A Play Outlines the Long, Painful Drama of Self-Knowledge
By STEPHEN SMITH
Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ centers on romantic woes, long lost heirs, and war between Rome and England, all the while asking tough questions: What kind of life leads to joy and peace? To misery and destruction?
Ignorance of “Cymbeline” is ignorance of Shakespeare—of his art and his wonder, of his mind and heart, and most revealingly, of his great desire for peace. While “The Tempest” and the “The Winter’s Tale” often win more acclaim among the late plays, “Cymbeline” is their equal, and may be the most comprehensive drama that Shakespeare ever wrote. The play is indeed “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,” if one may dare quote Polonius. It is Shakespeare’s “poem unlimited,” well worth the serious attention and fresh production the Public Theater is giving it in Central Park this month.
And yet not all have judged “Cymbeline” so important or solemn.Samuel Johnson lamented the “folly of the fiction” and its “unresisting imbecility,” while George Bernard Shaw skewered it as “stagey trash” and wondered if so great an artist could really mean to talk to readers “like their grandmothers.” How could a drama of Shakespeare’s maturity provoke such responses?
Set in ancient Britain at the time of the Nativity, and centering on romantic woes, long lost heirs, and war between Rome and England, “Cymbeline” is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, first performed in 1611.
Like his other major plays, “Cymbeline” focuses on the inner character and outward fortune of leaders, on the art of soul-leading, as Plato called it. What kind of life leads to joy and peace? To misery and destruction? What kind of life is most human and truthful? For Shakespeare, each person emerges as a free leader, or misleader, of himself and others. Character is indeed king—or fool—in his plays. To provide a real education in soul-leading is the deeper concern of “Cymbeline,” and even the life work of its mysterious author. It’s no accident that “Cymbeline” is the last play printed in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare.
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