Staging Violence and Terror

You like to watch, don’t you? Violence in Cymbeline

by Bettina Boecker

Could we do without violence? And, more specifically, could the theatre do without it? It is my contention that the play which is arguably the most brutal of the romances, Cymbeline, answers this question with a no. It is, however, a complicated no, a negation that operates on different levels of the play, opening up several and often conflicting perspectives on the cruel and the theatrical—and on the relation between the two. Depending on violence for emotional effects both on the characters and on the audience, Cymbeline stages the interrelatedness of violence and spectacle which is the precondition of its theatrical success. In its approach to manifestations of horror and cruelty, the play both exploits and criticizes the appeal of the sensational and the voyeuristic, leaving us with the question whether Shakespeare is indeed, as Frank Kermode suspected, “playing with the play”[1], manipulating not only the emotions of the characters but those of the audience as well—and whether playwrights in fact ever do anything but precisely that.

More than any other of Shakespeare’s romances, Cymbeline, The Tragedy of Cymbeline as the First Folio calls it, is characterized by stark emotional contrasts. Lyrical evocations of the beauty of nature are followed by the sight of the heroine smearing herself with the blood of a headless corpse (1.1), and the eventual reunion of Posthumus and Imogen is preceded by him striking her down so violently that she is taken for dead (1.4). Against a backdrop of murder, attempted murder and war, however, a marriage is saved, a family is reunited, and a kingdom returns to peace. Within the logic of the play, it seems that the extremes of violence and betrayal are indeed a prerequisite for lasting peace, harmony and devotion. At least this is how several critics have tried to account for the play’s more atrocious displays of the brutal and the savage. Imogen’s waking up next to the bloody, headless body of Cloten has been seen as a “therapeutic dream”[2], a “purgatorial experience, the crisis of her spiritual journey”[3]. The scene in which Posthumus strikes her down before he finally recognizes the boy Fidele as his wife has, in turn, been explained as a necessary prelude to the reunion of the lovers which follows immediately afterwards.[4] The violent experiences which (especially) the female protagonist is subjected to are thus put to use in what I would like to call a ‘cathartic’ reading, a reading which postulates that the violence in the play is not gratuitous but necessary and—perhaps—even moral, for it is through violence that the characters, Imogen and Posthumus above all, gain the maturity necessary for their eventual reconciliation. In this view, the play seeks to involve its audience in the emotional and physical ordeals especially of Imogen in order to effect a purgatorial experience similar to hers: by empathizing with her suffering as well as with her eventual good fortune, the spectator partakes in the characters’ spiritual journey—and, it seems, leaves the theatre not only a well-entertained, but also a purer and a better person. This would align Cymbeline with classic theories of tragedy—if not so much with the notions of Aristotle himself as those of early modern Aristotelians who tended to moralise his originally physiological conception of catharsis.[5]

It is, however, my contention that Cymbeline proposes a view of violence, and especially of watching violence, which runs directly counter to that implied in classical, or rather, classicist theories of the genre. Voyeurism, sensationalism and spectacle are among the most insistent concerns of the play, and, counteracting Aristotelian theory, it deliberately turns its audience into onlookers of the non-empathetic kind. This is perhaps most obvious in the scene where Giacomo has himself smuggled into Imogen’s bedchamber, a scene which continually plays on audience expectations of physical violence being done to the princess—without ever quite fulfilling these expectations, and without allowing spectators to experience anything like unalloyed pity or fear. Giacomo may be a villain, but he is not a simpleton, and his violation of Imogen’s privacy is not of the brutishly physical kind. Although his immediate association of Tarquin (“Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded.” (2.2.12–14[6])) makes it quite clear that he is at least toying with the idea of raping the princess, the Italian proceeds to embark on a somewhat academic approach to nocturnal intrusion into a princess’s bedchamber. With a couple of verses on her ravishing beauty in place, he begins to take notes:

