Study Guide

Cymbeline, King of Britain Music

By William Shakespeare

Music

The hills must be alive, because the sound of music is all over this play. Where to begin? Well, music shows up in a big way when Posthumus's ghost family arrives on the scene; they've got to announce themselves in style, after all.

The stage direction tell us:
             Solemn music. Enter, as in a apparition, Sicilius
        Leonatus, father to Posthumus, an old man attired like
         a warrior, leading in his hand an ancient matron, his
           wife and mother to Posthumus, with music before
         them. Then, after other music, follow the two young
       Leonati, brothers to Posthumus, with wounds as they
      died in the wars. They circle Posthumus round, as he
                                lies sleeping.
 (5.4.31.1).

Hmm… do you think there's music in this scene? The stage direction only mentions it three times, right? The music here sets the scene for the ghosts to come in and commune with Jupiter, but it also gives us a random musical interlude. Shakespeare doesn't usually go this route: more often, his songs and music are part of the play's dialogue and drama.

Here, he sets music apart, so we know it's important. Maybe it's supposed to remind us of a Greek or Roman drama, in which music would play between pieces of action. Maybe it's here because this play was performed at Blackfriars Theater, which had a well-known band in residence.

It might even have something to do with the fact that the whole play is thought of as a musical score. At the very end of the play, the Soothsayer notes: "The fingers of the powers above do tune / the harmony of this peace" (5.5.566-567). She's telling us that the gods are playing music with their lives. So there you have it. The play is music.

That's pretty appropriate for a "romance," don't you think? If the whole play is music, that just reinforces the idea that there's a higher plan to the whole thing (everything happens for a reason), and the final goal is harmony.

Hark, Hark! The Lark

Music goes hand in hand with birds: birds a famous for their songs, right? Well, Cloten's awkward serenade for Imogen connects the two for us. Outside Imogen's door, he and the musicians sing:

Hark, hark, the lark at heaven's gate sings,
And Phoebus gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies;
And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes.
With every thing that pretty is,
my lady sweet, arise,
Arise, arise.
(2.3.20-28)

So, what's the deal with the lark? Well, on the one hand, larks usually symbolize the dawn of a new day. Cloten wants this to be a new day for him and Imogen: forget that old husband and take me instead, he's saying. Okay, we get it.

But on the other hand, this is really a new day for Imogen—just not in the way Cloten wants it to be. It's right after this that Imogen delivers that stinger to Cloten about how he's worth less than Posthumus's nasty clothes.

This also foreshadows what will happen with Imogen by the end of the play. When the song says "on chaliced flowers that lies" and "arise," we get an image of Imogen later in the play as she is resurrected. In that scene, she is surrounded by flowers, and she's "reborn."

Fear No More the Heat o' the Sun

By far the most popular song—and perhaps even the most popular quote—from Cymbeline is the song that Guiderius and Arviragus sing over Imogen's dead body. Here she is:

GUIDERIUS, as Polydor
Fear no more the heat o' th' sun,
   Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
   Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
   As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

ARVIRAGUS, as Cadwal 
Fear no more the frown o' th' great;
   Thou art past the tyrant's stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
   To thee the reed is as the oak.
The sceptre, learning, physic must
   All follow this and come to dust
. (4.2.3331-342)

Heartbroken and somber, the brothers band together to create an especially poignant moment in the play. We might be aware of the magical nature of the potion, but the characters certainly are not. The brothers remind us of the loss that many characters feel in the play.

Guiderius and Arviragus perform a funeral ceremony as best they know how; they even say Fidele has "come to dust" just as the funeral passage went at this time: "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." That comes from The Book of Common Prayer, which was a big how-to manual on life events like births, weddings, and funerals.

If we take a closer look at the song, we'll notice that the brothers are saying Imogen doesn't have to suffer any more. Finally. She's lost her husband, she's lost her reputation, and she's lost her country—or so it all seems. It seems like she's suffering all over the place.

In fact, it almost seems like these guys are saying that Britain (ahem… Cymbeline) won't make Imogen suffer any more. Notice how they say she shouldn't fear the sun? Well, if the sun symbolizes Britain, and Cymbeline is the king of Britain, maybe what they're really saying is that she doesn't have to endure the "heat" (wrath) of her dad any more.

What makes this song doubly awesome is the fact that Imogen isn't actually dead at all. Everything the brothers are saying about death is true: it will come for everyone—even for young lovers—and if nothing else, it will spell the end of suffering for the dead person.

But at the same time, there's something sort of magical going on: death in this scene isn't actually real. All that stuff the brothers are singing may be true, but there also seems to be this mysterious possibility of rebirth underlying the whole thing. It's both a somber and a magical moment in the play—and that pretty much sums up Cymbeline as a whole.

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