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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: August ::
Re: Cymbeline
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1613  Wednesday, 30 August 2000.

[1]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 29 Aug 2000 16:18:33 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1605 Re: Cymbeline

[2]     From:   Ros King <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Aug 2000 07:50:50 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1595 Re: Cymbeline


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Tuesday, 29 Aug 2000 16:18:33 -0400
Subject: 11.1605 Re: Cymbeline
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1605 Re: Cymbeline

There seems to me to have been a fashion for densely layered work across
the English arts around 1610: 40-voice polyphony; thick figuration and
highly complex syntax in Donne, Browne, Andrewes, Webster; elaborate
emblems in titlepages and masques and emblem books and ceremonial
gateways.  Both the peculiar compression of language and the
extraordinary complexity of plot and motive in *Cymbeline* seem to me to
gibe gently at this fashion even while investigating its possibilities.

Dave Evett

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ros King <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Aug 2000 07:50:50 EDT
Subject: 11.1595 Re: Cymbeline
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1595 Re: Cymbeline

I was surprised to read Terence Hawkes's recent postings on the language
of Cymbeline as I would have thought that he would have been one of the
first to point out that writing can only be considered good (or as I
said 'sharp' and 'polished') in so far as it can be seen to be fitting
for its time, place and purpose. This is a basic principle of dramatic
writing since characters need to be given differentiated registers. It
is demanded, for instance, by Horace and has always been the feature
that has most frightened those who disapprove of the theatre.

Twelve or fifteen years ago, when I first looked at the play seriously,
I too became very frustrated with it. Whereas the linguistic
difficulties of the Winter's Tale reveal greater subtlety and depth of
interest as they are unravelled, one can spend hours deconstructing
Cymbeline and be apparently no further forward. I noticed that most
editors gave up the task of original annotation by the end of Act 2 and
resorted to reproducing the Variorum notes.

Back in April this year, however, preparing a new edition specially for
the production in Santa Cruz, I  came to form a very different opinion
of the play. I think there are two things that have hampered our ability
to read it.  Firstly the  Folio punctuation, largely reproduced in the
current Arden edition (Nosworthy,1955), obeys sixteenth century
conventions of orthography and has made the language appear cumbersome
to modern eyes. Secondly the confusion as to the play's genre has meant
that we have largely mistaken its tone. Replace the punctuation with
something more sensitive to the *flow* of the sense, however, and the
huge incidence of split lines creates some  of the most immediate and
conversational language in all Shakespeare's plays. As Geralyn Horton
pointed out, Cymbeline contains comparatively few difficult or archaic
words ('few', Terry, not 'none'!), and its syntactical difficulties are,
I now think, dramaturgical clues - aids rather than barriers to
understanding.

The 'exposition' of the opening scene of the play does indeed, as Terry
says, tell us the story so far, and as Ed Pixley suggests, the passages
under discussion conjure up the character 'courtier' whose delicate
trade demands circuitous talk. More than that though, the precise choice
of vocabulary creates a sense of the crushing, confined containment of
Cymbeline's court, a place that destroys the humanity of everybody in it
- particularly the children brought up there. Because of that
upbringing, even Imogen, undoubtedly the 'best' thing in the play can
sometimes appear a somewhat spoilt and argumentative brat, while
Posthumus's head, though more intelligent than Cloten's, is as like it
in its misogyny as their two bodies are inter-changeable.

So let me start another hare. Far from being a 'romance' about the
purity of noble blood, Cymbeline is a bitterly funny farce about the
corruption of absolute courts and the sad waste of human potential that
they cause. It belongs to that peculiarly English genre:  politically
engaged tragi-comedy, w hose origins can be traced to Richard Edwards's
influential school play Damon and Pythias (probably written for court
performance in1564) and which extends forwards through nineteenth
century burlesque to the plays of Joe Orten and TV shows like Monty
Python. The problem is that our critical historical understanding of
tragi-comedy has been largely based on the treatise that Guarini wrote
to defend his pastoral play, The Faithful Shepherd (1589), which has
little relevance to anything except imitations of Guarini (e.g.
Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess).

So, yes. The play's writing is 'polished' because while its metrics are
extraordinarily regular its prosody, in performance at least, creates a
range of registers from the courtier's guarded convolutions to a
simulation of informal, spontaneous natural conversation. It is 'sharp'
because it is funny and satirical and can turn on the instant to
intense, painful sadness, and because Shakespeare has the confident
ability to keep half a dozen plot lines in continuous motion - a
technical, theatrical masterpiece.

Best,
Ros
 

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