Johnson’s Criticism of Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ and the Problematic Nature of Dark Comedy


‘To remark on the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbicility…’

That is not an attack of a piece of work by some hack writer churning out pot boilers. It is  part of a review of William Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’.

It’s by Samuel Johnson, an opinionated writer by any standards. (I should know, being opinionated myself). Part of the problem, as I see it, is that he is applying the standards of the so-called Age of Reason – Johnson was writing in the eighteenth century UK, which prided itself on its ‘enlightenment’ – to a fairy story/dark comedy, which verges on the surreal.

But even taking Johnson’s view – that he represented The Age of Reason in his attack on the play  and its fantastic notions – there is something biased and absurd about a critic saying this of Shakespeare, when he had praised to the skies that  deeply flawed sentimental novel ‘Evelina’ by Fanny Burney. That is meant to be realistic, with believable characters. Any modern reader who has ploughed through it will have noted the absurd co-incidences in it, and also, the wholly unbelievable behaviour of the characters.

It is of course, possible that characters whose behaviour is plausible to one century might seem to have the strangest motivations to readers two centuries later; an intriguing thought.

Johnson, whose approach in literary criticism often seems unimaginative, approached a fantasy story looking for realism in the plot, and was bitterly disappointed.

The way I see it –  and there are many interpretations of ‘Cymbeline’ with critics arguing about what exactly Shakespeare was getting at – is that Shakespeare was experimenting with a new, darker form of comedy. He did this several times later in his career after the much simpler comedies such as ‘A Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and most people believe that ‘A Winter’s Tale’ is a far superior play to ‘Cymebline’ which is, if our ideas about the timing of his plays is correct, one that followed his great tragedies.

Well, ‘King Lear’ is a pretty hard act to follow…

Anyway, this play seems to follow on from ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ in that it combines traditional fairy tale themes and stereotypical characters from such legends with a contrasting realism in their presentation, which can confuse the reader. The events in the stories are quite dark: however, I don’t believe they are meant to be taken wholly seriously.

In ‘All’s Well That Ends’ Well’ Helena, a ‘low born’ but admirable physician’s daughter cures the king of a supposedly incurable malady. Naturally, he asks her what she might want, as he’ll give it to her. What she wants is to marry her guardian’s son, the Count of Rossillion, and this is an interesting twist. In fairy stories, it is usually the enterprising miller’s son or some such who wins the hand of the king’s daughter, and she is assumed to find being given away as a prize quite acceptable.

By contrast, in ‘All’s Well That Ends  Well’ (which is based on a story by Boccaccio) the Count throws a tantrum, goes through with the marriage, but announces that he will never consummate it. He leaves her a note stating impossible conditions for her to fulfil in order for him to accept her as his wife, and runs off to join the army, egged on by a cowardly braggart toady called Parolles.

So, this brings a new, realistic twist to the fairy tale theme. Helena now has to fulfil these impossible conditions – that is of course, a fairy tale convention – and so bring about a happy ending.

‘Cymbeline’ is actually named after a king of Ancient Britain, whom we don’t see much. Unlike that other defective ruler, King Lear, this king is a shadowy presence in the play named for him. He has fallen under the evil counsel of his second wife, who is also a Wicked Witch and Evil Stepmother to the king’s daughter from his first marriage, Imogen, who has secretly married her comparatively low born childhood playmate Posthumus Leonatus. She is, unusually for these times, also the heir,  as his two sons were kidnapped by an estranged courtier (they all reappear at the end of the play). Accordingly, the king is furious with her for making such a marriage, and banishes Posthumus, and puts pressure on her to renounce him and marry the Wicked Queen’s son, who is a portrayed as a buffoon.

Meanwhile, Posthumus has gone about boasting about how Imogen would never be unfaithful to him, and even enters into a bet with an idle fellow called Iachmo, who insists that he could seduce any woman. He travels to the court to  hide in a trunk and have himself carried into Imogen’s bedroom, where emerges in the night, and leering at her naked, takes back the news to Posthumus that she has a mole on her breast.


Instead of wondering if Iachmo has found this out through trickery, Posthumous immediately takes his word and having run off in a rage, returns to address the audience in a wild rant where he says that all women are sex obsessed, and incapable of fidelity: –

Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain’d,

And prayed me oft forbearance…O, all the devils!

This yellow Iachmo, in an hour, was’t not?

