Some Uses for Romance:

Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Jonson's The New Inn



  1. The relationship between Ben Jonson's play of 1629, The New Inn, and those last plays of Shakespeare commonly, though somewhat anachronistically, termed the romances (Wells 1966, 49), has often been noted. Anne Barton especially has done much to enable a fresh appreciation of the play by relating it to the Shakespearean romances, and by suggesting that Jonson's admission of the 1623 Folio as a 'shaping influence' resulted in the production of a 'much misunderstood, but fine and haunting play' (Barton 1984, 258-284). The following essay acknowledges the thematic and tonal similarities between The New Inn and the romances, yet highlights a possible occasional, rather than tributary motive for Jonson's partial adoption of the sub-genre, his choice of material being influenced by the political climate in which he was writing as well as by a desire merely to emulate his sometime fellow playwright. By focusing on Cymbeline as a play similarly misunderstood, whose form is perfectly suited to its function as a relevant and subtle product of its time, I will argue a case for a sympathetic reading of The New Inn along the same lines, that is, as a positive, yet equivocal, response to the political climate extant in 1632 1


  2. It is perhaps no surprise to find Ben Jonson, the scholarly author of so subtle yet so robustly representational a play as Bartholomew Fair (1614), referring scornfully in the Induction to 'those that beget tales; tempests; and such-like drolleries' (Jonson 1910, 2, 182). Clearly the allusion is to Shakespeare. Five years later, in conversation with William Drummond, it seems that Jonson had still to register the jokey significance of such apparent absurdities. 'Shakespeare,' he told Drummond, 'wanted art' and had committed the error (in The Winter's Tale) of 'having brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwreck in Bohemia, where th[e]r[e] is no sea by some 100 miles' (Jonson 1985, 596-599). The possibility remains that Shakespeare's 'error' may have been a deliberate attempt to enrage Jonson's sensibilities in this regard (Gurr 1983, 422). The failure of The New Inn in 1629 provided the occasion for another sneering sideswipe at Shakespearean romance, as Jonson expressed his disdain for those playgoers who would rather see

    . . . some mouldy tale
    Like Pericles ('Ode to Himself', lines 21-22; Jonson 1984, 204-208).

    Doubtless, as Richard Proudfoot surmises, this comment reflects Jonson's 'irritation that such nonsense still was popular in a way that his own plays were not' (Proudfoot 1966). It is also probable that his pique was intensified by the audience's failure to respond as sympathetically to The New Inn as they had done to Shakespeare's old play, for The New Inn is something of a mouldy tale itself.

  3. Mouldy, that is, in the sense that it makes use of old-fashioned romance conventions. In her account of the play, Anne Barton draws attention to the incidence of 'multiple marriages, mistaken identity, missing children and the return of the dead' within it and suggests that Jonson handles these motifs 'as Shakespeare had in his own last plays: as a poignant wish-dream' (Barton 1984, 281). There is undeniably a marked thematic similarity between the play and Shakespearean romance: the latter, as Stanley Wells notes,

    frequently includes the separation and disruption of families, followed by their eventual reunion and reconciliation; scenes of apparent resurrection; the love of a virtuous young hero and heroine; and the recovery of lost royal children (Wells 1966, 50).

    The similarity is not coincidental. The appearance of the Shakespeare First Folio in 1623, to which Jonson perhaps contributed more than just commendatory verses, would have given him the opportunity to consider anew the achievements of his erstwhile rival (Riggs 1989, 276; Spencer 1974, 26-27; Barton 1984, 284). Jonson's tribute 'To the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us', expresses admiration for its subject in terms suggestive of reappraisal, as Jonson calls upon the spirit of Shakespeare to rouse the theatre from its torpid state, to 'influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage' (line 78). The playwright who, Jonson told Drummond, 'wanted art' is:

    now praised for his skill in exercising it:
    Yet must I not give nature all: thy art,
    My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
    For though the poet's matter nature be,
    His art doth give the fashion (Jonson 1985, 453-455, lines 55-58).

    T. J. B. Spencer has pointed out that Jonson here rehearses a 'favourite literary theory' (Spencer 1974, 37), yet his willingness to apply these criteria directly to Shakespeare ('a good poet's made, as well as born;/And such wert thou' [lines 64-65]) is surely an indication that the Jonson of 1623 had come to regard Shakespeare's dramatic output as potentially providing a more positive model.

  4. As might be expected, Jonson's embracing of the stuff of Shakespearean romance is somewhat less than wholehearted (Butler 1992, 167). The improbabilities of shifting locations, lengthy time scales, pitched battles and monsters, the very things which Sir Philip Sidney complained of in An Apology for Poetry, can all be found in Shakespeare's romances. Jonson, characteristically, did not permit himself such freedoms. 2 The New Inn is as tied to one location and is as temporally orthodox as The Alchemist. For all that, however, and despite the fact that they are separated by an interval of nearly twenty years, shared motifs, and a similarity in the manner in which romance materials are utilized, point to an obvious affinity between Jonson's play and Shakespeare's romances.


