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La nuit des sens: Rêves et illusions des sens en Angleterre et en Europe à la période moderne

“‘Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen tongue and brain not.” Dream as performance in Cymbeline

“‘Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen tongue and brain not. Le rêve comme représentation dans Cymbeline
Mike Nolan

Abstracts

Posthumus’ dream in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is significant in that it is a striking example of dream as performance. As he lies sleeping, Posthumus’ dream is fully enacted onstage so that the audience participates in the dreaming spectacle and is affected by, simultaneously with him, the instructive wonder of the experience. For Posthumus, the dream has a physical reality, for when he wakes, a tablet, given to him by Jupiter in his vision, has materialised. A cryptic inscription on the tablet marks the waking as a continuation of the dream process into the world of verifiable sensation. This article will consider the interaction of dream and performance, focusing especially on the role the senses play in describing and determining the experiential nature of the episode. It will also reference the Dreaming of Australian Aborigines as a means of interpreting the dream of Posthumus and examine the dramatic significance of the dream action in the course of the denouement of the play.

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  • 1 There is some discussion about whether Cymbeline may be more rightly called a tragi-comedy or a his (...)
  • 2 There were two authors of Le Roman de la Rose: the first 4058 verses were written by Guillaume de L (...)

1Cymbeline differs from The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale in that, although Shakespeare’s Romance shares with these plays the reunion of and reconciliation between father and daughter – Cymbeline and Innogen – the most striking meeting of separated parent and offspring occurs within the world of dreams and is between the living and the dead.1 In one of the most spectacular scenes in Cymbeline, Posthumus’ family (a father, mother and two brothers, all long deceased) appear together with the god Jupiter in an elaborate and prolonged dream sequence that the young man experiences as he lays asleep. Posthumus, so named because his father died before he was born and his mother died in childbirth, is mystified by the dream as he tries to comprehend its meaning and significance. In the opening lines of Guillaume de Lorris’ The Romance of the Rose, a work that John Vyvyan cites as an influence on Shakespeare,2 the narrator of what is in effect a dream narrative discusses the interpretation of dreams:

  • 3 Guillaume de Lorris, The Romance of the Rose, trans. Charles Dahlberg, Princeton, Princeton Univers (...)

Many say that there is nothing in dreams but fables and lies […] but for my part, I am convinced that a dream signifies the good and evil that come to men, for most men at night dream many things in a hidden way which may afterward be seen openly.3

  • 4 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson, New York, New York Review Books, 20 (...)
  • 5 Joseph Westlund, “Self and Self-validation in a Stage Character: A Shakespearean Use of Dream,” in (...)
  • 6 Meredith Skura, “Interpreting Posthumus’ Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysis, and (...)

2The idea of the meaning of the dream becoming apparent upon reflection, or through the gradual alignment of dream fragments with unfolding events, appears to describe the dream experience of Posthumus in Cymbeline; part of his hidden dream is interpreted later by a Roman Soothsayer, to enable it to be seen openly, as prophecy. In the seventeenth century, Robert Burton in his The Anatomy of Melancholy often reads dreams as manifestations of body and mind disorder: “[...] sorrow sticks by them still continually, gnawing as the vulture did Tityus bowels, and they cannot avoid it […] after terrible and troublesome dreams their heavy hearts begin to sigh.”4 And both ways of interpreting dreams, read as prophetic and as pathological, can be seen as applying to the dream event in Cymbeline. Posthumus has suffered great trauma leading up to his vision, and a major element of his dream – the words of Jupiter contained in a tablet ­– is interpreted at the end of the play as a portent of national glory for Britain. Joseph Westlund interprets Posthumus’ dream as flowing from his troubled subconscious: “The appearance of Jupiter and the ghosts of Posthumus’ family is the theatrical representation of an interior event within the character who lies sleeping before us on stage.”5 Westlund has adapted the psychoanalytical approach used by Meredith Skura in her analysis of the import of the dream in Shakespeare’s play.6 While endorsing the notion of “theatrical representation,” I am going to suggest that rather than the action of the dream being a product of Posthumus’ anxieties – that the dreaming results from and articulates his distress – he is a spectator like us to a performance that functions as a means of connecting him to the story of his origins, to his present and to accompany him into the future, and in a more global sense, to operate as a foundational narrative for the kingdom of Britain, both for the period in which the play is set and for Jacobean England. Posthumus is indeed a traumatized and conflicted individual, however, his interior turmoil does not manifest itself in a dream display, rather in a dream performance is enacted on him; he witnesses action that affects him physically and emotionally: the dreaming engages with him primarily through performance and does not emerge from him.

