Bodyless Head by Topless Body: Shakespeare’s Cymbeline


A group of friends and I meet each month to read a Shakespeare play, one act at a time. For the past few months we’ve been working on Cymbeline, one of the more obscure plays in the canon. We’ve finally finished reading it, and what a wild ride it was! We were laughing out loud at all the crazy twists and turns of the story.

It’s unlike anything else I’ve read by Shakespeare. It’s plot, plot, plot, plot, and then more plot. But the plot makes almost no sense. It’s large doses of randomness and chaos. Deceived lovers, pretenders to the throne, headless bodies, bodyless heads, women dressed as men, kings in rags, poison that is not poison; it’s a romance, it’s a tragedy, it’s a comedy, it’s a history, it’s an all-in-one, all-purpose, all-singing, all-dancing, Shakespeare Uberfest. It can be called a truly post-modern play, written centuries before that word post-modern was even a glint in some corduroy-jacketed academic’s vocabulary.

What’s fun is to see how Shakespeare takes his previous plays, and William Burroughs-like, cuts and pastes his way to creating a new work. Our group caught echoes of King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, As You Like It, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice in the play. We imagined Shakespeare rummaging through the prop closet and finding different props, fashioning a play as if he were Jonathan Winters improvising with found objects. The apparent method of construction is also very amusing—as soon as one character’s entanglement is depicted, another character gets involved in another improbable subplot and so on, until it seems as if there is no way that all the threads could be unravelled and resolved. Add to that, that almost every character ends up in some sort of disguise, and you have a recipe for total miscommunication. And yet Shakespeare does, in the end, pull it all together. In doing so, however, he violates,—purposely?—every one of Aristotle’s recommendations for the drama.

What are we left with? I think, more than anything, I was strongly left with Shakespeare’s deep belief in reconciliation, repentance, restitution, and redemption. No matter how chaotic the world gets in a Shakespeare play, it does, in the end, return to sanity. And almost always, the return to sanity is made possible by forgiveness on the part of those wronged, and apology by those who did the wrong. Claudius in Hamlet says:

Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon’d being down?


Try what repentance can: what can it not?

Even Claudius the murderer understands the power of forgiveness and repentance.

At the end of Cymbeline, like so many of the plays, the world is made livable again by  acts of forgiveness, along with the consequent apologies by the wrong-doers. The King and his daughter forgive, the deceivers apologize, and the world is set right again.

Shakespeare is calling us, telling his audience, that in such a dangerous and chaotic world, there is only one strategy for continued survival. Humankind is endlessly fallible; if we want the world to continue, then only continued forgiveness will keep the Globe intact. It’s a fascinating play, and a production of it is slated to play this summer at the Delacorte Theater in NYC. Can’t wait.

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