  5. Both Jonson and Shakespeare were of course poets whose work was, or had been, frequently performed at court. That Jonson fully expected this to be the case with The New Inn in 1629, is certain from the existence of an alternative epilogue in which the king, queen and court are addressed, included in the Octavo of 1632, but not required for 'the Play lived not in Opinion to Have it Spoken'. With Cymbeline, things are more problematic. Whilst there is no surviving evidence of a performance of Cymbeline before James and the court, it has been persuasively argued that it would have been an eminently suitable choice (Jones 1961). Both The Winter's Tale and The Tempest were acted at Whitehall, and it is highly probable that Cymbeline was one of the forty odd plays, titles unknown, put on there between 1609 and 1611 (Kernan 1995, 203-208 ). 3 As with Jonson's play, whether or not Cymbeline was acted at court, the strong possibility that such a performance would take place must have been a factor governing the circumstances of its composition.

  6. This is not to suggest that either Cymbeline or The New Inn were intended as occasional plays in the narrow sense, though it has been argued that Cymbeline was written for performance at the investiture of Henry as Prince of Wales in 1610 (Frost 1986). Rather it is true that both plays are products of a time of especial political sensitivity. To say that is rather to give what fortune tellers call a 'cold reading', to say something which will always be true no matter what. Nevertheless, it will be argued that the situations faced by Shakespeare and the King's Men in 1610, and by Jonson in 1629, both in terms of their own situation and the wider political context, were sufficiently delicate to require a skilfully measured response.

  7. In March 1608 the Children of the Blackfriars put on one or both of Chapman's Byron plays. The French ambassador was outraged, not least by a scene (not surviving) in which the queen of France's face is slapped by the king's mistress. In complaining to Secretary Cecil, and doubtless hoping to secure action against the company, the ambassador also mentioned a play (now lost), about the 'Scottish mines' in which James and his favourites were portrayed as profane and dissolute. The desired effect was achieved and James, suitably enraged, vowed to disband the company and punish the poet. Chapman was sheltered by his patrons, but several of the actors were imprisoned. Henry Evans, who held the lease for the Blackfriars playhouse, surrendered it to the Burbages, and it became the winter playhouse of the King's Men (Gurr 1992, 46; Dutton 1991, 182-185). Whether this incident was, as Stephen Mullaney believes, an expression of the 'increasing absolutism of the Jacobean state' (Mullaney 1988, 134) or, as Richard Dutton contends, the 'single and singular exception' to a relatively unchanged censorship policy (Dutton 1991, 158), it must have been sufficiently disturbing to make the playing companies wary of giving any further cause for offence.

  8. In such circumstances, the turn towards an old-fashioned, conservative dramatic mode was a natural one. When the King's men revived Mucedorus, an old pastoral romance, for court performance in 1610, they included in the epilogue an apology for the offence that had been given by a play previously put on in what was now their Blackfriars theatre. The circumstances are not specified, yet it is clear from the very act of apology that the company had reason to believe that they had transgressed in some way. David Frost suggests that Mucedorus was chosen because it was both 'clearly innocent of meaning' and allowed the players to 'make amends by the common method of clowning': it is this performance, he conjectures, that provided the impetus for Cymbeline (Frost 1986, 23). This can only ever be matter for speculation. It is perhaps safer merely to observe that the closeness in date between the revival of Mucedorus and the production of Cymbeline may reflect the fact that at this time there were reasons for the King's Men to show some circumspection.

  9. This was true in terms of the wider political situation as well as that directly appertaining to the King's Men. Consider events circa 1610. The Truce of Antwerp, over which James's diplomacy had a minor influence, had been concluded the previous year; James was closely involved in implementing his pacific policies on the continent; and in 1610 Europe found itself at peace for the first and only time in this period (Coward 1994, 125; Jones 1961, 96). On the domestic front, James's eldest son Henry was created Prince of Wales, with all suitable festivity in June 1610. Inevitably, however, there were also many potential troubles threatening the monarch at this time: anti-Scottish feeling was beginning to intensify in the Commons and centre on the king's favourite, Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester; and 1610 was the year in which the Great Contract, Robert Cecil's attempt to ease the king's financial difficulties, was put before Parliament and rejected. It is largely as a result of this that James was obliged for reasons of financial expediency to begin his much criticized policy of the sale of titles, starting with the creation of the baronetcy in 1611 (Coward 1994, 138-145; Russell 1971, 277-280).