  • 7 Sarah Wall Randall, “Reading the book of self,” in Mary Ellen Lamb and Valerie Wayne (eds.), Stagin (...)

3The entrance of the dream players is presented in the form of a complex and formal stagecraft, as Sarah Wall Randall notes: “What ensues closely resembles court masque in its static tableaux and use of machinery.”7 And like court masque, as the father, mother and brothers of Posthumus enter in elaborate and theatrical costume, there is music, dance and heightened heroic language:

  • 8 William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. Martin Butler, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 5.3 (...)

No more, thou Thunder-master, show thy spite on mortal flies.
With Mars fall out, with Juno chide, that thy adulteries
Rates and revenges.
Hath my poor boy done aught but well, whose face I never saw?
I died whilst in the womb he stayed, attending nature’s law,
Whose father then – as men report, thou orphans’ father art –
Thou shouldst have been, and shielded him from this earth-vexing smart.
8

  • 9 Ibid., p.15.
  • 10 M. Skura, op. cit., p. 108.

4Shakespeare makes rare use of fourteeners (heptameters) here to enhance the dramatic impact and epic dimensions of the scene and “the ghosts’ archaic metre foregrounds their difference, making them seem like visitors from another, less spacious dramatic world.”9 The family unites to rebuke Jupiter for failing to protect Posthumus and pleads with him to intercede on behalf of their son and brother. Jupiter then “descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle” (5.3. 157), and after rebuking them for their impertinence confirms that Posthumus is under his protection. Nonetheless, in spite of Jupiter’s testiness, the overall purpose of this spectacle seems aimed at connecting and interacting with the dormant figure of Posthumus, and in a powerful meta-theatrical shift of focus, he becomes an audience of one as the dream players perform for him, so that, through their demonstration “as [he is] being read by us, Posthumus […] is magically able to read [himself].”10 This performance aspect of Posthumus’ dream is mirrored in two other plays of the early modern period. In Calderón’s La vida es sueño and Shakespeare’s much earlier play The Taming of the Shrew, a character is made to believe that what they think is reality, is in fact a dream. One is drugged and the other is drunk and when they awake they are presented with a false reality: Segismundo, released from his chains is told that he is the prince of Poland, and William Sly, a drunken ne’er-do-well is, as part of a prank played on him by a nobleman, treated as a Lord. Both men are informed that their memories of a previous life are simply dreams or illusions and that their present high status connotes their authentic self. A constructed reality is performed for them and they enact their new roles within this artifice, believing fully that their constructed present is authentic. The illusionary present is staged as real; the audience, with the actors onstage, except for the men who are being duped, participate in the charade. Performance here is predicated on deception and the pliable, amorphous realm of the dream is superimposed on the real to nonplus the wits of the two men so that they are confused as to their real identity. Posthumus, likewise, is uncertain of what he is experiencing, but for him the reality of the dream mingles with and shadows his reality upon waking:

Sleep, thou hast been a grandsire, and begot
A father to me: and thou hast created
A mother and two brothers.
(5.3. 187-189)

  • 11 Ibid., p. 206.

5However, he experiences the reality of his past through the agency of the dream, so that it becomes a means for him to define and understand his present, as Skura notes: “The child can leave his family behind, but he cannot escape its influence, and in some sense he cannot know who he is until he knows where he has come from – until he knows his roots.”11 The dream expands his consciousness to include a visual representation of the family of whom he had no knowledge as they had all died before he was born. In the dream, Posthumus is acquainted with his family, not re-acquainted as he never knew them; they appear to him as if real and imprint themselves on his memory so that they become, in his mind, factual. While he sleeps onstage, his father Sicilius Leonatus, his mother and his brothers, the young Leonati, narrate their story to him and pledge their continuing support. The performance is not a staging of a manufactured reality, as in La vida es sueño or The Taming of the Shrew, but a merging of the past with the present as the dream seems to impinge on the real, and the line between sleep and waking consciousness is blurred:

‘Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen
Tongue, and brain not; either or both, or nothing,
Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such
As sense cannot untie. Be what it is,
The action of my life is like it, which
I’ll keep, if but for sympathy. (5.3. 208-213)

6The experience baffles the senses, which are useless in trying to interpret the speaking; in this Posthumus finds consolation as the ‘action of his life’ is similarly out of joint. He will “keep” the dream and this acceptance of what has been performed for him becomes crucial in the reconciliation of his fracturing.

