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Rated: ASR · Essay · Arts · #2031884
A Literature Question: Answer in Essay Form
           Mason Gray 2015



'A concern with the fading powers of ageing men percolates through all of Shakespeare's works'. Discuss this proposition in relation to Cymbeline, the Sonnets and one of the TMA plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, King Lear, and The Tempest.


The following essay will address the above question by first providing two pieces of research that will inform the debate.  Reasons for choosing the items of research will be discussed.  The research pieces from bibliographical databases will form an evaluative bibliography for part 1 of the TMA.  Essentially relevance of the research in the light of the above question will be outlined and key relevant content will be paraphrased, quoted and referenced accordingly. Then in the second part of the TMA, the actual essay will address the concepts raised in the evaluative bibliography and thus be reflected upon in comparative analysis and informed by selected sonnets.  Concluding paragraphs will provide a summative assessment of emerging ideas and an overarching answer to the set question.

Part 1

Cymbeline and Empire an essay by Paul Innes provides a critical survey of themes and subtexts that Cymbeline is believed to address.  This article was found on the Open University Library website and was chosen as it suggests that King Cymbeline's role in the play is a minimal one.  Citing Nosworthy Innes suggests that Cymbeline is 'an almost meaningless cipher' adding that 'He is a puppet, who never comes to life' (Innes, 2007, p.4).  This is a bold and interesting claim that foregrounds Cymbeline's hapless existence amidst a greater and more symbolic undercurrent of political activity.  Such a bold statement has formed a basis of selection and discussion of this article.

The political undercurrent that Innes foregrounds is one of power and gender politics.  Innes forwards a compelling argument as to how such power and gender politics manifest in Cymbeline.  Remarkably Innes picks up on Posthumus Leonatus and the idea of Leonati as the Scottish (Innes, 2007, p.5).  With Belurius capturing Cymbeline's sons and hiding them near Milford Haven (Innes, 2007, p.5) they come to represent Wales and a lineage to the throne (Innes, 2007, p.10).  Innogen's chastity and Iachimo's unscrupulous violation of it serves on two levels.  Firstly Innogen and chastity are a concurrent theme of Britain (Innes, 2007, p.5) contrasted with Iachimo as an Italian aggressor representative of papal Christianity that in Jacobean times was received as exploitative of Britain's sovereignty (Innes, 2007, p.11 and 12).

Innes argues that Cymbeline tilts from views of Englishness to views of Britishness (Innes, 2007, p.6).  Citing the discussion involving Cloten's renouncement of Roman taxes and the Queens patriotic speech, Innes puts forward grounds for competing ideas of Britishness (Ibid.).  Innes argues that the supposedly evil nature of the Queen coupled with king Cymbeline's capitulation to the powers of Rome reconcile an idea of a Roman Britain (Mikalachki cited in Innes, 2007, p.9).

The actual text at various junctures according to Innes is concordant with symbolism of Roman gods and may lend victory over and subsequent capitulation to the Romans as a means of framing Britishness as a triumphant masculinity.  Innes discusses at length the significance of Roman symbolism and its relevance to Jacobean Britain.  Examples of Roman symbolism are found in the idea of Jove's eagle (Innes, 2007, p.5, 7, 10 and 11) and even the Queens use of 'Neptune's park' (3.1.19, Norton 2nd edition, p.3004)  in her Roman renouncing speech, ironically a roman god (Innes, 2007, p.6).

Innes frames Iachimo's description of Innogen's chamber as lusciously adorned in a manner that signifies wealth and thus frames Iachimo and symbolically Rome or on a more subtle level papal Christendom as impoverished and coveting by contrast (Innes, 2007, p.15).  Innes instance the Queens use of 'poor ignorant baubles' (3.1.28, Norton 2nd edition, p.3004) as her description of Ceasar's invading armies in order to justify the claim of impoverished Roman Catholicism (Ibid.).

