I sometimes think that I must be the world's number one fan of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, which I have just re-read twice during the past week. Here's a play that is seldom performed, infrequently read, rarely referenced, and omitted from most university courses on Shakespeare. Although it's generally grouped with the last plays or, as they have come to be called, the romances, surely fifty people know The Tempest for everyone who is familiar with The Winter's Tale and ten people know The Winter's Tale for everyone who knows (or has even heard the name) of Cymbeline. Nevertheless, I love the play; it's perpetually entrancing.
Cymbeline is the most densely plotted of all of Shakespeare's plays and as a result, it's difficult to follow, especially on the first dozen or score of readings. It's so dense with plot that, in order to cram everything in, Shakespeare devised a most elliptical and condensed style of speech. There are some sentences to which I must still refer to the footnotes for explication -- and sometimes the footnote says, "seems to mean," or "perhaps means, but might also mean." Moreover, it's a hard play to read for those who don't come to it with a deep familiarity with other of Shakespeare plays, because sometimes the author seems to condense into a phrase or two an idea which he had explored more fully in an earlier work. For example, in a number of the comedies there is an opening scene in which characters discuss their unhappiness -- simply in order to establish a situation in which the play can proceed from sadness to joy. And frequently there's an early reference to the contrast between private emotion and public posture. In terse, economical Cymbeline, Shakespeare gets these forms out of the way in a flash. An otherwise unknown "Gentleman" begins the play: "You do not meet a man but frowns. Our bloods/ No more obey the heavens than our courtiers/ Still seem as does the King." And we're off and running. (Brief translation of the proceeding lines: everyone is sad because they attend to the King's disposition.) It's a forbidding start -- but it covers an enormous lot of ground. As it must, because Cymbeline brings on stage a wicked queen and her doltish son, a physician expert in drugs that cause a person to simulate death (just as in Romeo), a fair princess later to disguise herself as a page, two brothers stolen from the court in swaddling clothes who will become military heroes, an invasion of England by Roman forces, a low-born suitor of great worth who will suffer exile but eventually return to claim his bride, an Italian schemer who wagers than he can seduce a princess, and, moreover, the dream-vision appearance of the hero's dead mother, father and brothers -- and finally a guest appearance of Jove himself who descends on a machine to intervene and prophesy. The play spends four and a half acts tying up thick plot-knots and then a half an act unloosening them. Twenty-four misunderstandings are clarified in couple of hundred lines. The conclusion is a miracle -- or rather, a succession of miracles. Cymbeline is as manipulative as manipulative can be, but I've never been able to read the last lines without dropping real tears.
My favorite scene, just to give an idea of how complicated and outrageous a play it is, comes when Imogen (or in some modern texts Innogen), the princess, awakes from drugged sleep to discover the ass Cloten (who "Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart,/ And leave eighteen) to be dead, his head having been struck off, wearing the clothes of her lover Posthumus Leonatus (a long story). Imogen naturally takes the one for the other, their bodies being apparently of the same stature. She mourns her headless enemy as though he were her friend. It's a truly bizarre, grotesque and wonderful scene. It is, as Imogen says in another context, "beyond beyond."
Cymbeline is a rare treasure -- but it's not for the faint of heart, not for skimmers.