The Tragedie of Cymbeline

The first printing of Cymbeline was in the First Folio of 1623, after Shakespeare’s death. There was no Quarto edition. The play comes at the very end of the book on page 877; it’s the last play of the tragedy section, and its title page looks like:

Cymbeline Cover Page of Brandeis University copy
Cymbeline Cover Page of Brandeis University copy

Tragedy? Really?

It doesn’t quite fit the mold. Based upon titles alone, those plays that precede it in the section

  • Coriolanus
  • Titus Andronicus
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Timon of Athens
  • Julius Caesar
  • Macbeth
  • Hamlet
  • King Lear
  • Othello
  • Antony and Cleopatra

all end up with the title character(s) dead. Granted, the first play in the section, Troilus and Cressida, ends with both those characters alive–but historically, or rather legendarily, we know Troilus is not going to remain vertical much longer (and poor Cressida… she may not be dead, but she’s dead to us, if you know what I mean). AND placing that one in a genre is problematic to say the least.

So, Cymbeline. The king’s still alive and kicking at the play’s end, and though he’s got a new heir in Guiderius, there’s certainly no intimation that the old man’s going to be seeing Jupiter any time soon.

So, why tragedy? Well, what are our other options?

Is it a comedy? Given our usual expectation for that genre is an impending wedding or birth, that’s a big negatory. However, like All’s Well That Ends Well, we get an ending with a husband and wife reunited (though not necessarily happily ever after).

Is it a history? While we’ve seen in Shakespeare a certain disregard for the truth (oh, heck, let’s just call them “alternative facts”), his histories by-and-large do seem to portray crucial moments in a king’s (or country’s) life. Here? Not so much.

We’ve listed Cymbeline under romance or tragicomedy. Now back when we were discussing Pericles and genre we noted that one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (and thought to be one of his collaborators in plays like Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, two plays from the same late Shakespearean period that produced Pericles), John Fletcher, in the introduction for a play of his own, provided a kind of definition for tragicomedy:

A tragi-comedie is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie.

OK, and the plays that Fletcher subsequently wrote contained some elements that became part of the unofficial definition:

  • Unbelievable (and complicated) plots
  • Situations defying natural explanation
  • Quickly moving action (note not plot)
  • Noble characters
  • Love as thematic element
  • Much use of high and exalted language

So Cymbeline: complicated plot (ya think?); unnatural situation (thanks, Jupiter!); quickly moving action (kinda [or at least: quick moving exposition], though that fifth act is a slog); noble character (Innogen/Imogen); looooove (yup, plus some good ol’ lust); and exalted language (again: thanks, Jupiter).

Yeah, it falls under tragicomedy/romance.

But I’d rather let Polonius sum it up: tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.

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