Anachronistic Italy: Cultural Alliances and National Identity in Cymbeline

By Parolin, Peter A. | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Anachronistic Italy: Cultural Alliances and National Identity in Cymbeline


Parolin, Peter A., Shakespeare Studies


WHEN THE TWO PRINCELY BROTHERS, Guiderius and Arviragus, first appear in Shakespeare's Cymbeline, they evoke geography and eating habits to lament their own potential barbarism. Bemoaning that they have lived their whole lives in a "pinched cave" in Wales, Arviragus complains, "We have seen nothing. / We are beastly: subtle as the fox for prey, / Like warlike as the wolf for what we eat." (1) In comments like this one, Shakespeare makes the interplay between a feared barbarism and a desired civility into one of Cymbeline's central themes. Denied access to activities that could establish their civil status, Guiderius and Arviragus feel themselves to be nonentities. Jodi Mikalachki argues that "what the brothers protest is their exclusion from history. They have seen nothing; they are barbaric." (2) Excluded from history, the brothers are excluded from processes that permit individuals and nations to assert their power and relevance on an international stage. They are excluded as well from the historical records that could memorialize their achievements. Throughout Cymbeline, the brothers' fears of barbarism are also Britain's: as a remote Roman colony waging war to avoid paying Rome its yearly tribute of 3,000 [pounds sterling], Britain endangers its claim to civil status on the twin fronts of its sheer distance from and its opposition to Rome, the center of European civilization.

So crucial in the ancient world of Cymbeline, the question of British civility was equally alive in English culture at the time of the play's first performance. Situated on the margins of Europe, England in the early seventeenth century could not take its own historical importance and cultural civility completely for granted. London may have been among the largest cities in Europe in 1600, but the centers of political, economic, and cultural power remained

continental. One historian bluntly characterizes late sixteenth-century England as a country "on the fringe of Europe and at best a second-rate power." (3) In 1588, the Italian political theorist Giovanni Botero noted that except for London "there is not a city in [England] that deserves to be called great." (4) English texts of the period repeatedly questioned the nature and origin of English civilization, especially in light of the sixteenth-century historiographical reorientation that dislodged such grandiose national myths as the founding of Britain by the Trojan exile Brutus. (5)

This paper will explore Britain's efforts to banish its own potential barbarism in Cymbeline, and in Jacobean culture. Cymbeline seeks to dispel British barbarism by appropriating the mantle of Roman civilization, just as James I was doing at the time of the play's initial performance. The play's first London audience might have found Britain's opposition to Rome strange, given that their own king represented himself so thoroughly in terms of the iconography of the Roman Empire and modeled so much of his political identity on Roman precedents. Any confusion would have dissipated before too long, though, because by the end of the play Britain, despite having won the war, enters into a respectful partnership with Rome and agrees to pay the disputed tribute. The mechanism by which Cymbeline enables this concluding alliance between ancient Britain and ancient Rome is the anachronistic interpolation of a decadent contemporary Italy into the action. (6) Scenes that according to the play's ancient time frame should be taking place in Rome are clearly placed in contemporary Italy, while Iachimo, the most characteristic denizen of this Italian space, has an Italian rather than a Roman name and is repeatedly called "an Italian," a "false Italian," and an "Italian fiend" (2.1.35; 3.2.4; 5.4.210). Since Cymbeline represents contemporary Italy as the antithesis of Roman virtue, the way is free for Britain to assert its own status as the implicit heir to Roman civilization and imperial power. …

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