  10. So whilst there was much that merited qualified celebration, there were also plenty of sensitive issues on which it would have been imprudent to comment directly. Put into this context, Shakespeare's choice of the mostly uneventful reign of the quasi-historical king Cymbeline as the subject of his play was a felicitous one. The single significant fact about Cymbeline's reign is that it coincided with 'the universal peace of the time: the pax Romana in which Christ was born' (Jones 1961, 88) and Shakespeare makes much in the closing lines of Cymbeline' of the honourable peace concluded between the king and Caius Lucius, on behalf of Augustus Caesar. The superficial similarities between James and Cymbeline are hard to ignore. Just as James has two sons and a daughter, so does Cymbeline; the elder son distinguished by his greater readiness for martial activity (Gibbons 1995, 25 ). 4 Shakespeare also managed to incorporate a number of recurring images and ideas into the play which would have had positive resonances for James: the oft-mentioned location of Milford Haven for example, so much a part of the Tudor mythology which James appropriated to bolster his own claim to the throne (Jones 1961, 94-95). It should also be remembered that Cymbeline is, as the 'Catalogue' of the plays in the First Folio reminds us, 'King of Britaine', and the play makes repeated reference to Britain as a united sovereign nation. James's ambition to preside over a truly unified kingdom was, of course well known and the issue was a live one in 1610 when Sir William Maurice revived the union proposals before a session of Parliament, though only to have them greeted with 'whistles of derision' (Coward 1994, 138).

  11. By combining elements of romance and pseudo-history, Shakespeare found a formula eminently suited to accommodating such topical elements, without the risk of giving offence (Gibbons 1995 26). It would, of course, be a mistake to think of Cymbeline as a species of pièce à clef: Cymbeline did not merely stand for James I any more than the wicked queen can have been designed to represent queen Anna. The presentation of the queen as fairy-tale caricature seems positively calculated to forestall this kind of application. It is not a question of point-for-point correlation; rather it is a matter of the inclusion of material which, whilst pertinent with regard to the court audience, cannot be construed by that audience as inflammatory. As Geoffrey Hill puts it, 'Shakespeare caught accurately and retentively, a certain tone of Jacobean mystique . . . an oblique awareness of royalist views and demands can be detected' (Hill 1969, 26). Here Hill's skilful wording succeeds in indicating succinctly the way in which such concerns are articulated in a recondite fashion, buried amongst the faceted 'incongruities' of the play. 5 In terms of its topicality, Cymbeline is suited to its times in the broadest sense.

  12. There can be no better indication of the dangers of false interpretation and mischievous application than that which is illustrated by the role of the Soothsayer within Cymbeline. At the end of the play, he is called upon to divine the meaning of Jupiter's prophecy, in which it was foretold that 'a lion's whelp [that is, Posthumus Leonatus] shall . . . be embrac'd by a piece of tender air'. The Soothsayer's reading, addressed to Cymbeline, is as follows:

    The piece of tender air, thy virtuous daughter,
    Which we call mollis aer, and mollis aer
    We term it mulier which mulier I divine
    Is this most constant wife (Shakespeare 1969, 5.5.447-450).

    The Soothsayer is not attempting to interpret the prophecy in advance of its fulfilment, but to 'declare the meaning' (5.5.435) of it by relating it to what has already occurred (Gibbons 1995, 26-27). The misplaced ingenuity with which he equates Imogen with 'tender air' constitutes a piece of reasoning which is both over-intricate and unnecessary, being a sophistic attempt to convey to both those on-stage and those in the audience what they have surely already guessed 6. Significantly, Posthumus, the original recipient of the prophecy, pointedly refuses to speculate as to its meaning:

    'Tis like a dream: or else such stuff as madmen
    Tongue, and brain not: either both, or nothing,
    Or senseless speaking, or 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 (5.4.146-151).

    Posthumus's vision is only the latest in a series of bizarre and diffuse events. In that sense, it is not an anomalous occurrence, though an unfathomable one, and Posthumus greets it with stoical resignation. Ultimately, this is the only rational course to take: the whole experience defies explanation and must simply be accepted for whatever it may be.

  13. The kind of suggestive indeterminacy which is embodied in Jupiter's prophecy is paradigmatic of the way in which Shakespeare introduces the topical material into his play. Political themes and resonances are there for all who wish to find them, yet they seem to be encoded within the text in a way which renders them unsusceptible to easy partisan appropriation. It is impossible, as Brian Gibbons has pointed out, to 'rule out the possible ironic and critical elements of Cymbeline', and he cites the fact that Shakespeare's inclusion of Tudor material could be taken as either an endorsement of James's ancestral claims or as an implicit and detrimental comparison between the Tudor monarchs and the first Stuart (Gibbons 1995, 26-27). How significant for example is the fact that, as Leah Scragg notes, 'the protagonists of Cymbeline are nurtured and regenerated in the pastoral environment beyond the confines of the court' (Scragg 1992, 149)? Peggy Muñoz Simonds for one detects both 'subtle satire on the exalted claims of the British royal family' and 'numerous conventional attacks on the courtier' within the play (Simonds 1992, 22, 170). But Cymbeline itself gives no clues; it merely incorporates the references into its dense diversity of action and expresses them in its characteristic syntactically bewildering verse. Earlier, en route to Milford Haven, Imogen implores Pisanio to

    say, and speak thick, (Love's counsellor should fill the bores of hearing,
    To th' smothering of the sense) how far it is
    To this same blessed Milford. And by th' way
    Tell me how Wales was made so happy as
    T' inherit such a haven. But, first of all,
    How we may steal from hence (3.2.57-63).

