Posthumus confesses his error in doubting his wife’s loyalty to him; and the King recovers his two sons whose disappearance from his court long ago was another product of his tyrannical behavior. They have lived meantime in the Welsh highlands, inhabiting a cave like creatures of the wild, so that their story is similarly a sojourn of banishment, wandering, and eventual reconciliation. The shape of the narrative in each “plot” of Cymbeline is one of outward journey and finally of return.
The dramatic portraiture of a father confronting his daughter’s marriage appears insistently in Shakespeare’s late work, not only in the romances but in Othello and King Lear. Why is the topic so absorbing to Shakespeare? The relationship he portrays of father and daughter is a troubled one in these plays; the father takes hard the marriage of his daughter to a younger man, as though it were a betrayal. Cymbeline is a particularly vivid example of this. The father is often alone in dealing with this challenge, particularly in King Lear, Othello, and The Tempest; he has no living queen, or, as in Cymbeline (and in one plot of Pericles ) is married to a wicked woman like the step-mother of fairy tales.
In what way these fantasies are related to Shakespeare’s own life can only be imagined, but we are forcefully reminded that he lived apart from his wife and family during his whole working career except for brief vacations and that he then retired to live with Anne Hathaway in Stratford for the last three years of his life. The desertion of the daughter through marriage is connected thematically in his plays with the onslaught of age, the necessity of stepping down, and the approach of death itself. Reunion with a long-lost wife fitfully emerges as a mitigating consolation, but just as often the aging authority figure (Lear, Prospero) is left a widower or, as in Cymbeline, is married to a witch.
The related theme of jealousy is also prominent in Shakespeare’s late plays. Posthumus Leonatus, the virtuous and unjustly treated son-in-law of the king, suffers the kind of personality weakness we see in Othello: he is too easily threatened by insinuations that his wife is unfaithful to him. The villainous character assassin, Iachimo, is, like Iago in Othello, a cynical Italian, intent upon proving the worst about women. But the blame lies most heavily upon Posthumus for his failure to believe in Imogen. His own possessiveness, his own fears that he is not lovable, leave him vulnerable to a suggestion that a more trusting husband simply would not believe. And his response, like Othello’s, is violent in the extreme. He orders the death of Imogen. His speeches of misogynistic fury are tragic in tone and mood. Yet because this play is a comedy or romance, this Othello-like figure is given a second chance. The heroine of the play, traduced and driven into exile by her father and then by her husband, finds in herself the power of forgiveness that transforms this dark story into one of reconciliation.
Cymbeline is also a providential story in which Jupiter presides over human destiny, descending into the realm of human affairs in a terrific coup de théâtre. Jupiter explains that he has delayed and confounded human happiness only to make his eventual gift of happiness all the more precious. Jealousy and other human suffering are seen at last as part of a larger design calculated to test and strengthen humankind. As one character puts it, “Some falls are means the happier to rise.”