Let’s Talk Cymbeline

[So, how was everybody’s summer? Sorry I haven’t been posting as much as I used to, many projects have pulled me in many directions that are not Shakespearean.  I shall try to return to a better pace now that the kids are back in school.]

Who’s excited about the new Cymbeline movie?  It’s getting primarily billed as Ethan Hawke’s project, and I know that when we hear Ethan Hawke we think Hamlet(2000), a movie I still haven’t been able to sit through.   But it appears young Mr. Hawke is quite the up and coming Shakespearean – not only did he tackle Macbeth, he documented his research for PBS’s Shakespeare Uncovered series.  And now Cymbeline.  Maybe he’s just doing it backwards?  Maybe he should have worked his way up to Hamlet? 🙂
Now let’s look at the supporting cast.  Ed Harris!  I love him in just the right supporting role.  Apollo 13 (“We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.”)? The Truman Show (“Cue the sun.”)? The Rock (“You’ve been asked by an old friend.  You’re being ordered by a superior officer. Now you’re being given your last chance by a man with a gun.”)?  He always gets the best line in the movie, and nails it every time.
And how about John Leguizamo?  He’s got some Shakespeare under his belt, having playing Tybalt to Leo DiCaprio’s Romeo.  Whether you liked that movie or not, I think most people will agree that Leguizamo can bring the villain out whenever he needs to.
The funny thing is I know nothing about Cymbeline.  I know there’s a king, but that king is Ed Harris and is a relatively minor role.  So, rather than have me look it up on Wikipedia or Sparknotes, how about somebody tells us the story?  I’ll ask the same questions I skim for whenever I’m about to watch a play for the first time:
  • High level plot overview.  Everybody needs some plot.
  • Famous quotes or moments the play is known for?  I learned the importance of this when I saw As You Like It in the park.  The crowd was all noisy and buzzing, like crowds are, until Jaques boomed, “All the world’s a stage…” and it was like you could hear a pin drop.  As if the entire crowd in unison said, “Oh hey, I recognize that!” and started listening.
  • Important scenes / subject to interpretation that will make for interesting “Why did they do it that way?” discussion afterward.  Every production of every Shakespeare play is different, and that’s why we love them.  Once you’re an expert in any given play you can pick out every last detail – but when you’re seeing it for the first time you’re not going to have much to compare it against.  So we pick some scenes to stick in our memory.  For instance I once saw  a King Lear who actually bargained with the storm in his big scene, if you can believe it. I’ll never forget him cowering from the thunder while he gave his big speech as if he was complimenting nature on how big and powerful she was.
So who knows their Cymbeline?

10 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Cymbeline

  1. I'm so conflicted about this movie. I love the play but the casting makes me apprehensive. To me you need a really strong Imogen to carry it (and I'm talking strong actress wise not the way the character is portrayed). From what I've seen of Dakota Johnson I've been very underwhelmed and I don't think she has the chops. I don't know, I think Ethan Hawke as Iachimo is a really interesting choice but, man I just don't think this is going to turn out very well. I really, really hope I'm wrong though because I love this play.

  2. Pisanio is the Paulina analog from Winter's Tale — he's the clever manservant who tries to fix everything. I would actually be interested in seeing Leguizamo do this straight man part.

  3. I have a lot of feelings about Cymbeline, actually — it's my favorite play. It's utterly ridiculous! The fifth act resolution is probably the most hilariously contrived you've ever seen. It's Shakespeare's clips show, and — the problem that I see with the Hawke production is that he's trying to do a "gritty" version, which… makes about as much sense as a gritty Midsummer or AYLI.

    The basis of the play is this: Imogen, the daughter of the king of Britain, has secretly married the noble orphan Posthumus, which is actually an act of treason, since Cymbeline's two sons were kidnapped when they were wee and marrying Imogen is tantamount to putting yourself in line to the throne. Cymbeline is married to an evil queen who is not Imogen's mother, and she's plotting for Imogen to marry her own son, the doltish and awful Cloten (who is sometimes double-cast as Posthumus, as was the case in the production for which Tom Hiddleston won so much praise).

    Posthumus goes into exile, and while he's in Rome, this sleazy Italian dude named Iachimo bets him that he can despoil Imogen's virtue. Posthumus, because he's a doofus, agrees to the bet, and — spoiler alert! — when Iachimo "succeeds," Posthumus decides Imogen has to die.

    This eventually leads to Imogen running away from home and cross-dressing in the Welsh forest, where she believes she's going to meet up with Posthumus. She meets up instead with some wacky forest people (who, unbeknownst to her, are her long-lost brothers), seems to die and then wakes up to find a headless body beside her that she believes is Posthumus.

    Then the Romans invade! And Jupiter descends on an eagle in a dream! And everyone gets their due in the end.

    Cymbeline was really popular for Victorian-era theater-goers, who thought Imogen was a high-level heroine on he scale of Cordelia. The famous bit that you may have heard of is the "Fear no more the heat of the sun" song. It's also got a bit where Iachimo creeps into Imogen's bedroom by hiding in a trunk. The Geeky Blonde explains it all very well.

