10. Date of Cymbeline

1. Complete lack of external evidence

Orthodox chronology dates the play in 1609 or 1610, just before The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Such a date ‚would fit the evidence of metre and style, which links the play with Winter's Tale and Tempest.'[1] While on stylistic and generic grounds this judgment cannot be contested, the sole external evidence on which Chambers can rely for dating the three plays between 1609 and 1611 is non-existent. For the Winter's Tale and Tempest this external evidence are the Revels Accounts discovered by Peter Cunningham in 1842. From the very beginning their authenticity were bitterly questioned and, finally, they were generally rejected as forgeries. However, a generation after their coming to light, around 1880, the discovery of a paper scrap with alleged notes by Edmund Malone - a scrap Malone himself had never made mention of - relaunched the debate and now efforts were being made to cast a veil of sanctity over their pale aspect of genuineness. Too admirably did they fit the orthodox chronology first established by Edmund Malone for scholars to want them shelved back into the dungeon-like 'dry and lofty cellar' at Somerset House where Peter Cunningham pretended to have chanced upon them. Despite a renewed strong case against their authenticity made by Samuel A. Tannenbaum[2] Cunningham's discovery was now widely considered, so to speak, as convicted of innocence by rhetorical torture.

Five years later, in 1933, Tannenbaum put another strong case against the authenticity of the only other document on which orthodox chronology based its dating of the 'late' plays Winter's Tale and Cymbeline.[3] Tannenbaum's arguments caused some chagrin among orthodox scholars as can be seen from John Dover Wilson's and R.W. Hunt's indignated reaction: 'One cannot help admiring the courage and pertinacity, to give them no harsher names, of Dr. Samuel A. Tannenbaum, the American scholar and self-styled "bibliotic". The famous Revels Accounts for 1604-5 and 1611-12, now at the Record Office, which register no fewer than ten performances of Shakespeare's plays at Court, fell under suspicion of forgery in 1868 but seemed finally authenticated in 1911 by the investigations of Mr. Ernest Law... Yet in 1928 Dr. Tannenbaum renewed the attack upon their genuineness... W.W. Greg made short work of his "bibliotic" arguments in R.E.S....'.[4] Though in the said article Greg opted for tolerating their genuineness, he did not give so short a shrift to Tannenbaum as Wilson would have it. His judgement was more of an oath of loyalty to tradition than a clear-cut exculpation: 'It has been plausibly argued that there are evidences of forgery: it has also been plausibly argued that there are errors that a forger would be unlikely to make, and that they therefore support the authenticity of the documents. The argument can be turned both ways.'[5] Not only a far cry from what to Wilson looked like 'short work' but rather a wounded avowal of their inauthenticity: the contemporary scribe would have made errors a forger would not have made more than three hundred years later! Wilson goes on reprimanding Tannenbaum in the same sulkily indignated vein: 'Was Dr. Tannenbaum disheartened? On the contrary, having failed to shake one of the main pillars in the Shakespearean edifice, he determined to see what could be done with another, scarcely less important, viz., the record, among the Ashmolean MSS. At the Bodleian, of visits to the Globe Theatre in 1611 by Simon Forman, a well-known astrologer of the period, which describes performances of The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and Macbeth... And this time he appeared to have chosen a more favourable pitch, seeing that the documents was one about which scholars acquainted with Collier's methods could not feel altogether happy.'[6]

Tannenbaum was neither the first, nor the last heavily to doubt the genuineness of Simon Forman's report on the four plays (the fourth play was Richard II, but clearly not Shakespeare's). Joseph Quincy Adams had rejected the authenticity of Forman's report on Macbeth. A date was placed in the wrong year, horses would have entered upon the stage, some other particularities (riding through the heath instead of wood, the name of Imogen rendered as Innogen, the name Holinshed gives to Brutus' wife) were to be found in Holinshed's Chronicles but not in the play. All this and the fact that the authenticity of all the rest of Collier's New Discoveries, which also contained the details from Simon Forman's Bocke of Plaies, could impossibly be vindicated did orthodox scholars not hinder to canonize this one particular discovery of Collier's in order to give their dating a 'solid' external evidenciary basis.

