It often happens with the Shakespeare project that I’ll get some nice momentum going, plays are fun and easy to read, easy to find, and I think, right! Done and dusted! Then the Bard has some trick up his sleeve, buried in centuries of change and history, and suddenly it’s not easy at all. Right! Gonna take some time. Not done. Not dusted.
This has happened with Cymbeline, a tragedy from Shakespeare’s late career, much loved in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, causing scores of baby girls to be named Imogen (or Innogen?), in honor of the leading lady, so beautiful, so loyal, so asleep through the majority of the play at key junctures that Harriet Walters, one of my favorite living actors, famously said thanks no thank to the role, given that it is difficult to imbue a character with dramatic nuance if she is always asleep, drugged, or both.(1)
Cymbeline has fallen out of favor since 1920, but the name Imogen still seems to hold strong hipster cache. It’s such a mash of history and plot, Boccaccio and Rome, Italy and Wales, that at first I didn’t even know where to begin to enter this fever dream. There’s a production from 2015 starring Ethan Hawke as Iachimo, but you can’t rent to watch anywhere for love or money. The RSC has no full-length production posted online for this piece. Audio books are of little help when the plot is so tangled and characters continuously disguise themselves, change identities, cross-dress, kill characters and dress people up in the dead person’s clothes, and so on. I made that mistake last year and said, never again. I’ll wade through the text with a video. Otherwise the audio book just becomes a disorganized audio salad, particularly if it is a piece that is completely new to me. And no dressing. Like I literally get almost nothing out of it.
A two-hour video from the Harvard English department, recorded in 2007 (watched on 1.5x playback speed), provided helpful context. Shakespeare creates a world where nothing matches yet human nature lines up, creating a short of Frankenstein plots meets human allegory that somehow, by dint of dramatic alchemy, becomes a universal representation of all of our grandest struggles, successes, failures, sins, and triumphs. The names come from everywhere. We fly through centuries. Is it because Shakespeare is lazy? On deadline? Burbage busting his chops for a plan on time, come on, Will, curtain’s up this Friday, the Queen is pist? Demented? Nay, hardly. It is more like sipping tea in the bardo with a student of human nature.
Eleanor has begin watching a history series that finishes each episode with a plausible reconstruction of a historical figure. We were delighted to find one on Shakespeare. He looked a lot like Paul Giamatti, if he looked anything like that. He may have. We wound up binge watching approximately twenty episodes.
I decided too I had grown weary of the Folger Library’s pdfs of the plays. Oh for a paper copy! Where could I possibly find a copy and fast in Florence? Wait, there is a library at Gonzaga in Florence (GIF) that I always forget about! Why! I suppose I don’t want to fulfill the annoying trope of the annoying wife of the director so I keep a low profile. But the Italian librarian Elisabetta is the kindest, and most helpful, and probably gets a bit bored during the day when clusters of undergraduates just use the reading room in the library for a study hall. GIF has a lovely collection and right up my Shakespeare project alley. In fact, they hold a complete copy of The Yale Shakespeare, printed in 1924, and there was a pristine copy of Cymbeline! I checked it out and promptly took it home, and reader, I am here to tell you – that book had remained untouched for a century. Some of the pages had yet to be cut apart with a pen knife. I’ll never be able to switch to eReaders. Sigh.
So I am halfway through the paper copy, and will do my best to finish this play so I can move on to The Tempest. I don’t want to just blow through it for plot and character; there is real poetry on the page. And some reaaaallllly ribald humor which, let’s face it, every groundling loves, to wit:
Come on, tune. If you can penetrate her with your
fingering, so. We’ll try with tongue, too. If none
will do, let her remain, but I’ll never give o’er. First,
a very excellent good-conceited thing; after, a wonderful
sweet air, with admirable rich words to it,
and then let her consider. Act II Sc. 3
What do you all think? Does this count as my meditation on Cymbeline, or naw? I suppose this is the proof I sought that I wanted the Shakespeare project to give me a good literary bone to gnaw on, now and again. Here I am, gnawing, gnawing. To quote the Queen, O! Content thee!
(1) Harriet Walter, “Imogen in Cymbeline,” in Players of Shakespeare 3, ed. Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 214.