The Romances mark the last period of Shakespeare's work. Following the great tragedies, they illuminate a very different world, a less realistic world—the world of fairy tale and happily-ever-after endings. The late plays, are called "romances" not because they are necessarily "romantic" as we use that word (though Cymbeline certainly is), but rather because they are an adaptation of an earlier form of narrative story—the convention of romance.
Romances present us with magical, faraway worlds and legendary times. Typically they are peopled by characters that are larger than life. The unreality of the romances is much like the unreality of myth. Their art imitates not the reality of life, but the reality of our dreams. To author Henry James, romance is "experience liberated." What is common to romance is that it is a success story with great difficulties overcome against all odds. The good are rewarded and the wicked, punished or forced to repent.
When a writer calls his work a Romance ... he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed by writing a Novel. The [novel] is presumed to aim … the probable and ordinary course of man's experience. [Romance}… must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart-has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing or creation ... The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, Preface to
The House of the Seven Gables
This fairy tale moves and astonishes its audience at the same time. Cymbeline is exciting to watch and is one of Shakespeare's plays best suited for the stage. Its impact in performance, combining theatrics and drama with the play's poetic and emotional language, is exceptionally powerful. A distinctive quality of the play is the way in which the language and the theatricality together seem to spotlight on stage human experience—such as jealousy, love, death, and grief—in their extreme and pure forms.
At first, the characters seem no more than the simple, two-dimensional cardboard construction of fairy tale and legend in which they lived before Shakespeare. But Shakespeare struggles to give life to these fairy tale symbols. It is in large part the language he gives them that complicates the stereotypes and brings them to life. The Iachimo who speaks in poetic admiration of the sleeping princess is not a simple conventional villain. And the fairy tale princess he threatens is no less complex as she expresses an entire range of emotion throughout the play. A two-dimensional character does not experience and does not express all the many, conflicting emotions that Imogen does as she goes on her long and dangerous journey. The play is rich in imagery that enhances its poetic nature. Cymbeline was one of the poet Lord Tennyson's favorite plays of Shakespeare.
Some critics have suggested that Cymbeline was merely an artistic experiment by a Shakespeare who was "bored" or exhausted—a creative genius spent by his great tragedies (King Lear, Othello, Macbeth) that preceded it. Others explain the shift in Shakespeare's focus in his later years to a "spiritual crisis": the playwright who unearthed the darkness and despair of King Lear must have experienced his own, dark depths for which the later plays, the so-called romances (Pericles, Cymbeline, A Winter's Tale and The Tempest ), offered solace and escape from a reality too brutal and desperate to face head-on.
Still others view the shift from tragedy to romance in Shakespeare's writing as nothing more than evidence of the playwright's ever-practical opportunism and keen business sense. The plays of the young writers Beaumont and Fletcher competed for audiences. Filled with spectacle, their plays were particularly well-suited to the new indoor theaters of London that offered quiet, lighting effects, and the staging of theatrical spectacle. In Shakespeare's final plays, pageantry and masque, such as the appearance of Jupiter in Cymbeline, are prominent.
Unquestionably, the final plays of Shakespeare, Cymbeline included, are an experiment into new, uncharted territory. But so were all of Shakespeare's plays, as he moved through the possibilities and limitations that each new form—comedy, history, tragedy and romance—presented.
The plots of Shakespeare's last three romances contain the same general structure. The king, who once enjoyed prosperity, does something foolish or evil. Suffering ensues, but in the middle of the suffering, another strand of the story (usually a secret) is germinating to offer renewal. This new element is assimilated and transforms the old evil. The king repents and joins the new order. All make mistakes, but unlike the characters of tragedy, they are not brought to disaster, and learn from their journeys and hardships. What they all must learn is forgiveness and knowledge that not all aspects of life can, or should, be controlled.
Cymbeline is fooled by outward appearance. He alone has no idea of the evil that dwells behind his queen's exterior beauty, and thereby places himself, his child, and country in danger. He rejects his daughter for marrying a commoner whose inward qualities she perceives, and hence loses her as she follows her love. And finally we learn that 20 years earlier, he believed the slander against a faithful lord, and lost his sons as a consequence of this mutual betrayal of trust.
Cymbeline offers a vision of human weakness transcended, and a reassurance that "fortune brings in some boats that are not steered." Shakespeare in his last plays turns for the first time to divine intervention. In Cymbeline, the theophany (the vision of Jupiter) is the play's central scene. The romances brought with them the metaphysical and spiritual side of life and, with it, the different planes on which human lives can be lived.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department