Why an Anthropocene Cymbeline?

Why an Anthropocene Cymbeline?

Paying Tribute: an Ecology of Reciprocity

The framing plot of Cymbeline is a dispute over Britain’s refusal to pay an annual tribute to Rome which was negotiated by the previous king and Julius Caesar. To today’s ears, the hawkish nationalism of the Queen and Cloten may sound like protests against imperialism or globalization (3.1). Their rhetoric prompted reviewers of the 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production to describe Cymbeline as Shakespeare's “Brexit play” (Rome standing in for the European Union). But the fact that two of the play’s evil characters cause Britain to isolate itself suggests hostile motivations: hatred of foreigners and jingoism. These intolerant attitudes prompt us to think about tribute in alternative, more positive ways.

Cymbeline makes it clear that Britain has flourished by adopting Roman culture, with little to justify breaking off relations. Posthumus’s father, Sicilius, fought against Julius Caesar but earned the Roman-sounding honorific “Leonatus.” When Posthumus is exiled he is given refuge in Rome by Philario, who served in war with Posthumus’s father and honours him “for no less than my life” (1.4.23-24). He continues to pay back that gratitude by sheltering Posthumus. Rome is a cosmopolitan culture greater than its empire’s internal borders and identities. Britain’s tantrum exposes its own short-sightedness.

While Cymbeline himself partly echoes the Queen’s and Cloten’s myth of a free and independent Britain, Julius Caesar had trained him as a youth and later knighted him (3.1.68-68). Cymbeline acknowledges the advantages of that upbringing by always treating the Roman ambassador Lucius with respect. Lucius returns that courtesy even after they temporarily become enemies.

These commonalities suggest more is at stake in “tribute” than colonial oppression. Cymbeline’s ultimate willingness to restore the tribute, even though the British defeat the Romans in battle, recognizes it is a fair price to pay for the peace and security of his land and people. (Historically, it was Rome's garrisons which defended Britain.) Until that point Cymbeline has ignored his subjects’ well-being through wilful denial. The people’s looks in the play’s very first line (“You do not meet a man but frowns”) suggest quiet resistance against both Cymbeline’s neglect of his country and his abusive treatment of his daughter and Posthumus.

As the fruitful British-Roman relationships mentioned above show, tribute is not simply transactional. It is not like the confrontational wager between Giacomo and Posthumus, which turns Innogen’s chastity into a grotesque prize of masculinity. Rather, paying tribute is a matter of reciprocating kindness and support. It is an ethic of restraining selfishness on the one hand, and giving back on the other. This makes it an environmental principle. Paying and repaying biological respect enables ecosystems and communities to thrive. It is a way of being and dwelling the Anthropocene has lost sight of but can rediscover through plays like Cymbeline.

Today we are increasingly aware that global heating, deforestation, and other human impacts have severely disrupted our essential reciprocities with the Earth. Violent weather, choking pollution, accelerating extinctions, and involuntary migration are the upshot. In the widest sense, tribute is Cymbeline’s ecological emblem for these broken but reparable relationships. Eco-performances of the play collaborate with the feelings and imaginations of their audiences to inspire restorative action. The play explores such transformative potential chiefly through the life-journeys of its two main characters, Innogen and Posthumus (see also Characters).

Innogen’s escape to, and subsistence in, the Welsh wilderness suggest the homelessness and hunger of 21st-century migrations and “shadow places” (defined by theorist Val Plumwood as environments degraded and cast off by power and privilege). Shakespeare associates Innogen’s struggle for survival with shared plant and animal lives that are increasingly precarious. Yet the organic reciprocities of her body’s woodland “burial” and “regeneration” (4.2) indicate her nature-centred values remain the powerful well-spring of her “resolution” to weather her man-made crisis.

Posthumus’s life-journey consists of overcoming his own flawed reasoning as the only way of understanding the world. He reaches a turning point after experiencing an otherworldly vision of the family he has never known. After they implore Jupiter to end his miseries, the god descends to warn and console them. He explains that Posthumus’s misfortunes are actually far-reaching signs of his “care.” Jupiter’s care pays rough tribute to Posthumus’s growing abilities to adapt and prosper:

Whom best I love, I cross, to make my gift,
The more delayed, delighted (5.3.193-96).

Understood from an ecological viewpoint, Jupiter’s words imply that overcoming environmental challenges builds moral and physical resilience at a slower, more natural pace. It is the opposite of Posthumus’s rash bargain with Giacomo and impulsive misogyny afterwards. It nurtures the wholistic strength (or “fitness” in a biological sense) to learn from his errors and sustain his family ancestry through marriage and offspring.

Jupiter completes his revelation by giving Posthumus the “tablet” or “book” he reads on waking from his dream. From Jupiter’s cosmic perspective, the natural boundaries and bounty of the planet and its many cultures are a rich gift of evolutionary love and (re)creation. Cymbeline’s structure mirrors this complex reciprocity in its interweaving story-lines, tragic-comic events, and self-consciously idealized but still hopeful ending.