Reflections on the Trailer for the New Cymbeline Movie Starring Penn Badgley, Dakota Johnson, Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, and Milla Jovovich

For years I've said we need more films of Shakespeare's romances, which are perfect for this era of fantasy spectacles. Those films often look great because of CGI, a technology that works well for Shakespearean romance, as Julie Taymor proved with her 2010 Tempest. We could use similar treatments of Pericles and The Winter's Tale.

Cymbeline, with its evil queen, pagan god, clash of armies, decapitation, and far-flung settings in the first-century British court, corrupt Rome, and misty Wales would make an excellent Game-of-Thrones-style epic. Instead, Michael Almeyreda is giving us a contemporary crime thriller, with the Britons as bikers and the Romans as cops. We lose the original setting's sweep but gain a gritty immediacy that should work well for the play's jealousy and war stories.

Unlike the trailer for 2013 Romeo and Juliet—which brought high hopes crashing to the ground with Julian Fellowes's ridiculous, spell-it-all-out dialogue—the Cymbeline trailer promises a movie even better than Almeyreda's excellent 2000 Hamlet with Ethan Hawke. Almeyreda seems to be using Shakespeare's language, though he's cutting and tweaking. The tweaking may be irritating, but the cutting is fine—many of Shakespeare's words are meant to conjure images in our heads, something the movies do for us, and the Cymbeline trailer promises us a film of exciting images.

The Jealousy Plot

Bass and twangy surf guitar give the trailer's opening a Pulp-Fiction feel. We watch a man making a woodcut of a woman standing by a death figure who holds a banner reading "Fear No More!," the first words of one of Shakespeare's most beautiful songs (which is saying a lot). People who know the play might think the artist is one of Cymbeline's lost sons, who sing the song in the original. We'll see a flash of them later (0:53), carrying the headless body of one of the play's villains, the queen's son Cloten. The artist in the opening is our hero Posthumus, played by Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley. 
"Fear no more . . ."

He's making a gift for his wife, Imogen (Dakota Johnson), whom we see next. She looks at his handiwork and rubs her thumb along its lower edge before we cut to the villainous Iachimo, played by Ethan Hawke. We've been hearing him in voiceover, speaking lines from Cymbeline's creepiest moment—act two, scene two—when Iachimo slinks around Imogen's bedroom, gathering "proof" that he seduced her. 

We're in the midst of one of Cymbeline's many stories. Let me describe what happens before then; in parentheses, I'll point to where these earlier moments show up in the trailer. 

Cymbeline, the king of Britain, wants his daughter Imogen to marry his wife's son Cloten, but Imogen marries the impoverished Posthumus instead. Enraged, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus. The couple manages to exchange gifts—Posthumus gives Imogen a bracelet, she gives him a diamond ring—before the king drives Posthumus away, telling him, "Thou'rt poison to my blood" (1.1.129). (In the trailer, Ed Harris's Cymbeline says this at 0:42, emphasizing his point by sticking an automatic under Penn Badgley's chin.) 
Posthumus threatened

Posthumus flees to Rome, where he spends his time bragging about Imogen's beauty and virtue. His sleazy new pal Iachimo disputes this last claim, saying that no woman is incorruptible: "If you buy ladies' flesh at a million a dram, you cannot preserve it from tainting" (1.4.118-20). (We hear this in voiceover beginning at 0:35 and see Ethan Hawke speaking it at 0:40.)

Iachimo bets Posthumus ten thousand ducats against Posthumus's ring that he can seduce Imogen. (We see the wager at 0:32, when a hand puts a ring on top of a stack of $100 bills.) 
The wager

After Posthumus takes the bet, Iachimo sails to Britain, where he tells Imogen that her husband is having a grand time in Rome, partying and whoring. When he tells her she should get revenge for her husband's behavior, the devastated Imogen asks, "Revenged / How should I be revenged?" (1.6.130-31). (We see and hear Dakota Johnson say this, in just the right tone, at 1:10.)
"Revenged / How should I be revenged?"
Indecent proposal
"I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure"

Iachimo says that sleeping with him would be the best revenge. (We're probably seeing this at 0:38, when Iachimo holds Imogen's hands—she has Posthumus's bracelet around her right wrist. Iachimo leans in for a kiss before we cut away).

