Except insofar as both can be said to fall outside the traditional genre structure accepted at Shakespeare’s time, the similarities between Cymbeline and Henry V really begin and end with the facts that, firstly, both are nominally about the lives of British kings and, so, touch on issues of nationalism and nationhood, and, secondly, that the key material for both plays is generally agreed to come from Shakespeare’s favourite source, Raphael Holinshed‘s Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande. Their differences, however, are manifold: the plays are thematically and structurally different, and the scope of the action they portray is also widely varying. Many, even most, of the differences between the plays can be ascribed to the different genres into which they fall, and how the demands imposed by that genre dictate how the source material on which they are based is interpreted and presented. Given that I began by saying that neither play has its roots in an established dramatic tradition this contention might seem paradoxical, but, while both plays do clearly diverge from established theatrical roots, the very different shapes they take is created by the directions of those divergences.
Shakespeare gathered his material from a wide variety of sources, though he clearly built on certain foundations more often than others. There is little, if any, dispute that Holinshead’s Chronicles are the seam from which Shakespeare mined much of the substance he used to construct his British-based stories. They provide legend and myth as well as actual history – Macbeth and King Lear, like Cymbeline, spring from this source – and the historical portions of Henry V can be clearly traced to it. For instance, Canterbury’s speech on Salic law in Act I Scene ii is, as Peter Saccio says in his Shakespeare's English kings: history, chronicle, and drama, “almost verbatim Holinshead, altered only insofar as it is versified.” (Saccio 79), and he further points out that the has historical errors, “based with great fidelity upon misinformation from Holinshead” (Saccio 79). Other significant supplementary sources have also been suggested for both plays. It seems likely that Boccacio’s Decameron, which, in its original Italian, was popular in Shakespeare’s time, was the basis for that portion of Cymbeline centred around the wager on Innogen/Imogen’s faithfulness, perhaps enhanced by numerous retellings of the same story in folk tales, and departures from Holinshead indicate that Shakespeare may have returned to Geoffrey of Monmouth (who was one of Holinshead’s primary sources) for some historical elements of the tale, as well as a number of contemporary plays from which he drew sub-plots. For Henry V, the British Library website identifies The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, a play published anonymously in 1598, but probably performed throughout the 1590s, as a likely source of a number of scenes including the Dauphin’s gift of tennis balls. Shakespeare was an acknowledged a magpie, picking up shiny things to line the nests of his plays wherever he saw them, but it is how he used those elements, the careful way in which he twisted and tweaked them to fit the demands of the play he was writing, that is more interesting than where he found them.
The demands of the play are multiplicitious. Obviously, there is the demand of the story itself: plots and subplots, more often than not plucked from different places, need to be woven together to tell a single overarching – and entertaining - narrative. There are the demands of theme: the “points” the playwright is trying to communicate to his audience, the truths he wants them to take away, the moral, if you will. And there are demands imposed by structure: conventions which an audience expects and feels comfortable with. Genres determine how these demands combine serving, as Colie says, “as tiny subcultures with their own habits, habitats and structures of ideas as well as their own forms” (116). An audience who has a sense of genre is one that also has some kind of sense of the final outcomes they should anticipate from the play. As Snyder says in her examination of Shakespearean genre, “we construct a notion of the play’s modus operandi that, in turn, conditions our reactions as actions and dialogue unfold. A sense of the norms of genre guides us through that unfolding: prompting sympathy or detachment, highlighting the significance of what we witness and raising expectations of what is to come.” (83). However, while the scaffolding of genre provides support for a play’s story, structure and themes, it also constrains the shape it can be built in and the ground it can cover. It is not surprising, therefore, that playwrights should sometimes seek to subvert genre, or even develop new genres. Henry V and Cymbeline provide examples of two ways in which Shakespeare did the latter.
Certainly, neither play had their roots planted firmly in what Snyder describes as “traditions stretching back to classical times, traditions which in England encompassed native elements as well.” (83). Whilst now established as a genre in its own right, the History play did not exist as a discrete entity in Elizabethan theatre, only gaining clear recognition as a separate genre in the early seventeenth century (Corballis), and Cymbeline, even today, defies attempts to categorise it. In the Folio it was titled The Tragedie of Cymbeline, and while the label “romance” is that most often applied, it has been is variously categorized by modern scholars as a comedy, (Merriman), a parody (Bruster), a “Roman Play”, along with Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus (Bergeron). Snyder describes it as being between the genres, and Barbara Mowat discusses the merits of a number of labels, including “tragicomedy” and “Late comedy” (because of the verse style of the play which clearly linked it to the other late plays, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Pericles). Whatever the right label might be, it’s obvious that what it isn’t is a play that fits easily it to comic or tragic mould. In this, therefore, the two plays are similar: both are free of the constraints imposed by conventional genre.
In theory, therefore, Shakespeare is equally at liberty to do what he will with his source material in both Cymbeline and Henry V. In practice, however, in developing the histories, it is clear that Shakespeare and his contemporaries established a generic approach of their own, which has since come to distinguish the history play. What scholars generally hold to be the key features of this genre are summed up by Paulina Kewes thus: “its Englishness, its open-endedness, and its didacticism” (171), features that imposed their own demands upon the writer, and constrained him as closely as traditional tragedy or comedy would have done.
