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Cymbeline On Screen

TV adaptations of Shakespeare's ancient British romance

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First performed in 1609-10 and published in the First Folio of 1623, Cymbeline is partly based on a story in Boccaccio's Decameron and partly on Holinshed's Chronicles, the source for most of Shakespeare's histories. Although initially grouped with the Folio's collection of Tragedies, it doesn't really fit that label (the play's two deaths are thoroughly merited), and is now regarded as one of the first of Shakespeare's late romances (alongside Pericles, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest.

Despite being set in ancient Britain and imperial Rome, no attempt has been made at historical realism (Cymbeline, or Cunobelius, is thought to have reigned in early years of the first century AD), and the political elements play second fiddle to the central plot about the contentious romance between the low-born Posthumus and the king's daughter Imogen. The play resurrects many themes from Shakespeare's earlier work (notably As You Like It, with its banished, cross-dressing heroine finding solace in the woods), but there's a darker undercurrent than is found in the comedies, with overtones of rape, betrayal and the constant threat of violent death. It all ends happily, but only at the eleventh hour.

Aside from a truncated silent film adaptation made in the US in 1913, Cymbeline has only been filmed once in full, unsurprisingly as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare project. Broadcast on 10 July 1983, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, it starred Richard Johnson, Helen Mirren, Claire Bloom, Robert Lindsay, Michael Pennington and Michael Hordern. An intelligent and imaginative reading, staged with Moshinsky's customary visual brio, it provided strong evidence to support the claim that the minor plays generally led to the strongest productions in the BBC cycle. An accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was broadcast the previous evening and presented by writer Dennis Potter.

Given that the beheading of Cloten is one of Shakespeare's gorier set-pieces, it was inevitable that it would also feature in Theatre of Blood (d. Douglas Hickox, 1973), in which Vincent Price's vengeful actor metes out a similar fate to critic Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe).


BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 10/7/1983, d. Elijah Moshinsky

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 9/7/1981 , p. Dennis Potter

Other References
Theatre of Blood, 1973, d. Douglas Hickox

Michael Brooke

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Thumbnail image of Cymbeline (1983)

Cymbeline (1983)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

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Shakespeare's Late Plays

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's final works

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