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COVID-19, the Anthropocene, Cymbeline

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Mar 30, 2020 at 07:21 PM in Cymbeline and the World, Articles of Interest

Why an Anthropocene Cymbeline (2):

COVID-19, the Anthropocene, and tragicomedy

In 2014 environmental justice author Naomi Klein published This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. In it she argued that corporate capitalism was thwarting urgently needed global action to head off catastrophic levels of CO2. The new coronavirus has introduced a second more immediate tipping event, and the two crises are connected even though they are working at different speeds. The COVID-19 emergency has swiftly imposed cancellations, quarantines, business shutdowns, and mass unemployment around the world. It is a frighteningly accelerated experience of the incremental disruptions of climate change. Both crises are Anthropocene experiences because they confound or collapse connections between local and global environments normally believed to be safely distanced and manageable by human technologies. 

A hoped-for corona vaccine will save lives and no doubt restore business as usual. The on-going challenge will be to avoid returning completely to “normal,” and to convert the new risks and devastation caused by COVID-19 into opportunities to reset global systems. These re-sets could include concerted efforts to reduce air pollution, which makes people more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19, or using the drop in fossil-fuel consumption to push forward the changeover to renewable energy sources. 

Motivating such changes involves raising awareness about the value of the natural world to our well-being. It also demands reshaping public attitudes to encourage greater personal and political responsibility for maintaining the health of the planet and all its inhabitants. The stories and ecodramaturgy of Cymbeline in the Anthropocene aspire to open the minds and hearts of audiences to embracing these cultural world-views.   

Sadly, there is now a possibility our project’s 2020 productions of Cymbeline may be delayed until later this summer or postponed until 2021. This enforced pause invites us to reflect on the play’s relationship to the new reality of COVID-19-Anthropocene crises. Here I’ll explore how this perspective shifts our understanding of the roles of Jupiter and Giacomo, and how that revised outlook alters the emotional – and potentially motivating -- impacts of the play’s tragicomedy.

We are Jupiter

In my pre-corona discussion of Jupiter’s response to the ghosts of Posthumus’s family, I noted that Jupiter justifies his responsibility for Posthumus’s misfortunes as part of a longer-term plan of “care:”

Whom best I love, I cross, to make my gift,

The more delayed, delighted. (5.3.195-96) 

From an ecological viewpoint, overcoming environmental challenges in sustainable ways builds resilience, reduces vulnerability to shocks, and improves reproductive success. Jupiter argues that life’s hardships are a rich source of evolutionary striving and (re)creation.  

As a by-product of the Anthropocene treatment of non-human animals (see below), COVID-19 has undermined the Western and now global dream of buying personal freedom through identity-consumerism, regardless of damage to Earth’s environments. This exposes an unexamined flaw in Jupiter’s message: that its bio-logic applies only to the well-being of Posthumus, not to the collective lives of his family. One could say it prioritizes the life of a selfish individual over the welfare of a community. This bias is implicit in the play’s romance genre, in which the male hero, even a dodgy one, is automatically (i.e. culturally) valued above ordinary mortals or enemies.

In reading Jupiter’s message to Posthumus through the lens of evolutionary adaptation, I was downplaying its darker obverse: that productive adaptation in nature always results in non-survivors who succumb to environmental pressures or because of weaker capacities to adapt (e.g. the premature deaths of Posthumus’s parents). Cymbeline foregrounds Posthumus’s individual survival over his family’s extinction, almost as if the latter were necessary to enable the former. An analogy with COVID-19 might be that he is privileged to acquire immunity because Jupiter (insert the name of a modern politician here) is willing to sacrifice the lives of the more socially or physically vulnerable.

What are other possible connections between Posthumus’s survival and the coronavirus and Anthropocene crises? One way they are related is through the Anthropocene’s obsession with unlimited economic growth and consumption at the expense of environmental or animal welfare. According to current knowledge, COVID-19 jumped to humans from either bats and/or pangolins, who share 99% of their DNA with us. These animals were being sold illegally in Wuhan markets. But the animals were not the cause of the disease, they were the carriers. By being captured, transported away from their natural habitats, and caged with limited or no access to water or food, their immune systems were extremely stressed. This is the kind of abuse the Queen in Cymbeline will inflict on “worthless” animals in order to test her poisons. In Wuhan it made them susceptible to infection from a coronavirus mutation, which then jumped when the bats or pangolins were forced to share space with highly compatible human co-hosts. 

