Years ago my young son and I were listening to a modern Scottish folk song called “Knock Knock Knock.” Daniel wasn’t following the song’s plot, so he asked me what it was about. I told him, “Well, this noble Scotswoman’s husband goes off to war, and she tells a page to bring her news of how the battle goes. If her husband survives, the page is to knock twice; if he’s killed, the page is to knock three times. The husband survives, but the page gets killed, and no one else knows about the knocking code. Whoever brings the lady the news knocks three times, and in despair she throws herself out the window to her death without ever answering the door.”
Daniel thought about this, then said, “You know…if the people in these songs would just stop and think things through before taking action, they’d be a lot better off.”
He was right. But the nature of tragedy requires that characters not think things through. At the end of a tragedy the reader or audience is left with a lot of if-only’s. If only they’d waited. If only he’d kept control of his temper. If only she’d been more patient. If only they hadn’t been so unyielding or hasty or impetuous or ambitious or prideful. If only they’d allowed time for further developments or revelations to manifest, or simply for that first overwhelming wave of raw emotion to pass.
Tragedy can be defined as a drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances. Indeed, a tragic hero is ultimately someone unable to cope. He cannot or will not learn or adapt or conceive of possibilities beyond some all-encompassing obsession. He may have many admirable qualities, but his character is narrow in scope. He is defined primarily by a few unyielding and overweening characteristics such as jealousy, impetuosity, or pride, and ultimately these cramp and stunt his better qualities. He is like that person we all know who has so much going for him but can’t escape the power of some flaw or addiction—the one who makes us think, I have seen people just like you do exactly what you are doing and fail spectacularly, bringing shame and misery on themselves and everyone close to them. You think you’re different, you think you’re strong enough, but you’re not. And unless you turn from the path you’re on, you’re going to come to a bad end.
The thing about tragedy that works us up emotionally is the feeling that it didn’t have to be this way. All through the unfolding of the plot, we’re thinking, Don’t do it! Don’t send that letter. Don’t insult that person. But the hero does. And that action leads him to a different set of choices, where, again, there’s still a chance to do the right thing—which the hero fails to do. And the further the plot progresses, the more the character’s range of choices diminishes. Early on it’s possible to salvage a lot of future happiness; later, not so much. But right up until the final choice is made, there’s still time for the hero to at least be saved from utter ruin and find a measure of peace. After that, his doom is sealed. There are storms you can’t weather and falls you can’t get up from.
But sometimes, in art and in life, somewhere along that path of destruction the hero chooses rightly. Yes, he’s been morally compromised to a greater or lesser degree, but he still has many opportunities before him, and his experience has taught him wisdom and appreciation for things of value. This is the nature of grace, to be pulled back from the precipice, rescued, rehabilitated, and fitted for a full and productive and joyful life.
It’s also the nature of the romance plot. Romance is tricky to define because the word is used for wildly different applications, but dramatic romance might informally be thought of as a potential tragedy in which the hero stops and thinks, to good effect.
There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy and his father are trapped in a stone chamber with no way out. Indy starts beating himself senseless against a wall trying to force a way through, but Henry Senior calmly takes a seat and says, “I find that if I just sit down and think…” Before he’s finished the words, a hidden staircase opens up, triggered by Henry’s weight on the chair. Henry finishes up cheerfully, “…a solution presents itself!”
So the hero in a dramatic romance stops and thinks, and learns, and grows, and triumphs. He moves from a tragic hero’s narrow focus to a place of wisdom and perspective and maturity.
The designation of dramatic romance is a relatively modern one. Shakespeare himself didn’t use the term. Seven years after his death, when thirty-six of his known thirty-seven plays were published in the First Folio, they were all categorized as tragedies, comedies, or histories. Of the plays that were later reclassified as romances, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were called comedies in the First Folio, Pericles of Tyre wasn’t included at all, and Cymbeline was listed as a tragedy.
Dramatic romance does have much in common with tragedy on the one hand and comedy on the other. (An Elizabethan dramatic comedy is primarily defined by its happy ending and usually includes greater emphasis on situation than character, wordplay humor, multiple intertwining plotlines, mistaken identity, separation and reunion, and lovers who triumph in spite of opposition.) A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, John Fletcher, actually used the term tragicomedy to define the emerging genre that united tragic and comedic elements.