Or less; at first? Perhchance he spake not, but

Like a full acorn’d boar, a German one,

Cried ‘O’ and mounted…’

This is very ridiculous (I assume the said ‘German boar’ wouldn’t have said ‘O’ and the actor makes a  bestial grunting noise), and I found it grimly funny.However, it is worth noting that  when on the ‘Goodreads’  ‘Shakespeare Fans Group’ we discussed the play recently, a lot of people said they could see no humour in the play at all.

Later, however, Posthumus orders his servant to kill Imogen. Naturally, the man doesn’t, and Imogen and Posthumous are eventually reconciled. He does repent, even suggesting that being unfaithful to him was a comparatively small fault compared to his own enormous one in ordering her murder ( one wonders: why one earth did he think it fair to order his servant to do his dirty work?).

This, an unusual admission for the times, made me wonder if Shakespeare was here attacking the notion that a woman’s worth was equivalent to her so called chastity – the word ‘honour’ was used of both of women, though not of men. If so, he was well ahead of his time. More than two centuries later, the puritanical Samuel Richardson was writing in ‘Pamela’ as if physical virginity and mental virtue were the same for his heroines, and the astoundingly repressive view of women and sexuality being mutually exclusive so common in Victorian times is a commonplace.

That, however, is to wander off the topic, which I really meant to be, that experimenting in comedy was a tricky matter many centuries ago, and it remains as tricky a form of writing to do today. Humour is so individual a thing, even in individuals within a culture.

After all, sarcasm and irony, historically so much a part of the British character, aren’t invariably part of it. I have met Brits who wouldn’t know an ironic quip if they met it in the road, and these people aren’t in any way intellectually deficient. It is more that their brains seem to be connected in a different way to those who have a  keen sense of the absurd.  No doubt the same applied in Shakespeare’s time. Presumably, there were many in the audience at the Globe who would assume that Postumus, being the hero of the play, is expressing his creator’s own views, even if he is acting rather dramatically…

I have said before that the line between horror and the ridiculous is perilously thin. Sometimes, it seems easier to write unintentional comedy than it is to write it intentionally…

But for instance, one wonders about much of the melodrama in  various Victorian novels. ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example. The scene, for instance, where Cathy lies on the sofa ‘grinding her teeth as if she would turn them to splinters’. Is that meant to be as absurd as I find it? Or Heathcliffe’s hissed remark when Nelly rebukes him for his ill treatment of his bride:  ‘Let the worms writhe! I have no pity!’ seems to me so melodramatic as to be ludicrous.

And that is one of the good things about dark comedy. The two sides of that thin line between horror and humour, comedy and tragedy, meet and combine. I believe that was what Shakespeare, in his darker comedies, was exploring, in ‘Alls Well That End’s Well’ ‘Cymbeline’, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and others.


Laughing Out Loud With Jane Austen; ‘Sense and Sensibility’ as Tragi-Comedy…

220px-Sense_and_Sensibility_Illustration_Chap_12Recently, I re-read ‘Sense and Sensibility’.

That is my favourite Jane Austen novel. The humour is brilliant; it made me laugh out loud a few times, and I can be hard to please.

‘Pride and Prejudice’ is equally funny, of course, and much lighter in overall tone; there is also the happy ending to the love affair of Jane and Bingley which is denied to Marianne and Willoughby. I loved the portrayals of vulgar relatives, the ‘pompous nothings’ of Mr Collins and his self-serving hypocrisy.

But in some ways, because I did ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for ‘A’ level, part of the fun was taken out of it on that first reading, seeing that you have to read with ‘an analytical eye’. You’ve got your notes to hand; look out for such-and-such. It was a wonderful piece of light relief after ‘Samson Agoniste’s’ (a poem I dislike to this day) and all the rest, though, and the first time I had read any Jane Austen.

My own delight in discovering her sense of the absurd, her penetrating exposure of hypocrisy – shared by so many readers over two centuries – was for me as for countless others, accompanied by the feeling that ‘Why didn’t people who recommended it tell me that this classic is so brilliantly funny? Saying, ‘It’s very good,’ means nothing.’

If I’d thought anything in my early teens about Jane Austen, I’d assumed that her novels must be primarily romantic, revolving around improbable love affairs, like those of some of her predecessors like Samuel Richardson, and many of her famous admirers.

