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The Three Tales of Cymbeline

The Three Tales of Cymbeline

Cymbeline has always been a difficult play to categorize. The original collection of Shakespeare’s plays, “The First Folio” (published in 1623), classifies it as a tragedy; modern editors have revised that to comedy, and to distinguish it further from other comedies, it is also referred to, along with The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles, as a romance. Of course, like so many other plays of Shakespeare, these classifications are only guidelines rather than definitions, for an attempt to analyze a work of art according to somewhat arbitrary classifications is to diminish the very essence – its originality – that makes it a work of art. Undoubtedly, there are many aspects, patterns, and rhythms in this play that echo through several of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, comedies, and even histories, for he used all his plays to view and explore a multi-faceted human condition from a variety of angles.

There appear to be three main narratives to Cymbeline – the tale of Imogen and Posthumus, with the villainous Iachimo lurking beside them, poised to destroy their happiness; the story of two sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, who have been separated from their father and are eventually restored to him; and the successful defense of Britain by King Cymbeline against foreign invasion, the one character most involved with all three stories, hence the name of the play. The understructure supporting these three plots is a virtual labyrinth of sub-plots and strands that shift in and out of each tale until the final scenes at the end, when Shakespeare, in a masterful denouement, perhaps unparalleled even in his own plays, weaves each skein (some two dozen or so), into a…

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…end, King Cymbeline calls for a lasting peace between Rome and England, a peace that is a fitting resolution not only to the war but also to the internal conflicts, as wives and husbands, fathers and children return in harmony to one another.

But Cymbeline, for all its tragicomic patterns, romantic devices, and historical pretensions, is at heart, as Northrop Frye put it, “a pure told tale, featuring a cruel stepmother with her loutish son, a calumniated maiden, lost princes brought up in a cave by a foster father, a ring of recognition that works in reverse, villains displaying false trophies of adultery and faithful servants displaying equally false trophies of murder, along with a great firework display of dreams, prophecies, signs, portents, and wonders.” It is a complex journey of love, forgiveness, jealousy, murder, war, and peace.

The Character of Tarquin in Macbeth and Cymbeline

The Character of Tarquin in Macbeth and Cymbeline

Tarquin’s image as a man of dastardly action becomes part of both Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Cymbeline. As Iachimo emerges from a box in Imogen’s bedchamber he speaks, and his words reflect the feeling not only of himself but all trespassers in Shakespeare’s plays. Iachimo likens his actions to that of Tarquin, a Roman Tyrant who rapes the matron Lucrece. His trespassing in Imogen’s bed chamber while she is sleeping is to Iachimo like rape. He violates her space and privacy. Similarly in the play Macbeth, Macbeth before killing Duncan invokes the image of Tarquin, “With Tarquin’s ravishing strides towards, his design Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm set earth hear not my steps” (2.1.55-58). Both plays use of the image of Tarquin reveals fascinating intricacies about the way in which Shakespeare takes traditional; images of rapists and murders and re-uses them to relate to the actions of the characters in the play.

By invoking th…

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