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Rebuilding the Global Home: Cymbeline and Multilateralism 

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on May 08, 2020 at 02:27 PM in Cymbeline and the World

As COVID-19 has spread around the world, it’s been sad to see agencies such as the World Health Organization attacked for alleged shortcomings while it struggles to encourage coordinated action against this unprecedented crisis. Depressing too are conspiracy theories spawned by China and the US about a deliberately weaponized virus. These and other blame-games have often degenerated into racist rants against “disease-carrying migrants,” as well as angry calls to lock down national borders. 

Such failures of empathy and solidarity are the latest development in a larger ongoing crisis of multilateralism. The situation is reminiscent of Britain’s aggressively unilateral breach with Rome in Cymbeline, including Cloten’s slurs against Romans with “crooked noses” (for more discussion of this, explore our "Play" dropdown menu).

Modern multilateralism is the global order established after WWII through institutions such as the UN to promote peace and international standards of trade and humanitarian conduct among nation-states. Specialized UN agencies like the WHO or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are dedicated to tackling global problems which demand international leadership and collaboration. For like climate change, the new coronavirus is borderless.

Cymbeline can help us think through the importance of multilateral trust and cooperation in the struggle against emergencies such as COVID-19 and climate change. The play offers a dramatic counternarrative to the alleged weaknesses of globalism by prioritizing values and principles of international care, respect, and reciprocity. Let’s consider a few instances of these:

1) Universal health care and justice. Risking his life like a progressive NGO in a repressive regime, Cornelius defends the biopolitical rights and security of humans and non-humans. He quietly subverts the Queen’s spuriously medicalized development of mineral poisons for private political ambitions by secretly substituting a benign sleeping potion for her lethal drugs. Cornelius also thwarts her plans to “unpeople” supporters of Posthumus (i.e. Innogen, Pisanio, or others) (1.5). His counterterrorism anticipates contemporary pushback against recent extraterritorial assassinations, or targeted killings, which violate the spirit if not the rules of International Humanitarian Law (of which more below). 

2) Limiting a global arms-race. The Queen resorts to narrow geographical determinism when claiming that Britain’s “bravery,” or militant defiance, towards Rome is the product of living on a naturally defensible island. According to her caricature, Britain is an armed “park” or enclosure, palisaded by “oaks unscalable” and protected by moat-like waters and ship-sucking sands (3.1). 

The Queen’s stance implies that Britons are a “warlike people” by nature, and that this environmental anthropology validates militarizing their self-interest. It is the “G-1” worldview of belligerent unilateralism today. Yet as the comments of other characters reveal, and Cymbeline’s ambivalence confirms, it is also blatant political spin, not any bottom-up condition of the whole country. Resisting it in favour of a more generous and adaptable world-view, mobile characters like Pisanio and (eventually) Posthumus choose more altruistic and multipolar forms of action. 

3) International connectedness and cultural hybridity. Both the royal court and Posthumus in his early benighted state claim that conquered and colonized Britain has now grown up to become Rome’s equal. They asert it is perfectly justified in throwing off the latter’s paternal-imperial “yoke.” This coming-of-age argument ignores the fact that Britain could not have matured without Rome’s technical knowledge and cultural education (e.g. the cosmopolitan art, furnishings, and classical reading in Innogen’s bedchamber [1.6]). Britons are effectively dual citizens of a regionally distinct but globally networked polity (similar in theatrical terms to the international community this project and its open-access website is hoping to build). As Innogen says memorably, Britain is a single but essential page in “the world’s volume,” or a “swan’s nest” in a “great pool” (3.4).   

4) Global sustainable dwelling. The life of Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus in Wales exemplifies what Julia Reinhard Lupton calls “landscape-architectural humanism” in Shakespeare Dwelling: Designs for the Theatre of Life (2018). This is not because their environmental footprint is modestly rural or quaintly Romantic rather than over-indulgently urban. It is because they rescale themselves as co-equals with other animals in a local woodland-mountain community. It is not walled off but hospitably open to strangers. (Such spatial-thematic contrasts between walled and open locales are suggestive for staging designs.) The welcoming ethos of Belarius and the sons stands in contrast to Cloten, who tries, ignorantly and fatally, to lord it over the local “villains.”

