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Studio Session-285 copy 2

They do it with Stories by Dr. Nandini Das

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Studio Session-285 copy 2


What is the use of stories? Of all the questions raised by Shakespeare’s late plays (and Cymbeline is one of them), this is one of the deepest, and perhaps for us the most important. the opening of Cymbeline is tricky, and a headache for any director.

As a piece of dramatic writing, it is a transparent theatrical ploy to give us the background to the story, which deals with king Cymbeline’s displeasure with the rebellion of his daughter, who had refused the husband he had chosen for her, and married another instead – a man who seems a paragon of virtue, but is poor and of a much lower status. As the play’s action begins, the unlucky bridegroom is exiled, the princess put under house arrest, and the king left without heirs, since both his sons had been kidnapped twenty years ago and never found. it is no wonder Bernard Shaw thought that Cymbeline was ‘abominably written’ and ‘stagey trash’, and things do not improve as the action progresses. After we have seen the improbable acts and theatrical misconceptions that the play piles one over another, we are treated in the final scene to another bout of story-telling. this time it is the deceitful Iachimo’s turn to bring us up to date, even though we have just sat through it all. this is a play that seems to flaunt its place in the world of stories and make-belief. Iachimo even begins his confession in that final scene with a classic ‘Upon a time, – unhappy was the clock/ That struck the hour! – it was in Rome…’.

‘Once upon a time’ – this is something that Cymbeline shares with the other late plays of Shakespeare, that cluster that he wrote in 1610-1614, including Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest. All of them have a habit of straying into the realm of the improbable, and use unashamedly creaky theatrical wizardry to get to equally unashamed perfect endings. yet there is an odd kernel of brutal reality resting at the heart of each. each one of these plays start where in his earlier plays, Shakespeare had stopped.

At the end of Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo mistakes Juliet’s potion-induced sleep as death and decides to follow her, Juliet wakes up to see the fallen body next to her (like Innogen), and follows him in turn. At the end of Othello, Shakespeare’s hero realises what a sheer waste of life his jealousy and insecurity has caused. So he kills himself, and Cassio, whom he had loved and hated in equal measure, seems to understand the inevitability of it: ‘This did I fear, but thought he had no weapon,’ he says, accepting Othello’s decision to take his own life, ‘for he was great of heart.’ Lear, having driven away all who loved him most, carries the broken body of his dead daughter Cordelia on to the stage:

And my poor fool is hanged. No, no life? Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?

When he is dying next to her, while others rush around trying to revive him, Kent, the follower who had perhaps loved and understood him best of all, says:

Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass. He hates him That would upon the rack of this tough world Stretch him out longer.

It seems right, at the ends of tragedies, when lovers lose their loved ones, or parents lose their children, that heartbreak should end in death. yet heartbreak, as we all know, does not always mean the end. life, time and hearts, have an annoying habit of stubbornly ticking on. the set of four we now call the ‘late plays’ of Shakespeare – Winter’s Tale, Tempest, Pericles and Cymbeline, all deal, in some way or the other, with this stubborn resilience of life that refuses to obey the curtain call, and they do it through the equally stubborn resilience of stories and the human imagination.

Cymbeline brings multiple story-lines together. between those two bits of heavy handed story-telling at either end, we have three plot-lines, which move step by step from the private chamber to the world stage. there is the marriage/wager story, with Innogen, Posthumus, Iachimo, and Cloten. As stories go, this is the world of folk-tale and popular gossip. much of it comes from Boccaccio’s Decameron, with its potent mix of love, desire, sex and jealousy. there is also the familial, dynastic story of the two lost princes kidnapped by the disgruntled Belarius, who finally emerge as the saviours of their father’s kingdom against the invading roman army. Some of it may derive from historical chronicles, but its central element is a familiar one from the world of Arthurian romance – the character of the ‘Fair Unknown’, the boy from seemingly obscure, unknown parentage, who turns out to have great powers, and can defeat the greatest of enemies. it is a plot device we still see being used today. Shakespeare simply doubles the bet by having two ‘Fair Unknowns’ rather than one. then, finally, yet further up the scale, is the story of the clash of nations. At this level, it is the story not of Posthumus, or Innogen, or lost sons. this is political, about a world that is caught between change and not wanting to change, a struggle marked out on the scale of the epic. Shakespeare’s sources for this were heavyweight histories like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (history of the kings of Britain, c. 1136) and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577, 1587). they mention Cunobelinus, an old Celtic king of Britain from around 9 Ad, who was on such good terms with the romans that rome did not demand annual tributes from him. Cunobelinus ruled from Camilodunum, today’s Colchester. Shakespeare’s contemporary theatre-goers would remember him: he was one of the ancient British kings whose faces were painted on Ludgate, one of the main entrances to old London, directly opposite the indoor Blackfriars theatre where Shakespeare’s company performed from 1609. that, we know, was the storyline that at least one early theatre-goer remembered most about the play. in the summer of 1611, an Elizabethan doctor called Simon Forman wrote about Cymbeline in his diary; this is the first recorded evidence of the play being performed. ‘Remember also,’ he notes in his diary, ‘also the story of

Cymbeline, king of England, in Lucius’s time. How Lucius came from Octavius Caesar for tribute; and, being denied, sent Lucius with a great army of soldiers, who landed at Milford Haven, and after were vanquished by Cymbeline, and Lucius taken prisoner.’

Within that historical world, living is fraught with mistakes, misunderstandings, and miscalculations, and dying is inevitable. ‘Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,’ goes one of the songs in the play, often identified as one of the most beautiful lyrics in the English language; ‘Golden lads and girls all must/ As chimney- sweepers, come to dust’. yet within the play, of course, mistakes can be mended, and Innogen does not die after all. And all ends well for Cymbeline, for Posthumus, even for Iachimo. Within the walls of the theatre, something strange happens. theatrical wonder has a magic power to revivify, to restart stories, to tell them not how they are, but how they should be. people die, they come alive again. Actors fall, they get up, go home, and come back the next day to do it all over again. it is a daily miracle.

Cymbeline flaunts its unreality. the writing is heavy and the phrases too trite at its opening and ending; in between, the coincidences are too convenient, the timing too good to be true. yet one suspects that perhaps that is the point that the play is trying to make. the story-telling, so obviously showing its ‘dramatic’ colours, brackets the action of the play, creating a bubble of make-belief. Within that space, mistakes can be made, redemption is possible, and stories continue to get to their desired conclusion. the key weapon in these late plays is youth and wonder. their fictions, one could say, are childish – broadly painted, blatant, reminiscent of fairy tales. (Once upon a time…). Such fictions and ploys should not work, should not suck us in, because we know they are make-belief. yet within the world of the theatre, we allow them to work on us. they carry us in their current with a kind of cheerful carelessness that is redolent of the confidence of the very gullible or the very young, who do not know that some things are impossible, and therefore manage to create a space where they can happen, can come to a better, more wished-for end.

‘Never was a war did cease, / Ere bloody hands were wash’d, with such a peace,’ Cymbeline says in the final lines of the play. And that’s true. in the pages of history there never was a war, or a peace, like the one we see in the play. yet at the same time, there was, in as much as we have just seen it unfold on stage. the play has made it happen. the tragic ‘never’ of historical reality has become the amazed ‘never’ of wonder wrought by the story and by the theatre. the challenge, for actors as for the audience, is to make room for both: to know the first, and yet accommodate the magic of the second, and by doing so, to allow the story to continue.

Professor Nandini Das University Of Liverpool
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