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Casting a Spell

by Akiva Fox, Literary Associate

A divine visitation and miraculous reunions, William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is more magic show than history play. Fittingly, the earliest record of a performance comes from Simon Forman, a quack doctor who dabbled in astrology and occult magic. Forman saw the play at the outdoor Globe Theatre in the spring of 1611, though it may have premiered the winter before, at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre or at the court of King James I.

Shakespeare drew the rudiments of his plot from the 12th-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of the legendary early British king Cunobelinus, but the play shows little interest in British or Roman history. Instead, Cymbeline explores the territory of myth and legend. With its story of a young woman surviving her wicked stepmother’s attempts on her life thanks to the help of a kindly servant, the play shares much with the popular European tale of Snow White.

In its mythic underpinnings, Cymbeline belongs to the last great project of Shakespeare’s playwriting career: a group of four works now known as the “Late Romances.” Along with The Winter’s Tale, Pericles and The Tempest, Cymbeline embodies a genre of no genre. These plays mix elements from the more easily classifiable histories, comedies and tragedies that made Shakespeare’s name: disguise, jealousy, innocence threatened, mistaken identity, journeys across the sea and more. They all center on the relationship between a difficult father and a powerfully virtuous daughter (King Cymbeline and Princess Imogen in Cymbeline, Leontes and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, Pericles and Mariana in Pericles, and Prospero and Miranda in The Tempest). Most importantly, each play draws heavily on the spiritual or magical realms, and each culminates in near-miraculous transformations, resurrections and reunions. They present the healing of a separated family and of a broken world.

Something in these stories resonated with Shakespeare at the end of his career, and with his audiences. Newly translated Greek Romances from the second century A.D. were bestsellers at this time, and Shakespeare borrowed their plots and styles to bring them renewed popularity in play form. For more than 250 years after its premiere, Cymbeline remained a fixture on stage; audiences loved its epic scope, its unpredictable plot, its indomitable heroine and its touching conclusion. Into the mid-19th century, productions of Cymbeline were part of theatres’ repertoires (though often in heavily truncated or rewritten versions). Mysteriously, the play all but disappeared from the stage beginning in the 1860s.

But a good tale never really disappears. After its century out of fashion, Cymbeline has begun to return to the stage over the last 50 years. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1962 production, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Imogen, sparked renewed interest in the play. Regular British and American revivals followed, including a lavish 2007 production at Lincoln Center Theatre, featuring Martha Plimpton as Imogen and Phylicia Rashad as the Queen. The magic of Cymbeline continues to thrill and comfort audiences, offering the possibility of redemption amidst brokenness. Shakespeare’s last, best stories are still being told 400 years after their writing.

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