It wasn’t until 1875 that Irish critic and poet Edward Dowden proposed that Shakespeare’s late plays—The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles of Tyre, and Cymbeline—should be classed as dramatic romances. Dowden argued that these plays resembled late medieval and early modern romances—which, interestingly, had gone out of fashion by the time Shakespeare wrote his late plays. Miguel de Cervantes was satirizing medieval romances in Don Quixote around 1600; Shakespeare’s romance plays were probably written between 1608 and 1612. Other critics agreed with Dowden that the late plays represented a more complex kind of comedy and ought to have a special designation of their own. Romance is just a label, but a useful one here.
Like a comedy, a dramatic romance has a happy ending involving the reunion of long-separated lovers or family members. A dramatic romance also contains a contrast of scene, courtly and pastoral, and often exotic; magic and other fantastical elements; and the presence of pre-Christian, masque-like figures. In The Tempest we have Prospero summoning goddesses; in Cymbeline, which takes place in pre-Christian, Roman-ruled Britain, we have an actual appearance by Jupiter (though there is some question as to the authenticity of this scene).
Most significantly, the plotline of a romance is described as redemptive. And where there’s redemption, there’s some egregious badness from which characters need to be redeemed, a potential tragedy caught in time before all is lost.
The romance Cymbeline shares some similarities of plot with Romeo and Juliet and Othello, which are tragedies, but with significant differences. A woman wakes from a death-like sleep beside a corpse that she believes to be her husband’s. Juliet stabs herself and dies, but Innogen, though she grieves and loses consciousness from shock, doesn’t commit suicide or consider doing so. A gullible man is persuaded by a scheming Italian that his wife is unfaithful to him. Othello goes right to work killing Desdemona with his bare hands, but Posthumus engages a very unreliable assassin, and his later ruminations make it evident that he didn’t expect the assassin to follow through. Later, Posthumus gets word that Innogen is dead; he’s tormented by grief and self-loathing, but unlike Romeo and Othello, he doesn’t kill himself. He joins a battle, and hopes and expects to meet death while fighting for his country.
Robert Heilman writes,
Different conventions are at work…those of tragedy…those of dramatic romance. As it is used here, convention does not mean a formula, stereotype, or constricting rule, but rather a certain point of view, a way of perceiving human behavior, of understanding it and responding to it emotionally….The tragic convention interprets life as a clash between, on the one hand, transcendent principles of order and, on the other, urgencies of desire and intensities of feeling that, once they are in play, lead inevitably to destructive encounters and somber catastrophes. The convention of romance approaches life in terms of the ultimate reconcilability of desires and circumstances; though ambitions and needs may be great, they tend to fall within a realm of moral possibility; and circumstances, though they may be antagonistic for a long period, eventually yield to meritorious humanity. The tragic involvement is total, reckless, irremediable; the protagonist is wholly committed to a situation which seems to enfold all of life’s possibilities. In contrast, in the convention represented in Cymbeline the personal impulse does not become identical with, or aspire to dominate, all of reality; beyond the individuals there is an independent life that makes legitimate claims or offers alternative possibilities.
This is not to imply that romance is “tragedy lite.” Heilman also writes,
Romance is not watered-down tragedy; it is another way of looking at conduct and experience. It is equally aware of serious dangers to life and well-being and of preventives, safety devices, the means of return from the shadows. It does not fall short of something that might be expected of it; rather it adopts a different perspective, and the better the individual romance is, the greater its ability to persuade us of the validity of its perspective.
Shakespeare’s tragedies currently enjoy greater popularity than his romances—The Tempest is probably the only one of the romances familiar to modern audiences—but at one time the romance Cymbeline was very popular. It was a favorite of literary critic William Hazlitt and of John Keats. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s favorite Shakespearean line is from the final scene of Cymbeline.
The hero of Cymbeline is Posthumus Leonatus. The title character, Cymbeline, is mostly a figurehead; he errs and is redeemed, but the play is primarily concerned with Posthumus and with Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen.
Twenty years before the play’s action begins, a British ruler and warrior called Sicilius Leonatus loses two grown sons in battle and dies of sorrow before the birth of his youngest son, who is therefore called Posthumus Leonatus. Postumus’s mother dies while in labor with him; he’s born by Caesarian after her death. From the very beginning of his life, Postumus is alone in the world.
