Stories and Genres

Cymbeline: Stories and Genres for the Anthropocene

While many people have loved Cymbeline, others have ridiculed its stories and ending. Readers and audiences today can understand why. The play entangles and strings out numerous plots, resolving them in a pile-up of wondrous discoveries and revelations (24 in the last scene!). In typical Shakespearian fashion, Cymbeline also mocks the implausibility of its own fictions (“This was a strange chance: / A narrow lane, an old man, and two boys”).

The play thus invites spectators to judge whether its storytelling works for them. And ever since Cymbeline’s first staging in 1610-11, audiences have weighed whether the play pleases their notions of how human conflicts and accords should be told and shown on stage, and, in a larger sense, whether its storytelling satisfies their aesthetic and cultural expectations. Yet because such outlooks are always historically shifting, the relationship between the play’s narrative fictions and dramatic realism could be flipped around:

What kind of reality might the farfetched stories of Cymbeline successfully reflect back to a modern audience?

In today’s era of global environmental crisis, one possibility is the seemingly implausible prospect of trying to disarm and overcome its real yet hard-to-comprehend dangers.

Implausibility is a kind of saving social reflex towards the abnormal conditions and unheard-of disasters caused by human disregard for the Earth’s geophysical limits. To put this another way, implausibility is a rationalizing strategy we use to hang on to conventional assumptions about seasonal or yearly norms even as they are being shattered by record-breaking temperatures, floods, droughts, and extinctions. Not denial, but not full responsibility either.

Yet the refuge of implausibility also has ecologically awakening possibilities. Our understanding of the Anthropocene’s causes and effects is both rational and counterintuitive. Scientists can well explain the physical relationship between global heating and ice storms, for instance. But both they and ordinary people are aware there are limits to such knowledge. Environmental emergencies are happening in unpredictable and often baffling ways. Their permutations exceed empirical and computer-assisted projections. At the same time, events such as the 2019 Australian bushfires and their associated animal holocaust can no longer simply be brushed off as natural pattern variations.

Cymbeline’s main story-genre – romance -- shows us a way to make implausibly plausible sense of the Anthropocene’s heart-rending and mind-bending tragedies. In live performance especially, it gives us a felt experience of the emotional and creative intelligence needed to confront the Anthropocene’s harrowing and weird complexities.

Moreover, the play’s romance plots operate in the dramatic mode known as tragicomedy, which mingles sensational sad and happy events. Experiencing the calamities and optimism of tragicomic romance gives us an existential analogue for living with the Anthropocene’s environmental insecurities, perplexities, and tenuous hopes. A tragicomic outlook mixes, without resolving, the fatefulness of 21st-century catastrophe with the dream of co-habiting the Earth fairly with non-human animals and ecosystems.

Cymbeline frames its romance stories with historical narratives which connect the play’s personal conflicts and resolutions to wider geopolitical relations. I’ll consider that historical framework first before returning to romance and tragicomedy.

Historical Fiction

Like King Lear, Cymbeline dramatizes ancient British history. In Shakespeare’s time this was largely mythical history. It was mythical less in the sense that it was unbelievable, and more in the way its stories explained the original character of British peoples and their formative environments. The play reflects a strong early modern interest in appropriating British origin-stories to promote contemporary political and social world-views.

Shakespeare found the reign of Cymbeline useful for several reasons. Cunobeline or Cymbeline ruled Britain during the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE). As Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra reminded audiences, Augustus established the so-called Pax Romana, or universal peace, during which Christ was born. In a nice ironic touch, Cymbeline’s Jailer longs for this earthly and heavenly harmony to arrive (“I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good”) while already living in its unfolding era.

The British-Roman peace which Cymbeline re-establishes at the end of the play thus suggests affinities and parity between the ancient Roman and early modern British empires. It also asserts the predominantly Christian and peaceful character of the British people. This profile flattered King James’s political aspirations to be a peacemaker among warring European nations, and to rule as the founding monarch of a new imperial polity, Great Britain, which would unite England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and colonize overseas territories. 

National legendary history often crossed over into medieval romance narratives. One narrative Shakespeare drew on was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1100s; a source for the King Arthur story). It described the semi-legendary reign of Cymbeline. Shakespeare had used Geoffrey’s History for King Lear, just as he also consulted his favourite historical source, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) for both plays.

Holinshed provided Shakespeare with more “factual” and politically pointed information, such as the legacy of Mulmutius, one of Cymbeline’s predecessor kings. Cymbeline cites him as the founder of British laws which the later invader Julius Caesar has “mangled.” Cymbeline cites this grievance to justify British denial of tribute to Rome (See Why an Anthropocene Cymbeline? [1]). Mulmutius thus becomes a talisman character in the court’s competing nation-story of an independent Britain before the Roman conquest.