    Such a speech seems to hint at a special importance for Milford (it is 'blessed'), yet it remains unclear as to whether it is merely Posthumus's presence which supplies it. The slight pun on 'haven' in line 62, the confused and shifting preoccupations of the speaker, all serve to distract from the mention of Milford to the extent that it becomes merely a passing reference to the place in positive, if non-specific, terms. Any significance which it is given must therefore emanate primarily from the prejudices of the spectator. The romance framework upon which Shakespeare constructed his play is eminently suitable for the introduction of such material, and the dense, layered amalgam of the verse perfect for the foiling of dangerous application. Like Jupiter's prophecy, it can mean everything or nothing.


  14. If Shakespeare and his company had reason to be circumspect in 1610, Jonson's position in 1629 was an even more potentially precarious one. The New Inn was only the second play written by him after a ten-year absence from the theatre. Prior to its appearance moreover, Jonson was once again in trouble with the authorities over his alleged authorship of verses addressed 'To His Confined Friend Mr Felton', the disaffected junior officer who had assassinated the Duke of Buckingham in April 1628. Jonson vehemently denied, as well he might, that the verses were his when questioned by the Attorney General, but there remains some uncertainty over his sympathies in the matter. 7 Whatever the truth may have been, there can be little doubt that, as Martin Butler has suggested, the circumstances prevailing after Buckingham's death were to have a profound effect upon the shaping of The New Inn (Butler 1992, 172-176).

  15. Devastating personal blow as it was to Charles, Buckingham's death marks a turning point in the political climate of the 1620s. There was, writes Kevin Sharpe, 'a fundamental change in court politics and the nature of government . . . there was widespread hope of new counsels and an expectation that the king would himself come to prominence' (Sharpe 1992, 131). In this climate of renewed expectation a man like Thomas Wentworth, one of the parliamentary leaders, found himself able to take up office without compromising his principles, which were to work towards the establishment of an accord between king and parliament. As Conrad Russell has observed, '[w]ith Buckingham dead, a servant of the Crown might promote unity and good government' (Russell 1971, 308): a sentiment which undoubtedly would have been endorsed by the author of The New Inn.

  16. Jonson's play opens with the Host running through his amusingly protracted exegesis of the rebuses adorning the inn-board which hung on-stage throughout the action, a constant reminder to the audience of both the location of the play, and its prevailing ethos (Jonson 1984, 65 n.): 'A heavy purse makes a light heart' being the inn's motto (1.1.14). Such an explanation of the rebuses is made necessary by the presence of Lovel, whose disconsolate state is at odds with the self-declared spirit of the inn. The Light Heart is indeed no place for melancholy, and the Host instructs Lovel to find himself a lodging better suited to his temperament:

    If you have a mind to be melancholy and musty,
    There's Footman's Inn at the town's end, the stocks,
    Or Carrier's Place at sign o' the Broken Wain (1.2.5-7).

    By behaving in this way, Lovel constitutes a threat to the environment which the Host has created for himself. Like the play, it is a transient and artificial retreat, a refuge from reality which, for the Host, means the rejection of his former title, the desertion of his wife and the presumed death of his younger daughter. But the deception is a benign one, and as the Host himself says:

    . . . all the cheat
    Be of myself, in keeping this Light Heart,
    Where I imagine all the world's a play:
    The state and men's affairs, all passages
    Of life, to spring new scenes, come in, go out,
    And shift and vanish; and if I have got
    A seat to sit at ease here, i' mine inn,
    To see the comedy; and laugh and chuck
    At the variety and throng of humours
    And dispositions that come justling in
    And out still, as they one drove hence another --
    Why, will you envy me my happiness? (1.3.126-137).

    The concept was a commonplace one, and this speech may or may not have been intended as an allusion to that of Jaques in As You Like It, but a comparison between the two is illuminating. Whereas Jaques's vision of humankind is simultaneously elegiac and reductive (they are 'merely players' who have 'their exits and their entrances' (Shakespeare 1988, 2.7.140-141), the Host's is life-affirming and appreciative; whereas Jaques sees life as an all too predictable movement towards decrepitude and death, the Host emphasises, and is fascinated by the busy bewildering variety with which he is confronted. Of course Jaques is the epitome of the melancholic philosopher manqué and his cynicism, posing as a realistic rendering of the human experience, runs counter to the optimistic tone of the play as a whole. The Host's stance produces an outlook which is no more tenable, no more adequate than that of Jaques, yet his cheery, accommodating interest in his fellow creatures is far more appealing and moreover, is productive of no little happiness for its exponent.

