Monday, January 31, 2011

Cymbeline and its echoes of Rape of Lucrece

Over the winter break I saw Shakespeare’s Cymbeline staged by Fiasco Theater at Theatre for New Audience. Fiasco Theater ’s production was many things: inventive, lo-fi, ensemble-driven, and: a fun plot swirling mess. But it had also had one thing that that any production of Cymbeline should have: the Iachimo/ echoes of Rape of Lucrece scene.

In Cymbeline, Iachimo, a soldier in the Roman army, questions the virtue of Imogen, the wife of Posthumous, and bets Posthumous that he can tempt her into adultery. Once in her presence, Imogen welcomes him in her home knowing that he is a friend of her husband. But Iachimo realizes that Imogen is indeed virtuous and he comes up with a plan to sneak into her bedchamber, marking the room and other specifics only a lover would have access to, while she sleeps.

Iachimo’s first words upon stepping out of hiding are “our Tarquin thus did softly press the rushes ere he wakened the chastity he wounded.” Shakespeare leaves no doubt of his point of reference. But I also find it interesting that Iachimo also remembers and employs Tarquin’s military and seize warfare imagery. In Fiasco Theater’s production (and other productions of Cymbeline I’ve seen in the past) Iachimo’s seedy presence in Imogen’s bedchamber while she sleep is scary and threatening. I’ve seen one production where Iachimo notes the irrefutable evidence of a mole on her left breast while he is standing over her on top of the bed. Fiasco Theater ’s Iachimo is not as bold but he is just as slimy.

There is no sexual violence or intercourse implied or real in this scene, a contrast with the narrative poem. Does this make Iachimo more sympathetic than Tarquin? Is this a false choice? Iachimo’s false representation of Imogen sets in motion a series of events that bring her shame and estrangement from her Posthumous. Imogen even demands that Pisano, Posthumous’ servant, take her life. An act that proves her devotion to Posthumous and her still virtuous heart. So instead of actually ruining her virtue, Iachimo lie threatens to ruin and end her life.

Cymbeline being a romantic comedy and The Rape of Lucrece being a tragic narrative poem offers another set of contrasts between Tarquin and Iachimo. In the story of The Rape of Lucrece, the image I have for Tarquin is more like a pounding and blunt hammer. He is forceful, single-mindedly driven. When he shows up to Lucrece’s bedchamber at night he does not put on any airs that he is there for anything but to violate her: “thy beauty hath ensnared thee to this night, where thou with patience must my will abide.” The image I have for Iachimo in Cymbeline is much more like a snake. He’s sneaks his way into Imogen’s bedchamber. And in earlier scenes, we see him shed different skins, different lies to Imogen in an effort to trick her. And he pounces on her like a snake to vulnerable prey.

In Cymbeline’s end, Imogen’s good name is restored, but not after Shakespeare makes fools out of the men, including Iachimo, who dared to question this great woman’s virtue. The Rape of Lucrece gets its tragic credentials by never giving Lucrece back her honor or her life.


Jeff Battersby said...


Wow! Very well written and well reasoned comparison of The Rape of Lucrece and Cymbeline.

An interesting note on both of these pieces is how little control the women in the writings have over their own lives and destinies. Tarquin is, quite literally, able to steal Lucrece's virtue while, even though it is not as literal, Iachimo does the very same to the appearance of Cymbeline's virtue. Even when looked at through the lens of The Merchant of Venice, women have very little in the way of real power over their own lives or how they are perceived by the world around them.

Says Portia @ 1.2.20: "I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father."

In all cases, as Portia makes evident, women are subjected to the whims and will of men, whether or not that male intent is malevolent or beneficent. In all cases, it seems, that these are violations.

Thank you, Andre, for such a pleasant read.


Cyrus Mulready said...

A very nice comparison between these two texts, Andre. It is interesting to see how Shakespeare reworks similar material as he moves from the narrative into the dramatic. And Jeff's comments nicely extend this conversation into a consideration of gender roles, something we'll discuss in more detail with this play.