on 11 November 2013
The five sons of Cymbeline (Guiderius, Arviragus, Clotens - his step-son, Posthumus - his son-in-law, Innogen - his cross-dressing daughter) all come to be symbolised by wings and birds, and this in turn defines their identity. As early as 1.1.140, Shakespeare defines Posthumus as the chosen `eagle' and Clotens as the `puttock;' and indeed Posthumus becomes the saviour of the battlefield and Clotens a dishonourable villain; even Iachimo flees the `dragons of the night'. While these characters form the play, it is the imagery of wings and of birds that makes the backdrop.
Shakespeare's use of birds easily depicts the play's argument; they become a motif of `history.' This is witnessed in how Posthumus' association with the eagle, and through it to Jupiter, makes him a symbol of the unification of Roman to British heritage. While he flees initially to Italy and is captured as a Roman, he fights for Britain and under his guidance the `unfledg'd' British heirs Guiderius and Arviragus become eagles as well. Guiderius and Arviragus growing up in the Welsh marshes - the historical landing point of Henry VII and thus establishment of the current descent of Kings to James I, the prophesied country from which the true King of England would arise (a myth Henry VII swiftly used for propaganda), and also the mythological home of the few Britons who escaped and resisted the Roman conquerors - establishes them as the heirs to an independent British heritage, and by becoming `full-winged eagles' under Posthumus, they then also become the heirs of Brutus' Britain, Aeneas' Rome, and the fallen Troy.
While the `eagle' is the loudest bird in the text - the most common and glaringly obvious, it is made more nuanced by its comparisons:
And often to our comfort shall we find
The sharded beetle in a safer hold
Than is the full-winged eagle
As Belarius is discussing here the failings of the court, we instantly understand the `eagle' to be Posthumus, and so by comparison, the beetle becomes Clotens. A `sharded beetle' is one encased in dung, referring to the ancient belief that beetles were born out of dung - the `shard-born beetle' appears also in Macbeth. Thus, Shakespeare prompts us to question the value of the background of these two foils: Posthumus is regarded by Cymbeline as coming from dung and the lower-class - who one cannot `delve him to the root', he is in fact the eagle, and it is Clotens that originates from the fairy-tale evil Queen yet it placed so highly. In this one comparison, we see the concern that riddles all of Cymbeline: that of history and origin, and of competing interpretations of both.
Shakespeare's birds allow and even aid the transformation from a star-crossed Romance drawing off Romeo and Juliet and Othello in particular, into a masculine play about war:
The King himself of his wings destitute
Forthwith they fly
Chickens, the way which they stooped eagles
What crows have pecked them here
The image of birds fighting over a carcass, and vitally of birds flying - indeed, fleeing - from the foot of man easily enables the shift of our winged characters and the play into the mode of battle. We understand that this is the natural home of `eagles' and of `chickens' as if they belong on the battlefield. In many ways, Cymbeline draws odd comparisons with Macbeth; not least in that they both have characters that enter bearing a decapitated head or the presence of a prophesising God where Jupiter portends good for Posthumus and Hecate Macbeth's downfall. They both also explore the same aggressive masculinity (although Macbeth has greater contrasts with female aggression, whereas Cymbeline has only its rather undeveloped Queen) associated with conquering, control, and power. Macbeth similarly plays with birds, yet here it does not embrace the military wings of Cymbeline - the eagle is only given a passing mention once (`as sparrows eagles' - 1.2.55), instead the birds portray pictures of disquiet (with the owl) or solitude.
More telling than Macbeth is Cymbeline's correspondence to the often war-strewn History plays. Cymbeline can almost be seen as a `fictional history play' - what is meant by such a term is that acts on one level as if it is recounting to us the factual trials of an early British dynasty. It does so by its legitimate and clear historical setting in early Pagan Britain around 40 years after the Roman conquests - in comparison, King Lear, for example, while setting itself in a similar pre-Christianised England gives us no indication of its relation to this timeline; it exists in a bubble outside of Britain's history. More so, Shakespeare appropriates the names of significant Kings and figures of England's history (and fabulous histories): Cunobelinus is a factual pre-Roman King (reigning from 5AD to 42AD); Imogen is the wife of Brute, legendary founder of the British race and Britain as the new Troy; Cadwallo was King of the Britains in the seventh century AD and supposedly last of Brute's line; and Clotens from `Cloton' a fifth century BC Cornish King who competed as one of five Kings in Britain after the failure of the direct line from Brute (an interesting parallel to how Shakespeare's Clotens is one of five `sons' of Cymbeline and presents a competing heritage). It may seem that taking the names of historical figures is nothing unique here,- it happens in Macbeth and King Lear; yet both those works solely take their names from their source historical figures, here Shakespeare deliberately evokes multiple different chronologies and historical pre-Roman periods to make it clear that while not a play of true historical events, it is a play that is very much concerned with discussing the historical heritage of Britain, a heritage that involves all of these periods.