The baby is adopted by Cymbeline, a Briton king. Like Posthumus’s father, Cymbeline has lost two sons, taken from him at two and three years of age by a courtier named Belarius, whom Cymbeline wrongly accused of treason. Cymbeline lavishes Posthumus with the care and education he would have given his own sons. Posthumus thrives in this environment and grows into a beloved and respected man.
Cymbeline has another child, Innogen, a daughter of excellent character and intelligence. Innogen and Posthumus, raised together from childhood, fall in love. But Cymbeline, like many widowed kings in stories, has chosen badly in his second marriage, and his second wife disapproves the match. The queen is self-serving, murderous, and manipulative, and her son from her first marriage, Cloten, is as wicked as his mother and just clever enough to be dangerous. With Cymbeline’s own sons missing for twenty years and presumed dead, Innogen is the heir to the kingdom. The queen wants the throne to pass to her own son, so she persuades Cymbeline to make Innogen marry Cloten.
The character of Innogen is considered one of this play’s greatest strengths. Heilman writes,
Even allowing for the susceptibility of male critics to so charming and devoted a creature as Innogen, whose attractions, ranging as they do from sweetness of affection to sharpness in repartee, from blind fidelity to keen insight into motives and character, from cookery to courage, make her virtually a dream girl, there is no doubt that she is one of the most substantially characterized, and hence convincing, of Shakespeare’s romantic heroines.
Innogen is innocent (the similarity of sound is probably no accident) but shrewd. She isn’t fooled as her father is by the counterfeit charms of the queen. She loves and respects her father but she doesn’t mince words when telling him of her contempt for Cloten, and when Cymbeline insults Posthumus she talks back and defends Posthumus in no uncertain terms. In the opening scene, one unnamed gentleman fills in another on Posthumus’s history.
The King he takes the babe
To his protection, calls him Posthumus Leonatus,
Breeds him and makes him of his bedchamber,
Puts to him all the learnings that his time
Could make him the receiver of, which he took
As we do air, fast as ’twas minist’red,
And in’s spring became a harvest, lived in court—
Which rare it is to do—most praised, most loved,
A sample to the youngest, to th’ more mature
A glass that feated them, and to the graver
A child that guided dotards. To his mistress,
For whom he now is banished—her own price
Proclaims how she esteemed him and his virtue.
By her election may be truly read
What kind of man he is (I, i, 47-61).
After giving Posthumus a glowing commendation, the gentleman winds up by saying that the highest praise he can offer of Posthumus is to say that Innogen loves him.
Innogen and Posthumus marry in secret and exchange jewelry as tokens—a bracelet for her, a diamond ring for him. After learning of their elopement, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus on pain of death and imprisons Innogen to coerce her into marrying Cloten anyway.
Meanwhile, the queen goes to work compounding a poison, planning to murder both Innogen and Cymbeline after Innogen’s wedding to Cloten. She asks Cornelius, the royal physician, for the ingredients. Cornelius finds this just a little suspicious and supplies her instead with a potion that will give the temporary appearance of death without causing permanent harm.
The banished Posthumus goes to Rome and meets an Italian named Iachimo. After hearing Posthumus praise Innogen’s virtue, Iachimo challenges him to a wager. If Iachimo can go to Britain and seduce Innogen, Posthumus will give Iachimo the diamond ring that Innogen gave him. If Innogen remains true, Iachimo will give Posthumus ten thousand ducats and meet Posthumus in combat.
The idea of giving some yahoo you just met (or anyone else) permission to go to Britain to try to seduce your wife while you stay behind in Italy is obviously insane to a modern reader, but according to the conventions of the time it’s perfectly reasonable behavior. Posthumus and Iachimo even draw up a written contract to formalize the arrangement.
Even when viewed from a more modern sensibility, Posthumus’s actions in this scene are not as bad as they might be. The scene is a good one, lively and quick-paced, and Posthumus shows himself courteous, well-spoken, and intelligent. He adores his wife and is quick to feel any slight to her honor. Once her virtue is questioned, it must be vindicated. At this stage Posthumus never doubts her; he wants to see her rightly honored. His faith in her is an excellent thing in itself but ought to be balanced by foresight and self-control. Like a typical tragic or near-tragic figure, Posthumus is too narrowly focused.
