Questioning History in Cymbeline

By Crumley, J. Clinton | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Questioning History in Cymbeline

Crumley, J. Clinton, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


The First Folio of William Shakespeare's works misclassifies Cymbeline with vigor, including the play in the table of contents under "Tragedies" and setting the running title, "The Tragedie of Cymbeline," over the play text. Of course, either of the two other kinds of plays listed in the contents, "Comedies" and "Histories," would have made a better match. Cymbeline ends happily, with joyful reunions aplenty, and its setting in the years of Britain's tribute payments to Rome secures its connection to recorded history. Perhaps the play's dual status as comedy and history compelled the Folio editors to throw up their hands in dismay, prompting the perverse classification that reached print in 1623.

In the twentieth century, when faced with the fact that Cymbeline exhibits the characteristics of both history and what has come to be called "romance," critics have usually sought to identify the play with its chronological neighbors, Pericles and The Winter's Tale, thereby subordinating the extent to which Cymbeline concerns itself with matters historical. Some have dismissed the play's historical elements outright. For James M. Nosworthy, the play is a "pseudo-historical" experiment in romance; for Irving Ribner, it qualifies as "historical romance," a kind of play for him "devoid of real historical concern" and ultimately responsible for the demise of the "legitimate" history play. [1] More recent writers have embraced the idea of a historical sense functioning in this play, but their topical interpretations channel history into contemporary politics; Cymbeline is historical only insofar as it comments upon historical (for us) events during Jacobean England. [2]

In this essay, I wish to open up Cymbeline for discussion as a kind of history play, a play that has something to say about history and historiography. Also, I will argue that, largely through the character of the queen, the play demonstrates awareness that it occupies a space between history and romance, and that it uses romance to question history. Being more firmly rooted in Raphael Holinshed's historiographical practice than traditionally given credit for, Cymbeline honors both the form and the content of its historical source even while it takes exorbitant romantic liberties with that source. Ultimately, my discussion suggests that we take seriously the historical content of other erstwhile historical romances, plays that, for all their romantic qualities, cannot be completely disqualified as, among other things, historical drama. If we seek a full understanding of the practice of history writing in early modern England, so-called historical romances must be considered along with those plays that have en joyed the status of "history play." [3]

In order to demonstrate how Cymbeline bears out the promise of this new direction in the study of Tudor and Stuart historical drama, the present argument begins via an exploration of the play's dynamic attitude to Roman history. Although Rome begins as an anchor, holding the romantic story in a familiar and stable context, Rome's conceptual integrity as represented by popular history comes to be questioned. A pattern emerges as Cymbeline critiques history through its repeated calling into question of the value placed upon reading and interpretation. Ultimately, the interpretative liberties taken with various "texts" throughout the play point to an unresolved epistemological crisis related, I contend, to the play's status as a historical romance, a mode not separate from "real history," but tremulously situated between history and romance.


A primary question demanded by a study interested in the uses of history in a play has to be whether Jacobean audience members would even have noticed that Cymbeline includes references to historical figures and events. We have no conclusive evidence as to how the play was billed in its earliest performances. The full title, Cymbeline King of Britain, clearly suggests a historical subject; but this title belongs to the 1623 Folio, the earliest published version of the play.

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