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A Caged Bird's Song: An Avian Cymbeline

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Feb 11, 2021 at 05:04 PM in Other Cymbelines

In Fall 2020, the English Senior Capstone course at UC Merced, led by Dr. Katherine Steele Brokaw, spent the semester researching Shakespeare and Ecology. Students read the work of several ecocritics and environmental activists, as well as A Midsummer Night’s DreamKing Lear, and Cymbeline. The students developed their own research projects, and also did collaborative work towards an eco-adaptation of Cymbeline, in anticipation of Shakespeare in Yosemite’s Spring 2021 production of the play. The group projects included a re-imagining of Imogen/Fidele’s burial song, and individual research projects, including Amber Loper’s investigation of Shakespeare’s birds, which they turned into a local avian adaptation of Cymbeline--featured today!

A Caged Bird's Song: An Avian Cymbeline

“… our cage
We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird,
And sing our bondage freely.” (Cymbeline 3.3.42-44)

Amber Loper’s A Caged Bird’s Song: An Avian Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline  is a brilliant creation of the ecocritical and post-human imagination. Inspired by the play’s abundant bird imagery and Rebecca Ann Bach’s "Avian Shakespeare," Loper playfully reimagines Shakespeare’s original characters and conflicts from the viewpoint of birds in order to bring to life their hardships in the environmentally degraded conditions of 20th and 21st century California. All the screenplay’s birds are threatened in varying degrees by habitat encroachment, pesticides, ingested plastics, and/or the devasting impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Above all, they are endangered by wildfires. But some birds are more imperilled than others.…

As Loper explains in the introduction to their adaptation (to be published fully at a later date), the screenplay's shift in creaturely viewpoints foregrounds mental and behavioural interactions between birds and humans. This animates the latter's cross-species relations within the shared terrains of the populous American west coast and its inland wilderness.

In Shakespeare’s play allusions to birds typically serve only to clarify human values or ornament cultural differences. By giving birds voices that humans can understand and showing them making rational – yet sometimes flawed – choices of action, Loper blurs their traditional ontological separation from humans. Loper's birds dwell inside nature-culture relations. Their wellbeing is seen to be critical to human as well as their own survival. Moreover, hearing birds tell their stories draws attention to the way they, like other marginalized animal classes and species, are forced to live in Anthropocene shadow places of human indifference or extractive capitalism. We listen with greater urgency and compassion to their plight.

Loper conceives their screenplay as an animated film intended for children,  who are culturally most familiar with, and receptive to, animals speaking with human voices. This “overwriting” is meant to “pull” the play’s avian metaphors “into the reality” of biological bird-life. Representationally, it resituates them in what Loper calls a “sweet spot” in between anthropomorphized and real-life animals. This productive move is showcased in the well-researched Character Descriptions which precede the play. We have included them in addition to representative excerpts of scenes.

Amber’s adaptation is remarkable for including much of the play’s original storylines yet also dramatically transforming their key conflicts. The most prominent of these changes, and the single example discussed here, is the power balance between Britons and Romans. In Loper’s version, Cymbeline’s court is dominated by various species of eagles, whereas the Romans are grassland non-flying birds led by Lucius, a Greater Sage Grouse. “A Caged Bird’s Song” thus challenges the symbolic avian hierarchy of Shakespeare’s text. The stigmatized grassland birds are also diseased and dying victims of sprayed and trashed habitats (implicitly caused by humans; but there are no human characters in Loper’s adaptation, and the only non-appearing one is Euriphile, who initially sheltered Belarius when he fled with Arviragus and Guiderius from Cymbeline’s gun-loving court). The grasslanders appeal to Cymbeline’s eagles for help but are spurned and become refugees in the forest.

There they are again endangered by a huge climate-change-intensified wildfire. Belarius (Golden Eagle) and the boys (Bald Eagles) volunteer to save the forest and its avian refugees, and they are joined by a repentant Posthumus (Golden Eagle). Imogen (Juvenile Bald Eagle) guides Lucius and his companions through the burning forest after they rescue her from a pile of trash that serves for her impromptu “burial” after she appears to have died.

To follow this plot to its conclusion: Posthumus rescues Cymbeline when a burning branch knocks him into the forest. But the king’s Crows arrest and imprison Posthumus because of his association with the grassland birds whom Cymbeline falsely accuses of starting the fire. Posthumus is visited by an apparition of his family, all dead from DDT poisoning or hunters, and receives the Thunderbird’s revelation. In one of Loper’s most brilliant creative stokes, Posthumus’s and Cymbeline’s destinies are jointly figured by the Jack Pine seed. As Merlin (pun intended) the wizard-Soothsayer later explains, the Jack Pine releases its seeds only during wildfires, and afterwards they are fertilised by the ashes. The sprouting circle of life multiplies: for Cymbeline with the discovery of his two sons; for Posthumus with his joyful reunion with Imogen; and for Lucius and his non-fliers, who receive Cymbeline’s humble apology and pledge of future co-operation.

A Caged Bird's Song

To download an excerpt from Amber's adaptation, click on the image above, which will open a pdf containing a selection of avian scenes. Tweet us with your impressions and thoughts at @ecocymbeline, or use the hashtag #cymbelineanthropocene to join the conversation.

  • loper_excerpts – A.Loper_-_A_Caged_Bird's_Song_excerpts.pdf