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Timely Knowing: The Intimate Conspiracies of Cymbeline

Donovan Sherman

August 10, 2015



This essay explores Cymbeline as a meditation on ways of reading. The play relentlessly, amazingly, and at times exasperatingly offers scenes of misreading people and texts — often by conflating one with the other — but gives us, in its final scene, less a synthesis or even productive concatenation of interpretive practices and more a profoundly experimental deferral of interpretation itself. As a result, it proposes a radical reconsideration of literary analysis by celebrating an intimate engagement with the sensations of reading without recourse to strong-arming the text into theoretical obedience. Cymbeline does this by quite literally ‘staging’ strategies of reading as embodied and performed acts, locating theoretical scrutiny within interpersonal dynamics. The play thus intervenes in the discursive tradition in literary studies of “suspicious” reading, along with the work of suspicion’s discontents, personified here by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s brilliant defense of “weak” reading. The last scene takes up Imogen’s call for “timely knowing” by denying the satisfaction of interpretive closure and instead celebrating close and particular reading as an ethical and specifically theatrical mode of interaction.


It is tempting to make far too much of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. The play is so filled with discordant shifts of tone, geography, language, and character, and so stuffed with twists, deceptions, and revelations, that it both invites and repels attempts to constellate its multitude — its persistent too-much-ness — into a pattern. The attentive reader can quickly turn into an amateur conspiracy theorist who fits the play’s assemblage of ideas into an analytical container both capacious enough to contain its abundance and specific enough to account for its many discrepancies. Often, critical work on the play flickers between acknowledgment of its messiness and eager pursuit of a model that accommodates secret reasons for apparent chaos: scholars almost ritualistically note its formlessness before moving on to an explanation of its tacit form. For Arthur Kirsch, the fact that Cymbeline is “resistant to any coherent interpretation” and has a “frankly experimental” feel results from the material circumstances of its possible production at Blackfriars (294, 296). Janet Adelman notes that Cymbeline is “conspicuously without a center” before proposing that this destabilization is “related in ways not merely structural to the absence of Cymbeline himself as a compelling male figure” (200). The lack of cohesion in the text reflects the lack of paternal cohesion in the state. Ros King’s introduction to her book-length study of the play describes its motley assemblage as “part history, part myth, with elements of fairy tale, romance and murder thriller thrown in, it does not fit common conceptions of Shakespearean design” — as a contrapuntal prologue to her moment of realization “how very carefully and cleverly the play had been constructed” (1). King elaborates that the play’s at-times difficult language reflects (or, more accurately, enacts) the inchoate quality of consciousness itself, since

[s]ensory experiences do not come in logical order — although the brain sorts them out that way in order to try to make sense of them. Indeed, the play’s most powerful images are all carefully presented to take the audience as well as the characters through a strange, perverse immersion in sensibility in order to arrive at some rather more complex and uncomfortable truth. (30)

Cymbeline offers no neat textual alchemy to transfer the vicissitudes of life into pithy and understandable platitudes or comfortable narrative rhythms. Instead, King suggests, it submerges the audience in deliberate confusion, to keep everyone guessing. And yet its rudderlessness is still by careful design — a brilliant move that King unpacks through her close attention.

Less attention has been paid to the reflection of the hapless and grandly theorizing scholar in the hapless and grandly theorizing characters that populate Cymbeline. It seems only appropriate, after all, to make too much of a play that itself obsessively makes far too much out of far too little, or even of nothing at all. Characters constantly leap from one interpretive scheme to another — and, in a pattern that should give us pause, each new interpretation is often incorrectly understood, founded on overzealous suspicion. Perceived plots emerge at such a blur that the construction of Cymbeline becomes stitched together almost entirely by erroneous reports and dangerous misprisions, a cavalcade of what Pisanio laments as “too ready hearing” (3.2.6).1 Actual conspiratorial plans, like the queen’s, tend to fizzle and die, but the wildly mistaken perception of a plot — one that would account for the stream of inexact and madly inconsistent signs — might spark an entire top-to-bottom shift of identity and epistemological certainty.

One way of reading Cymbeline, then, is as a text that is itself preoccupied with ways of reading — and with locating how an act of reading can turn into an act of interpretation. Surely many other Shakespearean works similarly obsess over detecting hidden plots and meanings. But Cymbeline is unmatched in its sheer density of deceptions, and stands as a particularly powerful test case to explore the effects, alternately perilous and beneficial, of over-reading, of imagining theoretical schemes in which the cacophony of experience can resolve into a seductive, though inevitably false, model of reality. And as Kirsch, Adelman, King, and others have shown in their own interpretations, the play’s acts of overreading also double the scholarly acts of reading Cymbeline itself, which has clearly long both confounded and compelled cohesive theoretical schemes.

This essay finds in the play a therapeutic caution against the habitual over-reader and obsessive theorizer. More specifically, Cymbeline’s exaggerated uncertainties and compensatory certainties, I believe, engage with the critical tradition that lurks in the background of the disparate interpretations surveyed earlier — that of ‘suspicious reading,’ a practice somehow anxious and institutionalized, tired and provocative, radical and canonical. Rather than simply reflect a healthy suspicion of suspicious reading, though, the play proposes a deeply ethical dimension to this strain of literary practice by embodying its processes of reading. Texts can be read, and so can people, but Cymbeline teaches us that to treat life as a text, one whose meanings can be excavated and played with, carries with it enormous consequence. What makes the play particularly powerful, then, is how it quite literally stages its hermeneutic practices and explores the implications of embodiment to interpretive ethics usually reserved for literary study. Thus conspiratorial interpretation becomes thematized and performed as belief in actual conspiracy. But the way out of conspiracy, the play proposes, is not to dismantle its illusion but instead to remain in the state of abeyance, between deception and disenchantment, that lingers in the moment of reading before its tips into an act of interpretation. If Cymbeline uses performance as a way to illuminate the perils of too-ready hearing, it also locates performance as the solution, albeit a different kind of performance, one intimate and immediate, particular and practical, content to acknowledge but not to derive meaning.