Posthumus underestimates Iachimo’s cunning and his determination to win at any cost. Perhaps judging Iachimo by his own character, Posthumus unconsciously expects his adversary to play fair. Much is made in the play of Latin cunning versus British forthrightness; the contrast between Iachimo’s scheming and Posthumus’s naïveté is the most striking example. Heilman describes Iachimo as “an Italian rascal, a conventional source of agreeable shudders in Renaissance England.”
Iachimo presents himself to Innogen as a friend of Posthumus’s from Rome. She’s eager for news of her husband, and Iachimo tells her that Posthumus is very well, very well indeed, not despondent at all; in fact he’s known in Rome as the Briton reveller and spends himself on prostitutes. Iachimo tells this as if reluctantly, saying that Innogen’s beauty and obvious good character compel him to make the painful truth known. At this point Innogen is distressed but not fully convinced. And once Iachimo professes his own admiration for her and offers himself as a lover so she can be revenged on Posthumus, her response is swift and certain.
Away, I do condemn mine ears that have
So long attended thee. If thou wert honorable,
Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not
For such an end thou seek’st, as base as strange.
Thou wrong’st a gentleman who is as far
From thy report as thou from honor, and
Solicit’st here a lady that disdains
Thee and the devil alike (I, vi, 141-8).
But Iachimo is not called an Italian rascal for nothing. Here is his response.
O happy Leonatus! I may say
The credit that thy lady hath of thee
Deserves thy trust, and thy most perfect goodness
Her assured credit. Blessèd live you long,
A lady to the worthiest sir that ever
Country called his, and you his mistress, only
For the most worthiest fit. Give me your pardon.
I have spoke this to know if your affiance
Were deeply rooted, and shall make your lord
That which he is, new o’er; and he is one
The truest mannered, such a holy witch
That he enchants societies into him.
Half all men’s hearts are his (156-68).
Clever Italian! He says he propositioned Innogen only to test her virtue, because he thinks so highly of her husband! Now he rejoices that he can give Posthumus a good report. Innogen, herself a forthright Briton, believes him.
Then Iachimo asks a favor. He’s carrying a chest full of treasures for a gift to the Emperor and wants to keep it safe. Might Innogen be willing to hide it for him overnight? Innogen agrees to stow the chest in her own bedchamber.
That night, after Innogen goes to sleep, Iachimo climbs out of the chest. He writes down a description of the arrangement of Innogen’s bedroom, examines her naked body, makes note of a distinctive mole under her left breast, and removes from her arm the bracelet that Posthumus gave her. Then he climbs back into the chest to wait for morning. This is villainy on a high order, something that Posthumus and Innogen in their innocence would never have guessed.
In the morning, Cloten urges Innogen to forget Posthumus and take him instead. Weary of his odious advances, she rejects him soundly in terms that demonstrate that though naturally courteous, she’s quick in repartee and willing to be blunt when necessary. Then Cloten insults Posthumus and mocks him for being an orphan dependent on the charity of Innogen’s father. Innogen replies,
Wert thou the son of Jupiter, and no more
But what thou art besides, thou wert too base
To be his groom. Thou wert dignified enough,
Even to the point of envy, if ’twere made
Comparative for your virtues to be styled
The under-hangman of his kingdom, and hated
For being preferred so well (II, iii, 124-130).
Cloten responds by calling down a curse on Posthumus, and Innogen continues,
He never can meet more mischance than come
To be but named of thee. His meanest garment
That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer
In my respect than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men (132-6).
Suddenly Innogen notices that her bracelet, which she’s certain she was wearing last night, is missing. While she’s puzzling over this, Cloten, stunned by her rejection, keeps repeating, “His garment?” and “His meanest garment?”
Meanwhile, Iachimo returns to Rome and tells Posthumus that he seduced Innogen without much effort at all. Iachimo describes Innogen’s bedchamber in detail; Posthumus replies that this is insufficient proof. Then Iachimo produces the bracelet, saying Innogen gave it to him. The final blow is Iachimo’s description of the mole under Innogen’s breast, which he dwells on with particular alacrity. Posthumus, convinced and devastated, hands over his ring.