The main thrust of Innes article suggests that key scenes are emblematic in their centralising the idea of empire.  Innes places particular significance on the wager scene (Innes, 2007, p.1-4) and goes to some length in discussing the presence of other nation states and the significance of this amidst the idea of a wider empire.  Innes assertion seems to be that while the play at a subversive level vilifies Roman papacy it maintains a status quo in so far as empire is concerned (Innes, 2007, p.14 and 15).  Innes suggest that Shakespeare achieves the task of heralding an era of British colonialism while shunning the advances of preeminent Christendom.  Innes suggests 'the British Isles are trying to imagine their own future' (Innes, 2007, p.15).  Innes contrasts this with Iachimo's comparison of Innogen in terms of a treasure chest (ibid).

Clearly Innes in his essay that runs for some sixteen sides discusses at length the various facets of the empire and united Britain with reference to characters in the play.  By stark contrast king Cymbeline's role is belittled by purposeful tact it would seem.  Thus the main essay will aim to pick up on this and evaluate and justify arguments for and against Innes with reference to close readings of the play and specific sonnets.  The research essay will inform the subsequent discussion on its relevance on ageing men and fading powers in Shakespeare's works.

The second research article too was found on The Open University library search facility online.  Literary Psychiatric Observation and Diagnosis Through the Ages: King Lear revisited by A.M Truskinovsky remarkably provides compelling reading that charts psychological evaluation of King Lear from the earliest available sources.  This item of research and King Lear were a more straight forward choice since both explicitly address age and the role of a King head on.

Truskinovsky instances evidence as the title suggests from various Psychological practitioners through the ages.  There seems to be some insider agreement as to how accurately Shakespeare frames the specific madness of Lear.  Particularly Kellogg is cited as attributing such accuracy to a poetic capacity while others remark on Shakespeare's capacity for observation.  Furthermore experts suggest in the article that Shakespeare was an adept behavioural scientist (Truskinovsky, 2002, p.2) and that his expertise was not different to practitioners in the sense that while by profession psychiatrist frame the mind 'in the abstract' Shakespeare lends an eye into 'the concrete'(Truskinovsky, 2002, P.1).

The article instances diagnoses from several sources that give richly diverse insights into the preoccupations of the Lear character.  There is widespread agreement among commentators that Lear's principal impairment is a direct result of or owes in part to the onset of old age (Brigham, Ray, Kellogg, Sommerville and Trethowan cited in Innes, 2007, pp.3-5).  Various disorders are weighed up with clues taken from context in the play as means to assess symptoms and thus arrive at a diagnosis.  An emerging theme is that the play begins with Lear displaying symptoms of madness by making a questionable decision to divide his kingdom.  By his excommunicating his youngest daughter Cordelia and vassal Kent King Lear breaks ties with his closest allies (1.1.176, Norton 2nd edition, p.2345).  The article suggests that the initial moves of Lear in the play are a beginning of what later in the storm scene becomes obvious psychosis (3.2, Norton 2nd edition, 2409-p2413).  Much of Truskinovsky's article echoes with deeper insight what Martin and Regan outline as comparative stories of Lear and Gloucester as men facing diminished power (Ryan,2000, pp.250-3).

It is interesting as to how Truskinovsky interprets Edgar in the play as a mirror of false madness that provides a backdrop for the actual madness of Lear (Truskinovsky, 2002, p.2).  The article picks up on how Tom Bedlam in the context of the play is actually an anachronism since The Bethlehem Hospital that came to be known as Bedlam did not come into being until centuries after the time in which King Lear is set (ibid).  The article astutely brings to attention the idea that beggars were common place and their madness was on occasion a commercial pretence.  It is this madness that Edgar simulates according to the article that contrasts with the actual deterioration of Lear's intellectual faculties.

Truskinovsky provides valuable commentary of Lear's script as clues to how the speeches are characterized by pressure and their pace is faster than iambic lines.  The article implies that certain verses use enjambment and pyrrhic feet in stanzas that hurtle the meaning across providing a glimpse into Lear's disjointed mind-set decaying under a perceived pressure.

The article concludes with a unanimous diagnosis of madness for King Lear while Edgar is passed fit.  In all the article provides great insight of what is essentially deep character, plot and language analysis as a valuable close reading of King Lear.    The main essay will look more closely at the article in order to answer the question on the fading powers of ageing men.