When we read or observe Cymbeline, we witness, time and again, characters reading and observing each other as if they were texts, as if their psyches could be rendered scriptural. At times this analogy is made explicit, as when the scheming Iachimo sizes up Posthumus — who will appear shortly on the scene, fresh from banishment — as a potential mark. Posthumus, he relates, has dignity to spare: “I have seen him in Britain; he was then of a crescent note, expected to prove so worthy as since he hath been allowed the name of” (1.5.1-3). This virtue, however, obscures a trait that Iachimo, in his predatory search, finds more salient: “But I could then have look’d on him without the help of admiration, though the catalogue of his endowments had been tabled by his side and I to peruse him by items” (ll. 3-6). Putting aside the “help of admiration,” Iachimo finds a veritable book of characteristics that render Posthumus highly legible. This legibility in turn allows Iachimo to read Posthumus sensitively, detect his vulnerabilities, and, with precisely improvised tactics, set the wager concerning Imogen’s chastity. Like a list — a catalogue 2 — Posthumus can be read, in just the manner that Imogen cannot be, as evinced in a later scene in which Iachimo attempts a similar ruse only to be rebuffed: “If thou wert honourable,” Imogen scolds him, “Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not / For such an end thou seek’st, as base, as strange. / Thou wrong a gentleman, who is as far / From thy report as thou from honour” (1.7.141). The symmetry of these scenes extends beyond the young lovers’ opposing levels of readability. Posthumus’s crescent note of admiration can easily be parsed from his catalogue of endowments, but Imogen’s dignity is inextricable from her character; Iachimo’s lack of honor, for Imogen, allows for a mere tale of virtue to stand out in contrast to virtue itself.

Iachimo’s deception of Posthumus preys on both his readability and his haste to over-read the textual appearance of others. After Posthumus becomes convinced of Imogen’s infidelity he curses not only her particular person but her entire gender: “Some coiner with his tools / Made me a counterfeit: yet my mother seem’d / The Dian of that time: so doth my wife / The nonpareil of this” (2.4.157-60). The imagery suggests that Imogen has been replaced by a replica crafted by a flawless artisan — a thought that leads him to suspect his own mother as a false “Dian” of her age. The reference adopts the details of Iachimo’s own citation of Diana in his description of “the chimney-piece” of Imogen’s bedchamber as “Chaste Dian, bathing: never saw I figures / So likely to report themselves; the cutter / Was another Nature, dumb; outwent her, / Motion and breath left out” (2.81-85). The perfectly carved Diana on the chimney could fool the viewer to think it was real — just as Posthumus’s mother would appear to be a perfect Diana herself.3 But the Diana in both cases is perfectly, deceptively fake — as is the story that contains it, though Posthumus’s suspicions do not extend to such narrative foundations. The next target of his delusional disillusionment is instead himself, as partially deceitful and thus partially womanly: “Could I find out / The woman’s part in me — for there’s no motion / that tends to vice in man, but I affirm / It is the woman’s part” (2.4.171-74). The terms of his revenge are literary: he will “write against them” (2.4.183).

Adelman has persuasively suggested that Posthumus adopts, in this speech, the misogyny and dangerous desires of Iachimo, his supposed foil (200). But the desire that Posthumus doubles is not bluntly sexual — not the direct rape fantasy of Cloten — but one of mastery. And the mastery Iachimo exhibits and Posthumus mimics takes the form of textualization, rendering woman as legible and consumable writ. In Iachimo’s own words, he is the “master of my speeches” (1.5.137-38). To turn a woman into a speech would thus allow for a form of absolute mastery; Iachnimo, then, does not physically rape Imogen but instead plays out what Lawrence Danson calls a “male voyeuristic fantasy” of “controlling a woman without risking the failure which consummated sexuality so often entails”; Imogen is thus “open” to Iachimo and only by “not taking sexual possession of her can the fantasy of possession be gratified” (76). She is “open” like a text — similar, in fact, to the Ovid opened by her bedside, ominously turned to the story of Philomel’s rape (2.2.45). More than simply blazoning her into admiring if objectifying lyricism, Iachimo surrogates her completely, rendering Imogen to Posthumus as a collection of details that concretize into truth — as Posthumus puts it, “More particulars / Must justify my knowledge” (2.4.78-79). Posthumus, who, as we learn in his misogynistic tirade, writes, and will later dabble in satirical verse, promises to combat this interpretation through a reappraisal of women and himself — and to counter through the production of text. Posthumus, then, replicates in his vengeance Iachimo’s technique of mastery-through-textualization: the creation of a fantasy of complete readability and interpretation.

Before further elaborating on how Cymbeline meditates on the readability of bodies and behavior, an explanation of the more contemporary theoretical concept echoed in this readability — that of suspicious reading — and its placement in the tradition of literary studies is in order. Such a genealogy no doubt will be overly familiar, but is worth reviewing so as to weave its implications more closely with Cymbeline’s acts of reading. The locus classicus, or perhaps patient zero, of suspicion in this genealogy is the foundational case of Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge who suffered from severe and debilitating delusions, as examined by Freud in his vastly influential essay “Psychoanalytic Remarks on an Autobiographically Described Case of Paranoia.” Freud closely reads Schreber’s Memoirs of a Nervous Disorder as he would the speech of an analysand. The exegesis of Schreber’s condition, then, practices a form of actual textual interpretation that wholly supplants the biological entity of the patient with the production of language — and so Freud himself, as is often noted, practices a kind of literary criticism as his treatment. By situating himself as a “reader” of Schreber’s condition, furthermore, Freud ironically exhibits, by his own admission, the same exaggerated practice of overly “reading” the world that so hobbles Schreber. The memoir is a perfect Diana, and Freud’s efforts to tear down its symptomatic defenses occasion the construction of a new set of interpretations that uncannily double the disease he attempts to cure.

