We are so thankful to directors Anita Rochon, Dawn McCaugherty, and Antoni Cimolino, who have shared their take on Cymbeline with us over the past month in our Cymbeline Series. Now that Ruff’s production is up and running, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, our Artistic Director and director of Cymbeline’s Reign, tackles the same three questions we put to these thoughtful and generous theatre practitioners.
There’s no getting around it: Cymbeline is an odd play. The plot is labyrinthine, even by Shakespearean standards, with at least three intertwined stories; texture and mood seem to change with the wind. It’s also a bit of a hodge-podge, containing , as Jonathan Bate of Oxford has noted, an “array of favourite Shakespearian motifs: the cross-dressed heroine, the move from court to country, obsessive sexual jealousy, malicious Machiavellian plotting, the interrogation of Roman values.” It’s as though Shakespeare, nearing the end of his career, put every possible dramatic ingredient into the pot, and stirred.
But there is another reason, often overlooked, for putting Cymbeline in a class by itself. The play might – depending on one’s interpretation – offer a glimpse into the changing world-view that was underway when it was created. More specifically, it may allude to one of the most important scientific developments in history, one that unfolded in a northern Italian university town in the months before Cymbeline was written.
People have been gazing at the night sky since the dawn of humankind, but until the early 17th century, they had only their own eyes to provide the image. But in the autumn of 1609, a new optical device, invented in Holland, found its way into the hands of an ambitious Italian mathematician, Galileo Galilei. Before long, Galileo had improved on the original Dutch invention. From his workshop in Padua, Galileo turned this novelty into a scientific instrument.
Galileo aimed his telescope at the night sky – and was amazed at what he saw. He found the moon to be covered with mountains and craters, contrary to the established teachings of the day. His telescope revealed thousands of stars, too dim to be seen with the unaided eye. But the biggest surprise came when he peered at Jupiter: Alongside the planet he observed “three starlets – small indeed, but very bright.” Observing in “amazement” over several nights, he concluded that there were in fact four of these objects – “four wanderers [which] complete their revolution about Jupiter.” We now call them the “Galilean moons” after their discoverer.
Galileo described his discoveries in a slim book called Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), published in Venice in March of 1610. Although written in Latin, anyone could grasp the message: Here was a blow-by-blow account of the wonders of the night sky revealed by Galileo’s telescope, sights “never seen from the creation of the world up to our own time.” It was an instant bestseller.
It had been nearly 70 years since Copernicus had published his theory that the earth moves around the sun, rather than vice-versa – but it was a highly abstract, mathematical work, and few took notice at the time. But Galileo’s telescopic discoveries finally seemed to give Copernicus his due: Everything he saw through the telescope seemed to accord with the Copernican model of the universe. Jupiter, for example, behaved like a miniature solar system: If Jupiter had moons of its own, how could anyone say that the Earth was the centre of the universe?
The usual view is that these discoveries, announced in the spring of 1610, come too late to have had much of an impact on Shakespeare’s work. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty. Shakespeare was not quite ready to retire in 1610: He would write at least two more plays on his own, plus a few more with collaborators. It is among these final plays that we find Cymbeline.
The Symbols in Cymbeline
Don’t feel bad if you haven’t encountered Cymbeline yet: Since my book The Science of Shakespeare came out this spring, I’ve been asking audiences, by show of hands, who has either read or seen the play; only rarely does a hand go up. (Those of you in the Toronto area should definitely catch Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production this summer!) Let me summarize just one of the play’s three parallel plots: King Cymbeline is angry because his daughter, Imogen, has secretly married a commoner named Posthumus Leonatus. Cymbeline banishes Posthumus, who heads for Rome; there, he argues with an Italian nobleman named Jachimo over which of their native countries has the most faithful women. Jachimo wagers that when he travels to England, he will be able to seduce Imogen. (For the sake of suspense, I won’t reveal just how far he gets.)
There is much more to the play, of course, but let’s skip ahead to Act 5: Posthumus, having been convinced of Imogen’s infidelity, orders her killed; later he learns of her innocence, but mistakenly thinks his orders have been carried out. He had been travelling with the Roman army, but now switches sides and fights valiantly for Britain; the Roman forces are defeated. Believing Imogen dead, however, he yearns for his own death, and puts on Roman garb to hasten his demise. Instead, he is taken prisoner. While in jail, something very peculiar happens.