Part 2

Sonnet 65 (Norton, 2008, p.1968) has much relevance with ageing and fading powers.  There are parallels with both Cymbeline and Lear as kings.  With Cymbeline the relevance of sonnet 65 comes about through the metaphorical imagery of 'rocks impregnable' that draw the reader back to Cymbeline's Queen who instances similar imagery, 'banks unscaleable' of Britain's rocky unconquerable beaches (3.1.28, Norton 2nd edition, p.3004).  The Queen had unwittingly used this metaphor in foregrounding Cymbeline's later victory over the Romans.  Moreover the significance of this sonnet does not end there, in fact the sonnet ruses on the temporality of the transient nature of existence and compares existence on earth with the futility of a flower in the backdrop of ravaging natural forces (Norton, 2008, p.1968 lines1-5).  The only power Shakespeare protests to be of any worth is the 'miracle' of 'black ink' (Norton, 2008, p.1968 lines 14 and 15).  Of course this is a play on words in the classical Shakespearean style and that both 'miracle' and 'ink' have underlying connotations.

The pen, unmentioned, is a phallic symbol and then it's miracle in ink could denote progeny.  In Cymbeline's case his reunion at the end of the play signifies that his 'love may still shine bright' (Norton 2nd edition, p.1968 line14).  By contrast Lear's 'darker purpose' (1.1.34, Norton 2nd edition, p.2339) ensures that at the end of King Lear there is no chance that his love will endure.  Shakespeare's poetry has a unique ethereal transcendence in that figurative language is deployed in a manner that can be interpreted to communicate spiritual truths while disguised in language of courtly love.

This facet of Shakespeare's verse is irrepressible in sonnet 65 as in early quatrains he sets out stark contrast of the unforgiving nature of earth and the delicate flimsy nature of man's cause.  Shakespeare then hangs the question 'how shall summer's honey breath hold out?' (Norton, 2008, p.1968, line 5).  Most fittingly this 'honey breath' can be taken as all that is quintessentially good in memory as he goes on in the same quatrain with 'fearful meditation' (Norton, 2008, p.1968 line 9).  This breath Shakespeare sets up as a reflective sigh of futile exasperation against 'wrackful siege of battering days' (Norton, 2008, p.1968 line 6).  Thus 'Time's decay' and 'Time's chest' (Norton, 2008, p.1968 lines 8 to 10) take on the role of a centralised dichotomy.  Shakespeare gives this sonnet the third dimension here as his written work occupies the exalted place of time's chest, while the lover's memory and offspring can easily take that place also.  There is much contestation as to for whom this sonnet written, yet the message is a universal one that both resonates on a platonic level and one with a lover as a focus.

Paul Innes article invokes a reply that while accepting the compelling compendium of character symbology must challenge the relegation of king Cymbeline as an 'almost meaningless cipher' (Innes, 2007, p.4).  Innes is quite right in the sense that Cymbeline is never entirely wilfully in control of his fate. There is little dispute as to the deterministic undercurrent of politic that is for the most part a momentous torrent in sweeping Cymbeline away out of any of his own controlling reality.

Cymbeline appears at points of tonal shifts in the complicated narrative of the play.  From the opening scene where Innogen announces her desire to marry of her own choosing Cymbeline is consigned to the role of a mere spectator it would seem.  Later when the Queen and Cloten (3.1 Norton 2nd edition,  pp.3003-5) bring about dialogue as to reasons for resisting the advances of Rome, Cymbeline is complicit in the proceedings only marginally.  Even Belurius's hand in denying Cymbeline the right to witness his son's upbringing to mature age is yet another reminder of how Cymbeline has suffered to exist in the fringes of his own reality.

In the context of the play the disconcerting and abject absence of a British king's power over his own household is one that given the genre , renaissance tragicomedy  invites a 'Jacobean belly laugh' (Innes, 2007, p.2).  King Cymbeline is beset with bad news with every turn in the plot from his daughter's desire to marry Posthumus, her disappearance, then Cloten's disappearance and death, then the Queen's death and renouncement of any love for him on her death bed.  Further to this downward spiral the severity of Cymbeline's fate is never far away given that he was already a widower and his sons were kidnapped long ago.

