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The materials in Holinshed for the historical portion of “Cymbeline ” are so imperfect and scanty, that a belief may be entertained that Shakespeare resorted to some other more fertile source, which the most diligent inquiries have yet failed to discover. The names of Cymbeline and of his sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, occur in the old Chronicle, and there we hear of the tribute demanded by the Roman emperor, but nothing is said of the stealing of the two young princes, nor of their residence with Bellarius among the mountains, and final restoration to their father.
All that relates to Posthumus, Imogen, and Jachimo is merely fabulous, and some of the chief incidents of this part of the plot are to be found in French, Italian, and English. We will speak of them separately.
They had been employed for a dramatic purpose in France at an early date, in a Miracle-play, printed in 1839 hy Messrs. Monmerqué and Michel, in their Théâtre François au Moyen-age, from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque du Roi. In that piece, mixed up with many romantic circumstances, we find the wager on the chastity of the heroine, her flight in the disguise of a page, the proof of her innocence, and her final restoration to her husband. There also we meet with two circumstances, introduced into Shakespeare's “ Cymbeline," but not contained in any other version of the story with which we are acquainted : we allude to the boast of Berengier (the Iachimo of the French drama), that if he were allowed the opportunity of speaking to the heroine but twice, he should be able to accomplish his design : Iachimo (Act i. sc. 5) makes the same declaration. Again, in the French Miracle-play, Berengier takes exactly Shakespeare's mode of assailing the virtue of Imogen, by exciting her anger and jealousy by pretending that her husband, in Rome, had set her the example of infidelity. Incidents somewhat similar are narrated in the French romances of La Violette, and Flore et Jehanne : in the latter the villain, being secretly admitted by an old woman into the bed-room of the heroine, has the means of ascertaining a particular mark upon her person while she is bathing.
The novel by Boccaccio has many corresponding features : it is the ninth of Giornata II., and bears the following title : “ Bernabo da Genova, da Ambrogiuolo ingannato, perde il suo, e comanda che la moglie innocente sia uccisa. Ella scampa, et in habito di huomo serve il Soldano; ritrova l'ingannatore, e Bernabo conduce in Alessandria, dove l'ingannatore punito, ripreso habito feminile col marito ricchi si tornano a Genova." This tale includes one circumstance only found there and in Shakespeare's play: we allude to the mole which Iachimo saw on the breast of Imogen. The parties are all merchants in Boccaccio, excepting towards the close of his novel, where the Soldan is introduced: the villain, instead of being forgiven, is punished by being anointed with honey, and exposed in the sun to flies, wasps, and mosquitoes, which eat the flesh from bis bones.
A modification of this production seems to have found its way into our language at the commencement of the seventeenth century. Steevens states that it was printed in 1603, and again in 1620, in a tract called “ Westward for Smelts.” If there be no error as to the date, the edition of 1603 has been lost, for no copy of that year now seems to exist in any public or private collection. Mr. Halliwell, in his reprint of The First Sketch of “ The Merry Wives of Windsor," (for the Shakespeare Society) p. 135, has expressed his opinion that Steevens must have been mistaken, and that “Westward for Smelts” was not published until 1620 : only one copy even of this impression is known'; and if, in fact, it were not, as Steevens supposes, a reprint, of course Shakespeare could not have resorted to it: however, he might, without much difficulty, have gone to the original ; or some version may then have been in existence, of which he availed himself, but which has not come down to our day. The incidents in “Westward for Smelts" are completely anglicised, and the scene is laid in this country in the reigns of Henry VI. and Edward IV. In the French and Italian versions, Iachimo (or the person answering to him) is conveyed to Imogen's chamber in a chest, but in “Westward for Smelts," where the tale is in other respects vulgarised, he conceals himself under her bed.
Some German critics, whose opinions are often entitled to the most respectful consideration, have supposed that “ Cymbeline” was written in 1614 or 1615, not adverting to the circumstance that Shakespeare had then relinquished all connection with the stage, and had retired from the metropolis. Malone thought that 1609 was the year which could be most probably fixed upon, and although we do not adopt his reasoning upon the point, we are strongly inclined to believe that this drama was not, at all events, written at an earlier period. Forman, the astrologer, was present when “Cymbeline" was acted, most likely, in 1610 or 1611, but he does not in his Diary insert the date when, nor the theatre where, he saw it. His brief account of the plot, in his “Booke of Plaies and Notes thereof” (MS. Ashmol. No. 208), is in the following terms :
1 * Among Capell's books, which he gave to Trinity College, Cambridge, and which are there prescrved with care proportionate to their value.
