Cymbeline: Nobility, Geography, and Perception
Shakespeares play Cymbeline, is set in three locations: Britain, Wales and Rome. The characters he creates to develop the plot within these specific geographies are complicated- often deceptive, sometimes virtuous, and each has a unique relationship with the lands through which they travel, live, and fight. Because of the deceitful nature of many of the characters in the text, it is often difficult to know not only who is right, but what is right. This question of truth and morality is especially illuminated when it comes to the definition of nobility, both the way in which it is perceived, and the way in which it is truly exhibited in any of his characters. Through the telling of this tragicomic play, Shakespeare uses geography and his character's interaction with and perception of the land to comment on dichotomy of nobility in the hierarchical versus virtuous sense. By examining geography and the nobility as it is, and as it is expected to exist within these geographies, we are able to discern the truth about Shakespeares characters- about how nobility is actually transferred, and where it lies within the expanse of land he presents to us.
From the outset of the play when the two lovers, Posthumus Leonatus and Imogen, are forced apart, Shakespeare introduces two key themes of the play: the perception of nobility and the symbolic role geography plays in defining the perception of the characters. Posthumus, who was orphaned, adopted and then raised by King Cymbeline, marries Imogen, the kings daughter, in secret. While the notion of royals marrying outside of royalty was shunned in Britain, this ideology holds a special value for Cymbeline, whose only sons were kidnapped as children. Imogen then becomes the only means to continuing Cymbeline's lineage, and marrying a noble is demanded by her father, presenting the debate of nobility and how it is perceived.
For Imogen, Posthumus nobility is found in the fact that he is a virtuous, honest man, not in his blood. She questions her fathers view that he was good enough to be raised in the Palace to be taken in like a son but is not good enough to marry her.
It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus
You bred him as my playfellow, and he is
A man worth any woman (I.i. 144-46).
Cymbeline sees things differently; Posthumus may be a good man, who he has helped raise, but he is not noble. Cymbeline's perception of nobility does not lie in one's virtue, but rather in his blood. Because the two have chosen to marry in secret, Posthumus is banished to Rome in no uncertain terms by his former guardian.
The exile of Posthumus in the opening scene is a plot development that Shakespeare uses to present the theme of geography and its central role throughout the play. Shakespeare stresses that not only is Posthumus banished, but he is sent to Rome. Posthumus' exile to Rome, as opposed to just being banished from Britain, or simply forbidden to see Imogen, alerts the audience to be aware of geography and foreshadows its importance throughout the play. Just as Cymbeline views nobility in a specific, un-bending light, his banishing of Posthumus shows he views his country, Britain, as the geographical embodiment of this nobility:
Thou basest thing, avoid hence, from my sight!
If after this command thou fraught the court
With thy unworthiness, thou diest. Away!
Thou'rt poison to my blood (I.i.125-127).
Posthumus has offended the crown and is no longer allowed to live within the boundaries of such honor and truth. Since he is forced to go specifically to Rome, it shows that Cymbeline see Rome as base, removed and anything but noble.
Shakespeare's presentation of Rome in a negative light conflicts with many of Shakespeares other plays, where Rome is epicenter of culture and nobility. This diversion from his usual portrayal of the country begs the audience to focus on the idea of nobility. As Huw Griffiths states in The Geographies of Shakespeares Cymbeline, "Romans," in Cymbeline, "are rarely presented as they are in the more obviously Roman plays of Shakespeareas a masculinist political community with high ideals, embodying the heights of militaristic virtue and gravitas[but rather as] a community of loose morals, a nation of idlers and of philanderers (Griffiths, 354). The audience of the times would be aware of this contrast, which ultimately would lead to them to question Shakespeares motives. By shifting his view of Rome, Shakespeare toys with the notion of nobility, how it is defined, and its relationship to geography in the play
In addition to the geographical shift in nobility, Rome and its inhabitants, specifically Iachimo, are presented ahistorically, strengthening Shakespeares focus on the geography/character dichotomy. Though Shakespeares anachronistic introduction of a Renaissance Machiavellian Italian [Iachimo] into a play about ancient Britain and Rome, (Marsh, 32) was most likely used for comedic effect, it also has the same effect on the audience as atypically presenting Rome as lacking nobility. Since Rome is presented in a different point in history from the rest of the play, it serves to highlight what happens there as being inconsistent with previous developments and statements in particular with regards to Posthumus as he is the bridge between the two geographic regions.
Rome, and its unexpected historical representation, plays an important, symbolic role in the character development of Posthumus. When Posthumus is banished from Britain, he is described by one of the gentlemen of Cymbelines court as a creature such/As, to speak through the regions of the earth/For one his like, there should be something failing/In him that should compare (I.i.19-22). However, upon arriving in Rome and meeting Iachimo, Posthumus begins to unravel, betraying the virtuous description that once defined him. Iachimo, with his Rome centered allegiance and loyalties, manages to scheme and lie, ultimately convincing Posthumus that Imogen has not been faithful to him. He laments her infidelity:
Is there no way for men to be, but women
Must be half-workers? We are all bastards,