Given the rare productions of Cymbeline (CSF's last effort was in 2004), director Jim Helsinger's current staging quenches our thirst like a spring in the middle of a desert, for its light, comedic touch and fairy tale atmosphere.

Set in Britain during the Roman occupation, likely during the reign of King Cunobeline from the late first century BC until the 40s AD, the play was first produced on the Sunday after Christmas, December 28, 1578, when the Lord Chamberlain's Men enacted An History of the Cruelties of a Stepmother1 in the Great Hall at Richmond, before the Queen and the court.2 The play was later refined and renamed, before it made its way to the public stage.

Left to right: Steven Cole Hughes as Postumus, Lindsey Kyler as Imogen, and John Hutton as Cymbeline
(L to R) Steven Cole Hughes as Postumus,
Lindsey Kyler as Imogen,
and John Hutton as Cymbeline, King of Britain
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
King Cymbeline (John Hutton) faces a number of challenges: His two sons were kidnapped in infancy, 20 years prior; his first wife has passed away, leaving him with his daughter, Imogen (Lindsey Kyler), who must marry a nobleman for Cymbeline's line to continue; meanwhile, Cymbeline's second wife, the current Queen (Anne Rennar), is plotting to put her mentally and emotionally stunted son, Cloten (Sean Scrutchins) on the throne.

To complicate matters, Imogen has independently married Posthumus (Steven Cole Hughes), a gentleman (that is, a commoner), with whom she was raised, after he was orphaned.3 Both are driven from the kingdom.

Geoffrey Kent as Iachimo and Lindsey Kyler as Imogen
Geoffrey Kent as Iachimo
and Lindsey Kyler as Imogen
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
As we have seen in roughly one-quarter of the playwright's work, the chief drama in Cymbeline revolves around charges of infidelity. The proof used to convince Postumus of Imogen's infidelity is wholly contrived by Iachomo (Geoffrey Kent). If this plot sounds familiar, one need look no further that Othello or Much Ado About Nothing for direct parallels, all drawn from a major issue in the playwright's life.4

Helsinger deftly conjures a melodramatic, tongue-in-cheek style that firmly solves the question of the nature of the play as a romance—not a tragedy as it was first categorized. Wrapped in trappings of a play-within-a-play, with the framework of a thrust stage well-blended within and under the magical boughs of the deep forest, we have a story that would have rung numerous bells for the original audience (courtiers) to consider.

Rodney Lizcano as Pisanio and Lindsey Kyler as Imogen
Rodney Lizcano as Pisanio
and Lindsey Kyler as Imogen
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Within this mythic atmosphere, the performances are dazzling: Kyler exudes pure-hearted innocence and remarkable fortitude as the heroine; Kent, who was spectacular as last year's Iago, mixes dastardly with wry disdain and derision, as the villain.5 Rennar's chameleon-like metamorphoses, from sneering evil stepmother to seemingly dutiful queen are smooth a silk, drawing a surfeit of dramatic antipathy; Scrutchins' Cloten is a wonderfully inept, apoplectic, and fuming wildcard; Hughes' powerful, yet transitory emotions take us on a rollercoaster with Posthumus' ephemeral loyalties; Hutton's gravitas as Cymbeline drives home the regal authority underpinning the proceedings.

Michael Morgan as Caius Lucius and John Hutton as Cybeline, King of Britain
Michael Morgan as Caius Lucius and
John Hutton as Cymbeline, King of Britain
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen

Orthodox scholars have long considered Cymbeline one of the canon's "problematic" plays, mostly due to the force-fit skewing of the Stratfordian timeline, which puts this play late in the playwright's career, and thus attributes some stylistic variances to the involvement of secondary authors; however, placing the first performance at court during the Christmastide revels of 1578 reveals Cymbeline to be an exceedingly sophisticated, if light-hearted, narrative of various personal and imperial issues.