From this standpoint, it can be viewed as a relation to Shakespeare's history plays - it was most likely written just before his last one Henry VIII - drawing on elements of his `historical' Roman plays (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra) as well. It is particularly similar in style to his earliest plays: the three parts of Henry VI that have no central character and are instead episodic and serial in their nature. The difference being that where before was a disputed throne, Cymbeline tackles a disputed cultural inheritance. Indeed, there are also many surprising similarities in the use of language between Cymbeline and the other histories: `eagle', `root', `dragon' being a few of Shakespeare's trademarks. `Root' occurs 6 times in Cymbeline and 22 times in his Histories (although it is also prominent - if not as prolific - in the Histories); `eagle' 9 and 14 respectively.
Yet, while Cymbeline is undeniably a play concerned with eagles and history - a play that ostentatiously becomes overwhelmingly masculine - it is a play which has an intriguing relationship with religion and theatricality. To understand this we must look at one final bird: `th'arabian bird' (1.6.17); the phoenix Innogen.
The glossing of the New Cambridge edition of Cymbeline will tell you that such an allusion when Iachimo calls Innogen this refers to: a. her matchless perfection as only one phoenix existed at any one time; b. virginity as it produces asexually. This misses the true significance of Innogen's association with the phoenix, her importance as a character, and her contrast with the eagles.
Innogen becomes the phoenix in Cymbeline. She resurrects after `death' (far better than the headless chicken Clotens next to her) and she gets back up after Posthumus strikes her to the floor in 5.4. She is even associated with asexual regeneration as she becomes both daughter, and through her father's expectations of her as his only heir and her cross-dressing, son. Yet, it is undeniably her resurrection in 4.2 that solidifies her transformation into the phoenix:
Aviragus: The bird is dead
Guiderius: 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.
It is fascinating here that Innogen is referred to as a bird in death, as she is never before even called an eagle, so it will instantly remind us of the only other occasion she is called bird: `th'arabian bird.'
Innogen in death is associated with fire-like imagery: the `heat o' the sun'; `golden'; and a `chimney'; later also `lightning flash' and `thunder-stone.' From this she is reduced to `dust' - naturally associated with ashes - and the substance from which the phoenix after burning in flames resurrects. The dirge's first three verses (out of four) both use 5 lines to build to the enforcement of the presence of `dust'; the rhyming couplet to close the verse with `must' crucially makes it apparent that `dust' has closed her life. Considering that they have laid leaves and twigs on Clotens and her, with the constant mention of dust, the audience will begin to see her as part of the dusty soil on which she rests - some productions may even use soil to cover the bodies. Several other intriguing textual parallels must be noted: Shakespeare makes a special point to have Iachimo mention to Posthumus where Innogen's `chimney'; this may strengthen the connection of Iachimo and the Arabian bird to the dirge, especially considering the rareness of the word `chimney' in Shakespeare. We are also given many images associating Innogen with waking up: she instructs her maid to wake her at 4; Iachimo fears her waking; and most of 2.3 is dedicated to Clotens awakening her with the `Hark, hark, the Lark' song including a mention of Phoebus. She becomes linked with waking, morning, the sun, and in Clotens song `Phoebus', whose bird is the phoenix.
Shakespeare's The Phoenix and the Turtle, while written 10 years prior to our play, with its reference to `married chastity' and `chaste wings' with two `stars of love' dead in a `tragic scene' forcibly reminds us of Innogen and Posthumus, and their echo of Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, the opening stanza contrasts the relationship of the Phoenix and the Turtle-dove to the brutal imagery of war (`troop', `shrieking harbinger', `tyrant wing.') It is tempting to read too much into this poem with the `eagle, feather'd king' and `every fowl of tyrant wing' so clearly fitting Posthumus and Clotens. What we can take from it is that the Phoenix is associated with star-crossed love, the feminine (the turtle and his queen) - one of only three instances in Shakespeare where the phoenix is feminine with Cymbeline containing the second, and the strikingly clear image of two dead lovers lying in `cinders' together - so very much like Clotens and Innogen.