Delusion, for Freud, maps the narrative of conspiracy onto the personal life of the patient to distort real-life details into an overpowering fiction. The sufferer of delusion focuses on someone close to them “in whose hands all the threads of the conspiracy are brought together” and who is “the same one as of no less importance for the emotional life of the patient before the onset of the illness or an easily recognized surrogate” (31-32). In Schreber’s case, according to Freud, the conspiracy centered on Dr. Flechsig, the doctor who treated Schreber while he was institutionalized; Schreber first thought Flechsig was persecuting him and then that Flechsig was God. The primary motives for psychotic delusion are naturally, for Freud, sexual, and in Schreber’s case, the shameful desire in question is homosexuality. One manufactured conspiracy that can result from repression — as Posthumus enacts in his tirade against women — is jealousy; the patient creates a rich conspiratorial story to divert attention from the taboo desire. Freud’s pithy summary is “It is not I who love the man — indeed, it is she who loves him”; the patient is “suspecting his wife with regard to all the men whom he is tempted to love” (54).

The details of this case are well known and codified in traditions of critical theory. And no wonder: what Schreber’s delusion and treatment model are an endless set of ways for the patient critic to find meanings outside of the immediate frame of perception. The patient both is and produces a text, an eminently readable artifact that rewards the attentive examiner with profound ideas lurking in its subterranean depths or outside of its borders entirely, traceable only in symptomatic gaps and elisions. The conflation of ‘reading’ the subject and reading the text, articulated repeatedly in Cymbeline and realized fully in the Schreber case, offers a link between the science of psychoanalysis and the pursuit of textual interpretation. The seduction to interpret, to connect dots into a structuring pattern, haunts Schreber, but also Freud, who pathologizes same-sex desire as a way to identify and isolate a behavioral pattern. So, too, does today’s reader of Shakespeare and psychoanalytic theory feel beckoned by the possibility of unmarked understanding — I might be tempted, for instance, to suggest that Iachimo and Posthumus wrestle, through their wager, with their own homoerotic longing. And yet this suggestion must be measured against how well the structure of my reading holds together, a process as delicate as the treatment of a traumatic patient. I can find details, perhaps speciously connected, perhaps compellingly so, in order to ascribe a certain interpretation to a literary text as if it were the dream of the psychically damaged.

But I would open myself up to charges of my own delusion. That ‘theory’ obliterates the text in order to proffer its own set of conclusions is a popular, if overly broad and often unfair, charge leveled against it.4 This threat of overinterpretation and fabrication is characterized by Freud himself as the psychotic belief in a world-leveling catastrophe on the horizon: the paranoiac patient hopes for disaster in order to rebuild the world “in such a way that he can live in it again,” although this effort must fail, as “a ‘profound internal change,’ as Schreber has it, has befallen the world”; what results in the ruins of the old world is a close but tenuous relationship with the new, as “the individual has regained a relationship to the people and things of the world, often a very intensive one, even if what was once a relationship of expectant tenderness may now be one of hostility” (60).5 The dramaturgy of Cymbeline and, more broadly, the mechanics of the Romance genre, with its tropes of lost royalty, resurrections, and geographic scattering, allow for an explicit, literalized demonstration of this effect: Posthumus swears revenge on Imogen and all women; Imogen rebuilds her life with a new identity at the hint of Posthumus’s vengeance; Belarius, before the play begins, fled under suspicion of treason and stole the princes; and so on. Characters repeatedly reconstruct, with theatrical facility, a new mode of interpretation in order to replace the old. And they do so, the play repeatedly tells us, based on a fiction.

Paul Ricouer, who coined the term ‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’ adapts Freud’s doubled paranoia — of subject and methodology — into a broader consideration of critical practice. For Ricouer, the psychoanalytic tradition relies on a mode of reading that does not seek to attain “a restoration of a meaning addressed to me in the manner of a message, a proclamation,” but instead “is understood as a demystification, as a reduction of illusion” — and as a result finds itself in a tense standoff between contradictory imperatives:

On the one hand, purify discourse of its excrescences, liquidate the idols, go from drunkenness to sobriety, realize our state of poverty once and for all; on the other hand, use the most ‘nihilistic,’ destructive, iconoclastic movement so as to let speak what once, what each time, was said, when meaning appeared anew, when meaning was at its fullest. Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double-motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience. (27)6

This influential account describes a way of reading that thrives on a reconfiguration of the very term ‘meaning’ as something not explicit, stable, or even possible. As any instructor of a literary studies class knows — when faced with the inevitable and understandable confusion of students pointing out politely that Shakespeare died long before Freud was born — a too-simple but pedagogically helpful division exists between such ‘suspicious’ readings and ‘reparative’ readings. The latter is the more positivist impulse to gain back an objective and unchanging meaning. The critic is caught between both; she must listen and restore — and also destroy and doubt.