As Belarius, a banished Lord, notes, the court is a tricky world in which to maintain one's standing:

... the art o' the court
As hard to leave as keep; whose top to climb
Is certain falling, or so slippery that
The fear's as bad as falling;

Indeed, the playwright's (Edward de Vere) standing at court had fallen after returning from the continent and refusing to live with his wife, Anne Cecil, based on rumors fed to him by a nasty servant.5 Two years later, this play is one of a number of theatrical productions in which the author attempts to win back some favor with Elizabeth and the nobles, while providing some food for thought regarding timely court topics.

It is within the character of the stepmother that both imperial and personal meanings are fused most directly: de Vere's feelings toward his mother-in-law, Lady Burghley, and a collective warning regarding Catherine de Medici, who would become Elizabeth's mother-in-law and stepmother to Britain, if the queen chose to marry de Medici's son, Alençon. "De Medici, more than any other royal matriarch in Europe, fitted the profile laid out in Cymbeline of 'a mother hourly coining plots.'"6

De Vere was forever squabbling with Lady Burghley, who had wanted Anne to marry Philip Sidney. Cymbeline shares the author's opinion of his mother-in-law when the play's court physician says of the Queen:

I do not like her. She doth think she has
Strange ling'ring poisons. I do know her spirit
And will not trust one of her malice. ...
She is fool'd
With a most false effect. And I the truer
So to be false with her.

Yet, the clever playwright provides himself plenty of ambiguity regarding his in-laws when he cloaks his mistrust and mocking with de Medici:

That such a crafty devil as his mother
Should yield the word this ass! A woman that
bears all down with her brain; and this her son
Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart,
And leave eighteen.

By the time An History of the Cruelties of a Stepmother had been rewritten and re-titled, de Vere had come to realize and express what was not clear to him as a jealous, hard-headed, and strong-willed youth: that his wife Anne had essentially martyred herself for him. Ten years after the first performance of this play, Anne died from a virulent fever. De Vere would spend much of the rest of his life writing about his behavior towards her.

Of the three plays (Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale) in which Anne lives on in a state somewhere between life and death (in the characters of Hero, Imogen, and Hermione respectively), Cymbeline is perhaps the most deeply expressive:

"Taking her fate into her own hands, Imogen fakes death to bring her husband to his senses. But this time no acts of theatrical resuscitation can bring her back. As Imogen observes:"7

The dream's here still. Even when I wake it is
without me, as within me; not imagin'd, felt.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Cymbeline runs through August 7th. For tickets:

Bob Bows


1 "Cymbeline's matriarch is, in the words of one late twentieth-century critic, the "wicked stepmother, par excellence." Cymbeline's convoluted story was cribbed in no small part from a book, The Ethiopian History of Heliodorus, that was dedicated to de Vere just one year before The Cruelties of a Stepmother was enacted. Mark Anderson, 'Shakespeare' By Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 143.

2 Ibid., Anderson, p. 143.

3 Just as the author, Edward de Vere, was orphaned, brought to live in Cecil House, and eventually married to Lord Burghley's daughter, Anne Cecil. "It is your fault that I have lov'd Posthumus. You bred him as my playfellow," Imogen petulantly tells her father. Also like the earl of Oxford, Posthumus received a first-rate education in his adopted home. As one incidental character in the play reveals, "Posthumus [gleaned] all the learnings that his time could make him receiver of, which he took as we do air, fast as 'twas minister'd." Ibid., Anderson, p. 144.

4Following Edward de Vere and Anne Cecil's marriage, de Vere travelled to the continent, where he got word that Anne was pregnant. The timeline did not compute for de Vere, although Burghley later convinced de Vere that he was the unwitting participant in a "bed trick," by which Anne became impregnated.

5 Both Iago and Iachimo are based on de Vere's servant, Rowland Yorke, who amplified his master's suspicions regarding Anne upon his return from the continent in 1576. De Vere suspected Leicester (Robert Dudley) was behind this. Later, in 1584, in the Lowlands, Yorke tried to betray allied positions to the Spanish. He was eventually poisoned by the Spanish. The Dutch later dug up his body and left it to rot.

6 Op. Cit., Anderson, p. 144.

7 Ibid., Anderson, p. 221.

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