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The general scheme of the plot of Cymbeline is formed on the ninth novel of the second day in the Decamerone of Boccaccio. It appears, from the preface of the old translation of the Decamerone, printed in folio in 1620, that many of the novels had before received an English dress, and had been printed separately. A deformed and interpolated imitation of the novel in question, was printed at Antwerp, by John Dusborowghe, as early as 1518, under the following title :—“This matter treateth of a merchauntes wife that afterwarde wente lyke a man and becam a greate lorde, and was called Frederyke of Jennen afterwarde.” It exhibits the material features of its original, though the names of the characters are changed, their sentiments debased, and their conduct rendered still more improbable than in the scenes of Cymbeline. A book was published in London in 1603, called “Westward for Smelts, or the Waterman's Fare of mad merry western Wenches, whose Tongues albeit like Bell-clappers they never leave ringing, yet their Tales are sweet, and will much content you: Written by Kitt of Kingstone." It was again printed in 1620. To the second tale in this work Shakspeare seems to have been indebted for the circumstances in his plot, of Imogen's wandering about, after Pisanio has left her in the forest; her being almost famished; and being taken at a subsequent period into the service of the Roman general as a page. But time may yet bring to light some other modification of the story, which will prove more exactly conformable to the plot of the play.
Malone supposes Cymbeline to have been written in the year 1609. The king, from whom the play takes its title, began his reign, according to Holinshed, in the nineteenth year of the reign of Augustus Cæsar ; and the play commences in or about the twenty-fourth year of Cymbeline's reign, which was the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, and the sixteenth of the Christian era; notwithstanding which, Shakspeare has peopled Rome with modern Italians—Philario, Iachimo, &c. Cymbeline is said to have reigned thirty-five years, leaving at his death two sons, Guiderius and Arviragus. Tenantius (who is mentioned in the first scene) was the father of Cymbeline, and nephew of Cassibelan, being the younger son of his elder brother Lud, king of the southern part of Britain, who agreed to pay an annual tribute to Rome. After his death, Tenantius, Lud's younger son, was established on the throne, of which he and his elder brother Androgeus, who fled to Rome, had been unjustly deprived by their uncle. According to some authorities, Tenantius quietly paid the tribute stipulated by Cassibelan; according to others, he refused to pay it, and warred with the Romans. Shakspeare supposes the latter to be the truth. Holinshed, who furnished our Poet with these facts, furnished him also with the name of Sicilius, who was admitted king of Britain, A. M. 3659.
Schlegel pronounces Cymbeline to be “one of Shakspeare's most wonderful compositions,” in which the Poet “has contrived to blend together into one harmonious whole, the social manners of the latest times with heroic deeds, and even with appearances of the gods. In the character of Imogen not a feature of female excellence is forgotten: her chaste tenderness, her softness, and her virgin pride, her boundless resignation, and her magnanimity towards her mistaken husband, by whom she is unjustly persecuted; her adventures in disguise, her apparent death, and her recovery,—form, all together, a picture equally tender and affecting
“ The two princes, Guiderius and Arviragus, both educated in the wilds, form a noble contrast to Miranda and Perdita. In these two young men, to whom the chase has given vigor and hardihood, but who are unacquainted with their high destination, and have always been kept far from human society, we are enchanted by a naïve heroism which leads them to anticipate and to dream of deeds of valor, till an occasion is offered which they are irresistibly impelled to embrace. When Imogen comes in disguise to their cave; when Guiderius and Arviragus form an impassioned friendship, with all the innocence of childhood, for the tender boy, (in whom they neither suspect a female nor their own sister;) when, on returning from the chase, they find her dead, sing her to the ground, and cover the grave with flowers ;—these scenes might give a new life for poetry to the most deadened imagination.”
“ The wise and virtuous Belarius, who, after living long as a hermit, again becomes a hero, is a venerable figure; the dexterous dissimulation and quick presence of mind of the Italian Iachimo, is quite suitable to the bold treachery he plays; Cymbeline, the father of Imogen, and even her husband Posthumus, during the first half of the piece, are somewhat sacrificed, but this could not be otherwise; the false and wicked queen is merely an instrument of the plot; she and her stupid son Cloten, whose rude arrogance is portrayed with much humor, are got rid of by merited punishment before the conclusion."
Steevens objects to the character of Cloten, in a note on the fourth act of the play, observing that “he is represented at once as brave and dastardly, civil and brutish, sagacious and foolish, without that subtilty of distinction, and those shades of gradation between sense and folly, virtue and vice, which constitute the excellence of such mixed characters as Polonius in Hamlet, and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet.” It should, however, be observed, that Imogen has justly defined him “ that irregulous devil Cloten;" and Miss Seward, in one of her Letters, assures us, that, singular as the character of Cloten may appear, it is the exact prototype of a being she once knew. “The unmeaning frown of the countenance; the shuffling gait; the burst of voice; the bustling insignificance; the fever-and-ague fits of valor; the froward tetchiness; the unprincipled malice; and, what is most curious, those occasional gleams of good sense, amidst the floating clouds of folly which generally darkened and confused the man's brain, and which, in the character of Cloten, we are apt to impute to a violation of unity in character—but in the sometime Captain C -n, I saw the portrait of Cloten was not out of nature.”
In the development of the plot of this play, the Poet has displayed such consummate skill, and such minute attention to the satisfaction of the most anxious and scrupulous spectator, as to afford a complete refutation of Johnson's assertion, that Shakspeare usually hurries over the conclusion of his pieces.
There is little conclusive evidence to ascertain the date of the composition of this play; but Malone places it in the year 1609. Dr. Drake, after Chalmers, has ascribed it to the year 1605.
CYMBELINE, King of Britain.
Sons to Cymbeline, disguised under the names of ARVIRAGUS, ) Polydore and Cadwal, supposed Sons to Belarius. PHILARIO, Friend to Posthumus,
Queen, Wife to Cymbeline.
Lords, Ladies, Roman Senators, Tribunes, Apparitions, a Sooth
sayer, a Dutch Gentleman, a Spanish Gentleman, Musicians, Officers, Captains, Soldiers, Messengers, and other Attendants.
SCENE, sometimes in Britain ; sometimes in Italy.
SCENE I. Britain. The Garden behind Cymbeline's
Enter two Gentlemen. 1 Gentleman. You do not meet a man but frowns;
our bloods No more obey the heavens, than our courtiers, Still seem, as does the king's.' 2 Gent.
But what's the matter? 1 Gent. His daughter, and the heir of his kingdom,
whom He purposed to his wife's sole son, (a widow That late he married,) hath referred herself Unto a poor but worthy gentleman. She's wedded; Her husband banished; she imprisoned: all Is outward sorrow; though, I think, the king Be touched at very heart. 2 Gent.
None but the king ? 1 Gent. He that hath lost her, too; so is the queen, That most desired the match. But not a courtier, , Although they wear their faces to the bent
1 “Our bloods [i. e. our dispositions or temperaments) are not more regulated by the heavens, by every skyey influence, than our courtiers are by the disposition of the king: when he frowns, every man frowns.” some editions, a different meaning is conveyed, by placing a semicolon after the word courtiers.