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Cymbeline, the King of Britain, is angry that his daughter Imogen has chosen a poor (but worthy) man for her husband. So he banishes Posthumus, who goes to fight for Rome. Imogen (dressed as a boy) goes in search of her husband, who meanwhile has boasted to his pal Iachimo that Imogen would never betray him. And Iachimo's determined to prove him wrong. Written by
A jealous husband makes a bet on his wife's fidelity
Though orthodox theory deems William Shakespeare's Cymbeline as one of his latest works, the play is so cumbersome in its plotting that, as suggested by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it is more likely to have been a redraft of an earlier anonymous work, An history of the cruelties of a Stepmother shown at the palace at Richmond in 1578. In Cymbeline, first printed in the First Folio of 1623, King Cymbeline's Queen (who is the prototype of the wicked stepmother) wishes to marry her uncouth son Cloten to Cymbeline's daughter Imogen, performed in the BBC's 1982 production by the great Helen Mirren. Imogen, however, has chosen the worthy Posthumus (Michael Pennington) who has been rejected by King Cymbeline (Richard Johnson) and the Queen (Claire Bloom) because of his status as a commoner.
The main thrust of the story, however, has its sources in Boccaccio's Decameron, a 14th century tale that was also used as a source for All's Well That Ends Well. The story tells of a jealous husband who makes a bet on his wife's fidelity and is tricked into believing that she was unfaithful. Shakespeare takes this story set in Italy and transports it to Roman Great Britain at the beginning of the Christian era. Cymbeline is modeled after the real King Cunobelin but the Queen, her son Cloten, and Imogen are all inventions of the playwright. The real King, however, did have two sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, who play a prominent role in the play but again Shakespeare takes extravagant liberties with history. The dramatist has the King's sons abducted from the Court in early childhood and have been brought up ignorant of their ancestry for twenty years by Belarius, whom the King had banished from Court.
The play has many parallels with the life of Edward de Vere, too numerous to mention, and can be used as a case study for those favoring the Oxfordian point of view but is beyond the scope of this review. The play contains one of the most beautiful of all of Shakespearean songs, "Fear no more the heat of the sun" sung in a duet by Guiderius and Arviragus.
Fear no more the heat o' the sun, Nor the furious winter's rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages: Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Cymbeline, like many other of this author's works, uses the device of a woman, Imogen, posing as a page boy, in order to pretend that she is dead. This would have been very tricky in the Elizabethan days since only boys were used to play girls. So we have the case of a boy pretending to be a girl who, in the play, pretends to be a boy which he in fact was in the first place.
Another theme that is consistent with the dramatist is the overweening jealousy of a judgmental husband who wrongfully accuses a pure and innocent girl of infidelity, a jealousy encouraged by Iachimo (Robert Lindsay) who is reminiscent of Iago in Othello. This will make for interesting biographical material if the authorship question is ever sorted out. While Cymbeline receives a good performance by the BBC ensemble cast, Helen Mirren is unbelievable in the role of a page boy, the BBC making no effort whatsoever to disguise her. To have us believe that the King would not recognize his own daughter can only be described as ludicrous.
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