Posthumus writes to Innogen, telling her to meet him in Milford Haven. He also writes to Pisanio, a servant he left behind in Britain, telling him to kill Innogen. Pisanio, baffled and distressed and knowing Innogen to be innocent of the unfaithfulness Posthumus charges her with, keeps quiet for the time being and takes Innogen to Milford Haven. There he shows her Posthumus’s letter and tells her not to return to court but to remain at Milford disguised as a man while they figure out what to do next. He also gives her a box of medicine given to him by the queen, which he says and believes will cure her of any indisposition she might suffer while away from home.
Meanwhile, Lucius, a representative from Rome, travels to Britain to collect tribute. Cymbeline, prompted by the queen, refuses. Lucius warns that this means war; Cymbeline cordially encourages him to bring it.
Lucius goes to Milford Haven to prepare for war against the rebellious Britons. Cloten, still stung by Innogen’s latest rejection of him and her preference of Posthumus’s meanest garment to his entire person, finds out that Innogen has gone to meet Posthumus at Milford Haven. Cloten obtains the same suit of clothes Posthumus wore when Innogen last saw him and announces his intention of finding the lovers in Milford Haven, murdering Posthumus in front of Innogen, and raping Innogen in the presence of Posthumus’s dead body while wearing Posthumus’s clothes.
Innogen, disguised as a young man, takes the name Fidele. Near Milford Haven, she meets Belarius, her father’s banished courtier, and her two brothers, Guiderius and Arviragus, who are living under different names given to them by Belarius, who has raised them as his own sons and kept their origins secret. The brothers are strangely drawn to Fidele/Innogen and invite him/her to stay with them at their cave and cook and keep house for them.
Belarius and the brothers go hunting, leaving Innogen alone at the cave. Innogen, worn out with travel and sorrow and living outdoors, takes the tonic given to her by Pisanio, not knowing that it was given to him as poison by the queen, who in turn did not know that Cornelius tricked her by supplying a harmless but death-like coma-inducing potion.
Meanwhile, Cloten, still wearing Posthumus’s clothing, meets Belarius and the brothers. Cloten attacks Guiderius, and Guiderius kills Cloten and cuts off his head with Cloten’s own sword. After Belarius recognizes Cloten as the queen’s son, Guiderius throws the head into the creek so Cloten’s body can’t be identified. Arviragus returns to the cave, where he finds Fidele/Innogen apparently dead and carries her body out to the other two. The brothers sing a song of mourning for Fidele/Innogen, then lay her and Cloten out for burial, cover them with herbs and flowers, and depart.
Innogen awakes beside a decapitated corpse dressed in her husband’s clothing and assumes the worst. She deduces that Pisanio forged the letters from Posthumus and conspired with Cloten to kill them both. She throws herself on Posthumus’s supposed body and faints. Later she is revived by Lucius, who assumes she is a page whose master has been slain. Lucius takes Fidele/Innogen under his protection.
Guiderius and Arviragus, aware of the coming battle between Britons and Romans, resolve to leave the forced seclusion Belarius has kept them in since childhood and fight on Britain’s side. Belarius, seeing their determination, joins them. Meanwhile, Posthumus, in Milford Haven as part of Lucius’s company, has received word from Pisanio that Innogen is dead. Filled with remorse, Posthumus disguises himself as a British peasant and leaves the Romans to fight on the British side, pledging to fight so recklessly that he can’t possibly survive.
Posthumus meets Iachimo in battle and vanquishes but does not kill him. Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus fight valiantly and save the life of the king. At this point Posthumus and Belarius both have reason to resent the king but fight for him anyway, though their identities are concealed and neither one expects a reward. To Guiderius and Arviragus, Cymbeline is a stranger; they have no idea it’s their father they’re defending.
The young princes rally some terrified British troops, restoring their courage and turning the tide of the battle. Posthumus, unable to find death in combat and aware that the Britons have won the day, surrenders himself to the Britons, claiming to be a Roman.
While awaiting execution, Posthumus falls asleep, and his cell is visited by the ghosts of his father, mother, and brothers, who express their love for him and rail against Jupiter for bringing such misfortune on him. Then Jupiter “descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle,” and throws a thunderbolt. He rebukes the ghosts, telling them he has plans for Posthumus and Innogen that they know not of.
Posthumus wakes to find Jupiter and the ghosts gone. A jailer takes him away to be hanged.
Cymbeline praises Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius for their valor in battle and knights them, not knowing them for his long-lost sons and former courtier. Cornelius, the royal physician, arrives and tells Cymbeline that the queen has died in a fit of madness brought on by her anxiety over Cloten’s disappearance. Before her death, she unrepentantly confessed her abhorrence of Cymbeline and her plans to murder him and Innogen by slow-acting poison and make Cloten king.