In Scene 4, we find Posthumus in his prison cell, where he collapses in slumber. He then has a dream involving the ghosts of four dead family members – relatives who he never knew in life. The spirits are those of his mother, father, and two brothers. As he lies in a daze, the ghosts move around him in a circle. (The stage direction says, They circle Posthumus round as he lies sleeping.) Feeling Posthumus’s anguish, they appeal to the Roman god, Jupiter, to come to his aid – and Jupiter obliges. The stage direction reads, Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle. He throws a thunderbolt. The ghosts fall on their knees. Jupiter chastises the ghosts, and then gives them a book, and instructs them to give it to Posthumus. When he is done, he ascends back to heaven.
Although Shakespeare’s characters often call on the gods for help, Jupiter’s appearance in Cymbeline is unique; there is nothing else like it in the entire canon. Scholars have examined the scene from various angles, but only recently have they begun to look at a possible Galileo connection. Granted, in Shakespeare’s play it’s the god Jupiter that we see, not the planet – but still, the details of the scene are compelling. Notice that we have exactly four ghosts, and that they move in a circle (why should they move at all?). Could the ghosts represent the four moons of Jupiter, newly discovered by Galileo? Certainly the timeline seems to hold up: Cymbeline is thought to date from the summer or fall of 1610 – in other words, it was written within the first few months (or at most half a year) after the publication of The Starry Messenger.
A New Look at an Old Play
About a decade ago, three scholars, working independently, hit on the idea of a Cymbeline-Galileo connection at about the same time: Scott Maisano, of the University of Massachusetts in Boston; John Pitcher, at Oxford; and a retired American astronomer named Peter Usher.
Usher is best know for his controversial (many would say far-fetched) theory of Hamlet, which he interprets the action in Shakespeare’s best-known play as an allegory about competing views of the cosmos. What he says about Cymbeline, however, is quite reasonable: Writing in the Shakespeare Newsletter, Usher summarizes the bizarre happenings of the play’s fifth act, noting the descent of Jupiter and the appearance of the ghosts: “These ghosts happen to be four in number, equal to the number of the Galilean moons.” And what about the book that Jupiter gives to Posthumus, via the ghosts? Its identity is never specified, but Usher believes we ought to see it as Galileo’s Starry Messenger.
Maisano and Pitcher agree that the appearance of Jupiter, and the unidentified book, likely allude to The Starry Messenger. Maisano describes Cymbeline as a “scientific romance” – a work that urges the reader to question his or her understanding of nature. Toward the end of the play, as the various loose ends are tied up, a startled King Cymbeline asks: “Does the world go round?” Maisano notes that this is “the only such utterance in Shakespeare’s plays,” and it just happens that this very question “was part of intellectual discussion all across Europe in 1610.”
Like Maisano, Pitcher sees Cymbeline as Shakespeare’s attempt to come to grips with a changing world, a universe opened wide by the scientific discoveries of the day (an idea he discusses at length in the Introduction to the recent Penguin edition of the play). The transformation began with Copernicus writing about the revolutions in the sky; soon, Pitcher suggests, there will be revolutions of a more dangerous kind, with political and religious orders turned on their heads.
It is a rare treat to enjoy a production of Cymbeline under the stars. After the show, take a moment to glance upward: The play you have just seen might just bear witness to a dramatic turn in our conception of the universe.
Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of Cymbeline’s Reign ran in Withrow Park during the summer of 2014
1. Gather friends/family/children/dogs
Everyone is welcome. The more the merrier! Ruff performs an abbreviated version of Shakespeare’s best that is easy to follow and an excellent introduction for the uninitiated.
2. Head to Withrow Park by 6:30
The performance officially starts at 7:30, but if you want to get the best seating, you should plan on coming around 6:30. There is plenty of time before the show starts to enjoy a picnic and some music (see below).
3. Bring a picnic
Outdoors on a summer’s night in beautiful Withrow Park is the perfect setting for a picnic. Enjoy nature in the heart of the city. Pack up those sandwiches and pickles and come to nosh!
