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Royalty Unlearned, Honor Untaught: British Savages and Historiographical Change in Cymbeline John E. Curran, Jr. Brittons, thinke not that your glories fall, Deriued from a meane originall. —William Browne, Britannia s Pastorals Critics have tended to approach Cymbeline, Shakespeare's strange hybrid play, from one of two directions: some, following the lead of G. Wilson Knight, look to the historical dimension of the play in search of allegory or topical significance;1 while others, following J. M. Nosworthy, view the play as pure romance.2 In my own reading of Cymbeline I am aiming at something of a reconciliation between these two camps. As we shall see, in the case of Cymbeline a theme typically associated with romance becomes more than a mere convention of that genre; it becomes a reflection of pressing issues within the intellectual context of Shakespeare's day—issues concerning the nation's past, and how Englishmen were supposed to interpret it. In Cymbeline, as many critics have held,3 a major element of romance is the "Cinderella" topos—the idea that true worth is to be distinguished from outward shows such as looks, birth, and social status, and that we must work hard to recognize this distinction . However, in Cymbeline this theme goes beyond romance: it enacts a complex response to the English revolution in historiography wherein the truth about the primitive condition of the ancient Britons was discovered and the traditional British History of Geoffrey of Monmouth was discredited.4 Shakespeare in Cymbeline joins his learned contemporaries in their effort to reimagine their nation's ancient past according to the new humanist historiography but simultaneously to continue to view the ancient Britons as a positive reflection of themselves. Faced with 277 278Comparative Drama a newly conceived barbaric heritage and yet unwilling to detach themselves from the island's most ancient inhabitants, Englishmen were learning to reevaluate standards for judging the past— to locate virtue in savage forebears and obscure origins. My reading thus builds upon the work of such critics as Meredith Skura, D. E. Landry, Brook Thomas, and Brian Gibbons, who hold that Cymbeline has much to do with the process of reconstructing the past.5 In my view, Cymbeline both critiques the excesses of the self-flattering Galfridian tradition and argues that, in spite of their new and strange appearance, the ancient Britons are still worthy of regard. Though drastically reimagined, the past should continue to dignify the present. To reinforce this reading of the play, I begin by reading in a similar way the other Roman Britain plays of the time around which Cymbeline was written. This moment in time, falling c. 1608-15, came more than twenty years after the first publication of William Camden's Britannia (1586), and so by then Englishmen were becoming used to the British History being heavily scrutinized. The time in question saw three Roman Britain plays other than Cymbeline: Rowley's A Shoomaker, A Gentleman; Caradoc, or The Valiant Welshman, by "R. A."; and Fletcher's Bonduca. Although a study by Jodi Mikalachki has recently compared them,6 the Roman Britain plays have seldom been studied as a unit. By reading these plays together, we shall see that they can all be related to the historiographical situation which produced them. With this foundation we shall follow the argument of inherent British virtue through the three plots of Cymbeline itself: the two lost princes represent a primitive Britain which is inherently noble despite its savagery; the confrontation of Cymbeline , Cloten, and the Queen with the Romans represents an inordinate and foolish attachment to the antiquated Galfridian tradition; and, finally, the Posthumus-Imogen branch of the play represents the mistake of being overwhelmed by the new history and of losing faith in the inherent virtue of the British people. I In the first decade and a half of the seventeenth century, many important writers emerged who helped consolidate the revolutionary scholarship of Camden's Britannia; the first English translation of the Britannia itself, by Philemon Holland, appeared in 1610. As Arthur B. Ferguson has pointed out, Camden was the first scholar in England "to demonstrate with a newly visual John E. Curran, Jr.279 clarity the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 277-303
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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