The prisoners of war, including Lucius, Iachimo, Fidele/Innogen, and Posthumus, are brought to Cymbeline prior to execution. Lucius asks Cymbeline to spare the life of Fidele/Innogen, and Cymbeline, strangely drawn to her just as her brothers were, does so. At this point, almost all the characters who are still alive are together but largely unknown to each other; most of them are wearing disguises and/or using assumed names.
Innogen sees Posthumus’s ring on the hand of Iachimo and demands to know where he got it. Iachimo, full of remorse, confesses his villainy against Posthumus and Innogen, not realizing that both are present. Posthumus, now aware of the deception practiced on him, raves against Iachimo and himself and confesses to the murder of Innogen. Innogen throws herself into his arms, and he, not recognizing her in man’s attire, thrusts her roughly away from him. Pisanio recognizes Innogen and tries to help her, but she accuses him of having tried to poison her. Then Cornelius speaks up and tells Pisanio the truth about the supposed restorative he had from the queen. Innogen and Posthumus embrace, and Cymbeline makes peace with his daughter. Pisanio reveals that Cloten left home in Posthumus’s clothes in search of Posthumus and Innogen, Guiderius reveals that he killed Cloten in a fair fight, and Belarius reveals that Guiderius and Arviragus are the king’s own sons. Cymbeline, humbled and wiser, issues pardons all around and pledges to voluntarily pay tribute to Rome as before.
It’s quite the plot—all those characters running around with their various schemes and deceptions and misconceptions, meeting and parting, instinctively loving or hating and sometimes beheading one another. In spite of all the subplots things never get confusing. The final scene is particularly well-paced with revelation after revelation after revelation, each given at the proper time, with characters giving appropriate reactions in brief asides. Not one of these revelations is a surprise to the audience. We’ve had the information all along. But we enjoy watching as the characters make their disclosures and assemble the full truth together.
In both tragedy and romance human beings are reservoirs of strong passions. Yet romance has a greater sense of limits—of the decorum or principle or rational endowment or even pragmatic awareness that balances off the passion and holds it back from the irretrievable.
It’s in the final scene—which, along with the character of Innogen, is commonly considered one of Cymbeline’s greatest strengths—that we see this balance fully restored. Iachimo’s confession speech is an emotionally satisfying piece of histrionic remorse. Like Iago, he is a theatrical villain, but unlike Iago, he repents. He tells Cymbeline,
Upon a time—unhappy was the clock
That struck the hour!—it was in Rome—accursed
The mansion where!—’twas at a feast—O, would
Our viands had been poisoned, or at least
Those which I heaved to head!—the good Posthumus—
What should I say? He was too good to be
Where ill men were, and was the best of all
Amongst the rar’st of good ones—sitting sadly,
Hearing us praise our loves of Italy
For beauty that made barren the swelled boast
Of him that best could speak; for feature, laming
The shrine of Venus or straight-pight Minerva
Postures beyond brief nature; for condition,
A shop of all the qualities that man
Loves woman for; besides that hook of wiving,
Fairness which strikes the eye—(V, v, 153-68)
Impatient, Cymbeline interrupts, saying, “I stand on fire. Come to the matter.” But Iachimo is not going to have his scene rushed. He replies,
All too soon I shall,
Unless thou wouldst grieve quickly. This Posthumus,
Most like a noble lord in love and one
That had a royal lover, took his hint,
And not dispraising whom we praised—therein
He was as calm as virtue—he began
His mistress’ picture; which by his tongue being made,
And then a mind put in’t, either our brags
Were cracked of kitchen trulls, or his description
Proved us unspeaking sots (169-178).
Again Cymbeline interrupts, saying, “Nay, nay, to th’ purpose.” Iachimo goes on,
Your daughter’s chastity—there it begins.
