January 8, 2014

The Year of Reading Shakespeare Begins in the Skies Over London

book revI kept thinking of Shakespeare as I watched the eleven-minute BBC video of London’s spectacular New Year’s fireworks display. All that celestial excitement exploding above his river, his city, his Globe — the show was worthy of a stage direction like the one in the last act of Cymbeline: “Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. The Apparitions fall on their knees.” Or the Soothsayer’s image in the last scene of the same play, “The fingers of the powers above do tune/The harmony of this peace.” Or in the play’s last speech, King Cymbeline’s “Laud we the gods;/And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils.” 

It was all there in the first half hour of 2014, Jupiter’s thunderbolts and apparitions (except they weren’t on their knees, they were flying like drunken angels), “crooked smokes” ascending and descending, the fingers of the powers above (and below) tuning all that glory, and why not? What better word for the fantastical audacity of the phenomenon than Shakespearean? Admittedly, literature had nothing to do with it, the display having been billed as a “multi-sensory” event featuring clouds of apple, cherry, and strawberry mist, peach snow, thousands of bubbles filled with Seville orange-flavored smoke, and 40,000 grams of edible banana confetti. This looney idea nevertheless created a unique concatenation of visual delights that evoked Hamlet’s “brave o’erhanging firmament, this Majesticall roofe, fretted with golden fire.” Such, at least, were my thoughts as I wondered what was so special about 2014 that the city and its Tory mayor should launch so fabulously excessive a celebration.

With the big number staring me in the face, I finally figured it out — Shakespeare’s birth year is 1564, which means 2014 marks his 450th anniversary, which explains the over-the-top New Year spectacle. Or does it? Not a word about Shakespeare could I find ahead of the event, nothing but references to the edible aspect, like the headline in the Express: “Willy Wonka to take over Boris Johnson’s fireworks display.”

Meanwhile, London’s golden fire had inspired a New Year’s resolution, which begins with this column. During the next 12 months I’m going to binge on Shakespeare, starting with Cymbeline.

Why Cymbeline?

On my first summer in Europe, a friend introduced me to the first verse of the funeral song from Cymbeline: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,/Nor the furious winter’s rages;/Thou thy worldly task hast done,/Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:/Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” All these years later in the hour after midnight, 2014, I remembered the song and decided it was time to read the play it came from, as a sort of down payment on my New Year’s resolution. Why hadn’t I ever read it? Perhaps I’d kept my distance until now because of something negative I’d read or heard, most likely the suggestion that other playwrights had had a hand in its creation. And what is it anyway? Surely not a comedy, with all its evil, passion, rage, and vile deceit, not to mention a beheading, with the headless corpse in view at the center of the play’s supreme dramatic moment. Is it a romance? A tragedy? A problem play? Hazlitt called it “one of the most delightful” of Shakespeare’s histories. Samuel Johnson couldn’t abide it: “To remark the folly of the fiction,” he wrote, “the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”

The intensity of Johnson’s dismissal made me curious. Here was a work by the greatest writer in the world that could not be fitted into “any system of life.” And suppose Johnson was even a little bit near the truth, how could that peerless lyric “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” possibly make sense amid “unresisting imbecility”?

My reading of Cymbeline began as a search for the song. It went badly at first, with a tedious account of the background of the ostensible hero, Posthumus, from Sicilius to Cassibelan to Tenantius to Leonatus. The names piled up, the movement of the language seemed awkward, halting, perfunctory. Looking for the music, I prowled through a series of bizarre episodes dominated by intemperate kings, evil queens, and devious Italians. Where was the song? For that matter, where was Swinburne’s “heavenly harmony of Cymbeline”? And Hazlitt’s “tender gloom” that “o’erspreads the whole”? How could Keats celebrate it as an example of the “poetical Character” that has “as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen”?

Imogen in the Flesh

It was Imogen who drew me in, dazzled and seduced me. Swinburne ends his Study of Shakespeare with reference to “the name of the woman above all Shakespeare’s women … the name of the woman best beloved in all the world of song and all the tide of time … the name of Shakespeare’s Imogen.” Shakespeare allows us a remarkably intimate view of Cymbeline’s daughter asleep, half naked; thanks to the wily Iachimo’s clandestine visit to her bedchamber we know that her body is “whiter than the sheets” of her bed and that there’s a mole on her left breast, “cinque-spotted: like the crimson drops/I’ th’ bottom of a cowslip.”

