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Cymbeline in two Anthropocenes: Christmas 1610, 2020

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Dec 22, 2020 at 06:54 PM in Cymbeline and the World

In our final blog entry of 2020, Cymbeline in the Anthropocene project leader Randall Martin delves into textual references suggesting that Cymbeline was written for an original stage performance in 1610 at Christmas. The Christmas event's existential messages about changing human nature and ethics inaugurated a new anthropocene ("Age of Humankind") consciousness. In 1610 this awareness coincided with the material origins of the global Anthropocene, when European imperialism was beginning to transform the planet biologically. And today it coincides with an Anthropocene consciousness about our responsibility for the world we have degraded, heightened by multiplying environmental crises. At the end of a year dominated by global health, ecological, and social crises, Cymbeline's prophecies offer a wisdom we can take into a new year, and a new era, as the world continues to transform.

Christmas 1610: peace and the play

Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline sometime in 1610 after a fresh outbreak of the plague had closed London playhouses in the early winter. We don’t know for certain how soon it was performed. But the play’s various allusions to Christmas strongly suggest Shakespeare wrote it for a first performance at court over the 1610-11 holiday season1.

The play’s most obvious historical association with Christmas is its titular subject. King Cymbeline succeeded to the British throne in 33 BCE and reigned for 35 years. The final years of his kingship thus coincided with Christ’s birth. This correlation is thematized in the play’s final scene by personal turns to “good will,” forgiveness, and peace. Their ethos suggests Britain was morally receptive to the arrival of divine salvation in human history. Christian historians believed the same was true on a “universal” level because of the so-called Pax Romana of emperor Caesar Augustus in that period (“The time of universal peace is near” [2.4.11]). “Peace” is spoken five times in Cymbeline’s last 45 lines, and is the final word of the play.

It would have resonated particularly for the hall’s royal spectator, King James, at a Christmas Banqueting House performance. Cymbeline ’s theme of universal peace flattered James’s shift from a militant to a pacific foreign policy after he came to the throne in 1603. It also gratified his aspirations to play the role of peacemaker among warring Continental nations in emulation of Christ’s words “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5.9). The Latin words, “Beati pacifici” became James’s personal motto, seen here inscribed on the canopy above his statue in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The original performance of Cymbeline at Christmas is also suggested by the play’s echo of Shakespeare’s earlier description of the season in Hamlet. In the latter’s opening scene, Marcellus believes the Ghost’s sudden appearance and vanishing at the “crowing of the cock” is a supernatural portent. That’s because the cock, the “bird of dawning,” was said to sing all night in anticipation of “that season … Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,” “so hallowed and gracious is that time” (1.1.156-63).

In Cymbeline, Innogen uses similar words to rejoice in Belarius’s preservation of her life in Wales because it allows her “To see this gracious season” of being reunited with her family and estranged husband Posthumus (5.4.402). The dialogue at this point continues with Christmas-resonant language. Cymbeline promises to “Let [Belarius and “his” sons] be joyful too, / For they shall taste our comfort.” He also wishes that Posthumus (still unrevealed as the “noble soldier” who contributed to the British victory) could be present to be “graced” by “The thankings of a king” (402, 406-08).

In the previous scene, when Posthumus’s ghostly family pleads to Jupiter to relieve his travails, the god assures them that “Our jovial star reigned at his birth,” and that “Your low-laid son our godhead will uplift” (5.3.1199, 197). These lines allude to familiar biblical texts about the nativity (respectively, Matthew 2.2-9; Philippians 2.8-9). Posthumus is definitely not a Christ-figure. But in the context of these allusions, Jupiter’s further description of him as “the lion’s whelp” identifies him not only as the offspring of his Roman father Leonatus, but also with the biblical figure of Judah, the “Lion’s whelp” who is an Old Testament figure for Christ (Genesis 49.8-99)2. Jupiter’s revelation of Posthumus’s precarious but divinely favoured identity also suggests the nativity paradox of vulnerable human flesh becoming an agency of transcendent power, and it heralds the thematic allusions to Christmas and the possibility of forgiveness for everyone in the final scene.

Following Jupiter’s revelation, the Jailer’s gallows-humour dialogue with Posthumus leads up to another long-recognized Christmas reference. Posthumus is facing execution when a messenger suddenly appears to “[bring] good news” that he has been “called to be made free.” After he is released, the Jailer reflects on his cheerful readiness to die when so many “knaves desire to live,” and many others “die against their wills.” In the face of such disparities and injustices, the Jailer wishes

I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good. O, there were desolation of jailers and gallowses, I speak against my present profit, but my wish hath a preferment in it. (5.3.297-98)

Dramatically, the Jailer’s speech is reminiscent of the moment in King Lear when the Fool breaks the fourth wall and delivers a mock-prophecy about the future of Albion (King Lear [Folio text] 3.2.79-86). The Jailer likewise addresses the audience directly but expresses a utopian yearning for universal brotherly love. The sharing of his “preferment” with real-time spectators seems particularly suited to a Christmas season performance. And his “preferment” is later enacted by Posthumus’s non-judgemental forgiveness of Giacomo, “Live, / And deal with others better,” which in turn inspires Cymbeline’s general action de grâce: “Pardon’s the word to all” (5.4.420, 423).

