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DATE OF THE COMPOSITION, CHARACTERISTICS OF
THE PLAY, AND STATE OF THE TEXT. NHERE was no edition of CYMBELINE printed during the
author's life, so that it appeared in print for the first time
in the folio of 1623, from the manuscripts in the possession of the editors, Heming & Condel. No external evidence yet discovered shows the date of its composition or first representation on the stage, except that it appears from the manuscript diary of the astrological and theatrical Dr. Simon Forman that it was acted some time in 1610 or 1611, though perhaps not then for the first time. This singular character, formerly known only to the antiquarian inquirer as one of the succession of learned astrologers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who, half quacks and half learned enthusiasts, began by imposing upon themselves with the mathematical and chemical mysteries of their imaginary sciences, and then imposed upon the credulity of others, has, within some few years, been transferred from the company of his old associates, Dee, Kelly, Booker, and Lilly, by Mr. Collier's lucky discovery of his
manuscript "Booke of Plays, and Notes thereon, for common policy," and introduced into the society of poets, critics, and actors, and to the acquaintance of all lovers of Shakespearian literature.
This learned person, for such he was really, and a mathematician above the level of his age, yet prided himself on being "judicious and fortunate in horary questions, especially thefts, as also in sicknesses," and having “ good success in resolving questions about marriage;" and he was, either from taste or for some reason of common policy," a regular play-goer, and kept a diary of his theatrical experience, containing brief notes and sketches of the plots of new pieces, which, had it been the fashion of those days, might have qualified him for a regular theatrical reporter and critic. He gives us in this way an account of the plot of CYMBELINE, as we now read it, but does not accompany it with the precise date on which he saw it; but, from the other dates of the journal, it must have been some time in 1610 or 1611. There is no indication that this play was then just brought out, but still it appears that it was new enough for the plot not to be familiar to a frequent visitor of the theatres. This refutes the opinion of Tieck, adopted by other German critics, that CYMBELINE was the author's last work, written in 1614 or 1615, and consequently after he had retired from London. But Forman’s diary shows that it must have been written before 1611, or Shakespeare's forty-seventh year. Beyond this, the external evidence affords no means of ascertaining its date. But the internal evidence of style and thought gives us more clear indications. The cast of solemn and philosophical thought, the compressed and elliptical diction, the bold and free use of words and phrases in new or unusual applications, clearly mark the maturer mind and fullness of power attained by the author, and the familiar and habitual employment of that peculiar style—we might almost say, that peculiar language—his genius had formed for his own use. It is therefore certainly (at least as to all the poetical and graver parts) not an early work, and evidently much later than three or four of the comedies, and RoMEO AND Juliet in the original form. Beyond this, we cannot, with any reasonable confidence, assign any definite limits to the period within which it might have been written. I cannot see any thing in style, language, or thought, to proclude the supposition that CYMBELINE was written soon after the enlarged ROMEO AND JUliet, with the full soliloquy at the tomb, or else between that date and the production of OTHELLO; and to this period of the Poet's life, the romantic construction of the plot, the luxury of the description of Imogen and her chamber, the excited and exhilarating interest and youthful spirit with which he paints the mountain scenery and the forest occupations of old Belarius and his noble boys, might lead us to assign it.
On the other hand, I see nothing to indicate that all that gives interest and beauty to the story might not have been written some time after Macbeth and LEAR, in the genial hours of the author's declining age, when the gloomy sentiment that had cast its shadows over some of the years of the Poet's city life had passed away, and early recollections and youthful sympathies came thronging back upon his mind, amid the tranquil scenes of his boyhood. The vision of Leonatus, indeed, near the close, can hardly belong to this period of the Poet's taste and power. Several critics and editors, whose judgment is most entitled to respect, are of opinion that the scene of the vision is not by Shakespeare, but interpolated by the old managers. Yet the mythological incident of the tablet and the prophecy is interwoven with the plot, and must have come from the author of the play himself. To me, this seems the only part of the plot which, when the imagination is once interested in the story, strikes us as offen. sive, and contrary to poetical truth. Even theatrical or poetical probability requires a transient and conventional belief, such as the modern reader or spectator is ready enough to give to fairies, magicians, to witches and ghosts— to "the wierd sisters,” and to “the buried majesty of Denmark," as well as to the “dainty Ariel;" but our educativa and habits of thought, will not permit this to be lent for a moment to Jupiter or to any other of the machinery of classical mythology as real incidents and personages of the drama. This appears to me to be a blemish-the sale blemish of the skilfully interwoven plot—which the experienced author of OTHELLO or MACBETH could not base hazarded even as a bold experiment on the taste of his audience. This circumstance gives much probability to Cole ridge's conjecture that CYMBELINE was originally the product of “ the first epoch" of Shakespeare's mind, an early and almost boyish effort, afterwards nearly re-written. Much of the prose dialogue, though not unworthy of its after association with higher matter, might well have been the rapid composition of the young dramatist, while the long pantomimic stage-directions of the fifth act, such as occur in no other of Shakespeare's tragedies, are remarked by some critics, the most conversant with the early English drama, as belonging to the taste and usages of the old stage. Supposing, as is very probable, that the first showy sketch of the play, like the early Hamlet, had become popular and familiar to the public, when its author turned to it again to enlarge and improve it, he may well hare found that he could not wholly reject what had been relished by the public, and was obliged to content himself with merely enriching the work of his youth with the “ mellow hangings" of his now ripened intellect. This theory concurs in substance with that of Tieck and other critics, whose opinions are entitled to great consideration, and appears to me highly probable, though the argument is not so conclusive as to shut out future inquiry or evidence. But it would not be difficult to form a still more minute (and by no means improbable) conjectural theory of the plan, and design, and date of this drama.
