Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, August 13, 2012

Coming Clean about CYMBELINE

The Yale Shakespeare

I see in my little blue Yale Shakespeare volume that I first read Cymbeline in January 1987.  I'm not sure why I did that--starting the New Year (the year I would turn 43) by reading this bizarre play from late in Shakespeare's career.  I do remember that I was in the initial stages of what would become my Bard Mania.  I had just begun teaching Shakespeare to my eighth graders--The Taming of the Shrew--and so I was off doing every Shakespeare-related thing I could think of--including reading all of the plays, each in a single volume in the The Yale Shakespeare, a set my parents had given me for college graduation.

Here are a couple of links for the curious about Cymbeline:

1. For the lazy and shameless (plot summary)

2. For those who wish to earn my enduring respect (text of play)

2004 Program
Until Sunday, I'd seen the play only one time before (it's not often performed)--at the Stratford Festival on 1 July 2004, and my journal reminds me that I didn't think much of it: not a very good play, I wrote sagely: out of control.  Actually, I recall laughing at things I was not supposed to laugh at. And I promptly consigned the play to the nether regions of ShakespeareWorld.

Oh, does it have some bizarre things going on.  A woman grieves over the body of a headless man (not a horseman) she believes is her husband (the topless one is wearing her husband's clothes).  In a virgin's room a lecher hides in a box (she thinks it's for storage), emerges while she's sleeping to ... I forget.  A doofus thinks he will rape a woman, gets a rough lesson.

As I watched all of that--and so much more--in 2004, as I said, I was rather less than impressed.  I even speculated in my journal that this was in fact an early play of the Bard's that he recycled late in his career as his thoughts were ever more of Stratford and he was readying to leave the London theater world and return to his home.  (Not that we have a clue about why he really left and went home.)

But as we watched this yesterday afternoon, we had another idea that seemed to make sense, and, like most theories about Shakespeare, has absolutely no evidence to support it.  We do know that the earliest recorded performance was in 1611; we know that it's the last play included in The First Folio; we "believe" it was written in 1610. 

And here's the theory: Shakespeare knew he was going to be leaving London soon.  He knew that he'd been making a wonderful living there since the 1580s with all sorts of plays--comedies, tragedies, histories, various mixtures of the above.  Why not give one of his last audiences a little bit of everything?  Why not trot out all the devices and character types he'd used so successfully throughout his career?  Just because ...  Sort of like an Olympic athlete taking a victory lap.

And so in Cymbeline we get so much we've seen before (the list below is not complete; add your own, if you wish)

1. a girl dressed as a man (Twelfth Night, As You Like It)
2. incredible gore (Titus Andronicus, Macbeth)
3. a fiendishly ambitious woman (Macbeth)
4. lovers separated by parents' displeasure (Romeo and Juliet)
5. a token that one lover give to another--and then ends up elsewhere (Othello, All's Well That Ends Well)
6. rustics in the woods (Midsummer Night's Dream)
7. young men who wrongly believe their faithful lovers have betrayed them (Much Ado About Nothing, Othello)
8. siblings separated--perhaps by death (The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night)
9. characters from the ancient world (a Roman legion appears--as does Jupiter!)
10. appearance of a god onstage (As You Like It)
11. the story of an English king (take your pick)
12. relationships between fathers and daughters (take your pick)
13. long-lost children return (The Winter's Tale)
14. forgiveness for enormous failures (Much Ado, Winter's Tale, Tempest)
15. people forced into exile (As You Like It)
16. a clownish figure (take your pick)
17. loyal servants--even in the face of death (take your pick)
18. friendships fractured by misunderstandings and/or lies (Winter's Tale)
19. potions that appear to kill (Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado)
20. a military invasion (Hamlet and many others)
21. ghosts (Hamlet, Julius Caesar)
22. young men who need to learn how to love (Much Ado, Love's Labour's Lost)
23. reconciliations at the end (take your pick)

There are probably more.  But I'm tired.

Graham Abbey & Cara Ricketts
The production we saw yesterday was incredibly good--and featured some of the best Shakespearean performers I've ever seen--including Graham Abbey and Tom McCamus, both of whom we saw in Balzac's Coffee forty-five minutes before curtain.  Geraint Wyn Davies (Cymbeline himself) was wonderful--as were the two principal women, Cara Ricketts and Yanna McIntosh.  Mike Shara, who had dazzled us in The Matchmaker earlier in the week, was terrific as the crude and, later, headless Cloten.

At one point, Graham Abbey (Posthumus), believing his wife is dead, collapses on the stage in grief--and it was all I could do to keep from erupting in sobs--which would not have been a good idea since he was, oh, about twenty feet away from us at the time (we had great seats!).

One of the passages I underlined back in 1987 comes very early in the play.  The two lovers are about to be separated by the command of the young woman's father.  The young man--Posthumus Leonatus--tells his lover/wife, whom he often calls his "queen," after revealing where he is headed: thither write, my queen, / And with mine eyes I'll drink the words you send ....

Oh my.

Well, I have been drinking the words that Shakespeare sent to us for decades now.  And they have the curious capacity of simultaneously satiating my thirst--and making me wish immediately for more.

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