It can only be speculated as to Cymbeline's age although any estimate placing him in middle age would be difficult to reject given the maturity of his children.  As a widower Cymbeline as a king has only been able to re-marry a single mother.  By modern thinking this detail may seem a little judgemental though placed in the context of the first century is better understood.  Given the regal nature of Cymbeline in his remarrying one can only surmise that age could be a significant detracting factor in securing a wife that was more agreeable of him.  As it happens Cymbeline actually remarries a woman who is besotted by a conniving son interested only in derailing Cymbeline from power in whose plans the queen herself is complicit.  King Cymbeline's sorry state of personal affairs is a scathing indictment of fading power in the onset of old age.

Though Cymbeline's fading powers amidst an extraneous significant shift in politic within the plot are evident he is not quite a meaningless cipher.  Innes does use 'almost' in suggesting Cymbeline is meaningless and perhaps meaning less is too strong a term, since all the intricate subplots play out specifically in front of Cymbeline.  More accurately bit part players act out an epic theatre solely for Cymbeline's attention.

Given the symbology of the British Isles presented as aspects of Cymbeline's offspring and Posthumus-Leonatus, begs the question as to whom or what does Cymbeline himself represent?  Since Innogen represents England and Britain simultaneously as her chastity evokes most patriotic overtones amidst the advances of invading forces, her desire to marry Posthumus-Leonatus presents the conflict whose resolution result in union.  So the children in totality once reconciled are the unifying factors of the basis of empire.  This does present Cymbeline as a mere spectator however only seemingly so.  After all however powerless, however much a victim of circumstance, however ravaged by the hand life deals him his reconciliation comes about through a tumult of fate that sees him defeat Rome.

It is this sole achievement that ensures the gender politics swing in his favour in the fullness of time.  The proverbial shoe is most certainly on the other foot by the end of the play, leaving a kind of emptiness of the lost childhood of his sons yet a resonating hoorah in lieu of his suffering.  Cymbeline is comparable to a 'puppet' (Innes, 2007, p.4) and the various subplots conspire in uncovering the various strings that have had a hand in his quite sorry life, namely Belurius, the Queen and Cloten and even Innogen although on a more benign level.  Ultimately Cymbeline himself had the overarching decision making capacity in all those subplots hence never entirely without power and hence not entirely 'puppet' like.  As a tragicomedy Cymbeline merely presents a complicated symbolical framework of plots intertwined and ultimately reconciled so that king Cymbeline can be hailed as an emblem of reconciled family values.  Thus Cymbeline represents patriarchal power relations.  Moreover those endearing qualities of patriarchy that are attuned to persuasion and have the flexibility to forgive.  The fading powers of men in ageing are the exact conditions that are framed here by Shakespeare as making patriarchal power relations bearable.

Cymbeline accepts Posthumus-Leonatus by reconciling with Innogen and is rewarded by the reunion with his two valiant sons.  His son's valiant nature is dramatized in Belarrius's praise '.To royalty unlearn'd, honour untaught, Civility not seen from other, valour That wildly grows in them, but yields a crop As if it had been sow'd' (4.2.179-83, Norton 2nd edition, p.3026).  As such ultimately the victory over the Romans is a hollow one as Cymbeline absolves Iachimo and Rome and capitulates to their demands.  This bowing in triumph is framed by Shakespeare as the grace of man and an emblematic masculinity that Innes suggests was the frame of mind that Shakespeare presented as way forward for British colonial ambition (Innes, 2007, p.15).  It is this masculinity that is outlined in Cymbeline that amidst social factors out of his control his patriarchal duty prevails despite his powers fading in the onset of old age.

Sonnet 2 seems a worthy tool for reflecting the set question in as much as the imagery it conjures in the opening line.  'When forty winters shall besiege thy brow' (Norton, 2008, p.1947 lines) has a foreboding resonance that hastens temporality to accentuate focus upon the inevitability of ageing.  In Lear's case this represents at least eighty winters and thus puts into context the particular woes of the ill-fated king.  The initial hearkening toward the inexorable ravages of age is Shakespeare's ploy in accentuating 'This fair child' that will 'sum my count and make my old excuse' (Norton, 2008, p.1947 lines 9 and 10).  Shakespeare's foreboding of old age as in sonnet 65 is used as a backdrop in foregrounding continuity.  In sonnet 2 more explicitly than in sonnet 65 the message is a procreative one.  The semantics of this sonnet perhaps best outline the particular tragedy of King Lear while highlighting the conclusion of reconciliation in Cymbeline.