The case against the alleged account of Cymbeline by Simon Forman later proved even more devastating than Tannenbaum, not working on the original manuscript, was able to show. Sidney Race[7], who examined the manuscript, could adduce further evidence, the most powerful being certain words in a modern hand: 'It would seem that the writer got tired, and lapsed unintentionally into his ordinary hand.'[8]

Other approaches are necessary.

2. The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune

The discovery of this play as a source, the source, indeed, of Cymbeline is, at first glance, a rare triumph of fortune. In 1887 the attention was for the first time drawn to it by R.W. Boodle.[9] It was performed before the Queen at Windsor Castle on 30 December 1582 by the Earl of Derby's players and printed in 1589. In his introduction to the Arden edition J.M. Nosworthy fully subscribed Boodle's identification: 'At the risk of seeming dogmatic, I am content to claim that Boodle was substantially correct and that Shakespeare's obligation, such at it was, was to Love and Fortune and to no other literary production of which we have knowledge, with, however, the reservation that I have applied to Holinshed and the wager sources. Precisely what led Shakespeare to this ramshackle old play in the first place, I do not pretend to know.[10]

Cymbeline, then, cannot have been written before 1589 or, if Shakespeare had seen a manuscript version, 1583.

But the triumph of fortune is soon rarefied under the pressure of a closer comparison. There are, surely, certain common features. In the anonymous play Venus (Love) and Fortune enter into a contest on who exerts the greatest influence on human destiny. This contest, with Vulcan as a kind of clown, fills the whole first act. Nothing remains of that in Shakespeare's play. The heroine of the play is Fidelia (Imogen), daughter of duke Phizanties (king Cymbeline), the hero, strangely, bears the same name as the queen in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale: Hermione (Posthumus Leonatus). The villain in the play is Armenio, Fidelia's brother, not the half-brother Cloten as in Cymbeline. Like Belarius in Shakespeare's play a banished courtier lives in a cave. His name is Bomelio. But differently from Belarius, Bomelio is a magician, an enchanter, and the (unknown) father of Hermione. In this respect the play has more likeness to The Tempest than to Cymbeline. Unlike Cloten Armenio is not killed but struck dumb by Bomelio, whereas Hermione burns Bomelio's books of magic which brings Bomelio into a desperate situation when, disguised as a French doctor, he promises duke Phizanties to cure Armenio. The play ends with the reconcilement of all foes: Fidelia and Armenio, Phizanties with Bomelio and Hermione. And, in the final act, Fortune and Love.

Though at first apparently striking, in the upshot the parallels between the two plays reveal themselves as superficial. True, in Cymbeline (III.7) Imogen, disguised as a boy, adopts the masculine form of the name Fidelia, ie Fidele. But Fidele and Fidelia are fairly common names in romances (see, fore example, Anthony Munday's play Fidele and Fortunio, licensed in 1581). There are a few parallels in act II but Nosworthy makes far too much of them. They may be accounted for by the similarity of the situation. Phizanties chides Fidelia: "And thou fond girle. Whose stained blood hath wrought, /How hath mine age and honor been abusde!" (ll. 396-7); Cymbeline's words to Imogen are: "O disloyal thing, /That shouldst repair my youth, thou heap'st a year's age on me" (I.ii.62-64).

Most unsatisfactory of all is the way Shakespeare would have created the play if he had taken this anonymous play as basic material. He would have left but a few passages and reformulated them. He would have added the wager theme either from Boccacio's tale of Bernabo di Genoa in the Decameron or the romance Frederyke of Jennen. He would also have turned to Holinshed's Chronicles from which he added the pseudo-historical matter of Cunobelinus (Cymbeline) and taken the names of Cloten, Guiderius and Arviragus, the latter's pseudonym, the pseudonym of Belarius, and, slightly changed from Innogen, the name Imogen, in Holinshed respectively a king or duke of Cornwall, the two sons of Cymbeline, both Arviragus' and Belarius' pseudonym Cadwall and Morgan, kings of Britain, the latter a grandson of King Lear.[11]

A little detail rather suggests that the borrowing might have been the other way round. The anonymous play has a prince Armenio as Fidelia's brother and foe. Now, Adminius was, historically correct, another son of Cunobelin's who was banished.[12]  Which would mean that in one instance the anonymous author imitated Shakespeare. Which would be a first hint that the latest date for Cymbeline is 1582. He might, then, also have borrowed the name Fidelia. At any rate, The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune is not a credible source play for Cymbeline.