The first constraint, connected to the concept of “Englishness”, was the need for a level of fidelity to real events as they happened. A preoccupation with what Snyder calls “the special meaning of the English past for the English present” (91) reflected the zeitgeist of the time. In Elizabethan England, she says, the “sense of nationhood was crystallizing” (91), and that history was the anchor Elizabethans were using to secure their developing national identity. Playwrights, too, therefore, had to use the same anchor and reflect accurately at least the key features of the events they were dramatizing (or at least, to reflect accurately the generally held perception of what really happened).
Another constraint of history plays is a constraint of history itself – it is not subject to “conclusion”. A king may marry, have a child, die, but history, the nation and the monarchy continue. A dramatization of history, therefore, cannot have the same neat beginning and ending as a tragedy or comedy. In a tragedy, death provides closure, and in a comedy though life goes on, it does so with the dilemmas of the play neatly resolved. A history has to accept the ongoing nature of time and look in both directions from the events of the play; it needs to nod at what has preceded what the audience sees and anticipate what will follow. Snyder cites Geoffrey Bullough’s description of the structure of this type of play: ‘a wavelike motion’ with figures rising to pre-eminence and power, only to be challenged and brought down by others who in their turn are will be replaced. (92)
While all this means that in writing, say, Henry V, Shakespeare could not play too fast and loose with the truth, it did not mean that no interpretation or alteration of his source material could take place. Indeed, critics usually assert that was also a didactic aim in writing a history that insisted on a level of interpretation. Ribner talks about the history play as one which “fulfilled what Elizabethans considered the purposes of history.” (12) and Geoffrey Shepherd points out in his introduction to Sidney’s Apology for Poetry, “In Elizabethan England the writing of history was taken very seriously. There was a developing emphasis on factual truth yet at the same time a more conscious and prouder arrangement of than medieval historians had sought, with the intention of bringing the material into conformity with the writer’s convictions about the nature of man and the purposes of God in the world.” (39).
There is certainly a sense in Shakespeare’s histories - the second tetralogy in particular - of a didactic project. He uses events of the (relatively) recent past to create a lens through which to examine and analyze the qualities of the English character, and, more particularly the nature of the qualities necessary in an English ruler, which find their full expression in Henry V. “The Henry IV plays are education plays,” Ribner says, “they show us how an ideal king is made” (168) and Henry V, therefore, has to show us the king that has been created: “the mirror of all Christian kings.” (2.0.6)
In Henry V all these generic imperatives – accuracy of English history, structure and, didacticism - influenced Shakespeare’s selection of the historical elements he would take from his factual sources and what he would omit, and what fictionalisations both of his own devising and borrowed from others he would use to embellish those facts. Both accuracy and didacticism, for instance, probably drove the decision to include Henry’s (double!) murder of French prisoners. It was, first of all, a matter of historical record, and while modern productions of the play often leave out the scene as being at odds with contemporary perceptions of what an ideal ruler should be, the Elizabethan concept of perfect kingship did not exclude Machiavellian ruthlessness where political necessity dictated it. This point is further reinforced by the inclusion of the (fictional) execution of Bardolph for robbing a church. However, Shakespeare diverges from historical fact where what might be construed as non-essential information does not promote his didactic purpose. For instance, when Harry, at Harfleur, discusses with Montjoy his desire to return to Calais without battle, he admits the sickness of his troops, and makes it clear he would prefer not to fight but claims:
If we may pass, we will; if we be hind'red,
We shall your tawny ground with your red blood
Discolour; and so, Montjoy, fare you well.
The sum of all our answer is but this:
We would not seek a battle as we are;
Nor as we are, we say, we will not shun it.
So tell your master. (3:6)
Historical record shows that Henry, far from offering battle if attacked, offered terms including the return of Harfleur to the French, plus a substantial indemnity: but it clearly isn’t in line with the qualities of an ideal ruler – or the demands of a stirring play - to show them prepared to buy themselves out of trouble.
So, genre did impose constraints upon the history play, but it is important to remember that it offered freedoms too: while being neither tragedy or comedy, the history play could, and did, freely use devices from both genres, as they helped to serve the dramatic impact of the piece. In Henry V, for instance, comedy is often provided by the antics of Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, serving as a foil for the main action, or in the interchanges between Alice and Katherine; furthermore, Henry’s going out and about amongst the common soldiery prior to Agincourt, while not comic, makes use of the disguise element so often found in the comedies. As far as tragedy goes, while Henry V doesn’t follow the classic tragic pattern of the great man who loses everything in death and defeat, the way, say, Richard II does, the ending, foreshadowing Henry’s early death, nods in the direction of tragedy.
