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  • The Crowd in Imogen’s Bedroom: Allusion and Ethics in Cymbeline
  • J. K. Barret (bio)

According to George Bernard Shaw, William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline “goes to pieces in the last act.”1 Shaw penned his own version of the play’s long final scene, wary of the original’s “series of dénouements of crushing tedium, in which the characters lost all their vitality and individuality, and had nothing to do but identify themselves by moles on their necks, or explain why they were not dead.”2 In both Shakespeare’s play and Shaw’s Cymbeline Refinished: A Variation on Shakespear’s Ending, Imogen counts herself among the “not dead.” However, in Shaw’s revision she is royally ticked off about her near brush. Outraged that her husband “bade [his] servant kill me,” Imogen mentions the insult several times. But Posthumus’s contrition remains casual, and he repeatedly dismisses her complaint (Imogen: “He would have slain me”; Posthumus: “Do not harp on that”).3 When Imogen finally acquiesces, she resigns herself to life in a fallen world: “I must go home and make the best of it / As other women must.”4 In so doing, she also accepts Posthumus’s implicit position: he may have wanted her dead, but that (regrettable) assassination order was never carried out. Posthumus disregards what might have happened and advocates laying unrealized possibilities to rest. In this regard, Shaw’s revision offers an efficient extension of Shakespeare’s attempt to gather up loose ends and bring the play to a close. However, Posthumus’s attitude in Shaw’s revision runs notably contrary to the conditions of possibility that first generated such dangerous plot confusion. In [End Page 440] Shakespeare’s play, narrative possibilities (what might be), once discarded, exhibit staying power as what might have been.

In the second act of Cymbeline, Iachimo, the play’s villainous Boccaccian figure, travels from Rome to Britain’s royal seat eager to win a wager at the expense of the British princess’s chastity. When his attempts to seduce her fail miserably, he resorts to stowing himself in a trunk in order to gain access to Imogen’s bedroom. The action that unfolds over two linked scenes (2.2 and 2.4) places her chamber center stage. In Act 2, scene 2, Iachimo spies on Imogen while she sleeps and takes notes on what he sees in her bedroom. In Act 2, scene 4, Iachimo has returned to Rome where he tells Imogen’s exiled husband about this British adventure. Iachimo wins the bet by convincing Posthumus that he has successfully seduced Imogen, though, of course, he has enjoyed only an illicit peek. In both scenes Iachimo’s words, and especially his literary allusions, bring a number of competing stories into view. The playwright privileges theater’s capacity to put multiple, co-present options on imaginative, rather than physical, display, and encourages the consideration and memory of multiple story lines, even when only one set of actions happens onstage. From the start, Iachimo invokes stories from the classical past that might be scripts, but he does not follow those scripts. That is, he conjures events that might have happened (but didn’t). Even when allusive possibilities—whether threats or hopes—are relieved because an alternative is actualized, they do not merely vanish.

When he claims that he has won the bet, Iachimo offers a lie. Yet where we might expect that lie to take the form of a detailed account of the sex he had, the villain offers instead a catalogue of the art he saw in Imogen’s bedroom. That is, he offers ekphrasis, a verbal description of the several pieces of visual art—mostly depicting familiar scenes from antiquity—that adorn her chamber. Act 2, scene 4 implicitly asks the playgoer to recall Imogen’s bedroom, but curiously, Iachimo’s catalogue of the room details for the audience a collection of art objects that were unavailable in Act 2, scene 2. The vertiginous experience of Iachimo’s report of his trip to Imogen’s bedroom calls attention to the counter-factual possibility that Shakespeare foregrounds throughout the play. Even though there is...


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pp. 440-462
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