King Lear opens with the disconcerting call of Lear In his spontaneous decision to divide his kingdom.  Essentially in Truskinovsky's elaborate professional article there is rare disagreement between theorists that Lear's behaviours are symptomatic of impairment of mind.  Many even argue that Lear's madness manifests from the very first scene in his decision to divide the kingdom.  Citing Brigham Truskinovsky relates 'that Lear "was insane... from the beginning of the play when he gave his kingdom away"...' (2002, p.3).  Truskinovsky supports this idea that mental impairment was evident in scene 1 act 1 with Somerville's commentary (2002, p.4).

In fact only Donnelly (cited in Truskinovsky, 2002, p.4) attests to any contrary interpretation of the opening exchanges.  Donnelly outlines an insightful argument stating that 'at the beginning of the play the king's mind was sound' and that 'the division of the kingdom by Lear was a wise step, made to avoid a civil war' (ibid).  Clearly Donnelly decouples from any cause and effect theory and thus focusses on symptoms alone and thus dismisses subsequent actions as episodes of madness rather than any long standing issue.

The vast majority of evidences that Truskinovsky collates and discusses disagree with Donnelly's isolated judgement.  It appears that Donnelly is willing to overlook wider implications of Lear's obvious deterioration.  Clearly familial, psychological, sociological and physiological factors all play a role in the emerging symptoms.  So how Donnelly can overlook all that the other evidence overwhelmingly states is somewhat bemusing.

Certainly the impending proceedings in the context of Lear's immediate life would have had a devastating impact on Lear's decision making.  Lear's elder daughters who judging from Lear's senior year's themselves would be by conservative estimates of middle age.  Goneril and Regan not having produced any progeny would be a matter of discontent for Lear.  With both suitors for his youngest daughter in attendance for her hand being from neighbouring competing kingdoms would present something of a dilemma for Lear.  Subdivision of the kingdom presented a real threat of invasion that Donnelly quite rightly picks up on.

However how much Cordelia's hand and perhaps Lear's last throw of the dice in securing a grandchild presented a future beyond Lear's acceptable vision could easily be seen as specifically the cause of destabilising angst.  Clearly the manner in which Lear announces the news raises anxiety levels among his closest advisers and allies.  'Meanwhile we will explain our darker purpose' (1.1.34, Norton 2nd edition, p.2339) is a sinister statement that while raises interest levels is also laden with more than a hint of the 'sinking feeling'.  The attendees of the court certainly confirm this idea 'the king gone tonight? Prescribed his pow'r?'(1.2.23-26,  Norton 2nd edition, p.2351).

Many commentators site old age as the overarching precursor of all of Lear's woes in the emerging reality that Lear's 'occupational functioning' (Truskinovsky, 2002, p.7) is impaired.  Citing Ray who commented circa 1847 Truskinovsky relates "we feel at last as if it were the most natural thing that Lear should go mad" (Truskinovsky, 2002, p.3).  He adds that this brought on by the approach of 'the old age' (ibid).  How the phrase 'the old age' is framed centralises inevitability in the use of the definite article 'the' in describing a natural process.  This perhaps best sum up all of the other diagnoses that use old age as a means to ascribe senility, mania and organic brain disease.  Put simply Lear's age coupled with his ill fate in life are in the vast majority of the professional assessments used to understand his deteriorating behaviour and thus diagnose mental illness.

As far as Shakespeare's adept dramatization goes Truskinovsky cites various admirers of Shakespeare's poetic capacity as well as his prowess in expressing the 'mind in concrete' (Trusinovsky, 2002, p.2).  Notably Andreasen is cited to have remarked on Shakespeare as a 'behavioral Scientist' (Trusinovsky, 2002, p.2).  Furthermore how Shakespeare uses the subplot of Gloucester and in particular the feigned madness of Edgar as a dramatic backdrop for Lear's more serious deterioration (Truskinovsky, 2002, p.2).  Truskinovsky picks up on the idea of Bedlam as an anachronism and forwards deep and meaningful detail as to how madness is viewed through Shakespeare's particular theatrical lens.  Truskinovsky applies thematic linguistic analysis in assessing the changing in language that brings about Lear's pressured speech and imparts irrationality amidst an inexorable decline (Truskinovsky, 2002, p.7).

