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19 january 2016

Cymbeline is long, and it's not particularly charming. I've never seen it; I've never met anyone who's seen it. It has no famous lines (though one famous song) and few memorable characters, though from reading it long ago I did vividly remember the decapitated Cloten, the fatuous prince who is much more appealing as a headless trunk than a speaking character. I remembered that there were other princes in disguise out in the woods, and that somehow all ended well for everybody except for Cloten. I'm glad I got to read the play again before there was a quiz.

And of course I'm glad to read Cymbeline at any time, especially now since it concludes my completist tour through Shakespeare's plays that began a few years ago and picked up in earnest exactly a year ago today. It's not a good play "in the study," but I think that as with Pericles, a judiciously cut and imaginatively staged version could be fun to see. Dopey fairy-tale stuff that repelled Dr. Johnson and appealed to the Romantics abounds in Cymbeline, which is I guess why they call it a "Romance." Productions that keep things light probably do best by such plays, despite their occasionally darker themes.

Shakespeare uses many of his favorite devices and allusions in Cymbeline: devices of the love-wager and various improvised tricks that go with it, a girl dressed as a boy, exiled/disguised royalty (though here the princes don't really know they're royal), bizarre geography and anachronism, potions that knock you out but don't kill you; allusions to the Tarquins and Lucrece, Procne and Tereus, to the game of bowls. It's tempting to see the play as a sort of late-career come-all-ye that sums up Shakespeare's work; at one point a character name even appears to honor a Stratford printer who was an early colleague of the playwright's. It has its touches, its tender moments, its haltings on the edge of tragedy (except for Cloten, who plunges over into tragi-farce).

It's also interminable, and its action, though full of life-and-death situations, wanders all over the map of Europe and the gamut of overdone emotions. Who knows when I'll read it again? This time through, I did enjoy J.M. Nosworthy's notes to the now 60-year-old Arden edition. Nosworthy prints an almost diplomatic version of the First Folio text (the source of all others). Because there are no competing versions of the play, the editorial tradition has liberally conjectured readings that clear up the play's frequently murky language. Nosworthy savages these conjectures and tosses most of them out. He's got a point. Much of the play is in such intricate verse that emendation to make better sense doesn't do much to improve that sense; it's like annotating a Piranesi etching to help a contractor build the crazy thing.

Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline. 1623. Edited by J.M. Nosworthy. 1955. London: Methuen, 1969.