  17. In The New Inn, Jonson unfolds a world in which unity, tolerance and merriment are not just achievable but compulsory. It is, as the game in which Pru is elevated to the role of sovereign for a day indicates, a play space providing the opportunity for 'a fountain o' sport' to be plotted (2.1.77). The story told is really that of Lovel's education into happiness and the Host's recovery of his wife and family, together with the re-adoption of his title. These are events which are emblematic of the re-discovery of aristocratic responsibility and importance, and were extremely pertinent in the aftermath of Buckingham's death (Butler 1992, 173). The concentration of power and patronage in the hands of the favourite had been the cause of much tension, as it had resulted in the promotion of often landless clients of Buckingham and a consequent reduction in the power and influence of the old aristocracy (Sharpe 1992, 130). With the duke gone, some form of rapprochement became a possibility that seemed rapidly to turn into a reality. Kevin Sharpe describes how '[f]ormer parliamentary critics . . . came into the government. Former enemies of the duke were fully restored to favour. In October 1628 the Earl of Arundel [erstwhile Buckingham's inveterate enemy] returned to the Privy Council' (Sharpe 1992, 132). However Buckingham's death had predictably created something of a power vacuum, and it was not entirely clear who would be his successor in terms of power and influence (Sharpe 1992, 132). The political situation must have appeared to be simultaneously in a state of relative harmony and unsettling flux. This was the climate in which Jonson wrote his play, celebrating the rejuvenation and reconciliation of the aristocracy and the incorporation of the disaffected into a newly promising world.


  18. The failure of either Cymbeline or The New Inn to please their critics is a product of the failure of those critics properly to register the extent to which their manifest artificiality is a product of their being composed in response to the exigencies of particular historical moments and definable political climates. That both Jonson and Shakespeare chose to play it safe and forestall potentially dangerous application by partially concealing the pertinence of their works under the accommodating carapace of romance should not be taken as an indication that the plays had no contribution to make to contemporary debate. Jonson was always far too committed to his conception of the poet as didact and counsellor, too involved with the factions and patronage networks of his day to concoct a dramatic placebo; whereas Shakespeare, though he 'took his politics, like his religion and his philosophy to his grave with him' (Kernan 1995, xxi) did not scruple, as has been shown, to include topical material in Cymbeline. The remainder of this essay will focus upon the final scenes, the denouements of these two plays, in order to examine the ways in which their respective dramatists handled the romance materials of unlikely unravellings and remarkable reconciliations in order to achieve an atmosphere of satisfactory and harmonious conclusion, whilst re-affirming the topical thematic content of their respective plays.

  19. The first thing that can be said about the final scene of both The New Inn and Cymbeline is that they are outstanding virtuoso triumphs. An improbable number of loose ends have been teased out of the plot to the extent that, even more so than usual, these plays are set either to stand or fall upon their resolutions. The climactic scene in Cymbeline is prefaced by one showing a despairing Posthumus wishing for death; the wicked plots of Iachimo and the Queen are not yet discovered; Imogen remains disguised as Lucius's servant; and the true identities of the stolen princes Guiderius and Arviragus remain hidden. The New Inn approaches its end with Lovel in melancholy retreat, believing himself to be rejected by Lady Frampul; Pru at odds with her mistress; Lord Beaufort married to Laetitia alias Frank; and the assumed identities of the errant Frampuls intact. In a combined total of less than seven hundred lines, all is to be revealed and all are to be reconciled.

  20. In both plays it is a series of crises which precipitates the resolution, crises which are generated by the fact that each of the characters in the plays has only a partial, or even non-existent knowledge of the true identities of the others on-stage. In The New Inn, though the action is continuous, the move from 5.4 to 5.5 denotes a shift in emphasis from humorous shenanigans to potential catastrophe. At the end of 5.4, the Host removes the disguise from Frank, whom Pru and Lady Frampul had dressed as Laetitia, to reveal Beaufort's apparently comical error: 'A boy, a boy; my lord has married a boy!' shrieks a servant, and Latimer invites the house to 'Raise . . . in shout and laughter' at his friend's mistake (5.4.49-50). This device is strongly reminiscent of that which forms the climax of Epicoene, only here the revelations are only just beginning: a new scene is indicated and the Nurse enters, dispensing her vitriol with considerable gusto in the direction of Fly:

    Hang thee, thou parasite, thou son of crumbs
    And orts; thou hast undone me and my child,
    My daughter, my dear daughter (5.5.4-6).

    The news, first that Frank is the child of the Nurse, and second that she is her daughter, has the effect of turning a practical joke into a crisis: Beaufort thought that he had married a lady; those in on the joke believed that he had merely been made to look foolish by 'marrying' a boy. It now appears that Lord Beaufort has genuinely wedded himself to the daughter of a dipsomaniac Irish nurse and his reaction is predictably one of outrage: the 'royal court o' the Star Chamber,' he declares, will

    . . . clear the truth. Let beggars match with beggars.
    That shall decide it; I will try it there (5.5.43-46).