[Giacomo] writes in his tables]
Such and such pictures, there the window, such
Th'adornment of her bed, the arras, figures,
Why such and such; and the contents o’th’story.
Ah, but some natural notes about her body
Above ten thousand meaner movables
Would testify t’enrich mine inventory.
O sleep, thou ape of death, lie dull upon her,
And be her sense but as a monument
Thus in a chapel lying. (2.2.25–33)

This ‘inventory’ prepares the climax of Giacomo’s trespassing, his fatal theft of Imogen’s bracelet and his discovery of the “mole cinque-spotted” (2.2.38) on her left breast. The step from investigating her chamber to investigating the details of her body is a necessary one: Giacomo’s knowledge of Imogen’s body will ‘prove’ what knowledge of her bedroom alone will not suffice to substantiate, his claim to carnal knowledge of the princess. The means by which Giacomo attains the semblance of intimacy which will later convince Posthumus of his wife’s unfaithfulness are symptomatic of the attitude behind the wager as a whole: Imogen is treated as an object rather than as a person. In the course of Giacomo’s soliloquy, the distinction between the living, breathing princess and the inanimate bedroom that surrounds her becomes increasingly blurred, and by the time that the intruder has finally summoned the courage to actually touch Imogen, she has, in his mind, turned into a mere object of his investigating gaze, into a piece of furniture (even though she surpasses other, “meaner movables”), and, finally, into a statue in a chapel—the mere semblance of a human being. In order to muster the nerve to approach the princess’s body, Giacomo needs to turn Imogen into an object, a “moveable”, a “monument” with which, by definition, intimacy is not a possibility.[7]

Although no physical harm is done, Giacomo’s nocturnal intrusion as well as his objectification of the sleeping Imogen is clearly framed as sexual violence[8] – both from the perspective of the perpetrator and from the perspective of the victim. While Giacomo starts the soliloquy which accompanies his explorations of the chamber by associating himself with a notorious rapist, he ends it by pointing out Imogen’s bedside reading: “She hath been reading late, / The tale of Tereus. Here the leaf’s turned down / Where Philomel gave up.” (2.2.44–46) These classical allusions frame his violation of Imogen’s privacy as a rape completed, with him approaching silently, just like Tarquin, at the start, and the princess, just like Philomel, waiving her resistance at the end. Unlike both Tarquin and Tereus, however, Giacomo abuses Imogen visually rather than physically, turning her exposed and unconscious body into a mere object, to be taken stock of by his lecherous gaze.

The play makes its audience accessories to this crime. As voyeur, as someone who is ‘just’ looking, Giacomo is the uncanny double of those watching the play on stage. Just like him, we are trespassers into Imogen’s privacy, and we share the forbidden knowledge he gains. The theatre does not leave its audience a choice: we have to watch, whether we like it or not, even when our watching turns us into accomplices of the villain. We cannot dissociate our own looking from that of Giacomo, and if we condemn him for his exploitative gaze, we have to condemn ourselves.

But it is precisely this kind of self-condemnation which the play sabotages by a variety of means. Although the scene articulates a critique of the kind of visual violation I have lined out above, it also deflects the threat that such a critique holds for any kind of theatrical enterprise—by foregrounding the fact that, after all, what we see and what we partake in is ‘only’ theatre. There is an undeniably humorous note to Giacomo’s nocturnal encounter with the princess, not only because of his curious combination of flamboyant rhetoric, self-consciousness and ineffectuality, but above all because the play locates him in a tradition of ‘staginess’ which keeps audiences from perceiving him as a real threat to the princess. Like any stage villain worth his salt, he emerges from a trunk, and, as Harley Granville-Barker pointed out in 1930 (and audiences have realized ever since Shakespeare first wrote his play), “no tragically-potent scoundrel, we should be sure, will ever come out of a trunk”.[9]

In a manner typical of Jacobean romance, Cymbeline thus relies on “the audience’s consciousness of the means by which it is moved”[10] to keep them from taking Giacomo’s villainy entirely serious. In addition, the allusions to classical literature as well as the fact that Giacomo’s blazon of Imogen is clearly indebted to Petrarcan conventions[11] make the conscious artificiality of the scene almost impossible to ignore. The play thus presents Giacomo’s voyeuristic abuse of the princess, and our own participation in it, as art, as an erudite game: if there is such a thing as visual violence, conscious theatricality can turn it into mere play.