If we accept that Shakespeare did not by accident pre-empt Innogen's resurrection by having Iachimo refer to her as a phoenix (particularly considering this is a play writhe with bird imagery where every other main character is frequently associated with them, yet Innogen nowhere else is), we begin to see fascinating parallels with the `eagles.'
Jupiter's eagle in 5.3 is referred to as `his royal bird.' Traditionally, the immortal phoenix is also called the `royal bird.' When Posthumus sleeps, he is visited and promised protection by Jupiter and his eagle. In contrast, when Innogen sleeps - despite sleeping in far more vulnerable circumstances - she receives no visitors, yet always she resurrects anyway and fulfils her role as phoenix. She requires no protection of the Gods; where Posthumus is visited by his bird, she becomes her bird.
In comparison, Posthumus is reduced:
Innogen: Thou shouldst have made him
As little as a crow, or less, ere left
To after-eye him.
Pisanio: Madam, so I did.
Innogen: I would have broke mine eye-strings; crack'd them, but
To look upon him, till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle,
Nay, follow'd him, till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air
From when Innogen first declares him an `eagle', suddenly Posthumus becomes a `crow', then a `gnat', and then `air'. While this is made as a declaration of affection and not with the intention of undoing Posthumus, it does highlight to us that his eagle-persona is not unquestioned. Indeed, it can feel that Posthumus is almost forcibly associated with the eagle to the extent Shakespeare needs on to land on his sleeping body just to get across the point. Indeed, while Posthumus is extremely capable on the battle-field and lauded by others, we see a more despicable side to him: he freely bets on Innogen, is shockingly quick to believe her guilt and then order her death, and physically hits her to the ground in 5.4. Even though she is in disguise in 5.4, it creates the same impression of Posthumus' aggression and disregard for others on the audience as if she wasn't. The eagle is indeed `over-roasted' (5.3.215); the more Shakespeare emphasises his association with the eagle, the more Posthumus is notable by his dissension from the ideal; Posthumus is `over-roasted' for death, he is no phoenix. Posthumus never fully becomes his bird.
While we may forgive Posthumus his past follies and appreciate him for his masculinity, especially on the battlefield, and so allow him the title of `eagle', we always remember that he is only one of many eagles - Aviragus and Guiderius are birds of a feather, so to speak. There is only one phoenix, and so it is in Innogen that we look for redemption; indeed, it is only Innogen who can absolve and forgive Posthumus in 5.4. She is the emotional core of the play.
Nuttall argues that Innogen's resurrection is not to represent the `physical reality' of Christ's death on the cross, but instead Shakespeare draws out mind away to the Greek myths of faked death and a consideration of self-referential theatricality. Nuttall perhaps denies the Christian interpretation of Innogen too much: the phoenix is an early Christian motif for Christ, and Innogen is referred to as an `angel' four times. It seems strange to have included the anachronistic `angel' in what is otherwise a firmly pre-Christian play, especially witnessed in the line `By Jupiter, an angel!' that almost seems to relish in clashing the opposing religious imagery.
Yet, while this may indicate Nuttall was wrong to fully rule out the Christian interpretation, Innogen's death in the heavily self-referential Cymbeline is clearly mostly theatrical in nature. On one level, you have the clear melodramatic reworking of the death scene from Romeo and Juliet taken to extremes with Juliet lying next to a decapitated body and suddenly unable to recognise her husband's hand from her step-brothers. On another, you have the tension when Innogen's `dead' body is carried (echoing Lear and Cordelia) in between the concept of an actress pretending to be a dead character, and an actress pretending to be a character who only seems to be dead, while the actress will always be alive. The actress playing Hermione in The Winter's Tale is put in a similar position with the ambiguous statue ending.
Innogen's theatrical phoenix death meets a parallel in the eagle of Jupiter. This too would have been a heavily self-conscious theatre troupe where an obviously fake mechanical eagle is the best that could have been provided. It is in these moments that both character's avian associations break down and remind us of the limitations of the relations between text and performance; as birds' wings give way to the wings of the theatre. More so than history, it seems with the breakdown of the bird emblem, the nature of performance becomes closest to Cymbeline's core.