7The intrusion of the dream performance into his world is further exemplified and amplified when a tablet, which was given to Sicilius by Jupiter, and laid on Posthumus’ chest in the dream, materializes so that when he wakes he is able to read it. The dream becomes substantial; the immaterial becomes material. This and the fact that the son of Sicilius is given information in the dream that he could not have known about otherwise, indicate that the dream is not necessarily a journey into Posthumus’ mind, but more like an outside awakening and expansion of consciousness. This outside conveying of important information beyond the ken of the dreamer – in this case Posthumus is informed in the dream of Iachimo’s villainous deception and of Innogen’s innocence – is similar to the interactive dreams in the Nativity narratives in Matthew, when the three Magi are informed in a dream not to trust Herod, and earlier when Joseph is assured that Mary is unstained and he can marry her:

  • 12 Matt. 1: 20, Authorized King James Version.

But while he thought on these
things, behold, the angel of the Lord
appeared unto him in a dream, saying,
Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to
take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that
which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit
12

8Joseph as “son of David” is located within a family lineage that while referencing the past, establishes the familial validity of the present; the dream voice resolves for Joseph what appeared contradictory, the virgin who is to be a mother, just as the dream voices for Posthumus reconcile the accusations against Innogen and her innocence. The disclosure in the dream, whereby critical information is delivered to the dreamer, is revealed to Posthumus as his consciousness is engaged directly.

9For most of the play, Posthumus is presented as unsettled, a stateless orphan, exiled from Britain by Cymbeline for presuming to marry his daughter Innogen in secret. His epic rootlessness is powerfully demonstrated when in the battle between the invading Romans and the Britons, casting aside his Roman armour, Posthumus is an inspirational leader against the invaders; but then in victory, seeking death because he believes that he has killed Innogen, he re-dons the Roman uniform and is subsequently imprisoned. The dream performance locates Posthumus, creating a visceral linking to his ancestors which is an enabling factor in the settling of his identity and in the reconciliation with his wife Innogen. Before this, Posthumus’ identity was defined by what he lacked – a father, mother and brothers; the dream allows him to re-engage with his past, connect this to his present and envisage the future. His naming as Posthumus is a constant reminder of the disconnection in his life, a disruption that is mended when he is reconciled with his past, and with his present and future life with Innogen. So the dream as performance takes on a ritualistic quality that functions as a means of giving meaning, accommodating reconciliation and the settling of rupture.

  • 13 “The Dreaming” is usually preferred to “the Dreamtime” as there is no equivalent to the western ide (...)
  • 14 Mudrooroo, Us Mob, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1995, p. 41.
  • 15 Lynne Hume, Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, Consciousness and Aboriginal Australians, Melbourne, Mel (...)
  • 16 Douglass Price-Williams and Rosslyn Gaines, “The Dreamtime and Dreams of Northern Australian Aborig (...)
  • 17 L. Hume, op. cit., p. 31.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 32.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 25.

