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The Legend of King Cymbeline:
Historical Origins

From Insights, 2002
By Kelli Frost-Allred

 

Lovers of English history will feast on the history lessons rife in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. While the play has little to do with British history, the very title of the play presents a scholarly lesson in literary history. Legend has it that Cymbeline lived and died in the first century a.d. The nephew of Cassibellaunus, king of the Britons, Cymbeline was taken hostage by Roman invaders and was raised a Roman. When he returned to England, Cymbeline conquered Essex and ruled southern England between 10 and 40 a.d.

During his reign, Cymbeline had more wealth and power than any other ruler in England at the time. He kept Roman advancement at bay by forging treaties with emperors Augustus Caesar and Tiberius. The real Cymbeline remained a loyal ally of Rome until his death in 41 a.d., when his kingdom was divided and was ruled briefly by his two sons. After its invasion by Claudius in 43 a.d., England became a Roman province known as Britannia.

That Cymbeline ruled a portion of England and had two sons is practically the only accurate connection between the play and the history upon which it was loosely based. Nevertheless, Shakespeare provides a story to rival any historical accounts. Based on Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland by historian Raphael Hollinshed (d.1580). The Bard may also have based Cymbeline loosely on Boccaccio's fourteenth century play,The Decameron. Written in 1609/10, Cymbeline was first performed in 1611 for then ruling King James; however, the play was not published until 1623, as part of the First Folio.

Shakespeare's Use of Symbols in Cymbeline

Set in a world that is part Druid, part Roman, Cymbeline is rich in symbols. Shakespeare uses symbols to expose the spirituality of the play: the costumes, the animals, the names, and the stars reflect Elizabethan social manners, but are based on ancient beliefs about icons.

Bracelets and Rings as Symbols: According to The Mammoth Dictionary of Symbols, "In antiquity, rings, bracelets and necklaces were worn to preserve the link between the body and the soul . . . removed to facilitate their separation at the moment of death (which would explain why so many soldiers wore bracelets" (Nadia Julien, The Mammoth Dictionary of Symbols: Understanding the Hidden Language of Symbols [New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. 1996], 350). Upon his banishment in act 1, scene 1, Posthumus prepares to leave Imogen by presenting her with a bracelet that would hold her his prisoner of love: "For my sake wear this. / It is a manacle of love; I'll place it / Upon this fairest prisoner" (All references to the play are from David Bevington, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, third edition [Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman & Co. 1980].

The ring is by nature female and negative, as in the Druidic circles that might be obvious in the setting of this play. Shakespeare brilliantly uses circles to bind the lovers to the play's antagonist. Imogen gives a cherished ring to her husband, to whom she has pledged her faithfulness saying: "This diamond was my mother's. Take it, heart, / But keep it till you woo another wife / When Imogen is dead."

In spite of reports to the contrary, Imogen remains chaste in Posthumus's absence and faithful to her young husband. The villainous Iachimo steals the bracelet from Imogen's wrist as she sleeps unaware. This is in keeping with the traditional concept associated with ring symbols: the double bind is inherent in this symbol, which includes both domination and submission for the wearer.

Names as Symbols: Several names in Cymbeline have symbolic meanings.

1. "Posthumus Leonatus": post (after) + humus (mortality) = dead, and leo (lion) + natus (born) = Born of a Lion. This soldier has earned a title fit for a king—or at least fit for a king's daughter's husband. The name signifies one who is mighty in life and in death.

2. Imogen chooses the name Fidele for her male alter-ego. Fidele = faithful one.

3. Queen is the only name given to the king's wife. She has no name in either the play or in history. Shakespeare's use of the name Queen is less an attempt to symbolize her role than it is an attempt to avoid placing unnecessary importance on the office of queen, since Shakespeare wrote this play for King James.

Birds and Fowl as Symbols: Birds and fowls often symbolize freedom, intelligence, and spiritual quest. A reference to birds can also signal the dangers of obsessive thought, as when the duplicitous Iachimo first encounters Imogen. He finds her even more beautiful than he anticipated and lustfully describes her as unique as a phoenix: "If she be furnish'd with a mind so rare, / She is alone the' Arabian bird" (1.6.17).

Eagles symbolize light, conquest, power, and consciousness with an all-seeing eye. The eagle was known to carry Jupiter's thunderbolt between his talons. The eagle was also a conveyor of the dead to their final rest. Shakespeare uses both these interpretations, when the spirits of Posthumus's parents rise to the balcony, followed by Jupiter on his eagle, saying "Mount, eagle, to my palace crystalline" (5.4.91).

Shakespeare extends the use of birds to entice laughter from audiences. Cymbeline's rich comedy comes to life in Cloten, the overgrown dullard stepson of King Cymbeline. Cloten's mother, the evil Queen, is constantly scheming to gain the throne for him, perish the thought. In act 2, scene 1, Cloten compares himself to a rooster, saying: "I must go up and down like a cock that nobody can match."

Cloten's companions immediately add insult to injury by implying that Cloten is impotent both sexually and politically: "You are cock and capon too, and you crow, cock, with your comb on."

Throughout the play, the heady reader will find many layers of meaning in Shakespeare's use of symbols, although only a few have been mentioned here.

Themes in Shakespeare's Cymbeline

Cymbeline draws its main theme from Boccaccio's Decameron: a husband wagers on his wife's fidelity. Posthumus accepts the wager of Iachimo in act 1, scene 4: "I will lay you ten thousand ducats to your ring, that, commend me to the court where your lady is . . . and I will bring from thence that honor of hers which you imagine so reserv'd."

Never one to take a single dramatic path, Shakespeare employs other themes in Cymbeline:

Love and betrayal: the king and queen, Imogen and Posthumus, Posthumus and Iachimo, the queen and Pisanio.

Reunion and forgiveness: the reunion of the king to his lost sons, the once-banished, once-dead Posthumus returns to Imogen, the bejeweled love tokens are returned to their rightful owners

All is not as it seems: the Queen utters hollow proclamations of love and loyalty; Posthumus is deceived into believing that Imogen has been unfaithful even though she remains steadfast in her love for him; Imogen disguises herself as a male page (Fidele) to join the Romans and return with them to Italy to find Posthumus; after Imogen swallows a potion and goes into a stupor, Arviragus and Guiderius believe she is dead; after Imogen awakens she mistakes the dead Cloton, who is wearing Posthumus's clothes, as Posthumus; Belarious would appear to be a forest dweller, but disguises his true identity—a banished nobleman.

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