The antiquarian critic, Rymer, was indignant at the want of poetical justice in Othello, and proposed as an improvement that the fatal magic “napkin” should be found in Desdemona's bed, and thus her life preserved, and her honour vindicated. The critic, in the plenitude of his conceit, did not perceive that the Poet had himself in CYMBELINE provided this very variation of his tale of bloody jealousy for the gratification of those who, like Rymer and Johnson, shrunk from the deep horrors of Othello's closing scenes. We may accordingly assume it as probable that some years after the production of Otuello, in 1603–4, when the Poet had passed the middle stage of life, and when the darker views of man and society, which seem from some personal reasons to hare saddened a period of his mature years, and for a time to have made him (to use Mr. Hallam's words) “ the stern censurer of man”—when these had been dispelled by the mild and cheerful rays of his descending sum-when, according to Coleridge's theory, “his celebrity as a poet, and his interest no less than his influence as a manager, enabled him to bring forward the laid-by labours of his youth," he then resumed the melodramatic CYMBELIFE of his early days, containing the outline of the plot, the incidents of stage-effect, and the mythological pageant, and employed these as a fit canvass on which to pourtray a second Desdemona, with a happier fate. In Imogen, he has given us a Desdemona transplanted from comparatively modern times and the aristocratic retirement of Venetian society, to the dim regions of old romance, and the mountains and forests of ancient England. With a love as deep, as pure, as devoted as Desdemona's, and with the same singleness of heart and resolve of purpose, Imogen has received besides, from the Poet, a high imaginative grace, fitted for the wilder and more romantic character of her story. Posthumus is a less terrible Othello, deceived like him, and erring, but penitent, sorrowing, and at last forgiven and forgiving. Cloten is another Roderigo, differing not only in rank and station, but so different in character as to mark the whimsical diversity which may be found in vanity and folly. The Poet's milder mood sheds its kindness even over the villain of the plot, and the malignant revenge of Iago is softened in Iachimo into a more pardonable selfish vanity, hazarding the most fatal results, not from deliberate intent, but from thoughtless indifference to the happiness of others; so that at last, when we find him weighed down by " the guilt and heaviness within his bosom," for having “belied a lady of that land," we assent with all our hearts to the Poet's own good nature, speaking through the generous Posthumus, who, when the penitent Iachimo sinks before him, borne down by the weight of his “ heavy conscience," punishes him only with forgiveness.
This theory may derive some support from the first editors having, in the folio of 1623, placed CYMBELINE at the end of the volume, as being the last of the tragedies (which are arranged together in the latter part of the volume) if not the last of the author's works. No objection to the theory occurs to me which cannot be met by the supposition, highly probable on other grounds, and as such received by the best critics, that there had been an earlier and popular outline of the same play by the same author, which had become so familiar that he did not care to remove parts which the public taste had approved, though not quite in unison with the nobler products of his own matured and disciplined mind.
Nevertheless, I must confess, in despite of all these probabilities, the discovery of another buried authority like Dr. Forman’s, might annihilate them all. But in the absence of any such opposing proof, this theory seems quite as worthy of being received as matter-of-fact literary history as most of the modern philosophical versions of ancient history, by Niebuhr and other ingenious scholars, are to take the place of the old and beautiful traditions of Plutarch and Livy.
But, independently of this question, in whatever period of Shakespeare's intellectual progress CYMBELINE may have been written, it is in no respect unworthy of being associated with the best productions of his genius. If it is inferior to LEAR, to Hamlet, or to Macbeth, its inferiority is that of a less lofty object and design, not that of feebler power. It has been very happily distinguished from them, (by Hazlitt, I believe, originally,) as being not a tragedy, but a dramatic romance. The author did not attempt to stir the deeper emotions of pity or terror, but merely to excite and keep up a lively interest of romantic narrative, decorated with varied imagery of grace and beauty, and moralized with a liberal and practical philosophy. We do not in it, as in the greater tragedies, behold the impetuous flood of dark passion sweeping onward irresistibly to its dread conclusion; but we cheerfully