“ Remember, also, the story of Cymbeline, king of England in Lucius' time : how Lucius came from Octavius Cæsar for tribute, and being denied, after sent Lucius with a great army of soldiers, who landed at Milford Haven, and after were vanquished by Cymbeline, and Lucius taken prisoner; and all by means of three outlaws, of the which two of them were the sons of Cymbeline, stolen from him when they were but two years old, by an old man whom Cymbeline banished ; and he kept them as his own sons twenty years with him in a cave. And how one of them slew Cloten, that was the queen's son, going to Milford Haven to seek the love of Imogen, the king's daughter, whom he had banished also for loving his daughter.
“And how the Italian that came from her love conveyed himself into a chest, and said it was a chest of plate, sent from her love and others to be presented to the king. And in the deepest of the night, she being asleep, he opened the chest and came forth of it, and viewed her in her bed, and the marks of her body, and took away her bracelet, and after accused her of adultery to her love, &c. And in the end, how he came with the Romans into England, and was taken prisoner, and after revealed to Imogen, who had turned herself into man's apparel, and fled to meet her love at Milford Haven ; and chanced to fall on the cave in the woods where her two brothers were : and how by eating a sleeping dram they thought she had been dead, and laid her in the woods, and the body of Cloten by her, in her love's apparel that he left behind him, and how she was found by Lucius,” &c.
We have certainly no right to conclude that “Cymbeline” was a new piece when Forman witnessed the performance of it; but various critics have concurred in the opinion (which we ourselves entertain) that in style and versification it resembles “ The Winter's Tale," and that the two dramas belong to about the same period of the poet's life. Forman saw “ The Winter's Tale" on 17th May, 1611, and, perhaps, he saw “ Cymbeline" at the Globe in the spring of the preceding year. However, upon this point, we have no evidence to guide us, beyond the mere mention of the play and its incidents in Forman's Diary. That it was acted at court at an early date is more than probable, but we are without any record of such an event until 1st January, 1633 (Vide Hist. of Engl. Dram. Poetry and the Stage, vol. ii. p. 57); under which date Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels, registers that it was performed by the King's Players, and that it was “ well liked by the King." The particular allusion in Act ii. sc. 4, to “proud Cleopatra” on the Cydnus, which “swell’d above his banks,” might lead us to think that “ Antony and Cleopatra” bad preceded “ Cymbeline.”
It is the last of the “Tragedies" in the folio of 1623, and we have reason to suppose that it had not been printed at any earlier date. The divisions of acts and scenes are throughout regularly marked.
CYMBELINE, King of Britain.
QUEEN, Wife to Cymbeline.
Lords, Ladies, Roman Senators, Tribunes, Apparitions, a Soothsayer,
a Dutch Gentleman, a Spanish Gentleman, Musicians, Officers, Captains, Soldiers, Messengers, and other Attendants.
SCENE, sometimes in Britain, sometimes in Italy.
| No list of characters is found in any of the old editions, and it was first added by Rowe.
ACT I. SCENE I.
Britain. The Garden behind CYMBELINE's Palace.
Enter Two Gentlemen. 1 Gent. You do not meet a man, but frowns: our
bloods No more obey the heavens, than our courtiers Still seem as does the king'. 2 Gent.
But what's the matter? 1 Gent. His daughter, and the heir of's kingdom,
whom He purpos’d to his wife's sole son, (a widow That late he married) hath referr'd herself Unto a poor but worthy gentleman. She's wedded; Her husband banish’d; she imprison'd: all Is outward sorrow, though, I think, the king Be touch'd at very heart. 2 Gent.
None but the king ? 1 Gent. He that hath lost her, too: so is the queen, That most desir'd the match; but not a courtier, Although they wear their faces to the bent
Still seem as does the king.] All the commentators have stumbled at the threshold of this play : the difficulty has been occasioned by an apparent error in the folio, 1623, (repeated in the later folios) where “king” is printed kings : omit a single letter, as Tyrwhitt proposed, and the passage is then sufficiently perspicuous. Coleridge (Lit. Rem. vol. ii. p. 126) conjectured that “courtiers" might be a misprint for countenances, but the measure would thereby be destroyed, and the meaning not much elucidated.