The sixteenth-century English historian Holinshed wrote a history published in 1587 titled, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It served as a primary source for many of Shakespeare's tragedies and historical plays.
Shakespeare's Cymbeline, combining elements of history with romance and folk-tale, is based, in part, upon Holinshed's account of King "Kymbeline" (as Holinshed spelled his name) who became the King of Britain in 33 BC during the time of Augustus Caesar's reign. Augustus was the successor to Julius Caesar who, with Antony, defeated Brutus and Cassius in Shakespeare's earlier work, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Holinshed writes that Cymbeline was brought up in Rome and knighted by Augustus Caesar. He was much in Augustus's favor, fought his wars, and was not obliged to pay his tribute. Holinshed believed it was Cymbeline's son, Guiderius, that disturbed the peaceful relationship with Rome, but Shakespeare attributes the English rebellion to Guiderius's father, King Cymbeline.
Why all this borrowing—and then not even keeping "the facts straight"? Shakespeare is not writing a history. He uses the stories of histories for ideas and themes, but not for facts or accurate accounts. Why does Shakespeare choose Cymbeline's story in particular when Cymbeline is not, in fact, a dominant character? Scholars suggest two possibilities. First, that Cymbeline ruled during an age that symbolizes transformation and peace: the age of Augustus and the birth of Jesus. Transformation and reconciliation are central themes in this play—as they are in each of Shakespeare's late plays, the so-called "romances." The historical context, therefore, sets the metaphorical stage. Second, Cymbeline, like James I who ruled England at the time that Shakespeare wrote his play, had three children—two sons and a daughter. Much hope was placed upon the children of James I to restore peace abroad and at home among powerful religious factions. In Cymbeline, we see a similar family portrait as Cymbeline's three children offering hope for a renewed Britain.
The "wager plot" is a second strand of the story in Cymbeline that was well known for at least four centuries prior to Shakespeare's retelling. The basic story tells of a husband who is so certain of his wife's fidelity that he wagers upon it. Deceived into believing that his wife has indeed been unfaithful, the enraged husband plots her death. Versions of this old story existed in almost every language that was known to the Elizabethans.
The Italian Boccaccio's Decameron was perhaps the best known. In Boccaccio's story, a boastful husband asserts his wife's unswerving faithfulness and is challenged by Amriogiulo who insists that any woman can be seduced into infidelity. A wager is made between them, and Amrogiulo travels to Genoa to return within three months with proof of his conquest. He fails in seducing the man's wife, but instead devises a plot to enter her bedchamber at night by hiding in a trunk, and gathers evidence so intimate that it can serve to prove the innocent wife's infidelity. He succeeds in his plot. The enraged husband, believing the story, orders his servant to murder his wife. The servant reports the murder, but does not commit it. The young woman disguises herself as a man and steals away from Genoa to Alexandria where she enters the service of the Sultan. She meets Amrogiulo, recognizes her purse in his possession, and learns the story of his deception as he boastfully retells it—first to her, quite unknowingly, and before the Sultan. The young woman removes her disguise, the truth is revealed, the young couple reunited, and the villain is sentenced by the Sultan to death. The parallels in Shakespeare's tale are clear.
Other elements of Cymbeline's plot are derived from folk legends: the evil, stepmother queen and the princes stolen from birth and reunited years later with their family and subjects. If Shakespeare was such a good writer, why did he use others' stories so freely in his own? In the Renaissance when Shakespeare wrote, stories did not "belong" to an individual. There were no copywriting laws and material was borrowed freely. But more important was the fact that stories were meant to be told and re-told—as they had been for centuries and centuries before. Because so few people were yet literate (the printing press was invented just one century before Shakespeare's lifetime) much of the history and the tales that people knew were communicated in speech, and passed from one generation to another. Stories belonged, in a sense, to a common pool, for all to reach into, and create their own story. Creativity was not based upon new stories so much as new tellings and re-workings of the old stories.
Shakespeare never hesitates to alter a source—even the "facts" of history, to tell the story he wants to tell. And while his "instruments" are the characters borrowed from ancient and not-so-ancient sources, his "music" is his poetry and the theatrics of drama—and his creation uniquely and masterfully his own.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department