Similar mechanisms as those operating in the bedroom scene undercut ready empathy with Imogen’s frenzy over the murdered Cloten. Waking up next to a dead man devoid of a head, the princess examines the corpse’s extremities in order to ascertain her husband’s garments are indeed covering her husband’s body:

A headless man? The garments of Posthumus?
I know the shape of’s legs; this is his hand,
His foot Mercurial, his Martial thigh,
The brawns of Hercules; but his Jovial face –
Murder in heaven! How? ’Tis gone. […]
This is Pisanio’s deed, and Cloten. O!
Give colour to my pale cheek with thy blood.
That we the horrider may seem to those
Which chance to find us! O my lord, my lord! (4.2.309–313; 330–333)

The visual impact of the scene is extremely forcible and certainly conducive to feelings of horror, fear and pity. The attempt to identify a headless body by examining its limbs is in itself an extremely traumatic experience, and even more so if the body in question is that of one’s own husband. Imogen’s reaction to this shock, her smearing herself with the corpse’s blood, is hardly less gruesome. The intensity of Imogen’s suffering, however, is somewhat qualified by the fact that, right from the start of this macabre ‘recognition’ scene, the heroine has an array of classical allusions at hand which allow her to identify the heroic husband whom she takes to have died a heroic death. This use of erudite allusion takes the edge off her agony. It even subjects her to ridicule, for as the audience knows, the princess has not woken up next to Posthumus, but next to Cloten—not quite her idea of a hero when still alive. The scene seriously questions Imogen’s judgment; in any case, her alleged familiarity with her husband’s body is exposed as an imposture, and her ‘identification’ of his various physical characteristics can have a definitely humorous note in performance—if not for her. Imogen’s suffering is thus set up as spectacle, as something (merely) to be looked at. This, however, is not something she passively undergoes, but a situation to which she actively contributes.

Anticipating a spectator’s gaze on the scene she is about to ‘stage’, Imogen bloodies herself in order to provide a grisly sight to those who may find her and the corpse: “That we the horrider may seem to those / Which chance to find us!” Such a chance encounter of course is precisely what happens next. Imogen has hardly finished her macabre make-up when, in the guise of Lucius and the Roman Captain, the ‘audience’ she has been preparing for actually enters the stage. At what is ostensibly the climax of her suffering, Imogen provides a commentary on her own function at this point in the play and predicts the further development of the plot. The scene thus flaunts its own theatricality in a manner which effectively prevents empathetic identification with its protagonist. This is not to say that spectators don’t feel for Imogen: exploiting both the horror of the bloody corpse and the humour of mistaken identity, the play certainly exposes its audience to an array of conflicting emotions. It does, however, provide comic relief and metatheatrical reflection before the full impact of the tragic can make itself felt. This can be seen as some kind of concession to its protagonist. As Roger Warren puts it, “Imogen undergoes tragic experiences, and expresses a full range of tragic emotions, without having [my emphasis] to suffer a tragic outcome.”[12] And, one might add, without us having to take her emotions quite so tragically serious.

At this point, it would be possible to set out on a gender-oriented reading of the play’s refusal to grant its female protagonist the prestige of truly tragic suffering, the kind of suffering that incites fear and pity. What I am more interested in for the moment—although I do not claim that the two points can be neatly separated—is the theatrical implications of the kind of violence that Cymbeline stages, and the reactions to violence the play seeks to elicit. Concerning Imogen’s agony over the dead Cloten, Granville-Barker remarks,

But now that we have reached this most effective situation, we must own it, and the whole business of it, to be, from one point of view at least, dramatically inexcusable. It is a fraud on Imogen; and we are accomplices in it. We have watched the playwright’s plotting, been amused by his ingenuity. We shall even be a little conscious, as we watch, in this sophisticated play, of the big bravura chance to be given to the actress. But Imogen herself is put, quite needlessly, quite heartlessly, on exhibition. How shall we sympathize with such futile suffering? And surely it is a faulty art that can so make sport of its creatures.[13]

