Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Cara Ricketts as Innogen and Graham Abbey as Posthumus in the 2012 production of Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

It’s doubtful that Cymbeline has a single believable situation.  A few examples: right off the bat we meet a King who’s angry — why would any good father be angry? — with his daughter Innogen for marrying his Posthumus, a manly paragon of virtue, instead of his stepson Cloten, a drunken lout. In the middle of the play, Innogen wakes up to find herself in the mountains of western England — what were the chances? — lying next to the beheaded body of her stepbrother.

And at the play’s end, the Queen makes a death-bed confession to Doctor Cornelius that she never loved the King, was always repulsed by his body, and married him only for his position. Anyone with a shred of discretion would keep such a revelation to himself, but Cornelius rushes to blab it to the King, word for word. (Cymbeline tells everyone he never had a hint that his wife felt that way about him — who could be so oblivious?)

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Cymbeline, King of Britain

Not just the play’s plot elements, but its themes as well are incoherent.  In the final scene, Cymbeline (Geraint Wyn Davis) announces that Britain will keep paying tribute to Rome (3,000 pounds per year) even though he had just fought and won a war against the Romans over the very issue of tribute.  Not paying tribute had been a matter of principle, patriotism, and pride. As Cloten (Mike Shara) had said,

. . . Why tribute? why should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for light; else, sir, no more tribute, pray you now.

(Act III, Scene 1). Cymbeline himself was done with paying tribute:

You must know,
Till the injurious Romans did extort
This tribute from us, we were free:
Caesar’s ambition,
Which swell’d so much that it did almost stretch
The sides o’ the world, against all colour here
Did put the yoke upon ‘s; which to shake off
Becomes a warlike people, whom we reckon
Ourselves to be.

(Act III, Scene 1). Yet tribute is to be paid anyway. It’s as if George Washington, after accepting Cornwallis’s surrender and winning independence for the American colonies, had announced that the United States would go back to paying the tea tax.

The story of Cymbeline is as complicated as it is incredible. Till earlier this year, I’d made several abortive attempts to read it; I kept getting lost in the plot and the multiplicity of characters.  Finally, last winter, facing the prospect of actually seeing the play this spring, I made another essay and found smooth sailing.

This year’s production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival shows that this relatively obscure Shakespeare play is a good tale that makes for a highly satisfying three hours of theater. There are two main storylines and several lesser ones. The first main plot deals with the efforts of Cymbeline, King of Britain (Geraint Wyn Davies) to separate his daughter Innogen (Cara Ricketts) from her new husband, who is also the King’s foster son, Posthumus Leonatus (Graham Abbey). (Confusingly, Shakespeare’s characters sometimes call him “Posthumus” and sometimes “Leonatus.”) Banished by Cymbeline, Posthumus goes to Italy (these are the days of the Roman Empire, with Caesar Augustus as Emperor). Innogen eventually leaves home, disguised as a young man, with the hope of reuniting with her husband.

Tom McCamus

Meanwhile, at a dinner in Italy (this is the second main storyline), where all the men are bragging about their women the way Don Quixote bragged about Dulcinea, Posthumus meets a smooth-talking blackguard who offers to bet that Innogen is not so chaste that he, Iachimo (Tom McCamus), cannot seduce her. Astonishingly, Posthumus not only agrees to the bet, but even gives Iachimo a letter of introduction to his father-in-law. After Iachimo returns to Italy and tricks Posthumus into thinking he’d succeeded in bedding Innogen, Posthumus dispatches his loyal servant Pisanio (Brian Tree) to take the supposedly unfaithful Innogen out into the wilderness and put her to the knife. Posthumus is soon overwhelmed with remorse, believing himself a murderer. In fact, Innogen is still alive.

We learn from Posthumus later in the play that Innogen had for some reason persuaded him to put off consummating their marriage. The playwright is thus asking his audience to believe that Posthumus would have agreed to let Iachimo take a shot at “firsties” with Innogen! However far-fetched the proposition, it lets the audience ponder the contrast between the “purity” of Posthumus’s love for Innogen with the brutishness of the two other men in the play who want her, Iachimo and Cloten (who brags to his friends that when he finds Innogen, he’ll rape her, then kill her).  Shakespeare is not for the squeamish.

My wife, who isn’t a play-reader, told me she found this show unusually easy to follow. The reason, I am sure, is that director Antoni Cimolino had faith in the play that the Bard wrote and didn’t feel bound to tinker with the complicated story or make more or less of it than the text warranted. Mr. Cimolino’s only interpolation is a striking scene at the very beginning of the play that shows Cymbeline dreaming in bed. It’s a nod to the improbability of the play’s twists and turns, which are not unlike the incongruities of our dreams, in which people often behave irrationally and illogically.

Cymbeline has a large cast, but in this production even minor characters like the Roman general Lucius (Nigel Bennett), the fugitive warrior Belarius (John Vickery), and the court doctor, Cornelius (Peter Hutt) project distinctive, complex personalities. I enjoyed all three actors immensely. When I read the play, I didn’t quite grasp that whoever plays Posthumus has the romantic lead; Graham Abbey, a good-looking chap whose physique is positively ripped, nails the part (and set my wife’s heart a-flutter). Each of these actors, not to mention Yanna McIntosh as the Queen, Geraint Wyn Davis as Cymbeline, and Brian Tree as Pisanio, are masters of the difficult art of making Shakespeare’s 400-year-old language immediately accessible.

The finest performance, to my mind, is that of Tom McCamus as the smarmy Iachimo, the Roman who makes a sport of assaulting the virtue of another man’s wife. The dinner party scene in which Iachimo prevails on Posthumus to wager on his wife’s virtue is a highlight of the show. And at our performance, the audience collectively held its breath during the erotically charged, dream-like scene in which Iachimo rises out of hiding in Innogen’s bedroom, steals a clasp from the sleeping woman, and steals a look at her person for an identifying birthmark that would convince Posthumus that Iachimo had, in fact, been intimate with Innogen.

The only performance that did not seem fully satisfactory – why, if I have a reservation about a play at Stratford, is it usually about a younger performer? – was that of Cara Ricketts as Innogen. Ms. Ricketts delivers her lines expressively and audibly, but she delivers them all at the same intense emotional level, like a pianist who plays every phrase of a Beethoven sonata agitato or appassionato.  There were scenes in which dolce or gracioso was called for.

Thanks to my friend Shelly Jansen, who has written a thoughtful doctoral dissertation on the subject, I am now aware that when Innogen finally comes back to Posthumus, she does so as a revenant, a literary type that Dr. Jansen describes as a “spectral being” returned from a kind of death, literal or symbolic. When a character like Innogen is in a revenant state, forgiveness and reconciliation can place — and in all of Shakespeare there is no “group hug” reconciliation scene quite like the one at the end of Cymbeline. Other notable revenants include Hermione, in A Winter’s Tale, and Alcestis, the title character in the play of Euripedes.

Dr. Jansen’s thesis, written last year as part of her Ph. D. work at SUNY Binghamton, is entitled For-Giving: The Economy of the Revenant. The title of every doctoral thesis must include a colon.