10This is redolent of the understanding of the Dreamtime, more commonly referred to as the Dreaming, in the culture of the Australian Aboriginal people.13 “The Dreaming, or the Dreamtime, indicates a psychic state in which, or during which, contact is made with ancestral spirits, or the law, or that special period of the beginning.”14 Lynne Hume defines it as “continual, yet without time [...] It has been referred to as ‘everywhen’ to denote this timelessness.”15 In the music, dance and costume of the Corroboree, Aborigines seek to interact with the Dreaming, acknowledging the bond that exists between the living and their ancestors. Performance provides engagement not only with ancestors and ancestral stories, but also with a finely tuned sense of land and place. Land is deemed sacred because it is associated with important aspects of the dreaming and in Cymbeline the words on the tablet that Posthumus’ family received from Jupiter and which they in turn laid on his chest, resonate with the understanding that ancestral story is linked to place and that communities join together to incorporate nationhood: “when from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches / which [...] be jointed to/the old stock, and freshly grow; then shall Posthumus end his / Miseries, Britain be fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty.” (5.3. 204-207). The association of the people with the land is intimate, productive and complementary – the fruitfulness of the ‘old stock’ linked to the fortunate Britain – so that when there is harmony between the people and the land, peace and prosperity will result. The comparison of Aboriginal Dreaming with Posthumus’ dream experience reveals some interesting similarities and resonances since, just as there is a direct connexion between Posthumus’ dreaming and his contact with his deceased family, anthropologists have been exploring the relationship between The Dreaming and dreams. Dourglass Price-Williams and Rosslyn Gaines state that “Anderson and Dussart, while finding that the Dreamtime refers to the ancestral past [...] also noted that it can refer to night dreams themselves in which sequences of the ancestral past are revealed.”16 As Hume notes: “Personal dreams provide a means of getting into contact with the Dreaming,”17 and “although a dream is not the same as the Dreaming, it is nevertheless a way to access Dreaming reality.”18 It is through dream that Posthumus places himself within an ancestral reality and is able to process information that leads to the establishment of a sense of his identity within a specific environment. The ancestral narrative is communicated to Posthumus through his dream; the necessary points of connexion are confirmed between family and individual story and this connexion is recognized in the dream performance. Hume observes also that human beings “contain the sacred essence of the Dreaming and gain knowledge of their own spiritual identity and interconnectedness within a specific geographical location or place through instruction from initiated elders.”19 Posthumus thus acknowledges this interconnectedness through time and place, vowing to “keep” the knowledge and experience of what he has witnessed in his dream. The appearance of his father, mother and brothers connects him to his ancestral source and provides him with a narrative of his begetting.

  • 20 Marjorie Garber, Dream in Shakespeare, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1974, p. 216-217.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 218.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 219.
  • 23 Francoise Dussart, “Warlpiri Women’s Yawuku Ceremonies. A Forum for Socialisation and Innovation,” (...)
  • 24 L. Hume, op. cit., p. 40.

11Marjorie Garber sees dream in early Shakespearean plays as being primarily “related to the elucidation of plot”20 and predicting future action; in the tragedies as indicative of “a quest for knowledge of self, consciousness, on the part of the protagonist,”21 and in the romances as being “closely related to poetry; their dramatic worlds are also dream worlds, in which the magical becomes commonplace, and the tangible realities of time and space may be extended or compressed or extended as in a dream.”22 In Cymbeline this evocation of a dream world, enhanced through poetic dramatic expression, is nonetheless grounded in the oneiric articulation of ancestral attachment and story. And the active communication of his dead family with Posthumus is quite strikingly similar to the interaction between ancestor and dreamer in Aboriginal communities. In referring to the Warlpiri people, Francoise Dussart recalls that: “the dreamers say that they ‘saw’ given Ancestral Beings acting, dancing, singing, and eventually talking to them. It is through such dreams that Warlpiri people and their ancestors have learnt about the Jukurrpa.”23 Performance is an integral component of the dreaming experience that Posthumus undergoes. His ancestors enter dancing, acting, talking and with music; he becomes thoroughly immersed through their performance in the enactment of his ancestral connexions. The dream performance seems to be initiated by the ancestors to connect with Posthumus in order to provide him with his story and to ensure his protection. Aboriginal Dreaming helps to reinforce a sense of identity; the dreamer “and the Ancestor are one. He belongs within the stream of eternal dreaming”,24 and in a similar way, Posthumus rediscovers identity through his particular dreaming experience; identity here is inextricably linked to family story – the story of origin. This is counterintuitive to a psychoanalytical reading of the dream of Posthumus which determines that his anxieties find representation in the dream; that the subconscious of the dreamer performs rather than is subjected to performance.

  • 25 Ibid., p. 32.
  • 26 M. Garber, op. cit., p. 219.

12The ancestor as active agent is also present in Aboriginal Dreaming. When referring to the structure of Aboriginal art, Hume notes that: “The ancestors created their own designs…The idea is that the Ancestor transmits the design.”25 Similarly, the tablet left by Jupiter can be interpreted as part of the design for Posthumus’ future and the pattern for the reconciliation of the competing interests of Rome and Britain. Garber refers to the emphasis of the romances being “directly upon metamorphosis and transformation as redemptive acts.”26 The process of redemption in Cymbeline is predicated on change through a transcendental understanding of the interconnectedness of past, present and future. The dream is no longer a singular, essentially psychological experience, but a sublimely holistic encounter with that which is simultaneously outside and inside the dreamer and that which continues to affect him long after the initial event. An exploration and understanding of Aboriginal Dreaming may allow us to place Posthumus’ dream within a more general cultural context of stories of foundation, establishment and social affirmation.