A faulty art in what sense? What Granville-Barker seems to be criticizing is some kind of moral failure on the part of the play, a failure to empathize with its own characters, putting them ‘on exhibition’ instead of inciting audiences to suffer and rejoice with them. But then of course it is in the very nature of theatre to put things on exhibition, to turn them into spectacle, to exhibit them to the hungry gaze of the multitude. Instead of accusing the play of “mak[ing] sport” of its creatures, it is therefore perhaps more appropriate to regard Cymbeline as a meditation on precisely the kind of moral failure and the kind of violence inherent in any theatrical enterprise. It seems to me that Cymbeline is indeed concerned not so much with spectacles of violence as with the kind of non-empathetic spectatorship that I would like to label, for lack of a better term, the violence of spectacle, the violence inherent in being exposed to an audience’s exploitative gaze.

Judging from the two scenes I have discussed above, it may be tempting to surmise that, in Cymbeline, the violent is mingled with the humorous in order to demonstrate the theatre’s power to turn cruelty and terror into something more bearable by representing violence as mere play. I suggest, however, that this is precisely the opposite of what is at stake here. Conspicuously, most of the characters’ fantasies of violence—and there is certainly no lack of them in the play—involve an audience. It has often been noted that Posthumus Leonatus and Cloten have more in common than either of them would care to acknowledge.[14] Among these commonalities is the fantasy of violating Imogen in front of some kind of audience. On hearing of her supposed infidelity, Posthumus Leonatus vows to “tear [Imogen] limb-meal [...] i’ th’ court before her father” (2.4.148–150). Cloten’s plans are more elaborate:

She said upon a time—the bitterness of it I now belch from my heart—that she held the very garments of Posthumus in more respect than my noble and natural person, together with the adornment of my qualities. With that suit upon my back will I ravish her: first kill him, and in her eyes; there shall she see my valour, which will then be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and when my lust hath dined—which, as I say, to vex her I will execute in the clothes that she so praised—to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. (3.5.132–143)

The fate that Cloten plans for Imogen is very similar to what happens to Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, who both witnesses her husband’s murder and is raped in its aftermath. Initially, Chiron plans to make the dead Bassianus an accessory and a silent audience to the abuse, ordering his brother Demetrius to “[d]rag hence her husband to some secret hole, / and make his dead trunk pillow to our lust”. (2.3.129f.)[15] This, however, is an atrocity (possibly the only one) which even the Goths refrains from committing; Bassanius’s body is simply thrown into a hole in the ground, Lavinia dragged off stage to undergo multiple rape and mutilation at the hands of Tamora’s sons.

For both Cloten and the Goths, the absent-present husbands of their actual or intended female victims fulfil a double function (if only theoretically, as neither Chiron’s nor Cloten’s scenario is ever realized). By making Bassanius and Posthumus unwilling accomplices in the sexual violence done to the women, the rapists create an audience before whom the wives’ violation can be staged. While it increases the woman’s humiliation, rape in the presence of a dead husband also presents a post-mortem opportunity to get equal with a former rival. Cast in the role of silent witnesses to the spectacle of their wives’ abuse, Bassanius and Posthumus would be subjected to the emasculation which, during their lifetimes, their opponents found themselves unable to put into effect. Theatricality emerges as an important element in both Chiron’s and Cloten’s fantasies of violence, even if none of the perpetrators actually gets to realize the ‘theatrical’ rape they initially plan on. In fact, Cloten does not get to accomplish any of his perfidious plans concerning Imogen. But the degree to which theatricality informs his notions of violence is even more conspicuous than it is with Chiron. Not content with abusing the princess in the presence of her dead husband, Cloten is set on exposing Imogen’s humiliation and desolation to the aristocratic public: “to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again”, he swears. His obsession with both spectacles of violence and the violence of spectacle is apparent from the insistency with which he dwells on this particular scenario:

Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be off, thy mistress enforced, thy garments cut to pieces before her face; and all this done, spurn her home to her father, who may haply be a little angry for my so rough usage; but my mother, having power of his testiness, shall turn all into my commendations.(4.1.14–20)

Assaulting the princess in front of an audience, an audience which he clearly assumes to be little or not at all concerned for the welfare of the princess, is obviously the most extreme kind of violence that Cloten can think of. His threats concerning his rival must of course seem strongly ironic considering that not Posthumus’s, but Cloten’s head is going to be cut off within the next hour. If Cloten and Posthumus share the fantasy of doing physical harm to Imogen in public, they get what they hope for, for this public assault on Imogen is precisely what the play provides before she is finally reunited with her—by then remorseful—husband. In the last scene, before the largest assembly of characters that the play has mustered so far, the princess, disguised as the boy Fidele, is knocked out by her quick-tempered husband. The two lines he has before he strikes her down are possibly the most revealing in the whole play as far as the interrelatedness of violence and spectacle is concerned: “Shall’s have a play of this? Thou scornful page, / There lie thy part.” (5.4.228f.)

It may sound cynical, but of course Posthumus couldn’t be more right. Throughout the play it has been Imogen’s lot to be exposed to various kinds of violence—all of them in full view of the audience. There has been no intervention, no cry for help like that which the faithful Pisanio now utters, discarding the rules of theatrical collusion by actively intervening in favour of Imogen. It is this repudiation of passivity, this refusal simply to watch, which leads to denouement and happy ending. The point where the play is at its most explicit about the violence it perpetrates as play is also the point at which its investigation of non-empathetic spectatorship and the violence of spectacle begins to recede in favour of classical models of emotional identification. The extremes of love and hate, violence and tenderness, which the play has exploited, and is going to exploit in the two hundred lines yet to come, are re-channelled into what could be termed an extreme version of empathetic spectatorship. Paradoxically, this re-channelling is conveyed by precisely the character who has played such a prominent part in the fantasies revolving around anti-empathetic spectatorship and public violation of Imogen. On realizing that the unconscious and possibly dead pageboy is in fact his daughter, it is King Cymbeline himself who exclaims: “[...] [T]he gods do mean to strike me / To death with mortal joy”. (5.4.234f.) In his choice of words, the king relives the experience that his daughter has just gone through. Just like she has been struck by the husband she believed to be dead, Cymbeline has been figuratively ‘struck’ by the higher powers who have returned him his daughter. “Mortal joy” is what this portends for them both. The reaction—physical as well as emotional—which Cymbeline is subjected to can be described as cathartic: the higher powers obviously have the dramaturgical means to turn him into a compassionate spectator par excellence.

This may return the play to Aristotelian[16] notions of the impact of tragedy and the function of theatre—notions which presuppose the spectator’s emotional engagement with what is presented on stage. However, it does not necessarily make the theatre a less violent place. King Cymbeline returns to a perspective on violence in the theatre which the play has been presenting as the perspective of the wrongdoers—of Posthumus and especially of Cloten. It is epitomized in the figure of the lifeless husband having to watch his wife’s rape, condemned to passive spectatorship of a spectacle in which he has no chance of intervening, completely at the mercy of the director of this little ‘play’. Cymbeline, it seems, is very much aware of the darker sides of theatricality, of its own capability for the kind of violation which Frank Kermode refers to when he suspects that Shakespeare is “playing with the play”, manipulating characters as well as audience. For there is not only the violence of the disengaged spectator and his exploitative gaze. There is also the kind that resorts to scenes of cruelty and horror in order to achieve a maximum of theatrical impact, subjecting an audience to the terror of having to watch. Can the theatre do without violence? Shakespeare’s no has indeed many resonances.


[1]  Frank Kermode, Shakespeare: The Final Plays (London: Longmans Green, 1963), p. 22.

[2]  Elijah Moshinsky, Cymbeline, The BBC TV Shakespeare (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1983), p. 17. (Cited from Roger Warren, “Introduction”, William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. by Roger Warren, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 1–77, p. 56)

[3]  Warren (1998), p. 46.