    This appeal to an authority outside the world of the play renders the deceptions which have been maintained untenable. The Nurse is forced to reveal the identity of herself and her daughter, thereby persuading Beaufort to make good his vows and declare with reference to the newly uncased Laetitia, 'I own her now and will have her' (5.5.81). This in turn is too much for the Host who pulls off his own disguise, announcing:

    I cannot keep
    The passion in me, I am e'en turned child
    And I must weep. Fly, take away mine host,
    My beard and cap here from me, and fetch my lord (5.5.84-87). 8

    With this last shedding of assumed identity, the whole fiction perpetrated by the Host dissolves, and the participants in the drama are able to emerge from the claustrophobic fantasy world of artifice and pretence. Fittingly, it is the Host who feels the greatest relief:

    Take heart and breathe, recover,
    Thou hast recovered me who here had coffined
    Myself alive in a poor hostelry
    In penance of my wrongs (5.5.104-107).

  21. Yet, in spite of the fact that all has been revealed, some of the magic lingers. The ending itself, as Anne Barton observes, operates by 'stressing its own artifice', both in the method and the consequences of its unfolding (Barton 1984, 281). That such serial uncasings should occur is no more likely than that a family should live together so long without recognising one another and, as everyone knows, '[i]n real life, lords do not marry chamber-maids in the manner that Latimer does as he takes up the dowerless Pru' (Barton 1984, 280). The spirit of harmony and happiness upon which the Host had insisted is strong enough to survive re-awakening to such an extent that Lovel enters upon the last scene unsure as to his own conscious state:

    Is this a dream now, after my first sleep?
    Or are these phant'sies made i' the Light Heart
    And sold i' The New Inn? (5.5.120-122).

    Lovel's stunned incomprehension is understandable, and the equivocation inherent in his uncertainty over the substance of what he sees is significant. In fact, the ending of The New Inn is closest to The Tempest. Reconciliations aplenty are made, but still some, the servants and Tipto, remain untransformed. Martin Butler has suggested that Lovel too is unchanged, but it is not the melancholy gentleman of Act 1 who prepares a song, his 'dream of beauty . . . to bid us joy/And light us all to bed' (5.5.149-151) (Butler 1992, 176). The marriage of Lady Frampul and Lovel is still just a potentiality, and the audience is made aware of the fact that the characters have a life extending beyond the confines of the play to which there is no access. At the end, the Host seems acutely aware of the need to 'marry' his wife 'every hour of life hereafter' (5.5.156). Eternal peace is, of course, dependant upon eternal vigilance. If the play was indeed, as has been argued, intended to reflect upon the political aftermath of Buckingham's death, then it does so by illustrating the fact that resolution may be a possible rather than an inevitable outcome.

  22. In Cymbeline it appears that resolution of a kind has been achieved at the beginning of the last scene by virtue of the British triumph over the invading Roman army. The news of the Queen's death and the exposure of her schemes removes one obstacle to the reconciliation of the parties, but another is immediately created by Cymbeline's proposal to slaughter his prisoners: Posthumus and Imogen, disguised as Fidele, still amongst them. Cymbeline barely knows why he agrees to spare Imogen at Lucius's entreaty, yet appears on some level to be working towards the recognition of his daughter:

    Thou hast look'd thyself into my grace,
    And art mine own (5.5.93-95).

    It is the act of recognition which drives the denouement of the play and compels the participants towards mercy and forgiveness (Kermode 1971, 219-259). Once Imogen and Posthumus are revealed and reunited, the trio of Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus become the focus of attention once more. Guiderius having confessed to the killing of Cloten is sentenced to death in accordance with the law (5.5.299), yet even the operations of justice are suspended when Belarius reveals the killer's true identity, evidenced by the 'mark of wonder' on his neck (5.5.366). Cymbeline's puzzling exclamation, 'O, what am I?/A mother to the birth of three?' (5.5.369-370) sparks off a whole series of assertions based on the re-establishment of familial ties: Imogen embraces Guiderius and Arviragus as 'my gentle brothers' (5.5.375); Belarius is newly adopted by Cymbeline as 'my brother' (5.5.400); and Posthumus is to 'learn our freeness of a son-in-law' (5.5.422). The atmosphere of reconciliation and lenity is so pervasive that Posthumus can only tell the grovelling Iachimo that:

    The power I have on you, is to spare you:
    The malice towards you, to forgive you (5.5.419-420).

    The circumstances and the atmosphere are such that Cymbeline's inclusive declaration, 'Pardon's the word to all' (5.5.423), is the only possible response to the events which he is presiding over.

