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The Tale of Cymbeline

Complejidad y teoría social (Academia)

by Ruth B. Bottigheimer

In the middle of the 1500s, a Venetian named Giovan Francesco Straparola put together a story collection, nearly all of whose plots came from earlier tale collections. But he inserted something remarkable amongst the standard plots for tales of urban rascality and quickwittedness. Straparola took typical story elements from the romances of his day (royal protagonists, expulsion from their royal estate, exposure to mortally dangerous tests, tasks, and trials, help from magical creatures) and he concluded them with a marriage to royalty and a happy-ever-after-ending. That ending seems unremarkable today, but romances in the 1400s and 1500s did not always end happily. In many of them, royal protagonists instead remained separated until their pious deaths. Straparola’s brilliant contribution to European literary history was this new narrative, the restoration fairy tale, which always ended happily for its suffering princes and princesses.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, often likened to a fairy tale, shares many motifs with traditional fairy tales. And its protagonist, Imogen, is a classic tale heroine. A highborn princess, she is the apple of her father’s eye until a stepmother ambitious for her own child’s future cunningly displaces her. Imogen is exposed to mortal dangers before the resolution that restores her to her royal family. She has archetypally contrasting suitors (one worthy, the other worthless) and kidnapped brothers deprived of their rightful inheritance, not to mention tokens of recognition (a diamond ring and a bracelet).

As a restoration tale heroine, Imogen is in illustrious company. Apuleius’s character Psyche, also a royal daughter, is similarly displaced from comfort and love, not by a stepmother, but by her envious sisters, who persuade her that the husband she mustn’t look upon is a serpent that will eventually devour her. From the moment that Psyche learns that her husband is Cupid himself, she is exposed to tasks and trials set by her mother-in-law, the goddess Venus. It takes Jupiter’s eventual intervention to restore her to Cupid’s loving arms and her rightful royal estate for a happy ending.

The earliest romances had relatively straightforward plots, but over time popular romances were lengthened by inserting one subplot after another. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, too, has numerous subplots, but instead of adding them one after the other, he interweaves them in and out, over, under, and around each other. Iachimo deceives Imogen’s husband Posthumus into believing he seduced his wife. Meanwhile, the faithful Imogen is put into a deathlike sleep, from which she awakens distraught to find what she thinks is Posthumus’s headless body. And all the while Imogen, while crossdressing to serve in a Roman regiment, falls unknowingly amongst her long-lost brothers, the kidnapped princes. There is also war followed by reconciliation between the Britons under Cymbeline’s rule and Roman legions.

Romances were for everybody: in northern Italy young and old, rich and poor, merchants and apprentices, all gathered round the storytellers and storysingers who performed romances on public plazas and who afterwards sold their listeners a copy of the work to take away with them. Romances were thus an integral part of everyday life, performed orally and printed in cheap booklets affordable by anybody with a few pennies to spare. Thus it was that adventures told on the plaza might be re-told at home. It is this sensibility that underlies the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Cymbeline as a tale told to a young person. The act of telling repeatedly recurs in Cymbeline, where characters one after the other confide their true feelings to the listening audience.

All in all, Cymbeline is a tale of restoration and reconciliation. The two lost princes are restored to their father Cymbeline; Posthumus returns to his beloved Britain, and he and Imogen are restored to each other. Cymbeline’s domestic world is returned to health by the deaths of his wicked queen and her wretched son Cloten, while the balance of his political world is restored when the British realm is restored to peace. With the help of the god Jupiter, the play cascades to a happy ending.

One question arises naturally in a discussion about restoration fairy tales: why should stories of princes and princesses restored to power remain so popular in democratic and king-less societies such as ours? The earliest restoration fairy tales, those in Straparola’s collection, bespeak earthly well-being brought about by marrying royalty and achieving wealth. Subsequent restoration fairy tales, however, came to reformulate Straparola’s pragmatic wish-fulfillment in higher terms, namely love and living happily ever after. The German fairy tale specialist Lutz Röhrich believed that visible kingship symbolizes a higher goal for human life, which he understood as maturation, self control, and inner contentment—all of which is embodied and expressed in Cymbeline’s final scene.
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Ruth Bottigheimer, the author of Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition and Fairy Tales: A New History, is Research Professor in the Department of Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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