[4]  Michael O’Connell, to name but one example, interprets Imogen’s swoon as one of the play’s “symbolic deaths that regenerate [the characters’] lives and renew love.” (Michael O’Connell, “The Experiment of Romance”, in Alexander Leggatt, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 215–229, p. 224.

[5]  Aristotle, Poetics, ed. and transl. by Stephen Halliwell (Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard UP, 1995).

[6]  I quote from William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. by Roger Warren, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[7]  Cf. also Glenn Clark, “The ‘Strange’ Geographies of Cymbeline”, in John Gillies, Virginia Mason Vaughan, eds., Playing the Globe: Genre and Geography in English Renaissance Drama (London: Associated University Presses, 1998), 230–259, p. 240: “Imogen’s body and the objects in her room are not absolutely different in Iachimo’s view, but rather different in the degree to which they can ‘enrich’ this ‘inventory’. Imogen’s body is simply composed of more valuable ‘moveables’ than her room. In order to make his gaze functional and profitable, he fragments and objectifies Imogen’s body and bedchamber. […] Iachimo’s rhetoric has several purposes. He hopes that his itemization of Imogen and her room will allow him to take possession of her just as taking inventory was often preliminary to the colonizing of new land. At the same time, he hopes that the process of fragmentation will increase Imogen’s value to him by making her, in a sense, copious. His ‘voyage’ will be most profitable only if it gains as much ‘land’ as possible.”

[8]  David M. Bergeron, “Sexuality in Cymbeline”, Essays in Literature 10 (1983), 159–168, p. 165

[9]  Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare [1930], vol. 1 (London: B. T. Batsford, 1958), p. 512.

[10] Arthur C. Kirsch, “Cymbeline and Coterie Dramaturgy”, ELH 34 (1967), 285–306, p. 286.

[11] Evelyn Gajowski, “Sleeping Beauty, or ‘What’s the Matter?’: Female Sexual Autonomy, Voyeurism, and Mysogyny in Cymbeline”, in Evelyn Gajowski, ed. and intr., Re-Visions of Shakespeare: Essays in Honor of Robert Ornstein (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2004), 89–107: p. 95f.

[12] Warren (1998), p. 50.

[13] Granville-Barker (1958), p. 539.

[14] Maurice Hunt remarks, “Many commentators on the play have remarked the dramatic appropriateness of this [Imogen’s] confusion of bodies, for Posthumus’s homicidal rage toward Imogen closely resembles Cloten’s rapacious mood. It is as though the play’s protagonist has grown a boorish Cloten within himself. Like Cymbeline, Posthumus could be said to have lost his head in a mindless savage rage. In this sense, Cloten literally loses what Posthumus has figuratively lost and undergoes what the protagonist figuratively deserves (if believing that a commissioned murder has been accomplished deserves the death penalty).” (Maurice Hunt, “Dismemberment, Corporal Reconstitution, and the Body Politic in Cymbeline”, Studies in Philology 99 (2002), 404–431, p. 416f.

[15] William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, ed. by Eugene M. Waith, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984).

[16] Again, I am referring to early modern notions of Aristotle rather than to Aristotle himself.


Cymbeline stellt verschiedene Formen der Gewalt offen zur Schau. Mit den Mitteln der Metatheatralität wird den entsprechenden Szenen jedoch gezielt ihre emotionale Spitze genommen. Dem Zuschauer wird dadurch primär eine nicht-emphatische, distanzierte Rezeptionshaltung nahegelegt. Diese aber macht ihn zum Verbündeten der Gewalttäter im Stück, die ohne ein Publikum, dem sie ihr Opfer ‚vorführen’ können, nicht auskommen mögen. In Cymbeline erweisen sich Gewalt und Theatralität so als eng miteinander verknüpft. Während das Theater als Institution die der Zurschaustellung inhärente Gewalt zum Prinzip erhoben hat, bedient sich die Gewalt der Prinzipien des Theaters, um ihre volle Wirksamkeit entfalten zu können.