Speech: Shakespeare’s Cymbeline16 May 2006
No pretty PDFs of this one. I wrote it in a normal word-processor (because jaggy, unjustified lines are easier to read) so there were no LaTeX sources to make documents from. OpenOffice does PDF export but there’s not much point. Shrug. Speech follows, ~5mins (probably over, closer to 6). ~950 words.
Scene 4 in Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline affords us a great deal that is of interest when examining the development of romance narrative throughout time.
This portion of the play is a scene — just in case, you know, everyone doesn’t, ah, remember what the reading was — a scene in which Posthumus is in the house of Philario, discussing the present political situation that exists between Rome and England. As Penny Gay mentioned in her second lecture on Cymbeline, there’s a certain departure from history at this point. We are made aware that there is trouble brewing over the cessation of the payment of tributes to Rome, and, in Posthumus’ words, “this will prove a war”.
It’s unabashed nationalism, completely shameless, and written in such a way that a contemporary audience would thoroughly approve: “You shall hear/ The legions now in Gallia sooner landed/In our not-fearing Britain than have tidings/Of any penny tribute paid.” O’Neill would, however, have us call this something other than the re-writing of History.
It is the construction of a fictional world — a fictional world that, it should be said, bears some mark of reality… but a fictional one nonetheless. In fiction, as O’Neill explains, everything is contingent upon nothing aside from the whim of the author; that term, of course, extending to include “playwright”, “poet”, and all other manner of narrative-creator.
So in this fictional world, against this backdrop of political turmoil, Iachimo enters. He enters amidst Posthumus’ nationalistic outbursts, and it almost appears as though Posthumus doesn’t realise the issue at hand has altered, so unfaltering is his courage in his spouse, as with his nation.
“I hope the briefness of your answer made/The speediness of your return.” — he could well be speaking of an emissary’s rebuttal at the hands of a foreign power demanding tribute. There is something diaphanous about the edges of these themes, as though Shakespeare has feathered them together intentionally. Our conception of “state” is quite different from that of marriage, but perhaps there is something to be made of the way in which they are together, here. I think it possible that we are being invited to examine Posthumus against expectations of what befits a “good” husband, specifically with regards to his leadership qualities. As a potential statesman, Posthumus has not yet been thoroughly disqualified. That comes in the scene following this, wherein he throws a hysterical, misogynistic, tempter tantrum.
I consider this juxtaposition of political and relational discussion something that is meant to connect the two in our minds: Posthumus is, afterall, being evaluated not only as the condemning husband of Imogen, but also as a potential ruler of the state. His aptitude for both roles is seriously brought into question throughout this play: and often through the same events.
In an environment of ironic crudity, the supposed elite of Renaissance Europe gather in Philario’s house, jesting about the constancy of, in particular, Posthumus’ wife Imogen. Posthumus is agreeably confident in his wife’s fidelity, but, somewhat less agreeably, willing to subject her to the approaches of one Iachimo. In concluding their wager, Posthumus declares:
Only, thus far you shall answer: if you make your voyage upon her, and give me directly to understand you have prevail’d, I am no further your enemy; she is not worth our debate : if she remain unseduc’d, you not making it appear otherwise, for your ill opinion, and the assault you have made to her chastity, you shall answer me with your sword.
This doesn’t take too much unpacking. In the case that Iachimo succeeds, Posthumus explicitly says “I am no further your enemy”. Back in Act II Scene IV, Iachimo is speaking of the particulars of Imogen’s chamber, and says he must speak in greater detail to justify his knowledge. Posthumus agrees, stating: “So they must,/Or do your honour injury”. There is a concern here for Iachimo’s honour even amidst his defamation of Posthumus’ wife. Again, on line 124, Posthumus responds to Philario’s rational suggestion that a corrupt servant may have taken a token on Iachimo’s behalf, saying “I am sure/ She would not lose it : her attendants are/ All sworn and honourable”.
Sworn and honourable, in fact, beyond the honour of his wife? Apparently, in Posthumus’ mind, this is true.
All this has a fantastic irony about it, as it serves both to critique Posthumus as leader, and as husband. The two are inseparable; Posthumus has failed in ways a Renaissance man is not permitted to fail, demonstrating his crudity, his lack of faith, his inability to lead responsibly even his wife — in the eyes of the audience, he has failed.
This is realised through a narrative that is calculating in its gradual revelation and construction of the character Posthumus: we see this in the establishment of the wager, Act 1 Scene 4; its continuation as Iachimo slowly unveils his deceit in Act 2 Scene 4, and Posthumus’ propensity to doubt his wife jealously; his tantrum in Act 2 Scene 5; and, later, his ordering her murder; and, later still, his groveling repentance rather unlike Iachimo’s stoic admission of guilt. Iachimo is, in some respects, an anti-Posthumus. He is calculating, not impulsive; cunning, not deceived; and orchestrator of much action with regards to Posthumus’ relationship with Imogen: he leads their relationship, whilst Posthumus is (falsely) led.
This should not be taken to mean that Iachimo is a paragon of great leadership — this is, afterall, a comedy in a world suspended between historical fact and Renaissance discourse. There is scope for some degree of reflexivity within this play, as Shakespeare pokes fun at his own characters, using others to delineate their foibles and propel the narrative towards its inevitable, genre-defined, close: poetic justice.