    But — it's really not one that I think can successfully be made gritty. It's (to me) really clear that the first half of the play is a parody, and then the characters are suddenly forced to see what the consequences of acting like a parody are in real life. (If anyone has read the play, I have a lot of feelings.)

    I could go on, but, er, some other people might want to talk. But I wish I could be confident about this production, and from what I understand it just super, super misses the outrageous, madcap, weirdly beautiful point.

  4. Interesting!

    So, who is this Pisanio character that Leguizamo plays? A bit part? And what of Ed Harris' Cymbeline, will he have any memorable lines?

    I have to lookup this "Penn Badgley" chap, seems like he's the real star of the show even if Ethan Hawke is the name in all the headlines.

  5. Ah. Gossip Girl. This would explain why he is popular and yet I've never heard of him.

  6. theroaringgirl says:

    I wrote my comment and Blogger told me it was too long. So I have divided it into 3 sections:

    Cymbeline is dark and magical.

    It is about losing one's way. Every single person in that play is lost at some point, literally or metaphorically, even though some of them don't know it. Jupiter is the one exception. He always knows where he is and what he is doing.

    While the play always strikes me as having the fairytale quality of many of Shakespeare's later plays, I would be interested to see what this film does with it. I don't see where it should be too hard to find the “gritty” elements in this play. It is a play that focuses on violation: the violation of British soil through Roman invasion, and the violation of Imogen. In a highly theoretical since, Imogen is Briton. Shakespeare makes this clear when he gives her a beautiful moment of metonymy in which she says Posthumous has forgotten Briton, when what she really means is that he has forgotten her. While the country only receives one attack, Imogen suffers many: Iachimo violates her privacy and space as he explores her body and her bedroom while she is sleeping. He then violates her honor when he slanderously tells her husband of their amorous encounters. Posthumous violates her trust when he sends a servant to kill her. Finally, Cloten seeks to violate her because he thinks that if he can force himself upon her Cymbeline will give him her hand in marriage and the kingdom, in a "you break it, you buy it" sort of way. When you add up the battle, poisoning, makeshift burial, violent rustics (no matter how chivalrous they are portrayed), and the headless body, there is plenty of grit to go around.

  7. theroaringgirl says:

    I think there are two things about this play that should really interest any Shakespeare Geek: one macro and one micro.

    On the Macro level: This play is like a "Smorgashbord of Shakespeare's greatest hits." It has star-crossed lovers, missing princes, a manipulative wife, an aging king, a trusty servant, a villainous liar (whose name literally means “little Iago”), a “breeches part,” an idealized pastoral setting, war with Rome, getting lost in wales, a visit from the Gods, a soothsayer, songs, mistaken identity, a death-like sleep, and the most convoluted 5th act reveal ever written. Cymbeline is very much King Lear. Imogen is Juliet, Rosalind, and Cordelia all rolled into one. Posthumous thinks he is playing Othello's part but often talks like things over like he is Hamlet. Cloten acts like Thurio from 2 Gents but wishes he was Pertruchio to Imogen's Kate. There is even a “once more into the breech” scene involving an old man, a lane, and two boys. It has something from everywhere. Harold Bloom hates the play for that very reason, but I think Shakespeare does a marvelous job of tying all these pieces together while commenting on his previous work.

    This leads me to the micro: Posthumous. While the jealous husband can be found in Othello and in Much Ado About Nothing, no other jealous man repents before he learns the whole story. While Othello and Claudio mourn their dead (or supposedly dead) lovers once they learn of their beloved's innocence, only Posthumous regrets his actions before he hears her side of the story. He challenges the audience asking the cuckolds present what they think of his choice: “You married ones, / If each of you should take this course, how many / Must murder wives much better than themselves / For wrying but a little!” He wishes her back to life even before he hears that she is belied. When he hears Iachimo's confession, he nearly kills himself: “O, give me cord, or knife, or poison, / Some upright justicer! Thou, king, send out / For torturers ingenious: it is I / That all the abhorred things o' the earth amend / By being worse than they. ” While she is innocent and he does have a very strong reaction to that, it is not her perfect chastity that makes her valuable. He sees her inestimable worth even while he still thinks that she has been seduced by another. She is a great woman whether she is chaste or not. She is not Lucrece whose virtue can only be maintained through death.

  8. theroaringgirl says:

    Finally: if you want to do more research into the play, I recommend the BBC Complete works Cymbeline from 1982. Helen Mirren plays Imoge, Michael Pennington (best know for being "that guy" in Star Wars) plays Posthumous, and Robert Lindsey plays Iachimo. There are a lot of pretty typical "Bad BBC" moments, but there are a lot of beautiful things about it as well.

  9. And if all of the preceding wonderful exposition, analysis, and advice fails, you could always read the play.

  10. *Read*, J? READ? Shakespeare was meant to be performed, damnit! Not read!

    Ah, good times. I can only suspect that you offered up that line on purpose 🙂

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