4. Bring a blanket or some lawn chairs
The Ruff “stage” is between two trees at the bottom of a small hill with an aisle up through the middle of the audience. You can sit on the hill on a blanket or at the top of the hill in lawn chairs. Either way you are right in the middle of the action. We have extra blankets and chairs for rent, but bring your own to avoid disappointment.
5. Pay the nice volunteers what you can
We don’t want to turn anyone away, so Ruff is a “Pay What You Can” (PWYC) admission. If you’re not sure, we suggest $15 per person is fair. All monies collected go towards producing the performance which includes paying our actors, who invest so much into this company with very little financial return. So, show them some love and pay what you can, if you can.
6. Eateth, drinketh and be merryeth
While you are enjoying your picnic and waiting for the play to begin, enjoy the musical guests who perform almost every night from 7:00pm. We showcase local musicians who are friends of Ruff or members of the Withrow Park community.
As a special treat, the night of August 16th, the Young Ruffians will perform. These are high school students who have completed the Young Ruffian Apprenticeship Program, an intensive program with an emphasis on performing Shakespeare where participants learn and work alongside our professional company. Read more about the Young Ruffians.
Cymbeline’s Reign is being directed by Ruff’s Artistic Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett who states “Cymbeline = Crazy-Amounts-Of-Fun” and “…it is a piece created as an exploration of new forms of storytelling…” Read all Brendan has to say.
8. Share your experience with more friends/family
Ruff is a small theatre company and only in its third year. We don’t have the budget to advertise so we count on you, our community and our fans, to help us get the word out. Please tell everyone about your experience and encourage them to join us in Withrow Park this August.
9. Stay in touch
We want to hear from you and would love it if you’d agree to hear from us. Please subscribe to our email list, “Like” us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram. You’ll hear all about our plans, performances and events and we will get to learn what you thought of the performance, so get in touch.
The beauty of live theatre is that it’s different every night, and with the sunsets, music series, and passersby, you can bet that an evening with us will never be the same twice, so please do join us again. Now go to #1.
Sheila Macdonald is one of Ruff’s dedicated Board Members as well as an avid theatregoer. We’ve learned that trusting Sheila’s advice gets us far, so you should too.
Ptarmigan (playing August 30th)
Highlights from ‘Between the Trees’ running Aug 12th-31st
by General Manager and Resident Musician, Brooklyn Doran
Our production of Cymbeline’s Reign begins tomorrow night and our pre-show music series is going to be off the hook! The ‘Between the Trees’ pre-show music series sees local and emerging musicians share in our evening of magic by performing a half-hour of music before our mainstage production. This year we are inviting back some seasoned veterans and familiar faces, as well as welcoming some brand new emerging talents to the stage and we couldn’t be happier!
Every musician featured this year is mega-talented! If you’re in the neighbourhood, I’d suggest coming back to the park every evening to feast your ears on some of these artists’ offerings. It’s an incredible way to find out about new music, and experience the magic of Shakespeare in the park at the same time! If you like what you’re hearing, many of them will have their music for sale at our Box Office .
Here is a little preview of some of the artists who’ll be joining us this year. All three of these feature a little bit of banjo!
Familiar Faces: Three Seasons And The Move (August 15th)
This year we’re excited to welcome back Three Seasons and The Move who played opening night for our production of Richard III last year. Three Seasons and The Move is an eclectic group of musicians who straddle folk, pop and rock genres. Their music is funky, danceable, timeless and Canadian. If you didn’t catch them last year between the trees, now is definitely the time. Your toes will be tapping and your hearts will be soaring. Preview track here
First Time Favourites: Crooked House Road (August 29th)
Crooked House Road is a Toronto-based indie, folk, pop outfit comprised of Shaina Silver-Baird (lead vocals/violin), Mirian Kay (vocals/guitar) and Tom Mifflin (vocals/piano), joined by Derek Gray (percussion), Darren Eedens (banjo) and Matthew Riggs (bass). Folk music wrapped in delicious harmony, Crooked House Road helmed by Shaina Silver-Baird’s powerhouse vocals is a band to watch out for. Foot-stompin’ fun- Crooked House Road will get you dancing up out of your seats and revved up for an evening in the park. The raw power and emotion of the vocals paired with the incredible musicianship of this band makes for a sweet, sweet set that is not to be missed. Don’t believe me? Check the evidence:
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All In The Family: Ptarmigan (August 30th)
Ruff Artistic Director, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, isn’t the only one in the McMurtry clan overflowing with talent. We’re thrilled that cousin Peter McMurtry’s band, Ptarmigan, is returning this summer to bless our ears with their music! If you haven’t heard of Ptarmigan yet, I suggest you come to Withrow Park on August 30th to bask in the glory that is their catchy, brilliantly-crafted folk music. It is the perfect score for watching the last rays of sun drain from the summer sky before the park is lit with the explosive performances in our production of Cymbeline’s Reign. Preview track here
Can’t make any of the above dates? Don’t fret! Every single evening is sure to please with music that is equally impressive and beautiful. The full list of our ‘Between the Trees” performers can be found HERE.
