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INTRODUCTION TO CYMBELINE.
TALIAN fiction and ancient legendary British story—the
Decameron of Boccaccio, and the Chronicle of Holinshedsupplied materials for this play, which blends together, as Schlegel says, 'the social manners of modern times with old heroic deeds, and even with appearances of the gods. Some of the incidents are also found in early French literature, and in an English imitation of Boccaccio's novel (sadly vulgarised in the process of transfusion), which is entitled Westward for Smelts. Malone states that this English version was printed in 1603, but no copy of an earlier date than 1620 is known to exist. There may also have been an old play to which Shakespeare had recourse ; the subject is one likely to have been early brought on the stage, and there are portions of this tragedy (as the scroll and the vision in the Fifth Act) which bear traces of the style and rude pageantry of the elder playwrights. No such performance, however, has descended to the present time. Shakespeare's Cymbeline is the only drama bearing that name of which we have any mention. It was first printed in the folio of 1623, but is supposed to have been produced about 1610 or 1611. The versification and general style of the play resemble those of The Winter's Tale and The Tempest (especially the former), and most likely denote the same period in the poet's career as a dramatic author. Energy of thought, and condensed figurative language (often abrupt and elliptical), struggled with the lingering beauty of the youthful period.
There is a double action or plot in this tragedy. The main incident, the wager on the chastity of the heroine, is in Boccaccio's novel. There we have the successful villany of Iachimo, the distinctive mark on the person of Imogen ( on her left breast a mole cinque-spotted,' &c.), her threatened death at the instigation of her husband, her escape through the compassion and attachment of the servant, and her solitary wanderings disguised as a page. The Italian novelist makes the heroine enter the service of a merchant, and at Alexandria attract the attention of the sultan in her male disguise. She discovers her traducer (who is put to death by the sultan), discloses her sex, and is restored to her disabused and repentant husband. With Shakespeare the scene is principally laid in Britain-in the dim and fabulous court and times of Cymbeline, described by Holinshed as contemporary with Augustus Cæsar ; and when Imogen flies for safety, she seeks the mountains of Wales, where she finds the sons of Cymbeline, her unknown brothers, following the life of a hunter. They had been stolen from the court in their infancy, and reared in obscurity by Belarius, a nobleman formerly banished by Cymbeline on a false accusation of treason. Imogen ultimately meets with her husband, Posthumus, Iachimo's villany is laid bare, the sons of Cymbeline are recognised and acknowledged, the unfaltering fidelity of Imogen is rewarded by reunion with her husband, and the complicated series of events issue in mutual reconciliations, forgiveness, and happiness. Even the slanderer of Imogen, the false Italian, is pardoned. Boccaccio condemned him to a cruel death, but Shakespeare, whose philosophy is ever tolerant, bids him 'live and deal with others better.' In the progress of the story, several episodes are introduced presenting scenes and dialogues of great beauty and tenderness. Indeed, a spirit of romantic poetry is shed over the whole, and the purely descriptive passages are not excelled in any of the poet's dramas. Among these we may instance the exquisite portraiture of Imogen in her chamber (Act II. sc. 2); the account of the pleasures of the chase and the wild mountain-life enjoyed by the banished courtier and the young princes (Act III. sc. 3) ; the lamentation of Arviragus over the supposed dead body of Imogen (Act IV. sc. 2), &c. The lyrical pieces, ‘Hark! hark ! the lark at heaven's gate sings ' (Act II. sc. 3), and 'Fear no more the heat o' the sun' (Act IV. sc. 2), are of the very essence of poetry. Johnson (who was equally insensible to the beauties of Milton's Lycidas) saw no charm, or wilfully overlooked these choice treasures of poetic feeling and fancy, when he so sturdily condemned this play for its confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of its events in any system of life. He subjected imagination and romance to the prosaic rules of matter-of-fact, and neglected the language, sentiments, and discrimination of character in the drama. The character of Imogen, for example, is one of the most perfect and winning of the poet's creations. In constancy and affection she is not inferior to Desdemona ; but she is humbler, more artless, more helpless ; while amidst coarser and severer trials, long protracted, she preserves the same unconquerable love, natural piety, delicacy, and purity of soul.
“The charms which Shakespeare has thrown over the nakedness of his original stories make the reader regret that his attention is ever distracted. How beautiful is the development of Imogen's character ; how rich and spirited the dialogue, particularly the scene between Posthumus and Iachimo, after the return of the latter to Rome! The fine poetry which the dramatist has lavished upon Iachimo is an excuse for having left him the same common-place villain that he appears in the novel ; and where in Boccaccio, or in any other writer, is the wretchedness of impure love so beautifully displayed, as in one of the speeches of this hypocrite, during his conversation with Imogen? The ancient British story is adorned with many beauties. Though the king and queen are dull, and prate too much, yet Cloten is interesting. He is a natural fool ; yet he often talks with the wit of one of Shakespeare's professed fools. He loves Imogen, for she is fair and royal ; but he hates her, because she despises his person ; and Shakespeare makes his hatred predominate, because vanity is the characteristic of a fool. What vigour and vitality are thrown over the bookish chronicle by the fable of the Cambrian gentlemen-Belarius full of valuable axioms and sentences, embittered indeed by a world that had disgraced him, and Guiderius and Arviragus, with glorious enthusiasm and lofty hopes, piercing through the meanness of their estate.'-AUGUSTUS SKOTTOWE.
"Let those who talk so confidently about the skill of Shakespeare's contemporary, Jonson, point out the conclusion of any one of his plays which is wrought with more artifice, and yet a less degree of dramatic violence than this. In the scene before us [the last scene of Cymbeline] all the surviving characters are assembled ; and at the expense of whatever incongruity the former events may have produced, perhaps little can be discovered on this occasion to offend the most scrupulous advocate for regularity : and, I think, as little is found wanting to satisfy the spectator by a catastrophe which is intricate without confusion, and not more rich in ornament than in nature.'--STEEVENS.
“Poetical justice has been strictly observed in this drama ; the vicious characters meet the punishment due to their crimes, while virtue, in all its degrees, is proportionably rewarded. The scene of retribution, which is the closing one of the play, is a master-piece of skill; the development of the plot, for its fulness, completeness, and ingenuity, surpassing any effort of the kind among our author's contemporaries, and atoning for any partial incongruity which the structure or conduct of the story may have previously displayed:-DRAKE.
CYMBELINE, king of Britain.
sons to Cymbeline, disguised under the names GUIDERIUS,
of POLYDORE and CADWAL, supposed sons ARVIRAGUS,
QUEEN, wife to Cymbeline.
Lords, Ladies, Roman Senators, Tribunes, a Soothsayer, Musicians,
Officers, Messengers, and other Attendants.
SCENE.-SOMETIMES IN BRITAIN, SOMETIMES IN ITALY.