Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

Maine Shakespeare Festival, Bangor, ME, 1999

My program notes

Faithful love. Mistaken identity. Lost children. Separated lovers. Magic potions. Wicked stepmothers. Exhausting and frightening journeys through the wilderness. War with the Romans. Reconciliation. Forgiveness. Just your basic fairy, uh —Shakespeare. Only it isn’t. Basic.

Cymbeline was one of the last plays that William Shakespeare wrote. Only The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest followed. All of the great tragedies had been written; Shakespeare was turning a corner. The man who had already written Hamlet and King Lear was perhaps beginning to think about the end of his own life, and what it all meant. Could there be an alternative to the revenge and death that permeated the tragedies?

Cymbeline questions the nature of love and faith and trust. Cymbeline puts love and faith through a ring of fire, and they come out the other side the tanner for the heat. Through the journeys of Imogen and Posthumous, of Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus, the play looks for a value in a life where evil exists, where trust may be lacking, where justice is uneven; in short, the play looks for the purpose in the lives that we all lead. A life where we all must “come to dust.” To say that life is good is to say nothing. To show why it is good, in spite of its pain, its suffering and its inevitable end in death, is to give value to life.

Through the characters in this play, we learn, amongst other things, that trying to avoid conflict and play it safe can lead to stagnation, to a kind of death-in-life, and possibly worse. Nothing can be experienced if nothing is risked; the privilege of living is the reward for the bravery it takes to live. Cymbeline wants us to live fully and to become our own betters: as Posthumous says, “The power I have on you, is to spare you: the malice towards you, to forgive you. Live and deal with others better.”


Alicia Anstead, Bangor Daily News
“What’s tragic here — for instance, decapitation — is really tragic. And what’s funny — Monty Pythonesque humor — is really funny. Cymbeline, it turns out, is a joy . . . It’s SO Shakespeare!”

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You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
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But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i