He spake of her as Dian had hot dreams
And she alone were cold; whereat I, wretch,
Made scruple of his praise and wagered with him
Pieces of gold ’gainst this which then he wore
Upon his honored finger, to attain
In suit the place of’s bed and win this ring
By hers and mine adultery. He, true knight,
No lesser of her honor confident
Than I did truly find her, stakes this ring;
And would so, had it been a carbuncle
Of Phoebus’ wheel, and might so safely, had it
Been all the worth of’s car. Away to Britain
Post I in this design. Well may you, sir,
Remember me at court, where I was taught
Of your chaste daughter the wide difference
’Twixt amorous and villainous. Being thus quenched
Of hope, not longing, mine Italian brain
Gan in your duller Britain operate
Most vilely; for my vantage, excellent.
And, to be brief, my practice so prevailed
That I returned with similar proof enough
To make the noble Leonatus mad
By wounding his belief in her renown
With tokens thus and thus; averring notes
Of chamber hanging, pictures, this her bracelet—
O cunning, how I got it!—nay, some marks
Of secret on her person, that he could not
But think her bond of chastity quite cracked,
I having ta’en the forfeit. Whereupon—
Methinks I see him now—(179-209)
He does indeed. Posthumus advances on him, saying,
Ay, so thou dost,
Italian fiend! Ay me, most credulous fool,
Egregious murderer, thief, anything
That’s due to all the villains past, in being,
To come! O, give me cord or knife or poison,
Some upright justicer! Thou, King, send out
For torturers ingenious. It is I
That all th’ abhorred things o’ th’ earth amend
By being worse than they. I am Posthumus,
That killed thy daughter—villain-like, I lie—
That caused a lesser villain than myself,
A sacrilegious thief, to do’t. The temple
Of virtue was she; yea, and she herself.
Spit, and throw stones, cast mire upon me, set
The dogs o’ th’ street to bay me; every villain
Be called Posthumus Leonatus, and
Be villainy less than ’twas! O Innogen!
My queen, my life, my wife! O Innogen,
Innogen, Innogen (209-27)!
Posthumus spends less than one full line rebuking Iachimo and seventeen rebuking himself. He has matured; he has gained perspective.
In adopting the genre of romance, then, Shakespeare exploits all its potential variety, at one level by an always lively movement of scene and plot, and in a more fundamental way by examining characters with either an amused detachment or a fullness that stops just short of tragic complications….The characters who survive have not been merely lucky; they have been modified, have learned somewhat better or wiser ways of confronting the unexpected.
The most notable passion to be modified in Cymbeline is the desire for quick revenge: Cymbeline against Belarius, Cymbeline against Posthumus, Posthumus against Innogen, even Britain against Rome. The resolution is marked by forbearance, generosity, restoration, and grace. The pivotal point appears to be when Cymbeline observes Innogen during the tranquil scene. He notes,
Posthumus anchors upon Innogen,
And she like harmless lightning throws her eye
On him, her brothers, me, her master, hitting
Each object with a joy; the counterchange
Is severally in all (393-7).
Then Cymbeline immediately turns to Belarius and says, “Thou art my brother; so we’ll hold thee ever.”
Iachimo, realizing that Posthumus spared his life in the recent battle, kneels before him, saying,
I am down again,
But now my heavy conscience sinks my knee,
As then your force did. Take that life, beseech you,
Which I so often owe; but your ring first,
And here the bracelet of the truest princess
That ever swore her faith (412-7).
Kneel not to me.
The pow’r that I have on you is to spare you;
The malice towards you to forgive you. Live,
And deal with others better (417-20).
Then Cymbeline says,
We’ll learn our freeness of a son-in-law:
Pardon ’s the word to all (420-2).
With so much to be humbly thankful for, hostility is not worth holding onto. Characters who have themselves been the recipients of saving grace pass the grace along. Magnanimity is the order of the day.
In dramatic romance, redemption is key. Characters are flawed but have intrinsic worth, and when they err they are given a second chance. Catastrophe is followed by good news. Someone thought dead is alive; someone lost is found. A relationship that seemed irrevocably broken is restored, instantly, with the need for forgiveness scarcely even noted by the offended party. The overall mood is like that in the parable of the prodigal son, whose father is in full celebration mode before the son can deliver his rehearsed confession speech. Potential tragedy is arrested by grace, which generates a richly happy ending made all the more satisfying for the brush with disaster.
The play closes with a pledge by Cymbeline to forestall future bloodshed by continuing to pay tribute to Rome, though the Britons have won today’s battle. The peace that’s been restored in Cymbeline’s family will be extended to the entire kingdom. The king concludes with the words,
Never was a war did cease,
Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace (483-4).