It is in this genre-straddling, drawing on both of the established genres, that Cymbeline is most like Henry V. However, although Bergeron may suggest, quoting G. Wilson Knight, that Cymbeline should “be regarded mainly as an historical play” (32), there are relatively few scholars who would agree with that assessment. While Holinshead might be the source, the history here is legendary/mythical, like that used to develop Macbeth or King Lear, rather than the better documented Plantagenet history, say, of the Henriad. Furthermore, Robert Pierce says, “If man stands at the centre of drama in Shakespeare’s history plays it is public man, man as ruler, courtier, warrior, citizen. We may see love and friendship and the intimacies of private life, but they are secondary to a panoramic view of public events.”. If this is so – and certainly the plays generally categorized “histories” seem to confirm it is – then Cymbeline cannot be a history, as it is certainly not the case here. Most of the actual activity in Cymbeline is centred around these issues of “love and friendship and the intimacies of private life” with the main plot – what Irving Ribner calls “the central incident” - being that of the wager and its ramifications.
There are, of course, momentous historical events explored in Cymbeline, as there are in Henry V, and, as in Henry V, these issues of war and peace resolve happily for Britain, but, as Ribner says “There is in this mosaic of romantic motifs little political purpose, although there are political overtones afforded by the historical setting.”(52) Where the didactic purpose is the raison d’etre for Henry V, one might say in Cymbeline the setting – Roman Britain – is selected more to serve the romantic elements of the play, providing a sense of the exotic, than to serve as a political platform. “Few writers of historical romance neglected the opportunities for political preachment which their historical settings offered them,” Ribner says, “ but the political doctrine in Cymbeline is … of secondary importance, and it bears little relation to the basic problems of the play.” (52)
So, it is not in being a history that Cymbeline resembles Henry V, so much as in its freedom to draw upon devices, plots and features of both tragedy and comedy – and the newly emerged history genre, too, perhaps. “Experimental” is probably the best label for Cymbeline. Landry quotes Frank Kermode’s exasperated categorization “ ‘historical-pastoral’ tragic-comical romance” , and this does seem to sum it up. Being constrained by no single generic structure, it has something of everything, Here perhaps the “genre” of the play does not so much determine the selection and treatment of source material as allow Shakespeare to dip into a wider than usual variety of sources.
There is a bewildering array of sources in Cymbeline, and this does seem to arise from the multi-genre approach. First, Shakespeare takes a structure which is broadly Terentian Comedy, with its elements of opposed romance, despair finally abated by the discovery of some favourable information (though in Cymbeline, this intervention is, unusually, divine) and the ultimate happy resolution where all the ‘good’ protagonists are reconciled Into it this structure he places the wager story, based mostly on Boccacio’s Decameron and this leads to the primary tragic element of the play, the trials of Posthumous and Innogen/Imogen (though mostly the latter) “There is hardly a tragedy of Shakespeare’s, in which the sympathetic characters suffer as these do.” Snider says of these hardships(8). Shakespeare also draws subplots from a number of sources; Cloten’s pursuit of Innogen/Imogen in Posthumous’ clothing , for instance, along with a number of other small elements, seems to come from the play Clyomon and Clamydes. In that play, a cowardly knight pursues his object of desire dressed in the armour of his successful rival, in Cymbeline, this pursuit provides a tragi-comic twist, since, while it leads to a common comic device of mistaken identity, does so in a way that intensifies the tragic suffering of Innogen/Imogen, causing her to believe the headless Cloten is Posthumous. The central romantic theme, the princess in love with an orphan, can be found in another contemporary romance, The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune which provides a further plot element - the princess receives hospitality from a courtier banished by her father, resonant of Imogen’s sojourn with Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderias. The subplot of kidnapped children is taken from Holinshead, from his account of the war of King Kenneth of Scotland with the Danes. And the overarching element is the Romano-British historical setting. Taken from Holinshead’s chronicles regarding Cymbeline, the British King ruling at the time of Christ’s birth, this setting provides yet another sub-plot: the British reluctance to pay tribute to Rome, and the ultimately peaceful resolution of that issue. This crowded paragraph reflects a crowded piece, which must have presented a significant challenge to the playwright in developing a (more or less) cohesive whole.
It’s this dramatic question of how to marry the genres and elements together into an effective story that must have determined the key adaptations that Shakespeare had to make to his source material in Cymbeline rather than any demands of didacticism or generic structure. He does so by tweaking his sources so that Cymbeline becomes the glue which fastens them together: the historical conflict is his, the romance is between his daughter and his orphan ward, and it is Cymbeline’s banishment of Posthumus which puts him in position where the wager that drives the action can be made. Furthermore, the cowardly suitor is the son of Cymbeline’s wicked queen, and the kidnapped children are his sons.
In considering Henry V and Cymbeline, then, it can be seen that both the largely self defined History genre, and the cross-generic experimentation of the so-called romances, imposed demands on Shakespeare in adapting and using his source material to create satisfying, crowd-pleasing plays, though those were very different demands, the first arising from the constraints placed on him by the genre and the second from the lack of constraints that came from the abandonment of generic structures. In comparing and contrasting these two particular plays, it must be said that the restrictions of the first approach probably resulted in a more successful, and unified whole than the freedoms of the second.
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