The over-readers of and in Cymbeline fall prey to this suspicious aporia: they textualize humans and humanize texts in acts that echo Freud’s textualizing of his patient and Schreber’s delusional reconstruction of an imperfect world of meaning. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in a powerful critique of such criticism, finds a tacit desire for reparative reading lodged within the suspicious critic.7 Though clouded with apparent doubt, Sedgwick asserts, suspicion actually argues for the instantiation of what she calls ‘strong theory,’ a mode of interpretation that creates, ironically, a deadeningly broad framework. What results is less an exploration of a text and more the construction of a jewel box of ideas that severs its ties to the supposed object of study and contains only its own infinitely scrutinizable design. Strong theory, even if masked in a sense of suspicion and anxiety, is bent on reparation and aims to construct its own holistic interpretive system that doubles the very same unified and restorable texts it purports to be impossible: “The powerfully ranging and reductive force of strong theory can make tautological thinking hard to identify even as it makes it compelling and near inevitable; the result is that both writers and readers can damagingly misrecognize whether and where real conceptual work is getting done, and precisely what that work might be” (136). The distrustful reader becomes so suspicious that everything presented or not presented textually must be taxonomized, albeit in a taxonomy constructed with the express purpose of critiquing overly categorical forces. What Sedgwick calls for, in her thoughtful polemic, is not for suspicious reading to be somehow more successful in recovering knowledge but a study of how that knowledge came to be thought of as knowledge at all. Rather than be concerned with the truth of a claim, we should be asking “What does knowledge do — the pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving again of knowledge of what one already knows? How, in short, is knowledge performative, and how best does one move among its causes and effects?” (124).

How is knowledge performed? Sedgwick leaves the question open-ended, but Cymbeline offers many answers. It can be performed unconsciously, as when Belarius ruminates on the isolation of the lost princes he has raised in Platonic isolation. The time has come, he believes, to tell the princes the truth; for one, Guiderius, the sign of this overdue revelation is an eagerness to perform:

When on my three-foot stool I sit, and tell
The warlike feats I have done, his spirits fly out
Into my story: say ‘Thus mine enemy fell,
And thus I set my foot on’s neck,’ even then
The princely blood flows in his cheek, he sweats,
Strains his young nerves, and puts himself in posture
That acts my words. (3.3.89-95)

The other, Arviragus, similarly “strikes life into my speech, and shows much more / His own conceiving” (ll. 97-98). The willingness of the princes to participate in his stories demonstrates the imminent end of their unwilling conscription in the false “story” of their upbringing. This realization, in turn, leads us to Belarius’s proclamation that the “game is up” (l. 107). By seeing the princes corporealize his tales, Belarius reflects on how they similarly act out the tale of their identities. He reads the princes reading and embodying his own stories and reflects on the fabrication of the wider story that they take part in without knowing it.8 Like the perfectly created false Diana that Posthumus fears has replaced his mother — and like Iachimo’s persuasive lie about a different kind of conquest, his sexual encounter with Imogen, which he had promised to be “so near the truth” as to be convincing (2.4.62, emphasis mine) — the stories operate as such well-constructed artifacts that they can become substitutes for actual life. Later, in the traumatic shock of discovering what she thinks is Posthumus’s decapitated body, Imogen too will piece together particulars into a false narrative. “Thou,” she curses Pisanio, “Conspired with that irregulous devil, Cloten, / Hast here cut off my lord” (4.2.314-16).

Guiderius and Arviragus vividly exemplify the ‘strong readings’ that Sedgwick cautions against: the espousal of paranoia while practicing a crypto-mystical affirmation of finding an absolute, if obscured, truth. Another exaggerated form of “performed knowledge” as seduction into embodied, paranoid belief occurs when Iachimo, wracked with guilt, takes to the battlefield and reports on his fears: “the heaviness and guilt within my bosom / Takes of my manhood: I have belied a lady, / The princess of this country; and the air on’t / Revengingly enfeebles me” (5.2.1-4). In his paranoia, he believes — hyperbolically, certainly — that even the British air has turned against him to visit signs of his guilt to his body. More subtly, Posthumus and Imogen’s deceptions spring from readings that are somehow overly reparative in their searches for a clear and absolute explanation and overly suspicious in their belief in a secret, unsaid aspect of their realities. Their conclusions are, furthermore, quite non-metaphorically conspiratorial: they believe that invisible and harmful forces — all women, Cloten’s secret cabal — have banded together to plot their undoing. The belief in conspiracy affirms doubt but replaces the unknown with the overly known, a smoothly-run vast organization behind the scenes. Imogen and Posthumus’s shift from one belief to another, more conspiratorial, understanding results from the application of ‘theory’ as a form of practice, as a lived experience; conspiratorial reading, here, becomes staged, in a play so concerned with the conflation of person and text, as a lived reality.

This kind of belief in a sweeping, secretive plot also resonates historically. In a defining instance of conspiratorial reading countering an actual conspiracy, King James’s near-fantastical explanation of how he uncovered the gunpowder plot presents a supernatural fluency in detecting unseen truth.9 Demonstrating a keen balance of humility and divinity, James relates in his speech to Parliament one of the miraculous aspects of the discovery of the subterfuge:

For as I ever did hold suspicion to be the sickness of a Tyrant, so was I so far upon the other extremity, as I rather contemned all advertisements, or apprehensions of practices. And yet now at this time was I so far contrary to myself, as when the Letter was shewed to me by my Secretary, wherein a general obscure advertisement was given of some dangerous blow at this time, I did upon the instant interpret and apprehend some dark phrases therein, contrary to the ordinary Grammer construction of them. (7)

The passage captures many of the paradoxes of suspicion that Sedgwick identifies in critical practice: James is typically not suspicious, because a surfeit of suspicion sickens rulers — so the fact that he felt suspicious is itself suspicious to him.10 Furthermore, the letter (delivered anonymously and thought to be a tip-off from one of the Catholic conspirators) belies a sense of authenticity because of its “ordinary Grammer” — and this authenticity in turn means that its “dark phrases” must mean what they say, rather than merely be fictional. The account depicts the impossible, paradoxically sought-after goal of suspicious reading, the possibility that sheer distrust can yield evidence of an actual plot buried beneath the narrative of the text. Innately aware, somehow, of wrongdoing, James gives us a fantasy of suspicious reading successfully mapping itself onto reality. But barring a magical eye to match James’s, we can comfort ourselves in the impossibility of the venture and be at play, instead, in the fruitless pursuit. A text will never conform entirely to a theoretical approach, by definition — it would be the equivalent of a conspiracy theorist discovering they were right, and only kings can do that (or, more accurately, mythologize themselves as doing that).

