So you think you can out-write Shakespeare?

OK, so. Let’s say you’re a Shakespeare fan. Think he’s a genius. But there’s this one play. In your opinion, it’s not just not good, not even just bad, but

stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order, in parts abominably written, throughout intellectually vulgar, and, judged in point of thought by modem intellectual standards, vulgar, foolish, offensive, indecent and exasperating beyond all tolerance.

[jeez, tell us what you really think]

Now, as your grow older, you mellow a bit, seeing the play as “one of the finest of Shakespeare’s later plays now on the stage, [before it] goes to pieces in the last act.”

So what do you do?

Well, if you’re George Bernard Shaw and that play is Cymbeline, you rewrite said act.

And thus, you get Cymbeline Refinished. (and for some reason all I can think is “Unpainted Arizona”).

Now, according to most accounts, Shaw keeps only 89 lines of the original 837; his final result is about half the length of Shakespeare’s, so Shakespeare’s contribution to Shaw’s ending is about a quarter.

So how does Shaw change the ending?

Well, before Posthumus’ pretty much unchanged Act Five, Scene One soliloquy, Philario and a Roman captain, give us some battle exposition (as there isn’t really a battle in Shaw’s). Lucius is assumed taken, Iachimo still leads a portion of the Roman army, and it’s believed that Belarius, who had been banished as a traitor, has been recalled because (and I kid you not) “That fellow knew his job.” Regardless, Britain is winning.

Then Posthumus gives his soliloquy, at the end of which Iachimo arrives. Here, they recognize each other, and Iachimo admits Imogen is noble, Posthumus that she’s dead; and the two begin to battle. In come Cymbeline, Belarius and the boys, and Pisanio as well the captured Romans, including Lucius and Imogen/Fidele.

Arviragus pulls Posthumus off Iachimo, whom Guiderius disarms. Posthumus proclaims himself a murderer (because of Imogen) to Cymbeline. Imogen recognizes the voice and goes to hug him; Posthumus knocks him/her to the ground. Guiderius knocks Posthumus down, and he rises to fight the two brothers. Pisanio intervenes telling Cymbeline that Fidele is Imogen. Imogen and Posthumus hash out what has happened; Imogen is much more assertive than in Shakespeare’s version…in fact, kind of relentless. When Imogen says that she had thought he was dead, he asks why, she says she woke next to his headless body. At that point, Guiderius admits his killing of Cloten. Cymbeline sentences him to death, Belarius reveals the boys’ identities. The boys then, realizing how much better their life was before, decline their inheritance and head back to the woods. Imogen is a wife, but not a happy one, and the play closes as Shakespeare does, with Cymbeline still on the throne and peace between the Romans and the Britons.

Is it better than Shakespeare’s? That’s debatable, but I’d say no.

Is it less convoluted? You betcha…and that’s a good thing (no deus ex machina, which is a good thing, though I do miss “Thanks, Jupiter!”).

It is certainly funnier. And by that I mean, there are actual laugh lines, attempts at comedy.

Don’t believe me?

POSTHUMUS.
 Well, my dearest,
What could I think? The fellow did describe
The mole upon your breast.

IMOGEN.
 And thereupon
You bade your servant kill me.

POSTHUMUS.
 It seemed natural.

and

IMOGEN.
I am a woman, and this man my husband.
He would have slain me.

POSTHUMUS.
 Do not harp on that.

So there’s that.

I haven’t seen a live Shakespearean Cymbeline…but I’d love to see that standard, but then the next day, again–with the same company–only with this ending. I think the juxtaposition might be very eye-opening.

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