Holinshed also supplied Shakespeare with the names of major characters. These included Cymbeline himself, Posthumus, Giacomo (spelled Iachimo), and Innogen. Her name was especially resonant in early modern British mythology. She became the original queen of Britain by marrying the Roman general Brutus (hence “Brutain” or Britain). He was an ancestor of Aeneas, a Trojan hero and the founder of Rome. His epic story, The Aeneid, was written by the Augustan poet Virgil. Shakespeare wrote about this foundation myth obliquely in his first tragedy, Titus Andronicus. And both it and Cymbeline refer to two other stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses of rape as catalysts for political regime change.

One is Philomel’s rape by her brother-in-law Tereus. Innogen is reading about Philomel “giving up” before she falls asleep and is visually raped by Giacomo. The second story is the rape of the Roman noblewoman Lucrece by the tyrant Tarquin, to whom Giacomo compares himself when he secretly emerges from the trunk in Innogen’s bedchamber.

Shakespeare’s non-dramatic Ovidian poem, The Rape of Lucrece, ends with Tarquin and his family being overthrown by Rome’s first republican government. Innogen represents Shakespeare’s re-writing of Lucrece’s tragedy as a new tragicomic national myth: she is endangered by Rome but exemplifies Britain’s courage to overcome adversity and flourish in a new era of British-Roman co-operation.

In 1610-11, that myth flattered two of King James’ political dreams, which I mentioned above. One was to be the universal peacemaker of Europe. The other was to surpass Europe as the imperial contemporary of Rome (which Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra calls “the universal landlord”). The second of these contradictory aspirations failed to learn from Rome’s environmental overreach, such as its deforestation of the Mediterranean basin. The emerging British empire also eventually repeated Rome’s errors, such as killing off colonial animals and peoples like the moa in New Zealand and Beothuk in Newfoundland. Yet the alternative dream of avoiding these extinctions and instead striving for environmental justice remains one we must keep, as Posthumus says of his own vision, “If but for sympathy.”

The engaging forces of sympathy and empathy are powerful motivators of creative environmental action which an ecologically focused production of Cymbeline may stir up in spectators. I shall consider the emotional impacts of tragicomedy later, but first discuss the genre of human stories that embody it.


In the Western tradition going back to the Odyssey, romance is a narrative genre of family crisis and separation, heroic trials and conquests, and restorative reunion at home. The tradition continues through the middle ages in tales of wandering knights, damsels in distress, fire-breathing monsters, magical friends and exotic enemies, mixed with regional folktales and political history (like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History mentioned above).

Romance therefore nests and knots an entertaining variety of stories, and Cymbeline recalls many of their typical memes:

  • disguise (Innogen and Posthumus)
  • exile and migration (Posthumus and Innogen)
  • wicked stepmothers dabbling in poisons (the Queen)
  • poisons replaced by sleeping potions (Cornelius the doctor)
  • brutish suitors (Cloten)
  • villainous second brothers (Giacomo)
  • faithful servants (Pisanio)
  • lost children (Arviragus and Guiderius)
  • surrogate fathers (Belarius)
  • dream-visions (Posthumus’s lost family)
  • gods correcting mortals (Jupiter)
  • body moles as distinguishing family marks (Innogen, Guiderius)

The presence of all these motifs and more suggests Shakespeare was challenging himself as to how many he could fit into a single play, and how many knowing smiles he could bring to the faces of Jacobean theatregoers.

More ambitiously, their breadth in geographical space and earthly time conveys a strangely wonderous reality that surpasses routine boundaries of everyday life. Cymbeline’s comparable motifs of broken relationships, riddling prophecy, and yearnings for global wholeness generate a mind-expanding experience of planetary interconnectedness, whose ecological truths Anthropocene crises are forcing humans to reconsider and respect.

Cymbeline stages two well-known romance plots. One is the chastity wager, when two men (Posthumus, Giacomo) bet on whether one of them can seduce one of the men’s wives (Innogen). Implicit in this story is a test of the wife’s sexual honesty. Innogen passes the test by robustly dismissing Giacomo’s sly insinuation that Posthumus is sleeping around in Rome and she should revenge herself by sleeping with him. After his ruse fails, Giacomo hides in Innogen’s bedroom and obtains apparently incriminating evidence of her betrayal. When he hears and sees it, Posthumus goes berserk, raging against Innogen and the wickedness of all women. 

This triggers the second, woman slandered, plot. I’ll outline it here in a bit more detail since it gets complicated in the play's middle acts. Posthumus charges Pisanio in a letter to kill Innogen. He also sends a second false letter inviting her to reunite with him at Milford Haven. This is to give Pisanio an opportunity to murder her there away from the court. Hoping to reconcile with Posthumus, Innogen travels with Pisanio towards Wales. En route, Pisanio reveals Posthumus’s true intentions and proposes two courses of action. Innogen will carry on towards Milford Haven disguised as a boy to enter the Roman general Lucius’s service and look out for Posthumus when he arrives. Meanwhile Pisanio will shock Posthumus into feeling guilty for mistrusting Innogen by sending him a sign of her death.

After Posthumus receives the “bloody cloth” Pisanio sends him, he feels remorse for causing Innogen’s apparent death. Yet at this point he continues to believe she “wr[ied] [i.e. erred] but a little.” And the main reason he regrets her death is because it has cut off her opportunity “to repent.” These baseless assumptions complicate Posthumus’s moral breakthrough: that he feels more deserving of punishment for his violent misogyny than Innogen is for her alleged “little” transgression.