There is no overarching conspiracy in Cymbeline to match the gunpowder plot; the closest the play comes to high-level treason is the queen’s attempt to poison Imogen, which fails almost immediately. There are instead attempts by characters to detect and construct a conspiracy where none exists, to be seduced by a fiction with the same ease and passion as Guiderius and Arviragus. But even the fabrication of conspiracy — the charge of it in hopes that one will be imagined — characterizes the suspicious reading practices of early modern era. Peter Lake identifies a complex pattern at play in the popular habit, for Catholics and puritans alike, of leveling accusations of conspiracy at the crown. Allegations of secret cabals of elite rulers that manipulate the government led, ironically enough, to the creation of a more public sphere of republican values: “throughout the reign, the supposedly intimate and confidential circles within which counsel was supposed to be given and politics conducted were intermittently and yet consistently breached and broadened, by a variety of groups, each claiming to be responding to a conspiracy.”11 And yet, in Lake’s reading, this interpenetration of the public and governmental forces was less an idealized political effort than a temporary symptom: “Once the emergency had passed, once the conspiracy had been frustrated, things could go back to ‘normal’ and the various ‘publics’ thus created and appealed to could be closed down” (107). Rather than espouse truly communal values, then, the state adopted their guise temporarily in order to dispel charges of conspiracy.

Cymbeline takes place in a similar breach of public and elite barriers, and not coincidentally also within a deeply imbricated set of contrived conspiracies. As Posthumus explains to Philario, as they discuss the strained relations between Britain and Rome, “I do believe / (Statist though I am none, nor like to be) / That this will prove a war; and you shall hear / The legion now in Gallia sooner landed / In our not-fearing Britain than have tidings / Of any penny tribute paid” (2.4.15-20). His aside is crucial here — he is no ‘statist,’ no diplomat or political expert. (There is, of course, obvious dramatic irony at play here given his ultimate fate.) His participation in this debate can only take place at a time when national and international paranoia has taken hold, when banished gentlemen can gauge the affairs of the country as a whole, as if they themselves were as privileged as a king. Posthumus shows the political ramifications of suspicious reading as applied to the wider text of the monarchy, excavating the tacit desires and intentions of the kingdom as if it were his patient: the exceptional conspiratorial tenor of the times condones the suspicious interpretations of the citizenry, even if — especially if — they are exiled and marginalized.

At its close, Cymbeline dispels the illusions that allowed conspiracy to flourish while maintaining the contingently communal ethos that Lake finds can result from conspiracy’s production. Ending in the delicate moment between the dissolution of one belief and the reinstatement of another, the play attempts to live in the breach of public and private spheres, a break where the assembled characters can coexist without the rigor of broadly systemized interpretation. It does so by almost perversely slowing down and magnifying the unraveling of its mysteries. The final scene of the play, with its avalanche of revelations and confessions, promotes a practice of reading far more particular and immediate than the strong theory of paranoia, though no less politically significant.12 Many formalist readers of this alternately lugubrious and enchanting scene have, appropriately, struggled to find structural unity in the ending; F.R. Leavis, summarizing the opinions of many critics, dismisses the ending as simplified and jejune, as the “reunions, resurrections, and reconciliations of the close belong to the order of imagination in which ‘they all lived happily ever after’” (176). The too-tidy resolution, with what Leavis sees as the imposition of artificial morality, presents none of the psychological depth of the tragedies or even of The Winter’s Tale. Traditionally, even more positive interpretations of the ending still account for its lack of unity in asserting a transcendence that occurs outside the text entirely. J.M. Nosworthy, in the introduction to the second Arden edition, sees the many revelations and confessions as an ecstatic, metaphysical moment of paratexutal synthesis worthy of Thomas Browne: “It is not extravagant to claim that Cymbeline, in its end, acquires a significance that extends beyond any last curtain or final Exeunt. There is, quite simply, something in this play which goes ‘beyond beyond,’ and that which ultimately counts for more than the traffic of the stage as the Shakespearean vision — of unity certainly, perhaps of the Earthly Paradise, perhaps of the Elysian Fields, perhaps, even, the vision of the saints” (133).13 But Harley Granville-Barker seems to sum up the consensus when he asks rhetorically how Shakespeare can “make such a mess of a job” (462).14

The scene itself seems to reflect this very doubt in its own ability to facilitate closure. And yet it does so without recourse to a doubled conspiratorial delusion to replace the erasure of stability. This lack of finality, I am suggesting, is not an opportunity to ascertain a Romantic horizon of ineffable unity nor to dismiss the dramaturgy as overly jumbled. If we read the play as an inquiry into the act of reading, broadly construed, I believe we can find in the resolute un-resolution a profound suggestion of interpretive ethics — and an a satisfactory answer to Sedgwick’s question of how knowledge can be performed without recourse to the strong theory that has marked the play up to that point. This mise-en-scène offers a different understanding of “performed knowledge” than the sweaty embodiments of Guiderius and Arviragus or the delusional fits of Posthumus and Imogen. What we have instead is a distinct lack of closure that results from a mode of practiced reading dependent only on the present moment, without universalizing claims of either suspicion or reparation.15