3. Greek romance

'Each of Cymbeline's three story threads is characteristic of the Greek romance: the wager story and Imogen's travels, the loss and restoration of Cymbeline's heirs, and Cymbeline's war with Rome.[13] Moreover, the play has a series of other stock features in common with the romances of Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, Longus, Chariton, and Xenophon. It is worth noting that Gesner not only perceives Cymbeline but also The Winter's Tale as much closer to the original romances than their alleged immediate sources. Shakespeare's Winter's Tale contains some details which are found in Longus' Daphnis and Chloe - whether from the translation by Angel Day (1587) or another source, eg the French translation by Jacques Amyot, first published in 1559 - but not in Greene's Pandosto (which, again, may reverse the dependency): the hunting party driving the sheep to the shore (III.iii), the storm (III.iii), the rude shepherd (the clown), the visit of the king and Camillo (IV.iv) before the elopement of Florizel and Perdita instead of after the elopement of Dorastus and Fawnia as in Greene's novel. Similarly, the plot of Cymbeline 'is even closer to Chaereas and Callirhoe [by Chariton] than are his sources; for like Callirhoe, Imogen is led to believe that her husband is dead and like Chaereas, Posthumus regrets his hasty actions, laments, and meditates suicide - motives missing from Boccacio.[14]

Parallels to other Greek romances pervade the play. In Xenophon's Ephesiaca the heroine Anthia is to be killed at the instigation of her jealous mistress Manto. We here have the stepmother function completely absent from the alleged source play Love and Fortune. Like Pisanio in Cymbeline, the servant ordered to kill her spares her and reports her death. Anthia takes a sleeping draught and awakens beside a dead body she mistakes as her dead husband (Cym. IV.ii.38 and 296-320). Whereas Gesner concedes that the material taken from Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus and Longus might have been known from other sources she thinks that this 'is less obvious the case when we consider the materials which seems analogous to Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus.[15]

Achilles Tatius' romance Clitophon and Leucippe was translated into Italian and published for the first time in Venice in 1550. Until Oxford's travel to Italy it went through five new editions. It was translated in French in 1568 and thrice re-issued by 1575. The passage in Cymbeline where Cloten's body is cast into a river and Imogen bewails her supposedly dead husband seems to be a reversion of a scene in Tatius' romance where the hero Clitophon thinks seeing Leucippe and how she is beheaded and her body cast into the sea. But even more astounding are the parallels between the bedroom scene in Cymbeline (II.ii) and another passage in the Greek romance. Just before Leucippe, through the treacherous action of a friend, is abducted by pirates, a portent of the ominous things to come is revealed in a picture: 'I did beholde a table, wherein was drawn the mishap of Progne, the violence of Tereus, the cutting out of the tongue of Philomele.[16] Moreover, Clitophon is required by his father to marry his half-sister. Leucippe drinks a magic potion. Shakespeare has re-arranged these elements: it is the heroine Imogen whom king Cymbeline wants to marry her half-brother Cloten, she swallows the drug given her by the physician, in the bed-room scene she is reading the tale of Philomele and Tereus; while the description of a painting is given as evidence for his seduction of Imogen. 'The description is in the tradition of a formal ekphrasis of a work of art, a commonplace of the elaborate Hellenic style and frequent in Achilles Tatius, which, indeed begins with an ekphrasis of a painting, as does Daphnis and Chloe (we have, of course, the same ekphrasis in The Winter's Tale, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece). There are references to the two epic poems in the bedroom scene: 'Our Tarquin thus /Did softly press the rushes, ere he waken'd/ The chastity he wounded. Cytherea,/ How bravely thou becom'st thy bed! Fresh lily! /And whiter than the sheets!' (II.ii.12-16). 

