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Reviewed by:
  • Cymbeline: Constructions of Britain
  • Mark Taylor
Ros King . Cymbeline: Constructions of Britain. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005. xvi + 197 pp. index. illus. bibl. $89.95. ISBN: 0–7546–0974–X.

In the last chapter of Cymbeline: Constructions of Britain, Ros King reiterates the purposes of her study: "to understand Cymbeline by reference to the social and political contexts of its time of writing. [The chapters of this book] have shown the play as a perspective glass, not just reflecting but refracting Jacobean politics through the lens of an invented British antiquity" (155). Thus King shows that "Shakespeare's play uses many of the images contained in the entertainments written to celebrate the investiture [of James I]" (47), entertainments like Samuel Daniel's masque Tethys Festival and plays performed at court. She sees the successful defense of Britain mounted by Belarius and his companions, where they "win victory over the invading Romans in a 'narrow lane' by effectively threatening the rape and effeminization of their fellow Britons" (93) as a strange and "infertile" parody of the myth of the rape of the Sabine women, with its happy prospects for the populating of Rome. And she reads the funeral of Imogen and Cloten, a "solemn rite" at "the very heart of the play," as "a satire on contemporary High Church ritual" (125) and commentary on various religious controversies of the age.

The results of her approach can be extremely illuminating. One might suppose, in a play written about half a dozen years into James's reign, that Cymbeline himself would bear some relation to James, but King proposes, also, that the pretensions of James find a counterpart in the swagger of Cloten. Elsewhere, King [End Page 302] focuses on Posthumus Leonatus's famous words of recognition of Imogen in the play's last scene, "Hang there like fruit, my soul, till the tree die," "a curiously beautiful, haunting line, redolent of some deep mystery"; the words, she writes, are "a rare moment for Posthumus: to know so achingly clearly what he wants, but to be content simply to let it happen, if it will." Moreover, the words "are most reminiscent of Chirst's Sermon on the Mount . . . although the language used is, properly, not an exact quotation since, in the world of the play, that event is still in the future" (145).

One stimulus to the writing of her book was King's opportunity to serve as dramaturge to the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Cymbeline in 2000. Consequently, she weaves her practical experience of performance into more scholarly and historical ruminations. The combination is gratifying, although most of the audience in Santa Cruz, I would guess, will be little interested in the Jacobean anxieties latent in the play, and some fastidious scholars will be suspicious of the end-of-the-century shenanigans that were staged there. It is unclear whether these effects were her idea or those of the director, Danny Scheie, to whom the book is dedicated, but they can be most odd. For instance, the action that accompanies Posthumus's insane misogynous soliloquy ("Is there no way for men to be, but women \ Must be half-workers?") has him "furiously, and incompetently, ironing a shirt, turning over the board in impotent rage and being left to deliver the rest of the speech with iron still in hand, [which] captured the tone exactly" (102). Maybe so; I didn't see this production, but the account of a man unable to perform a domestic chore — women's work! — certainly appears to trivialize the depths and terrible consequences of his fury.

When Iachimo sees "On [Imogen's] left breast \ A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops \ I' th' bottom of a cowslip," in Shakespeare he starts to write a note of what he has seen but stops himself: "No more — to what end? \ Why should I write this down that's riveted, \ Screwed to my memory?" But in the Santa Cruz production, with its modern effects, he prepares "to take photographic proof of the mole on her breast" but instead, at the last moment, "covered the lens [of his camera] with his hand" (24) and then...


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pp. 302-304
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