A short summary of the main facts surrounding Shakespeare’s neglected late play
1. Samuel Johnson wasn’t impressed by Cymbeline. The eighteenth-century critic, poet, and lexicographer dismissed its ‘unresisting imbecility’, while George Bernard Shaw (who liked All’s Well That Ends Well, at least as much as Shaw liked any Shakespeare) called it ‘stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order’. Shaw would rewrite the ending of the play in his short work Cymbeline Refinished. Henry James, in 1896, was kinder: ‘The thing is a florid fairy-tale, of a construction so loose and unpropped that it can scarce be said to stand upright at all, and of a psychological sketchiness that never touches firm ground, but plays, at its better times, with an indifferent shake of golden locks, in the high, sunny air of delightful poetry.’
2. It may have given us the girls’ name Imogen. Cymbeline remains one of Shakespeare’s less well-known and frequently read (or staged) plays. It’s only been adapted for film a handful of times. But it did give the world one lasting and famous legacy: the girls’ name Imogen … at least according to many accounts (e.g. in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare). In the original play, the daughter of Cymbeline has the name ‘Innogen’, a Gaelic name meaning ‘girl’ or ‘maiden’ which features in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (a source much plundered by Shakespeare over the years). Probably as a result of a printer’s error, the double ‘n’ ran together and the name ‘Imogen’ was born. It would be one of a handful of names that Shakespeare would either invent or popularise, others being Miranda and Jessica. Some productions of Cymbeline restore the name Innogen to the female lead, while others follow the tradition that has named her as Imogen.
3. The other thing most people will probably recognise from the play, along with the name Imogen, is the line ‘Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun’. In the play it’s the first line of a famous funeral dirge – though this is ironic since the person being buried isn’t actually dead, only pretending.
4. Cymbeline is also the focus of a persistent myth concerning the bowdlerisation of Shakespeare’s works in the nineteenth century. The story goes that use of the word ‘strumpet’ was suppressed in the play – specifically, in the line ‘played the strumpet in your bed’ – with ‘strumpet’ being altered to the less offensive ‘trumpet’, so the line read ‘played the trumpet in my bed’. A great story – and like a lot of great stories, alas, not true.
5. Critics have long argued over precisely what Cymbeline is. When it appeared in the First Folio in 1623, it was listed with the tragedies, but this doesn’t seem quite right. As mentioned above, the funeral dirge sung over someone’s grave is a false alarm, and nobody has died. But it’s not quite a comedy either. Like many of Shakespeare’s later plays – others include The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale – it is perhaps more accurately described as a ‘romance’. So, what is Cymbeline actually about? Perhaps the Shakespeare plays it most resembles are Julius Caesar (as it’s set roughly at the same point in European history) and All’s Well That Ends Well (because its structure and themes are of the ‘problem play’ variety). The action takes place in Roman Britain, specifically in parts of England and Wales – yes, it’s ‘the Welsh play’ – and centres on the rule of Roman chieftain Cunobelinus, known, of course, as Cymbeline in the play.