  23. Yet resolution in Cymbeline goes further than the mere pardoning of the losers by the winners. Fulfilling Jupiter's prophecy that the 'stately cedar . . . shall . . . revive', Cymbeline progresses from the passive act of forgiveness to the active one of constructing what he calls 'My peace'. The misplaced, confrontational patriotism insisted upon as policy by the Queen and Cloten in 3.1 has died with them, and Cymbeline marks his conciliation by restoring fully Britain's former relationship with Rome:

    . . . we submit to Caesar,
    And to the Roman empire; promising
    To pay our wonted tribute, from the which
    We were dissuaded by our wicked queen (5.5.461-464).8

    The association of isolationist aggression with the actions of the 'wicked queen' can be seen as refuting any allegation of weakness which might be levelled at Cymbeline. Jodi Mikalachki construes the process in terms of a gendered binary opposition, and the re-writing of history:

    In contrast to the ancient queen's savage refusal of empire, the masculine embrace of Roman Britain became the truly generative interaction, producing a civil masculine foundation for early modern English nationalism (Mikalachki 1995, 322).

    Shakespeare, by having Britain linked with Rome, not through conquest but by choice, accesses a wealth of positive associations. As Emrys Jones notes:

    . . . the audience must have made a complex identification; the peace is both the peace of the world at the time of Christ's birth, in which Britain participates, and also its attempted re-creation at the very time of the play's performance, with Jacobus Pacificus 'who was a 'figure' of Augustus' on the throne (Jones 1961, 96).

    Yet because of the distancing effect achieved in terms of time and action through Shakespeare's use of his romance-historical materials, such associations are obscured almost to the point at which they become merely a regretful yearning. Of course the ending of the play contains much which would have appealed to the king in that it seems to endorse both a united national identity and a general peace, but it does so in such generalized terms as to rouse the sympathies of any nostalgic patriot. The reference to Jupiter's temple provides the ultimate reminder that what is depicted in the play belongs mainly to a world remote and inaccessible, yet this too can yield positive associations:

    Set we forward: let
    A Roman and a British ensign wave
    Friendly together so through Lud's town march,
    And in the temple of great Jupiter
    Our peace we'll ratify (5.5.480-484).


  24. It is not the purpose of this essay to find specific links between The New Inn and Cymbeline, or indeed any of Shakespeare's romances, though some have been observed. The relationship between this play of Jonson's and those of Shakespeare rests, if it rests at all, upon a basis almost too shifting and insubstantial to be perceptible, even with the greatest permissible level of speculation. It may be a significant factor that both dramatists turned to romance in the latter part of their careers, perhaps in response to changing popular fashions, and perhaps partly as the result of a desire to display their virtuosity in a genre they had not yet attempted. What the two plays amply demonstrate are the two related qualities of romance calculated to appeal to a dramatist, yet accessible only to those with the great skill required to use them: that is to say, the freedom which romance gives both to open up and to conceal. The ability of the romance genre to be stretched to include almost anything and everything, however improbable or incongruous, which the dramatist chooses to include, has as its corollary the tendency to obfusticate and enshroud. If the artifice of Jonson's play in particular is palpable, it is because the audience is supposed to see the artist in the act of papering over the cracks. In this sense, it stretches the uses of romance just that little bit further than Cymbeline, though perhaps in a different direction. On a purely artistic level, Jonson's play may be not so much a tribute to Shakespeare as an attempt to evince his mastery of the sub-genre -- Shakespearean romance -- established by his illustrious predecessor.


  1. Like most, I am happy to include Cymbeline amongst the romances. It should be noted, however, that it is designated a 'tragedy' in the 1623 Folio, and Peggy Muñoz Simonds has constructed a learned case for viewing Cymbeline as a 'Renaissance tragicomedy' (Simonds 1992, 29-65).


  2. Sidney provides an amusing conflated parody of the kind of plays in which:

    . . . you shall have Asia of the one side, and Afric of the other . . . Now ye shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we hear news of a shipwreck in the same place, and then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock. Upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave. While in the meantime two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field? (Sidney 1973, 134).

    Sidney is of course referring to a much earlier vogue for romance, yet his remarks would be equally justified by such plays as Pericles and The Winter's Tale.


  3. A terminus ad quem is established by Simon Forman's record of having seen the play in 1611. Nosworthy suggests that 1609 is 'probably not far wrong', whereas Wells and Taylor give 'stylistic evidence' as a reason for assigning it to 1610-11 (Shakespeare 1969, xiv; Shakespeare 1988, 1131).


  4. Admittedly, Guiderius and Arviragus are not hugely different, but it is worth noting that it is Guiderius who kills Cloten and who first suggests that the two princes join forces with the Britons against the Romans (4.4.30-34). Arviragus's response to events is rather more a contemplative one -- 'What pleasure, sir, we find in life, to lock it/From action and adventure' (4.4.2-3) -- though he has no hesitation in following his brother's lead.


  5. It was of course Dr Johnson who famously pointed out the 'incongruity' inherent in Cymbeline (Johnson 1989, 235).


  6. The audience may well have heard 'tender heir' as opposed to 'tender air', as they are phonetically identical. (Compare The Tempest 1.2.56, 'Thy mother was a piece of virtue' (Shakespeare 1988)). The former would make much better sense in view of the fact that, as far as the audience were concerned at this point, Imogen is the sole surviving heir of Cymbeline and it is clearly she who is meant by the prophecy. If that were so, the Soothsayer's utterances would be even more obviously redundant. In any case, the competence of the Soothsayer to divine truth from falsehood has to be questioned in the light of his manifest inability to correctly interpret even his own vision. See 42.346-352, and compare his re-interpretation of 5.5.467-477.


