How Do You Solve a Problem Like Cymbeline?

Here’s a Shakespeare quiz for you. A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Comedy. Macbeth? Tragedy. Henry IV Part 1? History. So far, so clear. Now, how about Cymbeline?


If you’re having trouble classifying the play, it’s probably because you don’t know it very well, if at all; and if you don’t know it, it’s probably because it isn’t performed or assigned very often; and, of course, it isn’t performed or assigned very often because it’s difficult to classify. A vicious circle, with the result that Cymbeline has slipped almost completely out of our very precious Shakespeare canon.

Cymbeline is a motley. It is put together from dark patches of accusations of adultery, theft, treachery, banishment, poisoning, murder, and the Roman invasion of Britain, along with light patches of singing, dancing, mistaken identities, lewd puns, reconciliation, true love, and the brightest comic color of all: the heroine disguised as a boy.

Over the years, various terms have been used to take into account those of Shakespeare’s plays – Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and sometimes The Merchant of Venice – that defy traditional classification. They are called “romances,” “dark comedies,” and, following F.  S. Boas’s 1896 Shakespeare and His Predecessors, “problem plays.” Boas originally used the term to mean that these plays deal with moral problems, but the term also conveniently takes into account the fact that they are problematic to interpret and problematic to stage. Is the hero serious about killing the heroine? If so, then how can the heroine really forgive him at the end? Are we meant to laugh or cry?

Lingering behind such questions is the implication that the plays are no more than generic gallimaufries, that Shakespeare was simply overworked or bored, and that we must find it in us to forgive him since even the greatest of geniuses should be allowed to take a play off once in a while. There seem to be two ways of answering these intimations of mediocrity.

The first is to recognize that human psychology is complex, and that the course of human life is a mixture of good fortune and bad. Life, according to this reading, is a problem play. As a result, the interpretations of this first category delight in moral ambiguities, emphasize textual difficulties, and leave plots teasingly unresolved – all in the name of realism. The best of these readings illuminate the subtleties of the texts; the worst result in absurdist productions, agenda-based criticism, and textual deconstruction.

This first take on the problem plays is currently in fashion, and it has been in fashion for so long that it is easy to forget that there is another way of doing things – a way, moreoever, that seems to have been closer to Shakespeare’s way of doing things. This second take involves going back to a time before realism became the norm: before T.V. and film in the twentieth century, before the long, descriptive novels of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. When Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline, the theatrical experience had very little to do with flat description and presentation: It actively involved the audience in the imagination of another world. This communal conjuring has very little to do with realism; indeed, too much realism can impede the imagination.

Harold Bloom has written that Cymbeline is a parody of the theater in general and of Shakespeare’s own corpus in particular. Parodies are sophisticated, for they involve a delicate, difficult relationship with the entire history of textual production as well as apparent self-consciousness of their own internal narrative mechanics. That sounds more difficult than it is: Think spoof. Parodies and spoofs are frequently misread as bad realism, but they work as a different kind of text entirely. In parodic works, the “problems” mark precisely those elements that ensure the success of the work if performed as parody, and entail its failure if taken as straightforward realism. When performed in this fashion we delight in the very seams of artifice, the incongruities, the slips and starts of the plot. Rather than simply watch the story of Cymbeline: We watch – and even contribute to – the entire experience of the players playing Cymbeline.

This second method isn’t risked too often these days, but the recent production of the Fiasco Theatre Company shows us how it’s done. They turn the “problems” of Cymbeline to profit: The nefarious Iachimo (often compared to Iago) becomes a charismatic, wily schemer; the devious Queen (who, on the surface, has much in common with Lady Macbeth) becomes a lovable evil; and the jealous Posthumous (a potential Othello) repents and is forgiven. The bad characters do not pretend to be subtle or have complex backstories justifying their motives. On the contrary, they relish being self-involved, greedy, lustful, and outrageously wicked.

The biggest potential “problem” in the text of Cymbeline is the death of one of the characters: I won’t say who, or how, for it is enough to know that there is a death and that death is notoriously difficult to find funny. At the end of this death, however, instead of hanging their heads in solemn silence the audience was laughing, clapping, and cheering. Callous? No, because we’re not supposed to see a dead character, we’re supposed to see an actor badly pretending to be dead.

The actors defiantly resist fusing with their characters: They sit around the stage, play music, modify their costumes, and take on multiple roles. The dual, triple, and quadruple performances cause some anxiety, for even if you haven’t read the play before you will expect the characters to appear on stage at the same time for the denouement. Awkwardness, embarrassment, or drastic truncation seem the only alternatives. By the end of the play, however, the audience is so complicit in the staging that the predicament becomes the source of even greater hilarity. Shakespeare would have loved it.

When performed in this fashion, the “problems” jolt us out of our normal way of bumbling about in the world and force us to have fun. Perhaps rather than getting on with our realistic lives, we might learn from Fiasco how to find joy in the blips, the artistry, the play, the vitality, and the magic of our imaginations.

Live a Life Well-Read Get the best of news, culture, and books delivered weekly. Join the Signature newsletter