Shakespeare’s sources – Cymbeline

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The Roman's acknowledged the real Cymbeline as King of Britain

This week I turn my attention to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. This  comedy is based on a real king written about by Holinshed and also by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his  “The history of the kings of Britain”.  By all accounts Cymbeline was a fair and just king, although he does not appear to have and any daughters (like Shakespeare’s version) but rather he seems to have had two sons.

The part of the story you are most likely to remember is that where Iachimo (the villain) sneaks into Imogen, the King’s Daughter’s, bedchamber in a chest so he can spy on her with intent to prove he had spent the night with her and thus to win a bet and to rubbish her Husband’s claims that she is virtuous. This story is one of those stories for which it is impossible to find a single antecedent. There are numerable examples of  stories of a man wagering that his lover is virtuous only to be made a fool of.  Having said this there is one version which seems to have influenced Shakespeare particularly and that is the one told in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. This text was only available in Italian when Shakespeare would have read it, but so were other sources Shakespeare is known to have used.

The details of the story are almost identical a gets into a bragging match in a pub (shakespeare moves it from Paris to Rome) where he claims his wife is especially virtuous angering other men and provoking one young man to bet that he can seduce his wife. A bet which he wins by trickery by sneaking into her room in a chest …

Here is the extract from Boccaccio

Ambroginolo softly opened the Chest, according as cunningly hee had contrived it, and stepping forth in his sockes made of cloath, observed the scituation of the Chamber, the paintings, pictures, and beautifull hangings, with all things else that were remarkable, which perfectly he committed to his memory. Going neere to the bed, he saw her lie there sweetly sleeping, and her young Daughter in like manner by her, she seeming then as compleate and pleasing a creature, as when shee was attired in her best bravery. No especiall note or marke could hee descrie, whereof he might make credible report, but onely a small wart upon her left pappe, with some few haires growing thereon, appearing to be as yellow as gold.

If you would like to read the whole story go here and explore the 9th novel.

Here is the same moment in Shakespeare’s text described by Iachimo himself as he creeps out from the truck.

That I might touch!
But kiss; one kiss! [… ]

Ah, but some natural notes about her body,
Above ten thousand meaner moveables
Would testify, to enrich mine inventory.
O sleep, thou ape of death, lie dull upon her!
[… ]

On her left breast
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip: here’s a voucher,
Stronger than ever law could make: this secret
Will force him think I have pick’d the lock and ta’en
The treasure of her honour.

Shakespeare has considerably expanded Iachimo’s character  and taken us from a rather dry description to a lively, humorous villain who wants to win a bet, is attracted to the women herself and is eloquent and poetic – even about her mole (which Shakespeare is able to make sound far more attractive than the ‘small wart’ in Boccaccio’s version.)

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • wllm

    Thanks again. So, once again, WS goes to his favorite sources: Holinshed and his youth in the fields around Stratford where cowslips abound.

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