Despite not being native to the country, the Welsh sojourners survive like locals by embracing the shelter, food, exercise, and uplifting beauty their surroundings afford them. At the same time they perform a double-facing gesture. Combining a sociable sense of their environs as a domestic commons with ecological awareness, they tap into the regenerative power of the landscape’s resilience-enhancing biodiversity. (Their actions are again suggestive ecodramaturgically. Performances of Cymbeline in the Anthropocene will similarly integrate local opportunities of topography, built spaces, climates, technologies, and animals into theatrical co-dependencies.)  

Eventually Belarius and the brothers will use their topographic intelligence to reverse the tide of battle successfully against the invading Romans. By shaping the final outcome of peaceful cooperation between Britain and Rome, the hybrid Welsh-Britons effectively scale up their model of local sustainable growth into a global ecology and economy (both from the root-word oikos, or home). 

5) Universal pluralism. Innogen’s persecution at court forces her to become a political refugee in remote Wales. She arrives with colonial prejudices against the local inhabitants, believing them to be dangerous “savages.” But she quickly learns from the humane compassion and hospitality of Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius (whose ethos has been naturalized by their Welsh environment) that her assumptions are wrong: “Experience, O thou disprov’st report!” (4.2.33). This new ethical openness towards otherness and difference spurs her hope for a turn-around in her fortunes. These are also Britain’s fortunes, since Innogen’s border-crossing journey of self-discovery is emblematic of the country’s casting-off of racialized nativism, and of Cymbeline’s self-sacrificing return to international peace and cooperation. 

6) Supranational citizenship. When Lucius and his Roman army come across Cloten’s dead body and the grief-stricken Innogen beside it, their immediate responses are respect for an enemy soldier’s death, and empathy for his comrade-survivor (4.2.354ff). These reactions mirror the letter and spirit of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Its predecessor in Shakespeare’s time was the theory of jus in bello: just conduct in war. IHL codifies wartime conduct according to humane values that transcend the circumstances of particular conflicts. It also seeks to respect and/or limit the suffering of combatants and protected persons, or non-combatants. 

In another of the play’s multilateral gestures, Lucius puts IHL principles into practice by taking Innogen (disguised as the page Fidele) into his protection and service. He also honours the unknown soldier’s body with a military burial. Both living and dead persons are raised to a kind of supranational citizenship. Innogen’s status harks back to the status quo ante, before Cymbeline's misguided breaking off bilateral relations. It is a citizenship of voluntary and negotiated affiliations, not one based on place-determined birth or nativist exclusions. 

Ironically, the saving importance of jus in bello/IHL is later negatively demonstrated by the Roman army itself. Panicking because of “friendly” fire and disorder in their ranks, Roman soldiers get caught up in the bloodlust of combat. Shakespeare captures their indiscriminate killing in the dehumanized image of soldiers “Lolling the tongue [i.e. with tongues hanging out] with slaught’ring” (5.3.8). This moment not only makes the British turn-around in battle by Belarius, the sons, and Posthumus more striking. It also highlights Cymbeline’s moral refusal to take advantage of revenge-killing after the British victory. His decision is nothing less than heroic, and finally earns him the play's title. It too upholds the multilateral spirit of IHL, just as Posthumus’s forgiveness of Giacomo, based on recognition of their mutual complicity, also restores the supracitizenship both of then originally enjoyed in Philario’s cosmopolitan house in Rome (for more about Giacomo, see our previous blog post on reading his character through the Covid-19 pandemic).     

There are other instances of direct or symbolic multilateralism in Cymbeline. I welcome those who are curious to read or watch the play, or who know it already, or who wish to comment on this or any other posting on the wesbite, to share their insights using our Twitter or Instagram profiles @ecocymbeline, and/or the Comments page on our website.