It made sense, then, that Imogen would be there when I found the song about the golden lads and girls. Where in this bizarre “system of life” could lines of such depth and simple beauty turn up? Where else but in Act IV, scene 2, one of the most outlandishly brilliant sequences in all of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Magnaminity

Act IV begins with a travesty of a soliloquy spoken by an idiot signifying nothing more than his almost sublime cluelessness. Here in the character of Cloten, the evil queen’s son, is the embodiment of the “imbecility” that must have encouraged Johnson’s use of the term.

What Baudelaire said of the author of the La Comédie humaine — “Everyone in Balzac has genius — even the door-keepers. All his minds are weapons loaded to the muzzle with will” — can also be applied to characters in Shakespeare since almost every character is invested with the essence of his brilliance, fools and kings, rogues and killers, whether speaking in blank verse or earthy prose. But Cloten? You can’t help feeling that having created so deeply obnoxious a character, Shakespeare decided not to provide so much as a fig-leaf of intelligence or style to hide his naked worthlessness. Cloten can’t even, in effect, “speak Shakespeare.” His tasteless attempts to woo Imogen, who has already been wed to her true love, the banished Posthumus, are met with eloquent scorn by the object of his absurdly cloddish advances. At one point, having already torn him verbally to tatters, Imogen plants with one word the seed of his doom by declaring that he is not worth the “meanest garment” worn by Posthumus. The word garment seems to clutch Cloten by the throat. He’s invaded by it, addled by it, stupefied by it, idiotically repeating it to himself, four times over, “His garment!”

Cloten’s idea — an imbecilic stroke of literal-minded genius — is to steal an actual garment belonging to Posthumus so that he can be seen wearing it by Imogen while he carries out his doomed plan to kill his rival while she looks on, after which he will have his way with her before dragging her back to court and marriage. You know he’s doomed because everything he says falls as flat as the philosophical flourish with which he prefaces his boast, Cloten’s dumbed down version of “To be or not to be”: “What mortality is! Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be off; thy mistress enforced; thy garments cut to pieces before thy face: and all this done, spurn her home to her father; who may haply be a little angry for my so rough usage; but my mother, having power of his testiness, shall turn all into my commendations.”

Cloten is still plagued by the g-word. Even though the head is off, the face of his victim will be watching as the hateful garment is cut to pieces. And the king will be a little angry? Please. Cymbeline is never “a little angry.” It should be obvious by now whose head will “within this hour be off.”

Thus the masterful sequence that follows is prefaced by a fool who lacks even the literary charm with which Shakespeare endows his silliest clowns. And how gross is his fate, to have his severed head displayed a mere minute after he goads his killer “When I have slain thee with my proper hand,/I’ll follow those that even now fled hence,/And on the gates of Lud’s-town set your heads.”

The rest of the scene has to be read to be believed. Imogen, who has found refuge disguised as a boy in the cave of the “mountaineers” (her lost brothers, it turns out), wakes from a drugged death-like state to find herself lying beside Cloten’s headless corpse, which because it’s dressed in Posthumus’s garment she thinks is the mutilated body of her beloved. This gruesome situation follows directly upon the performance of the funeral song, the object of my quest, which her still-unrecognized brothers, thinking her dead, sing over her body. Shakespeare then magnanimously allows the slain Cloten to share the afterglow of this tender moment; he’s a queen’s son, after all. His head having been tossed in a stream, his body is ceremoniously placed beside Imogen’s.

The 1982 BBC film of Cymbeline is labeled a comedy. And no doubt the groundlings would roar with laughter should the scene be played poorly. How cruel, how dreadful is our knowledge that the body Imogen laments over so passionately and movingly, embracing it, wiping her face with blood from the gaping wound, is not her husband but the man she loathes, the despicable Cloten. Yet this ugly irony in no way distracts from the emotional impact of a speech that Helen Mirren delivers with hair-raising intensity in the BBC film — you seem to see her reaching out to touch the master overlooking the scene, he who gave her these words, ignited these extraordinary theatrical fireworks. What makes it sublime is Shakespeare’s understanding that for the sake of the play, the integrity of his vision, the hideous delusion will be redeemed by the harmony of a happy ending she alone has the force to make possible, she alone great enough to comprehend it. It’s the infectious genius of her character, the very electricity that created her, that Cymbeline observes, in the play’s final moments, Imogen reunited with Posthumus and the others, as “she, like harmless lightning, throws her eye/On him, her brother, me, her master, hitting/Each object with a joy.”

Cymbeline the Film

Believe it or not, Cymbeline has been updated to the present and filmed, only this past fall, with Ed Harris as the title character, leader of a biker gang, and Princeton’s own Ethan Hawke as the devious Iachimo, Mira Jovovich as the evil queen, and as Imogen Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey. The film will be released in the new year — if a distributor can be found.