  • 27 Howard Dobin, Merlin’s Disciples: Prophecy, Poetry, and Power in Renaissance England, Stanford, Sta (...)
  • 28 Ibid., p. 33.
  • 29 Ibid., p. 76.

13The dream settles Posthumus by offering to initiate him into an establishing narrative that completes his sense of identity by giving him the opportunity to be made whole, which process is completed within the context of the play when he is reunited with Innogen and takes his rightful place within the kingdom of Britain. The dream performance acts as a personal foundation myth; the creation story of his generation. There is another important aspect of the dream, stemming from this, which relates to the political questions raised in the play, focusing on the clash between the invading Romans and the native Britons, governed by Cymbeline. The dream has two distinct but related aspects: the engagement of the deceased members of his family with Posthumus, which also involves invocations to Jupiter on his behalf and, significantly, the presentation of the material tablet as prophecy. Prophecy arising from a dream or vision is, according to Howard Dobin,“essentially a form of political discourse.”27 Dreams as prophecy have power as they can set themselves in opposition to institutional power structures “as the private self-authenticating interpretation of what was once regarded as absolute received truth.”28 The dream/prophecy in Cymbeline poses little direct threat to the king as it can be (and was) interpreted as a re-forging of power relationships to form a new and more substantial national entity. However, in Macbeth, as will be examined in more detail below, the weird sisters’ prophecies cause disjuncture and civil unrest because they incite rebellion against the monarch and “were intentionally duplicitous.”29

14In Cymbeline, the words on the tablet align the personal redemption narrative of Posthumus with the story of the destiny of the country as nation:

Whenas a lion’s whelp shall, to himself unknown,
Without seeking find, and be embraced by a piece of tender air; and
When from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches
Which, being dead many years, shall after revive, be jointed to
The old stock, and freshly grow; then shall Posthumus end his
Miseries, Britain be fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty.
(5.3. 202-207)

  • 30 W. B. Patterson, King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom, Cambridge, Cambridge Universit (...)
  • 31 Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All, New York, Pantheon Books, 2004, p. 804.

15The end of Posthumus’ miseries, signalled by his reconnection to family in the dream sequence, is associated with the establishment of nationhood, under the aegis of Rome; Jupiter’s prophecy will become a foundational story for Britain. The re-casting of the person, Posthumus, is contained within the re-casting of the nation, Britain, which will be the natural precursor to the formation of a Britain under James, that will unite England and Scotland under one King. “In his proclamation of October 1604, in which he declared his title to be King of Great Britain, [James] called attention to the ‘blessed union, or rather Reuniting of these two mightie famous, and ancient Kingdomes of England and Scotland, under one Imperiall Crowne.’”30 Cymbeline seems to be providing an artistic interpretation of historical events which establishes points of connexion to the premise of “Reuniting” the separated kingdoms of Great Britain. Thus, during the dream sequence, we move from the personal narrative of reunion to the narrative of nation, with a clear line established from the endorsement and godly blessing of Jupiter on the victorious King of the Britons, Cymbeline, down through many years later to James I. While Cymbeline “can usefully be considered as myth of national origin,”31 it is through the trials and traumatic experiences of the dislocated anti-hero Posthumus, culminating in his reconciliatory dream encounter with his clan, that the image of a unified nation can be projected. The entrance of Jupiter into the dream performance seems primarily to respond to the supplications of Posthumus’ family for the god’s intervention on his behalf – which he rather grumpily does – but the tablet, laid on the chest of the one who has endeavoured throughout the play to resolve his multiple conflicted selves, becomes crucial for the political reconciliation which is effected at the end of the play. As D. E Landry argues:

  • 32 D. E. Landry, “Dreams as History: The Strange Unity of Cymbeline,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 33.1, Spr (...)

Posthumus’s experience is [...] both profoundly individual and social, at once peculiar to him ­– the recovery through dream of his personal history – and, by analogy, comparable with a larger movement – the recognition of a growing sense of national identity through the dramatization of national history.32

  • 33 H. Dobin, op. cit., p. 77.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 94.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 94.
  • 36 Ibid., p. 173.

