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Unfinished Ideas as Strategy in Cymbeline

So many times in books, articles, television shows, movies, or plays the author introduces a topic—maybe even has a conversation about it—and then abandons it when it gets interesting. Sometimes to further address the topic detracts too much from the main story and must therefore be cut. Other times, to abandon the topic is strategic. Especially in Shakespeare’s time it was necessary to tread carefully to insure continued patronage and rights to perform. Being wary of political, moral, social, and religious commentary was a tenuous line, but treading it was one of necessity and of risk. As such, not fully engaging in a potentially controversial idea or providing an unsatisfyingly easy conclusion to events becomes a simple way to raise ideas without as much risk. In Cymbeline Shakespeare proposes a number of “almost there” moments he tantalizingly leaves unfinished as a means of introducing and addressing controversial ideas without damning himself in the process.

With the characters Morgan, Polydore, and Cadwal (really Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus) Shakespeare presents concepts of life befitting a pastoral existence on the fringes of society compared to acceptable norms of “civil” society. When Imogen, disguised as Fidele, comes across a “savage hold” (3.6.18) on her journey to Mildford Haven she seeks refuge, exhausted and hungry from her trek. When the inhabitants of her refuge return, Imogen admits her honest intention “to have begged or bought what [she…] took” (3.6.47) for food in their absence. Her effort to “give money for [her] meat” (3.6.49) meets with question rather than acceptance. Belarius seems confused by her offer of payment, repeating her “money” (3.6.52) while Arviragus explains why this is an unusual proposition in their wilderness home. He clarifies that “all gold and silver rather turn to dirt,/As ‘tis no better reckoned but of those/Who worship dirty gods” (3.6.53-55). Instead, they welcome her to “have better cheer/Ere [she] depart, and thanks to stay and eat it” (3.6.66-68). The man and his supposed sons demonstrate the superior value hospitality has over monetary compensation. In their life away from established society money is impractical and loses value; they have no need for it. Imogen observes that this family is happier and more admirable in their simpler existence free from the very trappings of society (3.6.81-86, 4.2.32-34) that force her own actions. Elevating the practical over the impractical by emphasizing the human over the financial endorses a society with a barter system that cares for each other rather than one based on money. Literally questioning money’s place spotlights the momentary critique, drawing attention to an idea that would seem foreign and out of place but that Shakespeare can raise by presenting it using Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus.

Lucius’ claim that “Some falls are means the happier to arise” (4.2.403) is both prophetic and prayerful, a shared notion of hope. In the literal sense, Imogen hopes employment by Lucius will help her survive and lead to a better situation. She does not know that having lost everything her fortunes will dramatically shift for the better. His statement is also a prayer that though the present is bleak the future will be better. Using a ranked Roman with a position of authority to voice this idea bestows import on its hopefulness. It becomes a respected belief because a respected figure utters the speech. This strategy also accounts for the inability to dwell on the idea so that plot continues.

Posthumus similarly embodies an idea that Shakespeare addresses to different degrees in various plays. When Posthumus dresses as a Briton peasant he purports to do so saying, “To shame the guise o’ th’ world, I will begin/The fashion, less without and more within” (5.1.32-33). This dangerous notion claims that inner worth is more important than outer. He sheds the traditional custom that defines society by outer appearance to instead mock it with the opposite idea. His inner strength he deems the worthier. That Posthumus comes to this conclusion as part of a suicidal penance for his previous decisions in the play undermines the weight of its meaning. Attaching these words to desperation gives them an appearance of being less potent until dwelt on.

In each of these circumstances Shakespeare strategically raises and moves on from what might be considered controversial or dangerous topics. These moments allow him to address topics he feels compelled to address, but to do so lightly enough to avoid serious action that might endanger his career and work. Understanding the audience enables a writer to navigate content in the most effective way, pushing enough to engender thought and conversation but not enough to invoke ire—unless it’s the desired effect. Shakespeare accomplishes this with his unfinished commentary in Cymbeline.

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