Call him the Swan of Avon, call him a rank imposter, call him the Bard, call him a man not just of his age but for all time, or call him an upstart crow—go ahead, call him anything. People have, and people will. And if you happened to pick up Cymbeline not knowing who wrote it, you might call him crazy too. At the very least you would wonder what the playwright was smoking. And yes, some scholars think Shakespeare did imbibe—traces of cannabis were revealed in smoking pipes found in Shakespeare’s garden a decade ago. If indeed Shakespeare partook of “the noted weed” (sonnet #27), it would make him the man of the moment in our newly green Colorado. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, at last it’s time for CYMBELINE, KING OF BRITAIN!
It’s fair to say this is a play which many feel would not be a good advertisement for toking. It has received mixed reviews. Here’s one of the notably bad ones, written by Samuel Johnson, the greatest English critic of the 18th century: “To remark the folly of this fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.” And here’s another, from George Bernard Shaw: “It is for the most part stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order, in parts abominably written, throughout intellectually vulgar . . . foolish, offensive, indecent, and exasperating beyond all tolerance.” At least Shaw makes it sound like fun. You could do worse than taking in some stagey melodramatic trash on a moonlit summer night at Rock Ledge Ranch -- with or without a pipe.
I’ve wanted to direct this play for two decades, but I have to admit that if it had been submitted to a scriptwriting contest it would have almost certainly been rejected. It’s a history play which makes a mess of history; it has a ridiculously expansive plot, and it lacks many of the qualities for which Shakespeare is universally admired. Famous passages of memorable verse, illuminating human experience? Well, one or two maybe, but no more. A great story? The play has several of them, but all told more powerfully in Shakespeare’s earlier plays. Compelling characters of limitless depth? Not so much. Why then are we so excited about producing Cymbeline? Have we finally descended into complete imbecility and cheap thrills? Or has the artistic director, a product of the Berkeley English Department in 1967, been smoking too much of our new state plant?
Let’s not go there. Let’s return to Shaw, who had more to say about the infuriating William Shakespeare: “there is no writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his. The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch that it would be positively a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.” Shaw, in fact, was so furious for Shakespeare botching Cymbeline that he rewrote and improved the last act. No one now reads his improvements. The truth is the play baffled him, and he confessed, “I really don’t know what to say about this silly old Cymbeline.” And Shaw was not alone. A modern critic sums up how the play tends to defeat general critical expectations: “the salient fact about Cymbeline ... is that it is resistant to any coherent interpretation.”
Now I think—and I write this stone sober—Cymbeline is a terrific play, a great play by William Shakespeare. But it is not a play for rationalists like Johnson, or even Shaw, who judge by tidiness, consistency, order, continuity and probability, the household gods of so much accessible and mediocre art. This is a late play of Shakespeare’s, and you have the feeling he had stopped paying homage to these petty deities. He just let them go. He also discarded one of his most tried and true practices: this is a play without a hero or dominating central character. Even Imogen, who has a special radiance and a legitimate claim to an interior life, is mostly silent in the play’s last act.
You could take all this as a sign of malaise, of boredom, of declining powers, or you could accept that Shakespeare was, as always, moving on and moving out. Cymbeline is one of his most theatrical plays, full of sensational scenes, vivid characters and violent oppositions. Here is a wicked queen mixing potions to test on dogs, here is a henpecked husband who happens to be king. Here is a hero who sometimes looks remarkably like the villain: they both wear the same clothes. Here is a pair of lovers saying their tender goodbyes; we won’t see them together again until the play’s end way out in Wales. Here is a sinister Italian, emerging from a trunk at midnight in the bedroom of the princess; here is a sudden explosion of jealousy. Here are some flowers, here’s a headless man: “these flowers seem to me the pleasures of the world/ This bloody man the care on’t.” Here are Roman legions, ancient Britons, Renaissance Italians, a dangerous clown (a savage noble) and three “rustic mountaineers.” Here is a god, flying in on his eagle. All this is delivered with an absolute minimum of exposition, scenes flying before us and then away. Watching Cymbeline is like surfing through a wild sleepless night. This is the stuff dreams are made on, and nightmares, and old children’s stories, and fairy tales, and all the plays of William Shakespeare---re-imagined, perhaps, by the nearly retired playwright smoking a strong herbal pipe in his garden, thinking on what was past, passing and to come, finally unencumbered, free at last.
For most of the last century Cymbeline languished like a neglected and awkward orphan, but it was not always so. The play’s heroine, Imogen, was a 19th century favorite, cherished for her purity, her spirited beauty, her pluck and spontaneity. She’s just a great girl. She was a crowning role for Sarah Siddons, Helen Faucit, Ellen Terry, and Peggy Ashcroft—the great actresses of their times. Both the Romantics and the Victorians liked the play. The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson died while reading Cymbeline, and his copy of the play was buried with him. I like to think of it there, a flower still blooming near his bones in Westminster Abbey. In some sense the play was buried with the poet—Cymbeline lay dormant in playhouses for most of the 20th century. But in the last several years it has been exhumed and revived on stage and often very successfully. Perhaps this is because the play’s self-consciousness, its overt theatricality, and its radical juxtapositions, are suited to our post-modern sensibilities, our rapid and continuous channel switching.
The play is a kind of Shakespearean mash-up of tragedy, comedy, and several of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, all coming at you at once. There are potions, lovers, soldiers, plots, quarrels, seductions and betrayals. But this is no old stoner’s dream. The last scene, which finally brings together the play’s endlessly proliferating plot, contains a total of 24 different revelations—one astonishment after another—effortlessly managed by the master playwright working at the top of his great game. You’ve never seen anything like it, unless you’ve seen the finales of Measure for Measure or Comedy of Errors. But Cymbeline out does them all.
One of the strangest things about this strange play is that, despite its very happy ending, it was called a tragedy in the First Folio. Perhaps this is because, as Marjorie Garber says, “its plot fulfills and makes explicit a precept implicit in Shakespearean tragedy, the idea of resurrection, regeneration and rebirth” (I think of the birdsong that ended the Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear two years ago; marvelous). This happy play’s most famous lines are a funeral dirge. It is always reminding us there is life in death and death in life—which may help explain why the play lies in Tennyson’s coffin, why Shaw wants to dig up the playwright and throw stones at him, and why a South African anthropologist wants to do the same thing to see what Shakespeare was smoking. But there is no real need to do that, and you’d only be asking for it, considering the famous epitaph on his grave: “Cursed be he that moves my bones.” To find out what a Shakespeare high feels like, you only have to come out to Rock Ledge Ranch this August and see one of Shakespeare’s most entertaining plays-- trippy in every sense of the word. Even Shaw could see Cymbeline had charm, admitting “it can be done delightfully in a village schoolroom.” And then he added, “I pity the man who cannot enjoy Shakespeare.” Shaw said Shakespeare’s gift for storytelling, his power over language, his humor, his invention of character, and his prodigious energy “enable him to entertain us so effectively that the imaginary scenes and people he has created become more real to us than our actual life.” So it is in our dreams, and in this sweet wild dream of a play, which, with all its absurdities and imbecilities, is somehow mysteriously more real than our own real lives.