16Concomitant with this sense of the incorporation of the personal within the national, is the prophetic description of the establishment of royal dynasties (the codification of the nation through the security of dynastic succession), and so the many familial, political and broader social reconciliations at the conclusion of the play, with the endorsement of the prophetic document, presage the “peace and plenty” that will find its ultimate expression in the reign of James I. Prophecy here is regenerative, but in Macbeth, through the disturbing agency of the weird sisters, it becomes degenerative. “Prophetic discourse is always already practised a rhetoric of concealed, but ultimately promised meaning,”33 and “Macbeth is a drama of prophetic and political mistaking that most vividly reproduces this plight of ‘wrong misconstruing.’”34 The sisters provide Macbeth with a framework of prediction, which he misinterprets, causing great disaster to himself and to the kingdom he has usurped. Macbeth interrupts a dynasty which was being initiated by Duncan, and becomes the regal aberration as he seeks endorsement from the prophetic voice rather than from the people of the realm. The greater his belief in and reliance on (together with an increasing propensity to misread) the prophecies, the more tyrannical and dysfunctional he becomes. When he visits the witches his “spiritual despair and moral depravity condemn him to misconstrue the weird sisters equivocations in act 4, all of which, in typical prophetic fashion, prove true with an unexpected and disconcerting twist.”35 In effect, these predictive visions tease Macbeth with promises of invincibility, but are ultimately and essentially deceptive. The prophetic pageant of the eight kings appearing before Macbeth in this scene, however, is uncompromising in its stark portrayal of the futility of his murderous actions in acquiring the throne. Here, in a play with much emphasis on equivocation, he has an unambiguous answer to his demand to know if Banquo’s offspring will inherit his kingdom; the eight monarchs represent the line of Stuart kings who were to reign over Scotland up to James I. At this point in the play, the realization of the dynastic prophecy is strikingly apparent as “the promised fulfillment of prophecy is seated in the audience – King James.”36 In this scene, dynastic prophecy, which is deemed to be authentic, is distinguished from the enigmatic and seemingly coded statements made by the witches when referring to Macbeth’s future, and his self-destructive folly in reading the prophecies according to his own desires is shown.

17Both Macbeth and Cymbeline contain prophecies that locate themselves within the strands of British political history, which, post-event, attempt to authenticate and endorse the credentials of the ruling monarch, and reinforce an emerging sense of nationhood. The plays conclude with calls for unity – Malcolm has benefitted from the support from England in a common cause to overthrow a tyrant and Cymbeline makes peace with the Romans to create a sense of national identity. The prophetic reference in the tablet to the “stately cedar,” which symbolizes kingly power – i.e. Cymbeline’s, is utilised again in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII or All Is True. Upon the christening of Princess Elizabeth, Cranmer is prophesying her glorious future, and he includes King James in his vision of national harmony and prosperity to come:

  • 37 William Shakespeare, King John and Henry VIII, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, Basingstoke, M (...)

Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
Shall then be his, and, like a vine, grow to him.
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations. He shall flourish,
And like a mountain cedar reach his branches
to all the plains about him. Our children’s children
Shall see this, and bless heaven.
37

18This panegyric, in presenting the image of James as a “mountain cedar,” complements the earlier allusion to the “stately cedar” in Cymbeline and establishes James as the natural embodiment of the prophecies in the plays since he is the one who will provide peace and plenty.

19What is significant in Cymbeline, however, in terms of the understanding of the prophetic voice, is that a soothsayer has to be introduced in the final scene to interpret the words of the tablet, as the clarity of the vision of a line of kings which we see in Macbeth is not present. The soothsayer’s reading is a carefully crafted political statement:

Thou, Leonatus, art the lion’s whelp;
The fit and apt construction of thy name,
Being
leo-natus, doth import so much.
[
To Cymbeline] The piece of tender air, thy virtuous daughter,
Which we call
mollis aer, and mollis aer
We term it mulier; [to Posthumus] which mulier I divine
Is thy most constant wife, who even now,
Answering the letter of the oracle,
Unknown to you, unsought, were clipped about
With this most tender air...
The lofty cedar, royal Cymbeline,
Personates thee, and thy lopped branches point
Thy two sons forth, who, by Belarius stol’n
For many years thought dead, are now revived,
To the majestic cedar joined, whose issue
Promises Britain peace and plenty.
(5.5. 443-458)

