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  • Cymbeline: Constructions of Britain
  • Brett Foster
Cymbeline: Constructions of Britain. By Ros King. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2005. Pp. xiv + 197. $89.95.

Ros King's new study of Cymbeline is at its heart a revisionist defense of one of Shakespeare's most neglected plays—not only overlooked, but (as King would have it) continuously misunderstood. Eschewing traditional views of the play as a courtly romance, King instead identifies it as a political satire in the spirit of Richard Edwards, an early Elizabethan playwright whom she has edited. Thus the play becomes a "bold, bloody and hilarious tragicomedy" that deftly employs classical and contemporary iconography and literary theory (1–2). True to its genre, Cymbeline balances a series of opposites—pure poetry and convoluted syntax, plot elements from both fairy tales and murder thrillers, and a dramatic spirit that is at once highly experimental and highly conventional. A quick search of the World Shakespeare Bibliography Online suggests the critical void [End Page 156] King's study will fill: no other book-length study of this play has appeared during this decade, although King does resume some of the investigations of genre in Richard Danson Brown's and David Johnson's Shakespeare 1609: Cymbeline and the Sonnets (Macmillan/St. Martin's, 2000). The present book also extends introductory treatments in recent New Cambridge and New Folger editions of Cymbeline.

If critics have been sparse, directors certainly have not been: the past several years have seen worldwide three or four productions of Cymbeline annually, including shows in French, German, and Hungarian translation. Last year alone the play was staged in Regent's Park and from Montana to Atlanta. And King is attentive throughout to the play's "performance implications" (2). It is an aspect she is uniquely qualified to discuss, having served as rehearsal dramaturg for Danny Scheie's noted 2000 staging of Cymbeline for Shakespeare Santa Cruz. She in fact defines her approach to Shakespeare as "fully dramaturgical"—"an holistic analysis of the construction, performance and reception of a piece of theatre that is simultaneously historical, cultural, theatrical, linguistic and performative" (3). Her repeated use of examples from later performances does not comprise a reception history per se, but King does hope that sensitivity to changes—from sources to Shakespeare's play and from the play to later productions—enables her to return to the original text free of the "presentism" that for her dogs New Historicist approaches (3). King's own dramaturgical approach justifies a breadth of interests, ranging from line breaks to controversies about British union in 1610. Different readers will find different insights among these chapters.

King begins at the beginning: she first considers the play's opening lines, which are spoken by two anonymous courtiers and which have been deleted, emended, rewritten, and reassigned through the centuries. Her attention to the First Folio's initial drop-capital letter and its effect on lineation, while displaying a bibliographical sensitivity frequent in her work, may seem far removed from whatever it is that makes this volume suitable for Ashgate's Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama series. However, longstanding confusion about these opening lines helps her to delineate her present emphases—dramaturgical meaning rather than literary order, oratorical punctuation (suited for delivery) rather than the excessive grammatical punctuation of most editors, and syntax, rather than simple denotation, as a key to characterization. (The courtiers' language, for example, is "verbose and slippery," and their praise of Posthumus "crumbles into meaninglessness" [7–8].) These priorities reveal the play to be poised between extreme antitheses, and King next investigates the generic developments of tragicomedy and their relations to Cymbeline. She places Shakespeare's play in a rich tradition, ranging from Plautus and Guarini to Monty Python's Flying Circus and Six Feet Under, that indecorously mixes the brutal and comic. Tudor and Stuart versions of the genre effectively treated themes such as the corruption of courts by being "satirically sharp but sufficiently unreal" (14). Turning to the song, "Hark, Hark, the Lark," King seeks to clarify tragicomedy's subtleties of irony and intentional imbalances by triangulating (a verb she is fond of in this study) words and music [End...


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