Garments play a significant role in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
Before picking up and reading a beautiful book he stumbles upon, the young hero Posthumus Leonatus whispers to it: “Be not, as is our fangled world, a garment/Nobler than that it covers.”
Much earlier in the play, when the Queen’s wicked son Cloten knocks on Princess Innogen’s bedroom door attempting to court her, Innogen’s maid quips that expensive clothes don’t make the man.
Moments later, Cloten defames Innogen’s husband, the aforementioned Posthumus Leonatus, a man of a lower social class who has been banished by King Cymbeline for marrying the princess. Innogen fires back at Cloten: “His meanest garment/That ever hath but clipp’d his body is dearer/In my respect than all the hairs above thee,/Were they all made such men.”
Her words indict the prince’s character to such a degree that he later uses one of Posthumus’ garments to carry out an act of horror.
Cymbeline, playing at West Art until February 25, is about the difference between the appearance of dignity and actual dignity. It’s not always easy for us human beings to tell the difference. As Innogen puts it, “clay and clay differs in dignity,/Whose dust is both alike.”
Ironically, it is one of the play’s villains, Iachimo, who best articulates this difficulty:
“What, are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch, and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ‘twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon the numbered beach? and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
‘Twixt fair and foul?”
Shakespeare is always concerned with the appearance of dignity and the hierarchy that places kings at the top and beggars at the bottom. However, he is much more concerned with actual dignity.
In Cymbeline, Shakespeare shows us what actual dignity is and how it is acquired.
When Innogen is stripped of her royalty and bravely faces the anxious abyss of the future, she has an epiphany: “Plenty and peace breed cowards: hardness ever/Of hardiness is mother.”
Later, when her banished husband Posthumus Leonatus finds himself imprisoned, he is visited in a dream by a deity who says, “Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift,/The more delayed, delighted.”
The deity promises that Posthumus will be “happier much by his affliction made.”
Shakespeare reminds us that afflictions can be a gift. If we accept them as such, they become the stuff that dignity is made of.
This kind of dignity cannot be “put on” like a garment, as Cloten will learn at his peril. It can only be acquired through a casting off.
Posthumus Leonatus shows us how it’s done when he tears off the garments of a Roman soldier, rendering himself vulnerable in the midst of battle:
“To shame the guise o’ the world,” he shouts, “I will begin the fashion, less without and more within!”
7 PM performances for Cymbeline will be held on Thursday, February 15; Friday, February 16; Saturday, February 17; Thursday, February 22; & Saturday, February 24. 2 PM matinees will be held on Sunday, February 18; Saturday, February 24; & Sunday, February 25. All performances are at West Art (800 Buchanan Ave)
Executive Artistic Director