20But the Soothsayer, with his quasi legal, new age quibbling on mollis aer and mulier, could be seen as embellishing his interpretation of the inscription on the tablet, to create a convenient and neat, unambiguous text which will serve as a self-authenticating document. Certainly Cymbeline is quick to endorse this interpretation of the tablet’s text and reads it as justifying his proclamation that: “My peace we will begin […] Publish we this peace / To all our subjects.” (5.4. 457, 476-477). The Soothsayer could be seen as flattering both Posthumus and Cymbeline in his reading of the tablet, and his elucidation of Jupiter’s text relies on the facts that are revealed to him in this scene; Innogen has been shown to be the “constant wife” and Cymbeline’s lost sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, are openly presented to the King. The message is massaged so that the mystical vagueness of the god’s words enables the script to be skillfully manipulated to tacitly acknowledge the present political reality – the victory of the Britons over the Roman – and to allow Cymbeline, from the position of victor, to renew his treaty arrangements with Rome. The slipperiness of the Soothsayer’s prognostications, in that he is ready to fit the message to the master, is suggested in his re-interpretation during this scene of a vision that he had interpreted for Lucius before the battle, when he declared that the Romans would be all-conquering. He now claims that “the vision [...] / Is full accomplished” (565) because the Roman eagle, “From south to west on wing soaring aloft” (566) unites Imperial Rome with “the radiant Cymbeline” (570). The earlier partisan reading elides into a more general politic consensus: the soothsayer’s vision becomes malleable as its significance is construed according to the particular situation, and in this final scene the Romans and the Britons are united under the all-encompassing embrace of the “fingers of pow’rs above” who “tune the harmony of this peace” (561-562). Divine power is thus co-opted as the ultimate authority, the definitive point of reference, and a convenient political arrangement is sanctioned through appeal to this authority. The allegorical resonances of this scene were perhaps appreciated by the Jacobean audience when the play was performed. According to Scott Maisano:

  • 38 Scott Maisano, “Shakespeare’s Last Act: The Starry Messenger and the Galilean Book in Cymbeline,” C (...)

Traditionally the soothsayer’s deciphering of Jupiter’s message has taken on an added significance, beyond the play itself…within the Stuart Court of the early Seventeenth Century. The glorious conclusion to an Augustan Pax Romana is said to be a paen to James I of England […] who hoped to unite all Britain under his monarchy.38

  • 39 M. Skura, op. cit., p. 207.

21The validation of this new Britain, with the invading and defeated Roman armies now made allies by the act of Cymbeline willingly giving his allegiance to Caesar so that Britain will see “A Roman and British ensign wave / friendly together” (5.4. 478-479), rests on the words of the soothsayer who is keen to please those in power. There is, therefore, an ironic contrast between the two foundational aspects of the dream. Posthumus is able to locate himself in the continuing founding story of his familial and matrimonial connexions and, in the soothsayer’s constructed narrative, Posthumus’ establishing relationships are appropriated and subsumed within the national story of foundation. The prophetic tablet, through interpretation, is the means through which the private dream is incorporated into the aspirational dreaming of the nation. Nonetheless, irrespective of the strategic manoeuvring that may accompany the melding of Posthumus’ union with his family in the dream into the grander story of a dream of nation, the performative nature of the experience assembles the scattered fragments of an individual so that he can fully engage with his community and especially his wife. As Skura notes: “there is no way for him to find himself as husband until he finds himself as son, as part of the family he was torn from so long ago.”39 The location of Posthumus within his family and within the embrace of his wife becomes the signifier of the union of formerly disparate and divided elements of the State.

22The performance aspect of Posthumus’ dream is its defining characteristic as it focuses our attention on what happens outside rather than inside the young man, and it establishes a process for connexion which rehabilitates Posthumus and allows him to reconcile himself to his lost family, his lost wife and his lost homeland. The dream is performative not introspective; it is therapeutic in that it deals with the resolution of Posthumus’ anxieties in a direct manner so that as he responds to the demonstration of his family, he becomes a coherent entity within a recognized pattern of human relationships; he re-engages where previously he knew only disconnection.

23The dream is demonstrative in another broader sense; it shows that the integrity of the island nation is formed through conflict and will reconcile its oppositions and contradictions to forge a national entity which will honour peace. Thus the dream is multi-faceted and multifunctional – the harmony that the individual finds contributes to the search for an ongoing national harmony.

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Notes

1 There is some discussion about whether Cymbeline may be more rightly called a tragi-comedy or a history play. For convenience I will refer to it as a romance.