Like climate change’s scaled exposure of the destructive connections between compulsive buying and throwing-away of stuff and degraded global forests and oceans, COVID-19 reminds us of what the ghost of Posthumus’s mother calls “Nature’s law:” that humans are inside the natural world, not outside it, and certainly not immune to the unforeseen risks brought on by terraforming the planet to our convenience. The coronavirus emergency clarifies this situation. It suggests that buying into Jupiter’s “tough love” rationale for Posthumus is a projection of our Anthropocene arrogance as “thunder-masters.” Yet like AIDS and Ebola before it, COVID-19 shatters human dreams of being specially, even “heroically,” detached from the well-being of other life-forms on Earth.

This latest reality-check prompts thought experiments about Cymbeline. How would the play’s dramaturgy change if we recognized that Jupiter’s apparently beneficial oversight was actually masquerading as Posthumus’s exceptionalism and self-absorption? What if the god’s descent on an eagle and offended tone were staged as a seriously ambivalent or threatening intervention, more like Ariel’s swooping harpy in the Shakespeare’s next play, The Tempest? Although such changes would require some adaptation of the text, they might be worth it to contemporize the play, as virtually all modern companies try to make their productions relevant and vital to today’s audiences. 

Giving the stories and voices of Posthumus’s distraught family greater theatrical impact, even as they plead to Jupiter to spare Posthumus further miseries, could give a distinctly tragicomic edge to these moments. This would better reflect today’s deranging emotions of grief for the staggering number of deaths due to COVID-19 on the one hand, and desperate hope for a saving vaccine on the other. It would point to a true accounting of the cost of Posthumus’s personal survival at expense of collective lives. It could remind us that the price of tragicomedy in Cymbeline is higher than the easy generic scapegoating of Cloten and the Queen. In the final lines of the play, the king celebrates Britain and Rome making peace even before “bloody hands were washed.” But the bloodshed is still there and cannot instantly be wiped clean. Likewise, if we are to reduce global heating and avoid future plagues we must own up to the disasters brought on by reckless economic growth and animal abuses.     

Rethinking the relationship between tragedy and comedy in the light of the COVID-19 Anthropocene involves re-discovering the other side of human selfishness in Cymbeline’s stories and characters: our survival strategies of cooperation, altruism, and virtuous copying (i.e. our evolved ability to imitate improving behaviour and socially useful actions; see Mark Pagel, Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind [2012]). These gifts are obscured by Jupiter’s narrow emphasis on individual endurance and reward. They have been suppressed by the Social Darwinism of global neo-liberalism, and devalued by the short-term profit-worship of the Anthropocene, analogized by Cymbeline’s monocultural and insular Britain.

I want to suggest that staging the final scene’s life-affirming discoveries and peacemaking as a convincing story of global re-set also involves reassessing how Giacomo – despite being the unquestionable villain of the play – collaborates with and reciprocates Posthumus’s forgiveness, ethically and environmentally.

We are Giacomo

Giacomo’s conscience-driven confession in the final scene is the main narrative’s last tipping event. It sets off the play’s concluding chain reactions of truth and reconciliation. Unlike his Vice-like cousins Aaron in Titus Andronicus or Iago in Othello, Giacomo does not wish he had done a thousand more evils or remain stubbornly silent about his hatreds. Nor like Edmund in King Lear does he confess only after he is mortally wounded. Shakespeare characterizes Giacomo as having a natural capacity to cooperate before he is threatened with execution.

When he arrives in Britain to acquire spurious proofs of Innogen’s unfaithfulness, Giacomo’s feelings are already divided. He compares himself to Parthian archers on horseback who shoot at their enemies while fleeing in the opposite direction (1.6.18-21). Shakespeare provides no explanation for why the sleazy villain of the wager scene (1.4) begins to doubt himself. We see only the effects after they emerge in a different geophysical location. When Posthumus, feeling he is most to blame for Innogen’s apparent death, spares Giacomo’s life after defeating him in single combat, Giacomo remarks that his strength has been sapped not only by his remorseful “heaviness” but also by Britain’s “air” (5.2.3).

