Welcome to our grand fairy tale! Cymbeline is a rollicking fantasy of princesses and potions, villains and evil queens, lost heirs to the kingdom, battles, mistaken identities and miraculous happy endings. Shakespeare wrote this play about two thirds of the way through his career. He already had great success in comedy and was finishing a very popular major tragic era. With Cymbeline, he was experimenting with a new type of play: the romance. In this new series (including Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and The Two Noble Kinsmen), Shakespeare combined elements of drama, comedy, masque, mysticism, dance and romance into an evening of adventurous entertainment.
In classic fairy tale style, our heroine, Imogen, must leave the comfort of the castle and venture into the dark forest, where she drinks a poisoned potion prepared by the evil queen. Following the structure of Greek myths, she must also “die” to be reborn as a stronger, wiser person. Our young lovers are innocent and naïve in the beginning of the play, and only through being sundered and living through the many dangers, travels and adventures of the world can they come together again, more mature and ready for true love to make their marriage strong.
Why do we love fairy tales so much? Is it because our own lives are neither comedy nor tragedy, but a combination of both, yet we desperately wish for a happy ending? Comedy often comes during our most tragic moments, and drama descends in the height of hilarity. Life is fraught with the unexpected, and we hope for a happy ending, which we promise you tonight.
Jim Helsinger, Director
All is not right in the court of Cymbeline, King of Britain. His two sons were kidnapped in their infancy, leaving him with only his daughter, Imogen. Cymbeline’s new wife, the evil queen, wants Imogen to marry her oafish son Cloten, but Imogen has secretly married her true love, Posthumus Leonatus. In fury over her elopement, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus to Italy. In Italy, Posthumus meets the villain Iachimo, who wagers him that he can seduce Imogen.
Iachimo travels to England and discovers he is unable to seduce Imogen, but, by hiding in her bedroom, he obtains evidence to convince Posthumus that he has. In a rage, Posthumus commands his servant, Pisanio, to kill Imogen. Instead, Pisanio warns Imogen, advising her to flee and disguise herself as a young male page, Fidele.
Now lost in Wales, Imogen encounters Belarius, the banished noble who kidnapped Cymbeline's infant sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, 20 years before. Cloten pursues Imogen to Wales wearing Posthumus' clothes, determined to rape her and kill Posthumus. Instead, he is killed by one of Imogen’s brothers, and his decapitated body is placed beside Imogen, who has accidentally taken a sleeping potion and appears to be dead. When she revives, she finds what she thinks is the headless body of Posthumus. She is found by the leader of the Roman army, Caius Lucius, who takes her, still disguised as a boy, into his service. Posthumus, instantly remorseful upon hearing of his wife’s death, returns to England and fights as a common British soldier. The British army wins, in no small part due to the valiant fighting of Posthumus and the brothers. In the final scene, everyone discovers that Posthumus and Imogen are alive, the king’s sons have been found and the evil queen is dead, and peace is restored throughout the land.
-Gillian Riley Nogeire, Dramaturg
The wager-plot in Cymbeline, in which Posthumus accepts a bet about Imogen’s fidelity, can be found in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, though it appears Shakespeare also used a widely known adaptation of the story, “Frederick of Jennen.” The moral at the end of the story was popularly understood to be that “the deceiver is at the mercy of the deceived.” It is important to note that the villain of the piece is the deceiver rather than the deceived. A contemporary audience of Cymbeline can easily dwell on the misconduct of Posthumus, but a Shakespearean audience, familiar with the source material for the tale, would easily have recognized Iachimo as the true villain of the piece. In The Decameron, the character parallel to Iachimo does not escape unscathed, as he does in Cymbeline. In fact, his character is tied to a stake, his body is covered with honey (presumably to attract birds and insects) and he is left to hang there until his body falls to pieces. The wager-plot is structured as many fairy tales are: the heroes are tried and eventually learn from their mistakes.
Cymbeline is nothing if not an intertwining of fairy tales. There is an evil queen, a pair of poor brothers who discover themselves to be princes, magic potions, soothsayers and even a visit from the gods. The inclusion of the wager-plot alongside these fairy tales grants Posthumus a reason for redemption. Duped by Iachimo, Posthumus’ mistakes become part of the trials of a fairy tale hero, and we can allow ourselves to cheer for him. True to form, Shakespeare will not let him off the hook too easily. His regret and self-torment produce some of the most beautiful lines in the play. Additionally, Shakespeare makes another crucial change to the plot of The Decameron, when Posthumus regrets his actions and forgives his wife before he learns that she is innocent. In this subtle repositioning of events from the original story, which would likely have been noticed and appreciated by Shakespeare’s audience, Posthumus’ actions become more plausible and forgivable.
-Gillian Riley Nogeire, Dramaturg
Dr. Cornelius, Tribune 1 (1st Senator)
British Soldier, Musician
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