This story the world may read in me: Esther’s many feelings about Cymbeline

This past Memorial Day weekend I corrected a longstanding tragedy, which was that I had never seen Cymbeline performed. I’ve read it numerous times, but there’s a particular thrill in seeing a text you love interpreted in another medium—in this case, its right medium. The fabulous Alex agreed to trek down to Hyde Park during her visit to Chicago, and we showed up, full of dinner from a favorite college haunt, for an outdoor performance at the new (and stunning) Logan Center for the Arts.

Fans of books that have been translated to film can surely sympathize with the tension that followed: when you love a story, you want to be sure it’s done right, while at the same time you’re excited to see what new elements the reinterpretation adds. I have a pretty specific play in my head when I imagine the text. Thankfully, the jolts I got from this student production were, for the most part, good ones.

Shakespeare’s play, uncut, can be terrifically long. The director wisely both eliminated plenty of lines (and large chunks of the end, which clarified it a great deal) and, fascinatingly, combined characters. Philario, who hosts Posthumus when he arrives in Rome, and Caius Lucius, Augustus Caesar’s consular representative (and invading general) to Britain, were merged, as were several minor lords and ladies with other walk-on characters. The faithful Pisanio was played by a woman, and filled the role of all the palace servants. Casting a female Pisanio, of course, means that her interrogation by Cloten in III.5 takes on a sexual threat which adds a new terror to her plot. A female Pisanio also brings to mind the orchestrations of the resourceful Paulina in The Winter’s Tale.

Individual praise must be heaped on certain actors. Cloten was fantastic, blustery and fratboyish and entirely caught up in his own privilege. Iachimo was sly and hilarious; his scene in Imogen’s bedchamber was appropriately creepy, as was his final defeat contrite and satisfying. Dr. Cornelius managed to steal the final scene with some well-timed incredulity, and Belarius had an interesting darkness to his performance. Imogen played to the absurdity and comedy of her part very well.

I think this is where I have to talk about the play I have in my head, though, and it’s very much shaped by another play I saw at UChicago’s University Theater during my time there. The show was The Rover, by Aphra Behn, and the first half was played very much as a raunchy, delightful comedy. Just before intermission, though, the action took a sharp turn: the titular Rover, celebrated until now, without changing his tone, forced himself on one of the female characters. The starkness of the tonal shift affected me deeply. I tend to read a similar shift in Cymbeline.

Seeing this production was both a pleasure and an interesting affirmation of the play in my head. Because Cymbeline is, for many reasons, an outrageous, hilarious play. Blurbs often call it “Shakespeare’s fairy tale,” though I think that gives little credit to fairy tales. Imogen raves on and on and on about her lord Posthumus and how she loves him; Posthumus is similarly prone to extremes, though he tends to talk more about himself and his feelings. Cymbeline is a terribly inept king, and the Queen a cartoonish poisoner and would-be usurper. The plot twists which culminate in the reunions and confessions of the final scene stretch incredulity to its limits. I tend to think Shakespeare is playing with his previous works, but a certain reading of this play can appear to consign it to nonsense.

If I were to direct this play—every theater person’s favorite words, especially from a not-really-theater person—I would run wild with that for the first half of the show. There is a heightened reality at play here—the rules and lives of court—all of which break down rather spectacularly, starting in the middle of the plot. The outrageous actions of the protagonists—betting on a wife’s honor, ordering her death, fleeing into the Welsh countryside, spurning the Roman Empire—all begin to catch up with them, and in every instance, it’s a shock. Imogen cannot believe how abandoned she has become; Posthumus cannot comprehend that Imogen is dead at his behest; Cymbeline cannot maintain his hold on his kingdom, and increasingly rages and acts on impulse. Cloten behaves as he always has, but reveals a violence that is the natural extension of his character, and shocks the audience with threats of rape, murder and mutilation. I would love to see the protagonists suddenly start playing their lives straight, struck by the enormity of plot developments and the consequences of their actions. I love characters confronting a world that no longer caters to their vision of it.

Cheek By Jowl production of Cymbeline (2007), Tom Hiddleston and Jodie McNee

Of course, there’s always that fifth act, when everything works out. And of course it does: they’re back at court, where the world is ordered and arbitrary. Except now our lovers have had this life-changing experience. They must completely reevaluate their relationship with each other, considering how thoroughly Posthumus has betrayed Imogen, despite his being gulled into it. Some interpretations of the text criticize it for Imogen’s sharp drop in lines after Act IV, but I think this can be played as Imogen observing the world for the first time, rather than charging into it and erupting with the first emotion that she feels. It’s what begins to differentiate her from her father, who has the same issue. The conclusion is always an opportunity to show who has changed and who has not.

Clearly I have a lot of feelings about Cymbeline, and could go on at length. (See my mini-essay about Cloten for a taste of that, and of course, I’m more than happy to respond to thoughts in comments.) That kind of obsessive interest is a good engine for a story, though. There’s always something the author hasn’t said or hasn’t considered, even if that something is the notion that perhaps Posthumus and Cloten were once the same person. But other interpretations are wonderful; it’s a wonderful conversation, and it makes you ask all kinds of questions that weren’t even on your radar. I think I will happily see Cymbeline onstage, whatever and whenever the opportunity. Still, I’m glad my first encounter was such a charming one. Now, to convince Cheek By Jowl to share a wide release of its 2007 production

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