In anticipating a Christmas performance, Shakespeare was going back to his successful precedent for the first performance of The Comedy of Errors on 28 December 1594. At the end of the play, when the mistaken identities of the two sets of twin brothers are cleared up, and the brothers reunited with their long-lost parents, their mother Emilia rejoices in Christmas language of deliverance, (re)birth, brotherhood, and epiphany (“After so long grief, such nativity” [The Comedy of Errors 5.1.395-408]).

Christmas 2020: reorienting Anthropocene subjectivities through eco-Shakespeares

The theological heart of the Christmas story is the incarnation, a divine-earthly conjunction which begins the process of redeeming fallen human nature. Christ’s birth reorients humanity away from the genealogical past of the Old Testament and towards the eternal futures and reckonings of the New Testament. From this typological perspective, Christmas inaugurates an anthropocene (“Age of Humankind”) event.

At Christmas 1610, when Cymbeline was reminding spectators of this providential remaking of human nature (and partly because of the triumphalism of that worldview), the Earth was being remade in today’s definition of the Anthropocene: the human terraforming of the planet. Scientists Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin argue that 1610 marks the end of the geological Holocene and the beginning of our Anthropocene. It’s a less common starting-date than the Industrial Revolution or 20th-century nuclear-radiation emissions. But its credible basis is the world-altering species exchanges that occurred with European imperialism, “an unambiguous event after which the impacts of human activity became global and set Earth on a new trajectory.”

King James spurred Britain’s contribution to this world-altering event by promoting the conquest of North American lands and peoples (despite his self-proclaimed role as an international peacemaker). Cloten’s backfiring belligerence towards “Welsh mountaineers” in Cymbeline cautions against the hubris of this policy, and Shakespeare would soon dramatize its political and environmental consequences at greater length in The Tempest.

Fast forward to 2020, when human triumphalism in the form of extractive capitalism is producing negative feedback loops of global-heating, ocean acidification, and mass extinctions. Because we are feeling such “hostile” effects world-wide, environmental philosopher Todd Dufresne argues they are producing a new “differential consciousness” about human life on Earth. Anthropocene calamities impress on us that nature has never been indifferent to human exploitation. Rather, it always acts as a responsive subject interfacing with, and intervening in, human activities--as many Indigenous cultures, such as the Dene people of Canada’s Northwest Territories have never forgotten, as they struggle to survive as a colonized community in the modern economic order (see graphic journalist Joe Sacco’s brilliant documentary, Paying the Land [2020]).

Anthropocene blowbacks are reshaping a new decentred and non-transcendent consciousness about human nature and belonging. This consciousness emerges from the experiences of environmental catastrophe which we share as one sentient species among many, yet also as kindred species on a damaged and finite planet (Dufresne, The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Catastrophe, Philosophy in the Anthropocene [2019]).

Dufresne is hopeful that this new existential awareness will spawn future ethical responsibility for the planet’s environments and lifeforms. The Anthropocene, he believes, will transform globalised indifference into planetary empathy. Its trigger-point has not yet arrived, but will be evoked by the increasingly horrific spectacle of people and animals suffering the bodily effects of climate change and industrial toxicity.

Our current experience of Covid-19, however, makes one wonder about when and if this threshold of new empathetic consciousness will arrive. The pandemic has triggered heroic personal responses of care, ingenuity, and solidarity towards human suffering (and lots of the opposite, alas). But our responses have not yet suggested much hope for a comparable breakthrough in international cooperation or altruism to deal with rising CO2 levels and habitat devastation. At the moment people mainly just want to get back to “normal.”

In negative terms “normal” means individual freedom to shop, drive, and fly without seriously worrying about environmental impacts on future generations (confession: I myself would like to travel and document some of the performances of our contributing companies.) Yet in a positive sense returning to normal includes new appreciation, under lockdowns, for the value of theatrical story-telling, performance art, and live spectatorship. As Stratford Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino argues, these empowering rituals “redeem us from [existential] annihilation” by seemingly random plagues such as Covid-19.

Their motivational force also holds true in the face of accelerating Anthropocene disaster. Our changed existential awareness does not have to wait for catastrophic fight-or-flight triggers. Hence this project’s hope of awakening personal imaginations to the urgency of environmental empathy and stewardship through locally oriented eco-Cymbelines, shared informatively through our website. We can reimagine Anthropocene futures this Christmas and live to act better in 2021.


The first documented performance on 8 Sept 1611 took place at The Globe, as witnessed by London physician and astrologer, Simon Forman. He had watched and written about Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale the previous April and May, respectively. The next recorded performance of Cymbeline was at the court of Charles I in 1634.

2 Notes in the Geneva Bible point readers to this typological genealogy. Genesis 49.8 connects Judah to “David and Christ.” And Revelation 5.5 traces it back: “the Lion which is of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, hath obtained to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof” (marginal note: “*Genesis 49.9”)