The scene’s fragility finds its summation in its — and the play’s — final speech, in which Cymbeline sounds worlds away from the bravura exhibited in the earlier refusal of a tribute to Caesar, a tense standoff where Cloten noted that “There be many Caesars ere such another Julius: Britain’s a world by itself, and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses” (3.1.11-13). In this earlier detente, Cymbeline rebuffs Lucius, the emissary from Rome, with more tender language that hints at the subsumed paternal drama of the political struggle. More broadly, Cymbeline’s words in the denouncement of Lucius capture the anxious position of early modern London in relation to Rome, its valiant predecessor and rival urban center. The king relates that Caesar “knighted me; my youth I spent / Much under him; of him I gather’d honour, / Which he to seek of me again, perforce, / Behoves me keep at utterance. I am perfect / That the Pannonians and Dalmatians for / Their liberties are now in arms: a precedent / Which not to readwould show the Britons cold: / So Caesar shall not find them” (3.1.70-77). The logic of this argument is roughly as follows: Caesar knighted Cymbeline, but the rebellions of the Pannonians and Dalmatians serve as a proper precedent that must be “read” so as to inspire a similar spirit in Britain. Not rebelling would “show the Britons cold.” Cymbeline craves a kind of mingled freedom and submission, a liberty that still thrives on indebtedness to exemplarity but refutes a straightforward honor through payment.

The hint of discord, of hesitation, in Cymbeline’s words unsettles Cloten’s earlier patriotic declaration. And so by the end of the fifth act, that hint has become proudly explicit, as Britain is not a world by itself but back precisely where it began, paying tributes anew to Rome. In his final speech, the king declares that “Although the victor, we submit to Caesar, / And to the Roman empire; promising / To pay our wonted tribute, from the which / We were dissuaded by our wicked queen, / Whom heavens in justice both on her, and hers, / Have laid most heavy hand” (5.5.461-66). Constance Jordan observes that the tribute is thus “paid not from the abject position of a conquered people but granted in conscientious observance of a contract” and as a result “paradoxically signals their freedom, not their servitude” (54). Rather than simply antagonize Rome, Britain evinces its own power by choosing to supplicate. The dissolution of Britain’s unique sovereignty is miniaturized in the scene’s repeated images that dissolve Britain’s subjects, as with Imogen, figured as a piece of “tender air” in the translation of the prophecy (5.5.447) and rendered by her father as “harmless lightning” that “throws her eye / on him: her brothers, me: her master hitting / Each object with a joy: the counterchange / Is severally in all” (ll.393-96). Cymbeline practices a kind of interpretation here that is closer to description than any solid kind of ‘theory’ at all, and what he describes is a harmony of bodies figured as absences that hang in the present, exchanging nothing of value or even tangibility — only glances. For both the realm and its people, nothing is construed or solidified; no false Dianas seamlessly surrogate the actual figures; no synthesis is reached.

The other characters reflect this lack of interpretive trade-off. After Iachimo confesses — partially — to his deceitful actions, Posthumus responds by actively doing nothing. His gift is to conspicuously not evoke vengeance. Posthumus notes that “The power that I have on you, is to spare you” and leaving his erstwhile nemesis with the imperative that he “Live / And deal with others better” (5.5.419-21). And while the prophecy delivered to Posthumus after his mystical dream should represent precisely the kind of strong-theory thinking that calcifies images into symbols and actions into portents, it is shrugged off by Posthumus himself as “such stuff as madmen/ Tongue, and brain not: either both, or nothing, / Or senseless speaking” (5.4.146-48).16 Later, when the prophecy attempts relevance through the soothsayer’s hasty unpacking, it is far too late to affect anything and instead only confirms what has already happened. The only reaction the lengthy exegesis receives is Cymbeline’s dismissive “This hath some seeming” (5.5.453). If anything, the providential words delivered to Posthumus are an anti-prophecy, a set of deliberately ignored signs that provide slight curiosity rather than a typological blueprint.

What is crucial — and absurd — in these repeated gestures of pausing, bestowing gifts of nothing, ignoring divination, and denying conclusiveness is that all of the major surviving characters are in the same space. Strong theory, which flourished when all were scattered, becomes replaced by intimate theatre; the modes of reading on display localize themselves to immediate interpersonal relations. In a play so concerned with geographical relations — Imogen famously notes “the diminution of space” that would have pointed Posthumus’s disappearing ship “sharp as my needle” (1.4.18-19) — we end with the return of bodies to the court and to each other. In both political and social registers, all are reading each other without a governing structure, but instead with only the accretion of individual points as disparate as the plot of the play itself. As Sedgwick notes, such particularized points of observation, in literary studies, often silently tissue themselves to create the very structure of strong theory: buried within a work of strong, paranoid theory is often “a wealth of tonal nuance, attitude, worldly observation, performative paradox, aggression, tenderness, wit, inventive reading, obiter dicta, and writerly panache,” which are so “local and frequent that one might want to say that a plethora of only loosely related weak theories has been invited to shelter in the hypertrophied embrace of the book’s overarching strong theory” (135-36). But in this scene, as if in response to Sedgwick’s powerful diagnosis, these points stand for themselves, and while the assembled figures construct a sense of the past, they linger wholly in the present.