Even more marked than to Tatius Clitophon and Leucippe are the parallels to Heliodorus' Æthiopica, telling the story of Chariclea and Theagenes. Both in Shakespeare's play and the old Greek romance there is a threefold thread. Gesner gives the following illuminating synopsis[17]:



1. Elopement of Theagenes and Chariclea - leads to apparent death, separation of couple, unfortunate adventures occasioned by travel, suspicion of heroine's chastity.

2. King Hydaspe's lost heir - the birth, abndonment, and education of Chariclea.

3. King Hydaspe's victorious war with Egypt - leads to recovery of lost heir; peace brings about the denouement.


1. Marriage of Imogen and Posthumus - leads to separation of couple, unfortunate chastity wager, apparent death, travel.

2. King Cymbeline's lost heirs - the kidnapping and education of Guiderius and Aviragus.

3. King Cymbeline's victorious war with Rome - leads to recovery of lost heirs; peace brings about the denouement.

Like Hydaspes toward the Egyptian king Orondantes, Cymbeline does not take advantage of his victory and, in the interest of peace and civilisation, continues paying his tribute after his victory over the Romans. Both Chariclea and Imogen excel through their intelligence, cleverness and sang-froid. Other particulars concord. The motive of the hero striking the unrecognized heroine is, according to Gesner, in sundry Greek romances. Theagenes strikes Chariclea, whom he does not recognize in her disguise, in the same manner Posthumus strikes Imogen. 

There are more parallels. Gesner adduces other plot elements common in Heliodorus and Shakespeare, so that her introductory thesis is amply proven: 'Close examination reveals that Cymbeline was probably influenced by the Æthiopica and was perhaps even a conscious imitation of that romance. If so, the idea of an imitation, of a new Heliodoran romance, could have been suggested by Sidney's imitation, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, with which it has much in common.[18]

4. Conclusion

If Cymbeline was Shakespeare's most programmatic attempt at putting romance on the stage, translating it into dramatic form, we may think of Cymbeline as Oxford's theatrical answer to the romance Arcadia of his greatest literary rival Philip Sidney, or vice versa. And some of Sidney's classicist criticisms of the stage in his Apology for Poetry (probably written in 1582 or 1583) may have been levelled at it. 'By and by, we heare newes of a shipwracke in the same place, and then we are to blame f we accept it not for a Rock. Upon the backe of that, comes out a hidious Monster, with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bounde to take it for a Cave. While in the meantime two Armies flye in, represented with foure swords and bucklers, and then what harde heart will not receive it for a pitched fielde? Now, of time they are much more liberall, for ordinary it is that two young Princes fall in love. After many traverses, she is got with childe, delivered of a faire boy; he is lost, groweth a man, falls in love, and is ready to get another child; and all this in two hours space...'[19] The shipwreck and the monster could allude to The Tempest, the lost child and the generation gap to The Winter's Tale, and the two armies to the battle between Romans and Britons in Cymbeline (Act V, i-iv).

Sidney's criticism might have been intended for other playwrights as well. But would the courtier Sidney have concerned himself with literary production of non-courtiers? Would he have cared about literary work other than of courtiers? Probably no. It seems that for him no less than for the anonymous author of The Art of English Poesie, also written around 1583 (published in 1589), only court poets fell within his purview. The latter does not name Lyly, Munday, and others who by that time had already published and/or written some works. By 1583 John Lyly had acquired some fame through Euphues as Edmund Spenser had by The Shepherd's Calendar. Lyly, however, had published under his own name, Spenser, still hoping for a career at Court, under the pseudonym Immerito. The author of Arte of English Poetry respect this anonymity and writes: 'that other Gentleman that wrate the late shepheardes Callender'[20] Only 'courtly makers', court poets were taken into consideration. Sidney mentions Chaucer and his Troylus and Cresseid, the Mirrour of Magistrates, the Earl of Surrey's lyric verse, the tragedy Gorboduc and Spenser's The Shepherd's Calendar naming neither the names of the authors of the play  nor Spenser. In 1583 the anonymous author of The Art of English Poesie gives only four names for dramatic writing: 'That for Tragedie, the Lord of Buckhurst, & Maister Edward Ferrys for suh doings as I have sene of theirs do deserve the hyest price: Th'Earle of Oxford and Maister Edwardes of Her Majesties Chappell for Comedy and Enterlude.[21] Sidney criticizes Gorboduc for not respecting the Aristotelian rules of unity of place and time. If with his other criticism he meant a particular playwright it could only have been his courtly literary rival Edward de Vere.