And there’s the irony; I’m far from addicted to stories with misty happy endings  – conditional happy endings, however, are a different matter. As I have said in previous posts, maybe part of this is that stories with such endings so often are peopled by ‘lay figures’ – cardboard characters with whom it is hard to empathize. Unluckily, many writers who are capable of portraying realistic and sympathetic characters tend to write novels where a happy ending – even a qualified one – is not the necessary or even a likely outcome.

I am very unusual, it seems, in failing to see the appeal of Mr Darcy; still, I did like Elizabeth, and as she thought he was so wonderful, I was happy that she called him to heel.

Like countless others, I have always wished that a repentant (and unmarried) Willoughby came back to Marianne and that Henry Crawford returned likewise, glowing with new-found resolve of reform, to Fanny Price (who had started to soften towards him). I wouldn’t think it realistic that either couple should be any more than moderately happy for many years, though; the males aren’t sufficiently elevated to make sterling husbands; leave that to the Dull but Worthies…

Jane Austen’s characters are fully believable; they come from an age where terrible social injustice and the existence of servant drudges was necessarily taken for granted;  the sexual repression of the women of the time runs like an underground current of electricity throughout her novels; but the humour shines clear through all that. The sense of humour of Fanny Burney is crudely snobbish; that of Jane Austen begins to expose such assumptions.

Here we have a wonderful description of Sir John’s household at Barton Park: ‘Sir John was a sportsman; Lady Middleton was a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources. Lady Middleton had the advantage of being able to spoil her children all the year round, while Sir John’s independent employments were in existence only half the time. ‘

Here is Willoughby’s mode of courting Marianne: ‘If their evenings at the Park were concluded with cards, he cheated himself and all the rest of the party to get her a good hand. If dancing formed the amusement of the night, they were partners for half the time; and when obliged to separate for a couple of dances, were careful to stand together, and scarcely spoke to anybody else.’

Here is Willoughby on Colonel Brandon: – ‘”Brandon is just the kind of man,’ Willoughby said, when they were talking of him one day, ‘Whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and none remember to talk to.”
“That is exactly what I think of him,” cried Marianne.
“Do not boast of it, however,” said Elinor, “for it is injustice in both of you. He is highly esteemed by all the family at the Park, and I never see him myself without taking care to converse with him.”
“That he is patronised by you,” replied Willoughby, “Is certainly in his favour; but as for the esteem of the others, it is a reproach in itself. Who would submit to the indignity of being approved by such women as Lady Middleton and Mrs Jennings, that could command the indifference of anybody else?”
“But perhaps the abuse of such people as yourself and Marianne will make amends for the regard of Lady Middleton and her mother. If their praise is censure, your censure may be praise; for they are not more undiscerning than you are prejudiced and unjust’.
“In defence of your protégé, you can even be saucy.”
“My protégé, as you call him, is a sensible man; and sense will always have attractions for me. Yes, Marianne, even in a man between thirty and forty.’

Elinor is a witty and independent minded heroine; not as lively as Elizabeth Bennet, but in some ways more discerning, so it is interesting that this book was the author’s first, initially written under the title of ‘Elinor and Marianne’ and edited and partly re-written in later years under its new title.

When the story moves towards the tragic – which happens all too soon – and Marianne’s inevitable disillusionment with her dashing, handsome admirer, the humour remains; but the tone is now tragic-comic:

There are the good-natured gossip Mrs Jennings attempts to console Marianne after she has learned of Willoughby’s engagement to the plain heiress Miss Grey: –
‘”My dear,” she said, “I have just recollected that I have some of the finest Constantia wine in the house that ever was tasted – so I have brought a glass of it for your sister. My poor husband! How fond he was of it! Whenever he had a touch of the cholicky gout, he said it did him more good than anything else in the world…”
‘Elinor, as she swallowed the chief of it, reflected that though its effects on cholicky gout were at present of little importance to her, its healing powers on a disappointed heart might be as reasonably tried on herself as on her sister…’

Elinor, of course, shares a mutual love with Edward Ferrars, who is being held to his engagement with the unprincipled and manipulative Lucy Steele. The smile that this episode gives us is a temporary respite from the stark tragedy of poor Marianne’s loss of her idol when Willoughby first reveals himself to be capable of acting as a vulgar fortune hunter.

More next time on the characters in ‘Sense and Sensibility’.