Cymbeline doesn’t land on most people’s lists of Top 10 Shakespeare plays, maybe not even Top 20. For this reason, we spoke to three people who have directed this play to get their take on a few questions that we’ve tackled since deciding to produce it.
The final instalment of the series comes via Antoni Cimolino, who directed a widely acclaimed production at The Stratford Festival in 2012.
1. For a title character, King Cymbeline has very little time on stage and no time alone with the audience. How did you ensure that audiences would connect with him? Do you think the play would be better served by a different title?
“The King is Britain – literally and figuratively. At the beginning of the play he is sick – poisoned, we find out later, by his second wife, who longs to rule and install her son Cloten as King. Cymbeline has lost his two sons, abducted as infants, and with them he has lost himself. Like the two princes imprisoned in the Tower of London during Richard III’s reign, Cymbeline’s sons represent legitimacy and good government. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, a patriotic and romantic dream surrounded the princes in the Tower: that perhaps they had not been killed but had heirs living among the people. Shakespeare echoes that legend in Cymbeline, bringing about a reunion of children with their father that still touches us today.
As Cymbeline defeats the Roman army, he finds himself re-energized. He is made victorious by Posthumus, the poor soldier, and by his imagined enemy Belarius and his sons. The very people that he has banished give him back his kingdom. In the final moments, King Cymbeline decides to pay tribute to Rome despite his victory. He not only signals Britain’s voluntary participation in the Pax Romana, the new and long era of peace, he also renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. While Caesar may have his coins in tribute, Cymbeline once more has the love of his children and Britain.”
2. Most deus ex machina (god from the machine) moments are vital to the story. Jupiter’s descent on the back of an eagle in Cymbeline is often cut and feels less integrated than many similar interventions by the Gods in other plays. What was your take on this moment and how important a role did the unseen whims of the deities play?
“This moment is normally cut or changed, but I thought, ‘How often do you get to bring a giant eagle on stage?’ Our eagle had a head about 2 feet wide and 5 feet long with red eyes that lit up as it came out of the dark. It had wings that spread about 20 feet and flapped by way of a pulley. These body parts were fixed on a rolling step ladder of the kind found in larger libraries. On its back Jupiter was mounted lit from below. With a giant bird shriek, smoke and the sound of enormous wings beating the audiences was surprised and transfixed. And with a flash of lighting and a crack of thunder it was gone. I’m pretty sure our eagle was very like that Shakespeare used. Except we added electricity.
Posthumus’ dream is vital because it reunites the orphan child with his parents, at least in spirit. These family members strongly petition Jupiter on Posthumus’ behalf and find that the god is testing their son. Their anger at this ancient god and his cruelty seems to call out for a God of Love. King Cymbeline, of course, ruled during the time of Christ’s birth. The love of his family brings Posthumus a sense of wholeness, love and courage that is vital to the story.”
3. Cymbeline isn’t produced very often, especially in Canada; is it just the ebb and flow of fashion, or are people are afraid to do it? And if so, why?
“The bad experiences I’ve had in seeing Cymbeline performed have been ones where the director and cast didn’t have faith in Shakespeare’s play. Consequently they try to “fix” it by cutting it, toning it down or ironically sending it up. What might be gained by such treatment is a speck compared to the beautiful mountain Shakespeare has created. Cymbeline is a great and powerful play that brings audiences understanding, laughter and tears. Tennyson, at his own insistence, was buried with a copy of it. Cymbeline merits our study and our creative powers – what it gives us in return is enormous.”