Whether his dramas should be taken as plays or as literature has been disputed. But surely they should be taken as both. Acted, or seen on the stage, the disclose things hidden to the reader. Read, they reveal what no actor or theater can convey.
– Harold C. Goddard, 1951
In the 1600s plays were written for performance rather than for reading and were not often published. Cymbeline was first printed seven years after Shakespeare's death in the first Folio of 1623. The first Folio was the first publication of Shakespeare's collected plays, and is considered to be the most reliable rendering of his texts overall. Scholars attribute the Folio text of Cymbeline to one of two documents: either a promptbook—that is, the script used in performance incorporating many of Shakespeare's own stage instructions, or a scribe's careful transcription of Shakespeare's own working papers.
Ellen Terry as Imogen in Cymbeline
The earliest record of Cymbeline in performance appears in the 1611 diary entry of Simon Forman, a researcher who kept extensive historical accounts and who had an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare's inner circle. Following Shakespeare's death in 1616, London's theaters were closed down during England's civil wars, and reopened after the monarchy had been restored.
Cymbeline was revived 20 years later in 1682, but like many of Shakespeare's plays, it was rewritten to suit contemporary theaters (now indoors) and audiences. Sometimes Shakespeare's words were taken into the hands of other playwrights, such as the adaptation of Cymbeline written by the playwright Thomas D'Urfey, called The Injured Princess or The Fatal Wager. This play was staged in place of Shakespeare's Cymbeline for years. Though D'Urfey's play was full of melodramatic ranting, clichés, and artless writing, his adaptation was performed instead of Shakespeare's original for more than 60 years. Finally, Shakespeare's Cymbeline resumed its place onstage in the mid-1700s when David Garrick presented Shakespeare's play at the Theater Royal in Drury Lane.
Cymbeline, encompassing aspects of folk legend, such as the evil stepmother, the "wager plot" in which a husband places bets upon his wife's fidelity, and the appearance of the god Jupiter, appealed to eighteenth-century tastes, and Cymbeline was popular throughout the 1700s. But by the nineteenth century, it was produced onstage only occasionally, by then a play more favored by Victorian scholars (who idolized the play's heroine) than by audiences. George Bernard Shaw, who waged a long-standing battle with Shakespeare's unquestioned dominance of the English stage, rewrote Cymbeline's fast-moving final act to reflect the sensibilities of twentieth-century psychology. His tongue-in-cheek adaptation, Cymbeline Refinished, was staged in 1937. Twentieth-century film productions of Cymbeline have featured some of the great actors of the English stage, including Paul Scofield as Cloten (1946), and Vanessa Redgrave (1962) and Meryl Streep as Imogen.
The meaning of any play is revealed through its characters, and it is up to those involved in interpreting the play to reveal it aptly through the choices they make. The character of Imogen is multifaceted, and is a role that great actresses have coveted for centuries. performance. Harriet Walters, who played Imogen in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1987 production of Cymbeline, commented, "Imogen starts by choosing her roles, but as the play goes on, fate and other people will force her into many disguises" (Players of Shakespeare 3, 203). In order to start rehearsing a character, Walters continued, "First you have to clear away the heroine's reputation. Then you have to clear away the received idea about the character. Then you have to clear away the idea of character itself" (Clamorous Voices, 76).
Posthumus, too, is a complex character of contrasts. When Roger Rees took on the role of Posthumus with the RSC in 1979, he noted the importance of the audience's laughter. When Posthumus's words would elicit a chuckle from the spectators, Rees explained, "This laugh was achieved by no actor's artifice but is inherent in the character's personality" (Players of Shakespeare, 151).
In the 20th century, particularly in recent years, Cymbeline has regained distinction as a theatrical piece that is perfect for public performance. Two silent film productions of Cymbeline were released in 1913 and 1925. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's most poetic plays; it was the favorite of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and tells a story that is full of imagery and drama. As one of his latest plays, it may also be one of the more reflective. J.M. Nosworthy said, "I believe that Cymbeline … finally expresses something which Shakespeare never quite achieves elsewhere."
Chicago Shakespeare Theater produced Cymbeline in 1989 at the Ruth Page Theatre and remounted the production in 1993. The 1989 production won four Jeff Awards for Best Play, Director, Costume Design and Sound.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department