Cymbeline – The Play I Knew Nothing About

I vaguely remember a director telling me this was their favorite of Shakespeare’s plays when I was little. Upon hearing my plan to see every Shakespeare play, my uncle warned “good luck with Cymbeline.” What was this mythical play? And who is Cymbeline, anyway?

The Shakespeare Challenge: Can I not start with Cymbeline?

I’ve had some trouble getting started with this project. There are so many plays, and it’s been hard to pick just one to start with.

I thought about starting with All’s Well that Ends Well, starting with the stages of man monologue (you know, “All the world’s a stage…“) for my birthday.

But it seemed like maybe I should start with something unknown, so I looked at the plays I’d really never heard of (Pericles is a play?).

I figured I was overthinking it, and considered starting reading something I did know, like Romeo and Juliet.

But then they discovered the bones of Richard the Third, and I thought I should do a timely play and glom on to world interest.

But every time I tried to start reading a play, something would stop me. I came back to the challenge of getting to know Cymbeline.

Do you know anything about Cymbeline?

Cymbeline Paris

First off, I thought Cymbeline was a girl’s name. False. This is about a king named Cymbeline. But I’m not the only one with this confusion. I googled it, and the top ranked sites for Cymbeline are for the Cymbeline (a designer) wedding dresses.

After I established that the full name of the play is “Cymbeline, King of Britain” (his gender is so clear with the complete title), I stumbled upon Ferretbrain’s podcast of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Cymbeline.”

The Ferretbrain podcast is hilarious. I can’t lie, while I was listening to the podcast, I was one of those awkward people walking alone, giggling awkwardly to myself. Thanks to the Ferretbrain commentary, I bit into the play calling Clotus “Stupidhead” and with the assumption that this was a crazy absurd play.

Are you related to Shakespeare?

Coming with a name like “Shakespeare” is a burden to bear.  I bet if you counted all the questions people asked you over the course of a week, “How are you?” and “May I take your order?” and “Can I see your ID?” would rank pretty high. In my world “Are you related to Shakespeare?” (idk) or better “Do people always ask you if you’re related to Shakespeare?” (yes) is easily in my top 10.

Shakespeare’s on my credit cards, my checks, my resume, my business card, my non-driver’s license… so everyone asks. I love the chance to talk to people, and having a conversation starter on every card I carry is great. My canned answer of “Well, my Dad’s from England, and my parents are theatre professionals” works for most people.

But then there are the people who start throwing quotes. Who reference the Bard’s life and work. And if they start Hamlet’s “Speak the Speech” or Juliet’s “Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”, I can chime in. But I’m woefully undereducated on the whole corpus of Shakespeare. And I’m not as useful at Shakespeare trivia as I think I should be (he was born in the 1500s? 1600s? 1400s?).

Even growing up around theatre, I’ve seen only 10 of his plays in production – most were mediocre at best. And while I loved reading Macbeth, slogging through Julius Ceasar was a terrible experience as a 14 year old. I’ve somehow missed seeing Macbeth, Hamlet, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream on stage or on screen, and I’ve never actually read any of the Richard or Henry plays.

Embarrassing as it is to admit, I’ve found many of the productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen flat out boring. Logically, Shakespeare’s works must be good, or nobody would bother asking about my name – Shakespeare would be a nobody. Don’t get me wrong, I want to love his plays, but it’s easy to get turned off by one too many passionately created and lovingly performed, but ultimately snore inducing productions.

I have faith, though. When I was 20, Dad and I went to an amazing production of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre in London. I was riveted. With minimal sets and props, and simple, period costumes, actors spoke Shakespeare’s words and I could hear them, not the rhyme and the iambs, but the thrust of the play. I loved it. That’s how Shakespeare should be. I want to find that in all of his works.

In preparation for my milestone 30th birthday, I was considering whether I needed a 20s bucket list (I don’t) or some big event to mark my new number (not really). But a decade long challenge seemed like a good idea:

  • Challenge 1: See a good production of every Shakespeare play – hopefully one that I can lose myself in.
  • Challenge 2: Read the corpus of Shakespeare’s works (even the contested ones), and bone up on those quotes and soliloquies the Shakespeare buffs throw around.
  • Challenge 3: Study to win all rounds of “Things inspired by Shakespeare” trivia categories by re-watching 10 Things I Hate About You, and finding movies, operas, books, ballets, paintings, music, and other derivative or Shakespeare-inspired works.
  • Challenge 4: Get to know (as well as anyone can) the man with my name, so I can hold up my side in an argument over whether he actually wrote all of the plays that bear his hame.