2 There were two authors of Le Roman de la Rose: the first 4058 verses were written by Guillaume de Lorris and the remainder of the work was by Jean de Meun. See John Vyvyan, The Rose of Love, London, Shepheard-Walwyn, 2013, p. 59-88.

3 Guillaume de Lorris, The Romance of the Rose, trans. Charles Dahlberg, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 31.

4 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson, New York, New York Review Books, 2001, Part 1, p. 389.

5 Joseph Westlund, “Self and Self-validation in a Stage Character: A Shakespearean Use of Dream,” in Carol Schreier Rupprecht (ed.), The Dream and the Text, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1993, p. 200-216, p. 200.

6 Meredith Skura, “Interpreting Posthumus’ Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysis, and Literary Critics,” in Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (eds.), Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, p. 203-216.

7 Sarah Wall Randall, “Reading the book of self,” in Mary Ellen Lamb and Valerie Wayne (eds.), Staging Early Modern Romance, New York, Routledge, 2009, p. 107-121, p. 109.

8 William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. Martin Butler, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 5.3. 124-130. All quotations from the play will be from this text.

9 Ibid., p.15.

10 M. Skura, op. cit., p. 108.

11 Ibid., p. 206.

12 Matt. 1: 20, Authorized King James Version.

13 “The Dreaming” is usually preferred to “the Dreamtime” as there is no equivalent to the western idea of Time in aboriginal culture and even the Dreaming, is an approximation and simplification in English of the complex understanding of aboriginal contact with ancestral spirits and land.

14 Mudrooroo, Us Mob, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1995, p. 41.

15 Lynne Hume, Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, Consciousness and Aboriginal Australians, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2002, p. 24.

16 Douglass Price-Williams and Rosslyn Gaines, “The Dreamtime and Dreams of Northern Australian Aboriginal artists,” Ethos, 22.3, Sept. 1994, p. 373-383, here p. 375.

17 L. Hume, op. cit., p. 31.

18 Ibid., p. 32.

19 Ibid., p. 25.

20 Marjorie Garber, Dream in Shakespeare, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1974, p. 216-217.

21 Ibid., p. 218.

22 Ibid., p. 219.

23 Francoise Dussart, “Warlpiri Women’s Yawuku Ceremonies. A Forum for Socialisation and Innovation,” Ph.D. dissertation, Australian National University, 1988, p. 35. Jukurrpa is a Warlpiri word for The Dreaming.

24 L. Hume, op. cit., p. 40.

25 Ibid., p. 32.

26 M. Garber, op. cit., p. 219.

27 Howard Dobin, Merlin’s Disciples: Prophecy, Poetry, and Power in Renaissance England, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1990, p. 28.

28 Ibid., p. 33.

29 Ibid., p. 76.

30 W. B. Patterson, King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 31.

31 Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All, New York, Pantheon Books, 2004, p. 804.

32 D. E. Landry, “Dreams as History: The Strange Unity of Cymbeline,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 33.1, Spring, 1982, p. 68-79, here p. 74.

33 H. Dobin, op. cit., p. 77.

34 Ibid., p. 94.

35 Ibid., p. 94.

36 Ibid., p. 173.

37 William Shakespeare, King John and Henry VIII, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2012, 5.4. 47-54.

38 Scott Maisano, “Shakespeare’s Last Act: The Starry Messenger and the Galilean Book in Cymbeline,” Configurations, 12.3, Fall, 2004, p. 401-434, here, p. 416.

39 M. Skura, op. cit., p. 207.

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References

Electronic reference

Mike Nolan, « “‘Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen tongue and brain not.” Dream as performance in Cymbeline », Études Épistémè [Online], 30 | 2016, Online since 16 January 2017, connection on 23 October 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/1404 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.1404

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About the author

Mike Nolan

Mike Nolan is a lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern English Theatre at La Trobe University Melbourne Australia. He has recently published “The Gifts of the Poor : Worth and Value, Poverty and Justice in Robert Daborne’s The Poor Mans Comfort” in Experiences of Poverty in Late Medieval and Early Modern England and France (Ashgate, 2012) and is preparing a book on Jacobean Theatre and Film Noir for publication in 2016. He is currently compiling an anthology of the writings of eighteenth-century curés from the Sarthe and is involved in a project to recover the voices of peasant communities also from the Sarthe.

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