Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Long Lives of Mistakes

William Shakespeare's Cymbeline isn't just a play where most people's plans go awry, it's a play where most people's plans go awry without them even knowing. It's a play not only about misinterpretation but the gruelling emotional journeys people embark on initiated by misinterpretation. It has the logic typically found in Shakespeare's comedies but with exceptionally gruesome effects (though Midsummer Night's Dream is certainly not as innocent as many people think). One of the highlights of the 1982 BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation is Helen Mirren as Imogen, waking up next to the headless corpse of a man she mistakes for her husband.

She doesn't hold back on any of the grief and horror you'd expect from such a circumstance. "Where is thy head? where's that? Ay me! where's that?" She infuses these simple lines with such pain. The full soliloquy is filled with misinterpretation and meditation on misinterpretation.

. . . I hope I dream;
For so I thought I was a cave-keeper,
And cook to honest creatures: but 'tis not so;
'Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing,
Which the brain makes of fumes: our very eyes
Are sometimes like our judgments, blind. Good faith,
I tremble stiff with fear: but if there be
Yet left in heaven as small a drop of pity
As a wren's eye, fear'd gods, a part of it!
The dream's here still: even when I wake, it is
Without me, as within me; not imagined, felt.
A headless man! The garments of Posthumus!
I know the shape of's leg: this is his hand;
His foot Mercurial; his Martial thigh;
The brawns of Hercules: but his Jovial face
Murder in heaven?--How!--'Tis gone.

Even the certainty she feels in recognising his remaining body parts is misinterpretation. But who would think clearly in such a moment?

The play is filled with very improbable things; long lost princes living in poverty, a poison requested being replaced by a sleeping potion, that same sleeping potion mistakenly thought a medicine then mistakenly thought a poison; a princess taken to be a young man (Helen Mirren also crossed dressed in As You Like It for BBC Television Shakespeare), that same princess believed by her husband to have been unfaithful; faithful servants mistaken for killers, a scoundrel taken to be an honourable man when he lies about a woman's honour--all of these incredible mistakes nonetheless create credible story of how the human mind works, how quickly it'll take hold on an interpretation and then ride it in a straight line of doom.

This is one of the most beautiful plays from BBC Television Shakespeare, its director, opera director Elijah Moshinsky, consciously modelling its look on Rembrandt and other painters from the Dutch golden age.

The costumes are 17th century, too, in spite of the fact that the play is set in Britain during the lifetime of Christ. This seems to have been a holdover from the previous season which was produced by Jonathan Miller who felt all the productions ought to have costuming contemporary to Shakespeare regardless of when the plays were set. Miller thought this was the only way the plays make sense since even the period plays make several references to Shakespeare's time. I prefer the plays be set in the time Shakespeare intended but there's certainly a lot of sense in that idea.

Cymbeline has an amazing cast that in addition to Mirren also includes Claire Bloom, Michael Gough, and Marius Goring, the last only appearing briefly during the appearance of Jupiter, played by Michael Hordern. Direct evidence of divine guidance only serves to underline the chaos of most of what we see, as does the incredibly improbable happy ending which somehow augments the feeling of anxiety at the apparently totally arbitrary efficacy of human endeavour. There's more cut from the text of the play than I'd like but at least 90% of it is in tact and this is still a very good production.

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