When Imogen furiously rejects his proposal, Iachimo changes gears. He claims he was just testing her and, after Imogen swallows this story, tells her that he, some other Romans, and Posthumus want her to keep a trunk of jewels and other precious objects safe for them. Imogen agrees, and later Iachimo hides in the trunk, which is delivered to Imogen.

She keeps it in her bedroom, and that night, after she falls asleep, Iachimo pops out—a Iachimo-in-the-box. When he sees Imogen, he exclaims,
        How bravely thou becomest thy bed! . . .
        And whiter than the sheets! That I might touch,
        But kiss, one kiss!
"How bravely thou becomes thy bed!"
Peeping Iachimo
This is the voiceover in the trailer's opening. The words match the images as we see the fair-skinned Dakota Johnson sitting on her bed, Posthumus's present around her wrist, her hand resting on white sheets (0:17). We then see Ethan Hawke in the now dark bedroom, slowly rising to peep over the edge of her bed (0:18). 

Meanwhile poor Posthumus is blithely cruising along on his skateboard in the film's equivalent of Rome (0:19). Drums join the guitar and bass as we see a flash of Posthumus kissing Imogen—a symbol of the love Iachimo destroys when he returns to Rome with Imogen's bracelet and a detailed description of her bedroom and a mole on her breast.

Presented with false evidence of Imogen's infidelity, Posthumus declares, "Let there be no honor / . . . truth . . ., love / Where there's another man" (2.4.108-110). In the trailer, Penn Badgley says this as he puts a gun to Ethan Hawke's forehead (1:23), a gesture that implies Posthumus tries to get revenge on the man he thinks cuckolded him. Alas, he tries to get revenge on his wife. After soliloquizing on the perfidy of women (2.5), a misogynist tirade that equals Hamlet's "frailty thy name is woman" rant (1.1.129-59), Posthumus writes a letter to Imogen saying that she should meet him in Wales at Milford Haven. He orders his servant Pisanio (John Leguizamo) to deliver the letter, go with Imogen to Milford Haven, and kill her. 

When Imogen reads the letter, she wishes she could fly to be with her husband: "O for a horse with wings!" (3.2.48). She sets out with Pisanio toward her death, but fortunately for her—and Posthumus—this is a romance, not a tragedy. When they reach Milford Haven, instead of killing her, Pisanio reveals Posthumus's plot.

Learning that her husband wants her dead makes Imogen think Iachimo was right—Posthumus has been sleeping around. "Men's vows are women's traitors" (3.4.53), she says. Her husband must have a new lover, and now, instead of just hanging her up like outmoded clothes, he wants her torn to pieces (50-52). The cruelty of his betrayal destroys her will to live, and she tells Pisanio to go ahead and kill her: "The lamb entreats the butcher" (95).

Pisanio suggests a different course. Imogen should disguise herself as a boy and get a job with Lucius, the Roman ambassador, who will soon be arriving in Wales. Imogen takes this advice—we see a flash of her disguise in the trailer at 1:02
Imogen disguised
—and to prove she's dead, Pisanio sends a bloody cloth to Posthumus, who is overwhelmed with remorse.

The timing of his contrition distinguishes him from the protagonists of Shakespeare's other three "jealousy plays." Claudio from Much Ado About Nothing and Leontes from The Winter's Tale feel no qualms about brutally humiliating their women until after they're convinced the women were faithful. Othello weeps as he murders Desdemona but doesn't regret what he's done until he learns his suspicions were false. Only Posthumus regrets what he's done before understanding this.