How can proximity matter so much when nothing actually progresses, when no gifts are given, vengeances extracted, or political independence gained? The answer arrives, in part, from a surprising admission by Granville-Barker, who in his largely scathing account of the play asserts that a key element for the scene to “work” is that the actors listen. In discussing the final scene, Granville-Barker notes that for it to be effective,

one rule must be observed in its acting; it is a fundamental rule in all acting, strangely liable to neglect. Each actor must resolutely sustain his part through his long intervals of listening….We, who are not surprised, find our interest in watching for each turn to come, and the producer must see that each figure in the group has its point of vantage” (490).17

The instructions for the actor are the same for the character: abandon action and embrace listening. The final scene gathers all the furtive readers whose misreadings and delusions have asserted a powerful and destructive mode of suspicion, the kind that rebuilds an imperfect world after the self-willed catastrophe. Once together, they become resolutely de-textualized. Thus rendered, all practice an interpersonal behavior that hearkens back to Imogen’s proleptic words in the face of Iachimo’s repeated attempts to seduce her into too-powerful suspicion: “Since doubting things go ill often hurts more / Than to be sure they do — for certainties / Either are past remedies; or timely knowing, / The remedy then born — discover to me / What both you spur and stop” (1.7.95-99). This kind of knowing is timely and not absolute, localized and not global, limited and not extensive. It refuses the textualizing warpath that results from the paranoia of Schreber and his diagnosticians. Her belief is that all ills need not be immediately furrowed out, but rather allowed to emerge through experience. Another way of saying this is Stanley Cavell’s often-quoted and productively mystifying injunction to “let the object or the work of your interest teach you how to consider it” (10). But the work of interest here is another person, and the consequences are social and political as well as academic. And by definition, the action of allowing becomes active, embodied, and fleshed-out when staged — a reminder of its more invisible nature when read and written.

And now for my turn at the confessional merry-go-round: my impetus for this essay was in fact a desire to “just” read my own love of this play without recourse to defensiveness or desperate application of theory, or without listening to the siren song of discovery to match the impossible revelation of King James as he immediately ascertains the truth. How does one write about loving a text? The act could descend into treacly solipsism or banal generalization. But what I found as I read and re-read the play was a reflection of my own desire to let go of any large scaffolding of academic professional interest. The mise-en-abyme that results from this reflection can contain an obsessive self-doubt of wondering if the rejection of theory can itself be theory. It can, the play asserts, only if it is realized as theatrical — or only with the reminder that reading is already theatrical. Perhaps this kind of thinking, of grappling with love, is still a strong theory; perhaps Cymbeline shows us that structure is a dogged partner to reading regardless, and that attempts to think through that act of reading always come up short. But coming up short is again what the play anticipates in its bookend of close listening and tender stillness and, historically, readerly disappointment.

What is gained in this kind of particularized and intimate engagement is a secured sense of active acknowledgment, but what is lost is a different kind of security, one that would provide a less human but more interconnected map of connections, a theory that when executed can explain unknowns by wiping out the perceived world and replacing it with the smoothly-running, machinic power of a literary reading, a template for all readings. The last scene still proffers a conspiratorial mode of reading that distrusts an absolute narrative, but it also avoids a recapitulation into its own form of paranoid absolutism to fill the void. The scene revels in intimacy, which in turn alludes to a truly close mode of reading; as Rita Felski writes,

A skillful reading is, in this sense, also a close reading, requiring an intimate familiarity with its object. Indeed, the words that are being dissected may be the words that once seduced and entranced the same reader. This reader must inhabit the text, come to know it thoroughly, explore its every nook and cranny, in order to draw out its hidden secrets. Suspicion, in other words, may not be so very far removed from love. (231)

Felski’s language is tactile and sensual, and indeed the form of close attention manifested in Cymbeline’s end suggests an inescapable embodiment in the act of reading. The form of love that results from closely attending to this play is the same as the form of trust put into the non-future secured by all assembled at the close, one without foundations of conviction. The reader, like Cymbeline and his crowded ensemble, embraces the closeness of experiential intimacy that both results from and motivates sustained observation, all while avoiding the more clinical sense of closeness that paves the way to analytical speculation. As Russ McDonald elaborates, the enjoyment of the final scene stems from a persistent unsteadiness wherein its “managed complexity generates a feeling of pleasurable uncertainty” (40).

Ann Thompson reminds us that “there is in a sense no such thing as ‘Cymbeline,’ but a multitude of different Cymbelines available to audiences and readers” (217). This is a valuable observation, arrived at after rehearsing a long genealogy of the many versions of Cymbeline that have been rewritten and re-embodied over the centuries. But if we take a lesson from the timely knowing on display in the last scene, with its fragile construction of a story, it is that there are many Cymbelines not only because directors and actors can alter its words and inflections but because there are infinite moments in which to encounter it immediately in the present. Critics are always aware that viewing a play is a singular instance; less so is the act of reading thought of as temporalized and immediate. And yet this is how the play asks to be read: as an experience one particular time, with no promise of prophecy or new order. What would such a practice of non-theoretical reading look like? It would foreground the conditions of interaction with the text, rather than violently fit the text into a precisely-rendered model of our own thought. It would risk narcissism and irrelevance for the sake of reporting an intimate and lingering dialogue, an intermingling of subject and text with the same democratic exceptionality that, Lake tells us, conspiracy briefly affords. But this moment would be extended nearly infinitely. The power of Cymbeline, after all, lies in its audacity to slow down the process of revelation and knowledge precisely when we would expect it to speed up, to defer answering questions — as Cymbeline says, “But nor the time nor place / Will serve our long inter’gatories” (5.5.393-93) — when we would expect a future to be secured. The king concludes the play with the proclamation to “Publish we this peace / To all our subjects” (ll. 479-480). But I cannot fully imagine what this peace would look like — would it be a book? An announcement? (The definition of the verb is ambiguous.)18 How could the peace of the ending be replicated so as to report it? It could, I believe, be a reenactment of the very scene before us, which is to say another interaction with the play, which will surely always follow. We are left in the threshold of experience and codification, told that an explanation will be forthcoming — but at the same time, the lesson seems to be that we should be wary of the future taking any form of definite explanation. Of that outcome, the play tells us, we should be suspicious.


This essay has benefited enormously from the feedback of Upstart’s reviewers. An earlier version received fruitful responses at the “Error in Early Modern Studies, Part One” seminar, chaired by Adam Zucker, at the 2015 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America.