Because Cymbeline was the bold project of bringing on the stage the romance with the whole of its 'eclecticism' it is likely to have preceded the thematically more constricted Winter's Tale and Tempest. All of them must have been written before 1583.

I, therefore, propose a date for Cymbeline between 1578 and 1581.


[1] Chambers, E.K. William Shakespeare, Vol. I, Oxford  1930, p. 485).

[2] Tannenbaum, S.A.,  Shakspere Forgeries in the Revels Accounts, New York 1928.

[3] Tannenbaum, S.A., Shaksperian Scraps, Port Washington 1966, 1st edition  New York 1933, p. 1-35.

[4] Wilson, John Dover and Hunt, R.W., The Authenticity of Simon Forman's Bocke of  Plaies in Review of English Studies, Volume xxiii, July 1947, p. 193.

[5] Greg, W.W., Review of Tannenbaum's Shakspere Forgeries in the Revels Accounts in Review of English Studies, Volume 5, 1929. P. 349.

[6] Wilson, J.D. and Hunt, R.W., loc. cit. p. 13. Note that Collier was widely thought to be a party to Cunningham's forgeing of the Revels Accounts. Both were on very good terms with one another, Cunningham was a zealous member of the Shakespeare Society whose president Collier was. 

[7] Race, Sidney, Simon Forman's 'Bocke of Plaies' in Notes & Queries, January 1958, p. 9-14.

[8] Ibidem, p. 12.

[9] Boodle, R.W. in Notes & Queries, 7th Ser. iv (19 Nov. 1887), p. 405.

[10] Arden edition of Cymbeline,  edited by J.M. Nosworthy,  introduction p. xxv, edition of 1994, first edition, London 1969.  

[11] It seems more likely that Shakespeare did not so much follow Holinshed than the older chronicle The New Chronicle of England and France - 1495, first published in 1516, by Robert Fabian. As W.G. Boswell-Stone points out in a footnote in Shakespeare's Holinshed, London 1907, p. 15,  in making Cassibelan a brother of Cymbeline's father and not grandfather he adopts Fabian's version: '... Cassibelan, thine uncle, /(Famous in Cæsar's praises... /... granted Rome a tribute (III.1.5-8).

[12] Boswell-Stone, loc. cit. p. 6.

[13] Gesner, Carol, Shakespeare & the Greek Romance, A Study of Origins, Lexington 1970, p. 91.

[14] Ibidem, p. 93. Elsewhere Gesner has another remark on which, unfortunately, she does not tell us anything more: 'Somehow the late fourteenth-century play Ostes, Roy d'Espaigne, one of the surviving Miracles de Nostre Dame is remarkably like Cymbeline in plot details, "emotional movement and final effect", the link perhaps in the miracle tradition from which Robert G. Hunter thinks the romances descend.' (p. 92). The more unfortunate because, according to Nosworthy (loc. cit. p. xx), Miracle de Nostre Dame contains the wager story which Gesner has some difficulty to explain from the Greek romances. It could be that this late 14th-century Franch play would in the end turn out to be the most immediate known source of Cymbeline.

[15] Ibidem, p. 95.

[16] Ibidem, p. 97.

[17] Ibidem, p. 99-100.

[18] Ibidem, p. 98.

[19] Phlip Sidney, Apology for Poetry in G. Gregory Smith (ed.), Elizabethan Critical Essays, Vol. I, p. 197, Oxford 1904, reprint of 1967)

[20] The Arte of English Poesie by George Puttenham, edited by Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker, Cambridge 1936, p. 63.

[21] Ibidem, p. 62-3.