Shakespeare regularly explored how power affects the individual and Cymbeline is a play in which many characters display different types of power. Shakespeare revisited some plot points and themes he used in other plays, such as: banishment from court, a woman disguised as a man, a sleeping potion that creates a ‘living death’, and creates a story that is part fairytale, part dark psychological study of human behaviour.
THE SET UP...
Cymbeline is King of Britain at the same time that Augustus Caesar is Emperor of Rome. He has a daughter, Imogen, and two sons who were stolen from their bedchamber when they were young. Cymbeline's second wife has a son, Cloten, whom Cymbeline wants Imogen to marry; but Imogen has secretly married a commoner, Posthumus.
Furious at this marriage, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus to Rome, where he meets Iachimo. Iacomo hears Posthumus boast that his wife is the most faithful woman in the world and makes a bet with Posthumus that he can seduce her. Arriving in Britain, Iachimo realises that Imogen is faithful, so decides to hide in her bedroom and gather false evidence to prove he has seduced her and wins the bet.
In fury, Posthumus orders his servant, Pisanio, to kill Imogen. However, the noble hearted Pisanio tells Imogen to disguise herself as a man for protection. In Wales, Imogen meets her brothers, who were stolen twenty years ago in revenge by a nobleman called Belarius, who Cymbeline had banished. Meanwhile, the Queen’s son, Cloten, follows Imogen to Wales in Posthumus' clothes, determined to assault her and kill Posthumus. Instead, Cloten is beheaded by one of Imogen's brothers, and his body is laid beside Imogen, who has taken a potion that makes her appear dead.
Imogen wakes and believes the body is Posthumus’s. Heartbroken, she joins the Roman army as a man. The army is invading Britain because Cymbeline has not paid his taxes. Posthumus and the stolen princes help defeat the Romans. In the final scene, the truth comes out and Cymbeline is reunited with his sons and Imogen is reunited with Posthumus. The Queen dies and Belarus and Iacomo are forgiven. Cymbeline pays Rome anyway and peace is established.
Cymbeline is a complex story and, in this production director Greg Doran used masks and puppets throughout to highlight action taken place before the start of the play and character journeys:
- During a speech at the start of the play explaining Posthumus’s background, his parents are represented by two actors in traditional tragic Greek masks.
The baby Posthumus is represented by a white bundle of cloth which reveals a red haired puppet ‘child’. This puppet is then replaced by the grown-up actor, who has red hair, so we know immediately who is being talked about from the start.
- Seeing’ Posthumus as the orphaned child at the same time as hearing about it in the language helps us stay sympathetic towards him throughout the play, despite his actions.
- The masks and puppet introduce a certain theatrical style to the production, which remain familiar when they return in Posthumus’ dream, reminding us of his background and helping to introduce the character of Jupiter, as a masked god.