Interestingly Truskinovsky relates Freud's fond comments on Lear that attempt an inverted oedipal analysis on his desire to settle with Cordelia calling it a 'Lear Complex' (Trusinovsky, 2002, p.5).  Though Freud forgoes diagnosing hysteria he does attest to death symbolism being Lear's only available recourse.  Certainly Lear's path in its degeneracy is by default a life denying one has no redemptive life affirming quality to speak of.  Perhaps remarrying could have been seen as a life affirming move though that option is a boat that sailed long ago given the juncture at which King Lear opens.  A perished line to the English throne is the Aristotelian tragedy ending that is almost a welcome closure to a most spectacularly agonising fall from grace that represented by King Lear.  Thus fading power of ageing men is tragically exemplified.

In conclusion it suffices to say that the fading powers of ageing men are most spectacular when those men are entrusted with greatness.  Classically only in the fall from grace of kings is there the edifying fabric that has a universal appeal worthy of theatre.  Certainly for a Jacobean audience that was quite often the case if Shakespeare's canon is taken as any indication.  However at the fading powers of ageing kings is where the similarity ends.  Lear and Cymbeline could not be more different.  Lear is at the end game of a long unproductive but otherwise sound tenure and his story is framed from a moment when his decision making faculty is adjudged to be fatally flawed.  Cymbeline on the other hand sees a reversal of fortunes after going through a torrid and tumultuous upheaval of fate.  Cymbeline sees parasitic negative aspects of his life suffer ill fate and fall out of existence and become replaced by missing pieces that he ultimately reconciles.  Lear simply plays out a monotone of morbidity that can only result in total self-destruction.

Sonnets 2 and 65 both in Shakespeare unique style of verse frame the transience of all that is earthly and shift focus to the inexorability of death.  Yet both convey a message that the greater purpose of man should be to overcome the constraints of the temporality of the bodily vehicle through being attuned with the creative side.  Shakespeare frames such sentiment in a manner that is open to multiple interpretations and thus carries a universal appeal.

Various researches in the essay reiterate the temporality of the human vehicle and thus the pitfalls in the inability to harness the creative side.  While Innes article places Cymbeline as something of an incidental hero it none the less does attribute him a victory in winning an underlying gender politics battle and ultimately reconcile him as creative or at least procreative.  Since he accepts Innogen's decision to marry according to her wishes he becomes a torch bearer of future generations.  Given the unison with his long lost sons further scope for family expansion becomes apparent.  By stark contrast Truskinovsky's research is of a different nature.  Driven by a fondness for literature and an almost religious desire for humanitarian concern the Truskinovsky article charts a dedicated aftermath of King Lear from the inception of psychological practice.  So compelling is the duty of care that the cited individuals express for the mostly fictional king that the resulting insight delivers a most definitive close reading of the play.  Both items of the research outline at length the fading powers of aging men.  Innes frames Cymbeline as a 'puppet' and 'an almost meaningless cipher' while Truskinovsky cites swathes of literary commentaries spanning two centuries that quite unanimously diagnose Lear's character with various diagnoses of madness relating to circumstance and old age.  In doing so both research pieces highlight Shakespeare's particular genius in communicating on a symbolic level as well as that of a behavioural scientist.  The set question is supported by the research and the sonnets as the fading powers of ageing are evidently portrayed in a variety of ways through a broad section of Shakespeare's canon.


Innes, P. (2007) Cymbeline and Empire, Critical Survey, Volume 19, Number 2.

Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E. and Maus, K. E. (eds) (2008) The Norton Shakespeare, second edition, New York and London:  W. W. Norton.

Ryan, K. (2000) Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Truskinovsky, A.M. (2002) Literary Psychiatric Observation and Diagnosis Through the Ages: King Lear revisited, Southern Medical Journal, Vol 95, No 3.

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