Friday, March 25, 2011

Laud We Teh Gods (Goo Goo G'Joob)

Last night, I finally — finally — finished Cymbeline. The fact that it took me so long should in no way be taken as a reflection on the play itself which, though far from great, is okay; it's really more a reflection of my own sloth and lack of focus of late. Rather than bore you with details about that, instead I'll bore you with details about the play because when it comes to boring you? I am far from a one-trick pony1.


Unless you're a total fucktard, you already know that at the end of Teh Beatles' "I Am Teh Walrus", you can hear certain lines from Shxpr's King Lear2, specifically these here:
Slave, thou hast slain me: villain, take my purse:
If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body;
And give the letters which thou find'st about me
To Edmund earl of Gloucester; seek him out
Upon the British party: O, untimely death!


I know thee well: a serviceable villain;
As duteous to the vices of thy mistress
As badness would desire.

What, is he dead?

Sit you down, father; rest you
This is from Act IV, Scene vi of Lear and is the scene in which the disguised Edgar kills Oswald in a sword fight. Edgar identifies Oswald, who is Goneril's manservant, as "a serviceable villain;/ As duteous to the vices of thy mistress/ As badness would desire"; this is an important theme in Lear: The role of servants and the issue of when it is a good servant's duty to defy the wishes of his master (or mistress) because he (or she) has gone astray. As Edgar notes, Oswald, in this sense, is a bad servant, because, though "duteous", he is so in service to Goneril's vices, which, if you've read the play, are legion. (There's a reason her name sounds like an STD. So maybe her vices are also lesion. HAR!1!)

This same theme is developed in Cymbeline and, just as in Lear, the question of what the bond between servant and master should be is extended to other bonds as well, especially the nature of the bond between parent and child. King Cymbeline takes a hardline approach toward his daughter Imogen when she defies him by marrying a man below her station; he exiles her husband Leonatus Posthumous, just as Lear exiles Cordelia when she refuses to play along with Lear's public tell-me-how-much-you-love-me game. What binds one person to another just in general is a major theme of both plays.

Lear, of course, does a far better and more thorough job of exploring this theme. But Cymbeline does a pretty creditable job. When the exiled Posthumous sends a letter ordering his servant Pisanio to murder his wife Imogen (Posthumous has been tricked into thinking she has cuckolded him), Pisanio, upon reading the letter, soliloquizes:
How? of adultery? Wherefore write you not
What monster's her accuser? Leonatus,
O master! what a strange infection
Is fall'n into thy ear! What false Italian,
As poisonous-tongued as handed, hath prevail'd
On thy too ready hearing? Disloyal! No:
She's punish'd for her truth, and undergoes,
More goddess-like than wife-like, such assaults
As would take in some virtue. O my master!
Thy mind to her is now as low as were
Thy fortunes. How! that I should murder her?
Upon the love and truth and vows which I
Have made to thy command? I, her? her blood?
If it be so to do good service, never
Let me be counted serviceable. How look I,
That I should seem to lack humanity
so much as this fact comes to? [emphasis added]
If doing this bidding of yours makes me a good servant, Pisanio thinks, then never call me serviceable. Cf. Lear's Oswald who is "as serviceable to [his] mistress as badness would desire". Pisanio is more like Lear's Kent, who, when banished by Lear for daring to defy Lear when his wrath causes him to act rashly, disguises himself and comes back to serve Lear and keep an eye on him.

This theme of what constitutes Proper Bonds is pretty overtly developed throughout the play, so I won't belabor it any further. Instead I will note that Cymbeline is now classified as a Romance whereas Lear is, obviously, a tragedy. Of course Shakespeare himself did not so classify it and Cymbeline was, in the First Folio of 1623, itself classified as a tragedy. It's not ... unless you have a really broad definition of "tragedy"; the play's a little too dark to be considered a comedy, though. (One of the characters is decapitated and both his bodiless head and headless body are brought on stage — kinda hard to laugh off; but the guy, Cloten, was a real dick so it's really not that disturbing.) Cymbeline is a prime example of why latter-day scholars came up with this fourth Shakespearean play-type, "Romance" (the First Folio acknowledges only "Comedies, Histories & Tragedies").

Thus, Cymbeline can be forgiven, to an extent, for not being as effective as Lear because the latter is a genuine tragedy. But I think Cymbeline is actually not even as effective as a romance as Pericles, even though Pericles is a far more problematic play textually than Cymbeline. Pericles has just a ton of corrupt passages and parts of it were probably not written by Shakespeare, or, if they were, they were written on a day he was feeling particularly uninspired. Yet despite Pericles' not-quite-finished feel, its resolution is far more affecting than Cymbeline's, particularly the scene in which Pericles is reunited with his long-lost daughter, Marina — a scene that brought a tear to my eye.

In Cymbeline, Posthumous and Imogen are re-united, as are Cymbeline and Imogen and a few others ... let's just say there are reunitings in overplus in the last scene of Cymbeline, but none is as powerful as the Pericles-Marina scene in Pericles. Cymbeline, Imogen and Posthumous are just far harder to care about than Marina and Pericles, but, despite that, the reunitings in the last scene of Cymbeline are handled a lot better and more affectingly than I had anticipated. For which,
Laud we the gods;
And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils
From our blest altars.
Goo Goo G'Joob.

1 Not that I've ever turned a trick with a pony. In fact, I changed my college major from Animal Husbandry to English when I found out that I had fundamentally misunderstood what "animal husbandry" entailed, which, take my word for it, isn't that interesting or, let's just say ... "hands-on". Bummer. (<-- Totally stole this joke from Tom Lehrer. I'm pretty sure I've used it before, too.)

2 I am totally fucking with your brainpan! Because even though I think I've mentioned this "IAtW" weirdness on this here very blog before, you wouldn't have remembered it or cared about it unless you, like me, were a total Beatles Geek.

In any case, "IAtW" is a weird enough song on its own, but among its more obscure weirdnesses (an example of a less obscure one being the lyrics, which, though themselves obscure in meaning, are at least easily discernible) is the fact that John had a radio on while they were recording it and the radio was playing a BBC version of King Lear. At the 3:57 mark of the video I link to above, you can clearly hear, in the background (as long as you know its there), Oswald saying "Villain, take my purse ..." and then the rest is pretty clear too, when you know what they're saying.


  1. As the name of your blog implies, you are a four-trick pony.

  2. Judging by the title, I had a totally different idea of what this play would be about. I figured that if Cinderella was about a girl who hung out in the fireplace with the cinders, then Cymbeline was clearly about a girl who wanted to join the high school band and amaze the football players with her cymbals. I thought it would be full of ... oh come on, you know I have no shame... cymbalism.

  3. @Teh Merry: No wonder your bike is a whoo-wer.

  4. So did you read Cymbeline or King Lear?, cuz I'm seein' a whole lotta Lear. And some Pissantio.

    There's a bluegrass-y version of "I am the Walrus" by Pert Near Sandstone that's on a Minnesota artists cover Beatles collection. It's not bad!

  5. Here's a sample of IATW x PNS