Bright Lights Film Journal

Going to Extremes #2: Cymbeline (Sometimes in Britain)

Richard Johnson and Helen Mirren in the 1982 BBC-TV version of Cymbeline

Where all this takes me is to the thought that fiction frequently presents human personality as something lost or imprisoned – by self-ignorance and suspicion if by nothing worse. “We’re caught in a trap/I can’t walk out because I love you too much, baby.” Presley reminds me that there’s an erotic masochism in much of Shakespeare, and it doesn’t diminish in the last works.

For younger contemporaries like Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s Pericles was “timeless,” and this was not a compliment. On the contrary, just like the Rolling Stones, Jonson was saying, “Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time.”

One of the “university wits,” Robert Greene, writing in his funeral shroud.

We know Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors, the so-called university wits, had influenced Jonson’s leaning toward classicism. But despite their “higher” awareness of Greco-Roman dramaturgy, even they could swing audiences through giddy shifts of scene and tone. Think of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. But that was almost twenty years earlier.

So, in his next play, was William going to try harder to be “timely”? At first glance Cymbeline does appear to be swerving from the off-piste medievalism of Pericles to more familiar Renaissance slopes. Almost straight away we have male and female “machiavels” ready to exploit problems at court. And if Cymbeline himself is a rigidly class-conscious king, he’s father to the romantically egalitarian and deeply faithful Imogen. Meanwhile, for those who want to see the Volpone in everyone, even she is allowed – again early on – a moment of serious weakness.

But in terms of the unities of time and place or the tonal gap between tragedy and comedy, things since Pericles have, if anything, gotten worse. In the previous play, we do at least get the idea that we’re always somewhere around the Eastern Med and within the same twenty year time span. In Cymbeline, although the folio tells us we’re “Sometimes in Britain, Sometimes in Italy,” the topographical tip-off is not as helpful as it sounds. That’s because we’re well and truly back in Renaissanceland – a confused, ambiguous, fast-expanding universe that, in the right hands, can evoke almost any time or place or tone you like. And then we recall that, from Henry V onwards – whatever his rivals were saying – Shakespeare was the surest pair of hands in the business, forever discovering new lands within the “wooden O” of open-roofed theatre.

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For the BBC/Time-Life production of Cymbeline in 1982, producer Shaun Sutton brought in Elijah Moshinsky to direct. Judging from their CVs, either one might be more than any dramatist could hope for. Together they offer the possibility, at least, of recreating the “wooden O” experience.

So if things occasionally go by in a blur, we might see this in a distinctly positive light, happily accepting such moments along with all the shapely lucidities on offer. (Something like this seems to have been felt by the majority of viewers who rated this on the IMDb site.)

Among the more luminous moments we might note how strongly Moshinsky’s cast pick up on Shakespeare’s incidental-looking but deliberately placed themes. Most important of these, and one we’ve seen many times before in his plays, is that of bondage and imprisonment – in love, in family or social ties, in literal reality. The “treatment” Shakespeare offers here and which Moshinky trusts is, typically, not a matter of surface structure or technical dramaturgy. So, though one spots symmetry of focus on a “big theme” in the beginning and ending, the really big dramatic effects are achieved – surprise, surprise – by the inner force of the blank verse.

Hitchcock and Dali

Speaking of artistic purity, I was recently reminded of its elusive nature while watching an old TV Hitchcock interview. Having learned his trade in the silent era, Hitchcock says he often thought of himself as a kind of painter, someone objectively engaged with Pure Cinema. So when sound came, for example, he was shocked at the number of “photographed plays” being churned out – though he probably didn’t have Shakespeare in mind.

I’m criss-crossing between obsessive artists whose work, though based on genre conventions and technical abilities, amounts to more than any format or anti-format: what Pure Cinema was for Hitchcock, Pure Drama was for Shakespeare. All right, this might be a thinly disguised wish to resuscitate the Bard for TV interview. And suddenly on a charge of necromancy, I’ll try to keep out of gaol by remembering the words of Pisanio, hard-pressed servant of Imogen’s exiled true love (is he true? is anyone?) in Act IV Sc III:

All other doubts by time let them be clear’d:

Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer’d.

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Scholars like the late Tony Tanner point out the sheer number of subplots in Cymbeline. He mentions that someone once totted them up at twenty-five, more than in any other Shakespeare play, yet all are resolved in the space of five hundred words at the end. It’s hard to say who is being more obsessive here – renaissance playwright or his stats-minded modern students.

But that’s not all. Tanner also notices that, as a consequence of so many plots, we have the largest number of characters who don’t know what’s going on either! For Moshinsky, set designers and lighting engineers have made whatever’s happening look extremely interesting for us, even when lost between “Ancient Rome” and “Ancient Britain.” (Reassuringly, both places are great-looking parts of Renaissanceland.) Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s change-ringing divisions between Court and Country are typically more help than hindrance.

Elvis Presley: Suspicious Minds

Where all this takes me is to the thought that fiction frequently presents human personality as something lost or imprisoned – by self-ignorance and suspicion if by nothing worse. “We’re caught in a trap/I can’t walk out because I love you too much, baby.” Presley reminds me that there’s an erotic masochism in much of Shakespeare, and it doesn’t diminish in the last works. Imogen’s husband latterly faces not just the pangs of exile but those of literal imprisonment, with torture and threat of execution thrown in – and all for the sake of loving someone “above his station.” I think we know what Freudians would make of that.

The amazing thing is that this 1982 TV Movie remains so firmly on track while depicting so many tortuous developments and, most of all perhaps, where “tone” is so deeply ambivalent. From the academic standpoint, most of us probably think of Cymbeline as a tragi-comedy, an as yet ill-defined genre; but it’s part of a development in Shakespeare we can read back to the Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure.

Technically, as pure artist in blank verse, Shakespeare is always Marlovian. As time goes on we get the I-am-not-Ben-Jonson effect; finally, and attracting much modern research, we discover the impact of John Fletcher, a younger contemporary with a specific set of rules for tragi-comedy. In Cymbeline, instantly confronted by the king’s scheming new wife and the character of Iachimo (a clear reference back to Iago), we seem all set for another take on Revenge Tragedy. But only two characters – both of them baddies – actually die; and, in the bizarrely over-the-top denouement, any remaining baddies repent while the good guys (loyal to a less than deserving king) receive belated recognition and/or rediscover romance. Revenge Tragi-Comedy anyone?

For sure, Fletcher would have been a little unhappy that a tragi-comedy – where, strictly speaking, no one should die – has smuggled in a beheading and a poisoning en route to the happy ending. But to conclude here, I’d like very briefly to add something else.

Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery

While it’s dangerously easy to project or speculate, I’m finding in the last plays a distinct comment – however subliminal – on what life had become for the most successful dramatist in – where? – well, not the entire world yet, so let’s keep it at late renaissance England. What I’m getting at is this: if characters can, in some inescapable sense, seem trapped in a web of fiction, what about their authors? Certainly in terms of films and novels the most memorable example I know is the Trapped Author protagonist of Stephen King’s Misery. Readers will probably be glad I’m not literally asking them to see the Bard in ankle bracelets, captivated by the bone-crushing charms of his “biggest fan.” But maybe I was being more serious than I thought when invoking Elvis and “Suspicious Minds.” The intriguing difference here is that William, much as he loved Theatre, did find a way out – or, should I say, wrote himself out? But that’s another double meaning for another time.