1 All in-text citations are from the Arden edition, from which I also derive my spelling of character names.

2 The OED defines a contemporary definition of “catalogue” as “a list, register, or complete enumeration.”

3 Of course, the immediate reference is to the story of Diana and Actaeon, another troubling Ovidian citation found in Imogen’s chambers. For a profoundly thought through psychoanalytic and feminist reading of this myth, see Vickers, who describes the masculinist impulse, personified by Petrarch, to blazon the woman’s body as a lyrical gesture to compensate for the threat of physical evisceration that the Diana myth presents.

4 The most famous battle in the “theory wars“ is the case of Alan Sokal, who successfully published an essay in Social Text that he believed to be nonsense. Sokal’s charge against what he calls “postmodernism“ is absolute; for more discursively productive, if equally polemical, discussions about the value of theory, see Against Theory, a powerful collection of responses to the titular essay by Walter Benn Michaels and Stephen Knapp.

5 If Freud gives us the template for paranoia with the Schreber case, it seems clear why psychoanalysis has had a kinship with cinema, both as a theme — think of the rise of the 'paranoid thriller' in the 1970s — and as a reflection on its medium, which mimics bodily presence while retaining the textual character of media.

6 Though an elaboration of this observation is outside the concerns of this essay, it is worth noting that Ricouer is more concerned with the tension between suspicion and reparation than the tradition of “suspicious reading“ would lead one to believe; this tension becomes lost in many of the more poststructuralist critics for whom reparation is off the table completely as too suspicious to begin with — think of Derrida’s “arche-teleology“ or the utter hopelessness of the liberal state in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

7 The two paradigmatic texts she uses as emblematic of these strains are D.A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble.

8 We have, in Belarius’s retelling, an antitheatricalist’s nightmare: storytelling has become so life-like that an audience member could believe it were true. Such a Platonic reading only heightens the symbolism of their imprisonment in an actual cave. The tone of the scene seems to place it somewhere between the period’s timid theatrical optimism and outright puritanical horror; see Heywood and Stubbes, respectively. For an influential account of early modern antitheatricalism, see Barish.

9 We are certainly in a conspiratorial moment at present, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s wiretapping and Wikileaks before it. Yet as opposed to the conspiratorial modes of encountering literature, which thrive on the sparseness of explicit mentions and furrow out ideas outside of the consciousness of a text, today’s conspiratorial mode seems prompted by the sheer, oppressive amount of data that could yield a pattern or hide a shocking nugget of information. The elision has been replaced by the terabyte.

10 The parallels I am drawing out here, between James’s purported ability to read the truth and Cymbeline’s numerous acts of failed readings, fall into a rich tradition of finding commentary in the play on the accession of the Stuart line. See, for instance, King 47-91.

11 For a recent powerful meditation on republicanism and Shakespearean drama, see Kuzner, esp. 10-38.

12 It is worth distinguishing this kind of ending from other Shakespearean romances, which certainly espouse senses of fragility not found in the earnest and powerful rebuildings that populate tragic work, but do not so vibrantly flaunt their lack of closure as Cymbeline. Even the offstage resolution promised by Leontes in The Winter’s Tale is, at least, promised.

13 The specific passage that comes to mind is the rapturous ending of Urne-Buriall: "To live indeed is to again be our selves, which being not only an hope but an evidence in noble beleevers, ‘Tis all one to lye in St Innocents Church-yard, as in the Sands of Aegypt: Ready to be any thing, in the extasie of being ever, and as content with six foot as the Moles of Adrianus” (139).

14 As I finished work on this essay, an improbable film version of Cymbeline, directed by Michael Almereyda, was released in theatres, and a new critical puzzlement with the play was duly reinvigorated. To take just one example, Stephanie Zacharek labels the play “one even avowed lovers of the Bard are least likely to defend.” When Almereyda is praised, it is for directing against the text, for finding a performative alibi for the formal crimes of the work.

15 This kind of "performed knowledge" is distinct from but related to the mode advocated by many performance studies scholars; see Phelan, Roach, and Taylor, who make bracing and powerful claims but all believe in the power of performance — in some capacity — to contain and construct knowledge in opposition to textuality, rather than demonstrate the very mechanism by which universalizing claims of knowledge can be made at all. For a persuasive critique of how performance studies practice ends up affirming its own kind of formalism after all, see Worthen 35-93.

16 The inscribed and material prophecy left for Posthumus stands in stark contrast to the fragile text of the final scene’s revelations, occurring as they do communally and constructed through the ephemeral act of shared oration. Sarah Beckwith observes that in the final scene, “Gudierius’s words, ‘Let me end the story,’ are testimony to the fact that their individual confessions are part of a shared story, a story which can only be told together. No individual confession in itself makes sense, but all in all, and all prompting all, they tell a story in which each understands his or her individual role” (125-26).

17 The quality that Granville-Barker and I find enchanting about the final scene, its need for active and still listening, is precisely what George Bernard Shaw loathed about it. Recalling Henry Irving’s production, Shaw observed that Irving, playing Iachimo, “stood dumb on the stage for hours (as it seemed) whilst the others toiled through a series of denouements of crushing tedium, in which the characters lost all their vitality and individuality and had nothing to do but identify themselves by moles on their necks, or explain why they were not dead” (qtd. in Thompson 203).

18 According to the OED, it could mean “to announce in a formal or official manner”; the precise medium is left open.

Works Cited

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Donovan Sherman is an assistant professor of English at Seton Hall University. His research centers on Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, and dramatic literature, and his work has been published in Shakespeare Quarterly, The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Literature /Film Quarterly, and Shakespeare Bulletin. His book Second Death: Theatricalities of the Soul in Shakespeare’s Drama, forthcoming in 2016 from Edinburgh University Press, examines the figure of the soul in the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

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