This is the first of three references to his body being environmentally affected by the change in climate from his native Italy. The second reference occurs when he nearly faints before beginning his confession in the final scene, implicitly from the same air but also from losing heart-blood (literally, according to early modern physiology) owing to deep guilt for his betrayals. Shakespeare humanizes Giacomo by making him subject to “nature’s law” in both ethical and corporeal senses. The two susceptibilities are inseparable, and they are suggestive for contemporizing him as an Anthropocene-COVID-19 character.   

Giacomo’s lengthy confession reveals that his feelings and their impacts continue to evolve. His speech serves the audience as a helpful recap of the play’s slander plot against Innogen. Dramatically, it aligns Giacomo with flawed but well-intentioned characters such as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet. Like Lawrence’s retrospective speech in the final scene of that tragedy, Giacomo raises the audience’s critical antennae by presenting an edited account of past events. His omissions pique spectators to remember the significance of what has been left out. 

Friar Lawrence’s selective memory also spins events to put himself in a more favourable light. But rather than trying to excuse himself, Giacomo underlines his personal culpability. He paints a contrastingly rosy picture of “the good” Posthumus, “calm as virtue,” “true knight,” “the noble Leonatus.” This flattery contradicts our experience of the hot-headed misogynist who abetted Giacomo’s deception by writing a deliberately misleading letter of introduction to Innogen (to cite just one of Posthumus’s faults). 

On the other hand, Giacomo’s confession nearly goes off the rails when he gets caught up in the rhetoric of his own story, and starts boasting about how clever he was getting into Innogen’s bedchamber (O cunning!”). Here he mentions the effect of Britain’s climate on his body a third time. But now the effects are reversed. His “Italian brain” was given an environmentally unnatural warp over Innogen’s kindness by his exposure to “duller Britain.” Giacomo is not saying Britain’s climate made him evil, but that it heightened a physical vulnerability which could incline to evil. 

Just as Giacomo is about to get carried away recalling the details of Innogen’s bedroom, Posthumus steps forward. After cursing Giacomo as an “Italian fiend,” he accuses himself most of all for being a “credulous fool” and the real killer of Innogen. His collapse into intense grief replays Innogen’s emotional breakdown over the headless corpse of Cloten, which she took be Posthumus’s. Here the crisis prompts Innogen to rush forward to comfort Posthumus. But unknowingly he answers her empathy with a staggering blow. 

During the subsequent reveals of Innogen, Belarius, and Cymbeline’s sons, the fate of Giacomo is set aside. It returns after the mood has shifted to joy upon the reunion of the king’s family. Posthumus tells Giacomo he was the unknown soldier who spared him. Having had his own conscience stung again by Giacomo’s omission of his collusion, and by his own attack on Innogen, Posthumus reaches out to his bodily gesture of humility and raises him up.

This time he spares Giacomo not just because of his own self-absorbed guilt but for the regret they both share. He acknowledges his adversary’s capacity for evil and self-critique in himself. From today’s perspective, Posthumus joins Giacomo in becoming an Anthropocene subject. “Live, / And deal with others better” admonishes himself as much as Giacomo. Posthumus accordingly opts for what Prospero in The Tempest calls the “rarer action” of forgiveness rather than vengeance. 

Cymbeline copies Posthumus’s “freeness,” or clemency, in pardoning Lucius and others. Simultaneously the king liberates himself from blind impulses to lash out when he feels his authority is threatened. The surprise restoration of tribute to and diplomatic entente with Rome feels hard-won, not generic, because he and Posthumus learn to imitate the experiences and value the viewpoint of others. These are cultural shifts towards long-term prosperity that balance individualism and national sovereignty with social and multilateral collaboration. Because they are emotionally embodied in live performance and storytelling, audiences can respond and grow from them as well. That creates hope for a post-COVID-19-Anthropocene tragicomedy.