These false beliefs are implicitly corrected by the play’s most spectacular romance motif: Jupiter’s descent on an eagle to explain the regenerative purposes of Posthumus’s misfortunes, and to give him the tablet-riddle which predicts he will be joyfully reunited with Innogen. Posthumus does not understand the words of the riddle until the Soothsayer expounds them in the play’s closing moments, after Innogen is revealed and they embrace. But Posthumus trusts the “sympathy” he feels for the dream’s revelations of his unknown family. And he believes its counterintuitive logic that all will turn out well even if death looks more likely. This strange reasoning shapes his gallows-humour dialogue with the Jailer. It sounds familiar as a coping mode for today’s environmental futures.

Posthumus’s doubts about Innogen have not been fully purged, however. They continue to cast a shadow in the discovery scene when he unwittingly strikes her while she is still disguised as Fidel and serving Lucius. In a sensationally ironic twist, this misstep happens moments after Posthumus has heard Giacomo’s confession and realizes Innogen is entirely blameless. Audiences may sense that the blow’s reminder of Posthumus’s violent tendencies towards women may hover over their climactic loving embrace. If its presence is strongly felt, it may raise questions about the couple’s future happiness, and hold back closure of their romance story despite its outward happy ending.

Such traces of doubt and insecurity are entirely in sync with Cymbeline’s main dramatic mode:


As Valerie Wayne shows in her superb Arden edition of Cymbeline, tragedy, according to neo-classical and Renaissance drama theory, came in two kinds. “Strong” tragedy features a hero whose death is caused by fateful errors (e.g. Macbeth). “Double” tragedy blends sad and happy events, and the direction of its ending remains up for grabs until the final moments. Cymbeline is clearly the second of these.

This profile may partly explain why the editors of Shakespeare’s First Folio placed the play in the generic category “tragedies” rather than “comedies.” Also, they were working in the 1620s when tragicomedy had become a more familiar genre of dramatic culture than it had been in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It was introduced by William Beaumont and John Fletcher’s pastoral tragicomedy, The Faithful Shepherdess (1608-09). The play initially failed on stage because its mixture of distressing and joyful emotions was disconcerting to contemporary audiences (i.e. it didn’t reflect their expectations of dramatic realism).

But Fletcher wrote an influential defence of tragicomedy which salvaged the debut genre. He described it as both lacking major deaths and falling short of having a sorrowful impact. It contained only “near-deaths” whose minor key did not upset the comedic ending as play’s major resolution. Shakespeare’s subsequent collaborations with Fletcher in The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost play Cardenio helped to make tragicomedy acceptable to Jacobean audiences.

The unfolding of Cymbeline’s personal crises across regional and continental environments may make it feel in performance like a mirror of twentieth-century existential outlooks. As Jennifer Forsyth points out in her perceptive Internet Shakespeare Edition, Cymbeline contains more near-death moments than perhaps any other Shakespeare play. To mention only some of these: Posthumus flees Britain to escape death, he is believed to be dead by Innogen, and he is nearly hanged as a Roman prisoner; Innogen is threatened by the Queen’s poison, she is violated by Giacomo’s voyeurism, her reputation dies with his slander, she almost perishes travelling to Wales, she is believed to be dead by Posthumus, and she is struck nearly dead by him.

These serial moments of stress heighten the play’s elated reversals. Yet audiences may feel their repetition exceeds comedy’s expected pattern of momentum. The overall effect of Cymbeline’s prolonged tragicomedy, in other words, may not be only suspense but suspension.

Take for example the play’s most extravagant juxtaposition of tension and release. This happens when Innogen wakes up beside Cloten’s headless body, which she takes to be her husband’s, and becomes wild and then collapsed with grief. Her condition quickly shifts when Lucius approaches. He treats her with unexpected compassion, and even more surprisingly offers her personal safety as his page. But Innogen is now on the wrong side of her natural loyalties to Britain. And she is still hiding her identity, which means her welfare is vulnerable. Her story refuses to be reduced to a single emotional register but keeps going.

The prolonging of existential crisis in Cymbeline remains “as not tragic” until the very end. Even then, the entente cordiale between Britain and Rome remains problematic if optimistic. It may not enable today’s audiences to “forget” the brutal colonial histories of the Roman or British empires. Even in its last moments, when the king finally “gets it” and starts pardoning rather than threatening everybody, the play’s human and environmental realities are still emerging into an unknown and deferred future.

The eco-contemporary benefit of Cymbeline’s romance narratives and tragicomedy is imaginative and emotional clarity about the experience of living in this century’s risk-zones of unthinkable dangers and implausible hopes. The self-consciousness of the play’s stories and genres awakens our hearts and minds to the personal urgency of stopping human destruction of the planet and the non-human animals and the dwelling-spaces we share with them.

The play’s eco-significance is further discussed in “Why an Anthropocene Cymbeline?”