  7. See the conflicting interpretations given in Riggs 1989, 300-301 and Butler 1992, 171. Riggs suggests that Jonson 'intimated that he sympathized' with Zouch Townlye, the probable author of the poem; whereas Butler believes it 'very unlikely that Jonson would have applauded a popular assassin for removing even an upstart aristocrat'.


  8. This recalls The Tempest, where Prospero's change of clothing both encompasses, and is symbolic of the laying aside of his role as magician on an enchanted isle and his return to the real world of responsibilities as he re-assumes his identity as Duke of Milan:

    Fetch me the hat and rapier in my cell.
    I will discase me, and myself present
    As I was sometime Milan. (Shakespeare 1988, 5.1.83-86).


List of Works Cited

Barton, Anne. 1984. Ben Jonson, Dramatist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, Martin. 1992. 'Late Jonson'. In The Politics of Tragicomedy: Shakespeare and After. Eds. Gordon McMullan and Jonathan Hope. London: Routledge, 166-188.

Coward, Barry. 1994. The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714. 2nd ed. London: Longman.

Dutton, Richard. 1991. Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama. London: Macmillan.

Frost, David L. 1986. ''Mouldy Tales': The Context of Shakespeare's Cymbeline'. Essays and Studies: 19-38.

Gibbons, Brian. 1995. Shakespeare and Multiplicity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gurr, Andrew. 1983. 'The Bear, the Statue, and Hysteria in The Winter's Tale'. Shakespeare Quarterly 34: 420-425.

Gurr, Andrew. 1992. The Shakespearean Stage: 1574-1642. 3rd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hill, Geoffrey. 1969. 'The True Conduct of Human Judgement: Some Observations on Cymbeline'. In The Morality of Art: Essays Presented to G. Wilson Knight by his Colleagues and Friends. Ed. D. W. Jefferson. London: Routledge, 18-32.

Johnson, Samuel. 1989. Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare. Ed. H. R. Woudhuysen. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Jones, Emrys. 1961. 'Stuart Cymbeline'. Essays in Criticism 11: 84-99.

Jonson, Ben. 1910. Ben Jonson's Plays. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. 2 vols. London: Dent.

Jonson, Ben. 1984. The New Inn. The Revels Plays. Ed. Michael Hattaway. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Jonson, Ben. 1985. Ben Jonson. The Oxford Authors. Ed. Ian Donaldson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kermode, Frank. 1973. Renaissance Essays: Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne. London: Fontana.

Kernan, Alvin. 1995. Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theatre in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Mikalachki, Jodi. 1995. 'The Masculine Romance of Roman Britain: Cymbeline and Early Modern English Nationalism'. Shakespeare Quarterly 46: 301-322.

Mullaney, Steven. 1988. The Place of the Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Peck, Linda Levy, ed.. 1991. The Mental World of the Jacobean Court. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Proudfoot, Richard. 1966. 'Shakespeare and the New Dramatists of the King's Men, 1606-1613'. In Later Shakespeare. Eds. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 8. London: Edward Arnold, 235-261.

Riggs, David. 1989. Ben Jonson: A Life. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Russell, Conrad. 1971. The Crisis of Parliaments: English History 1509-1660. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Scragg, Leah. 1992. Shakespeare's Mouldy Tales: Recurrent Plot Motifs in Shakespearian Drama. London: Longman.

Shakespeare, William. 1969. Cymbeline. The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. J. M. Nosworthy. London: Routledge.

Shakespeare, William. 1988. The Complete Works. Gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Sharpe, Kevin. 1992. The Personal Rule of Charles I. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sidney, Sir Philip. 1973. An Apology for Poetry. Ed. Geoffrey Shepherd. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. 1992. Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's Cymbeline: An Iconographic Reconstruction. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Smuts, R. Malcom. 1987. Court Culture and the Origins of a Royalist Tradition in Early Stuart England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Spencer, T. J. B. 1974. 'Ben Jonson on his beloved, The Author Mr. William Shakespeare'. In The Elizabethan Theatre IV. Ed. G. R. Hibbard. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1974.

Wells, Stanley. 1966. 'Shakespeare and Romance'. In Later Shakespeare. Eds. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 8. London: Edward Arnold, 49-79.

Wymer, Rowland. 1995. 'Jacobean Pageant or Elizabethan Fin de Siècle? The Political Context of Early Seventeenth-Century Tragedy'. In Jacobean Drama as Social Criticism. Ed. James Hogg. Salzburg: Edwin Mellen Press.

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Contents © Copyright Andrew Stewart 1998.
Format © Copyright 1998 Renaissance Forum. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 1998.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 5 July 1998