Murdering your wife is bad, even if she's committed adultery—this realization makes Posthumus a moral giant compared to Othello.


When critics compare Cymbeline to the other jealousy plays, they tend to do so as an aside because Cymbeline's jealousy story is only one of its many plots, competing for attention with the wicked queen's scheming, Cloten's attempted murder of Posthumus and rape of Imogen, the story of Cymbeline's lost sons, and the war between Britain and Rome. And in the middle of Cymbeline's jealousy story, Imogen's adventures take over. Disguised as a boy, she unknowingly meets her brothers, is drugged into a death-seeming sleep, thinks she sees her husband's decapitated body, becomes Lucius's servant, and is captured by her father's army.

Her adventures rival Pericles's in their complexity and are at least as important as Posthumus's. Like her husband's relatively timely regret, Imogen's adventures distinguish Cymbeline's jealousy story from those in Much Ado, The Winter's Tale, and Othello. Only in Cymbeline does the time devoted to the slandered woman equal or surpass the time devoted to the jealous man. In Much Ado and The Winter's Tale, after being brutally and publicly accused, the women disappear until the last scene. And though Desdemona is one of Othello's three main characters and has some deeply moving speeches, our focus is more on Othello and Iago. Imogen is unique in getting as many scenes as her lover.

She is one of Shakespeare's great heroines, as loving as Desdemona and as tough as Hermione, but also as spunky as Twelfth Night's Viola or As You Like It's Rosalind. Unfortunately, despite the flash of her disguise, the Cymbeline trailer makes me suspect her role in the film will be reduced to something like Hero's in Much Ado—simply the victim of a villain's plotting and a lover's jealousy. The focus will probably be on Posthumus.

If that turns out to be true, we mustn't grumble. Cymbeline hasn't been well served by the movies. There were two silents (Frederic Sullivan's 1913 two-reeler and a 1925 German film), a video-ed 1981 stage production, and the 1982 BBC television production. Almeyreda's movie will be the first full-length feature. By contrast The Tempest has been filmed repeatedly since the 1905 movie of the Herbert Beerbohm Tree's stage production (now lost). Besides silent films, television productions and numerous loose adaptations—like the Western Yellow Sky, the science-fiction movie Forbidden Planet, and the trippy Prospero's Books—we've had Derek Jarman's and Julie Taymor's extravaganzas.

Ranking the Romances

Cymbeline's twentieth-century reputation explains its relative neglect. It was often seen as a kind of warm-up romance, as Shakespeare clearing his throat before writing The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. In this narrative, Shakespeare began experimenting with the romance genre in 1607 with the crude and messy Pericles. He got better when he wrote Cymbeline the following year but didn't really master the genre until writing The Winter's Tale in 1609. He reached perfection with The Tempest in 1611.

This narrative excludes The Two Noble Kinsman, which Shakespeare wrote in collaboration with John Fletcher in 1612, but even confining ourselves to plays Shakespeare wrote alone, the narrative falls apart when we consider that the romances aren't really a distinct genre. They were first described that way by the nineteenth-century Shakespeare scholar Edward Dowden. His daughter, a spiritualist who claimed she communicated with Shakespeare, could have asked the playwright what he thought of her father's categorization—Shakespeare's contemporaries didn't recognize it.

When two of his actors published his first collected works, they divided the plays into comedies, histories, and tragedies. They left out Pericles—which is why we have only a corrupt text—and they put The Winter's Tale and The Tempest with the comedies. That's a logical place for the romances, since they end happily. We might have expected these first editors to put Cymbeline there as well—instead, they put it with the tragedies.

Cymbeline is a tragicomedy, with a potentially tragic plot twisted to end happily. Much Ado About Nothing (1598) is an early example. Like Cymbeline, it has an Othello-like jealousy plot, in which a man believes his woman has been unfaithful. When he verbally assaults her in public, she supposedly dies from humiliation. Something similar happens in The Winter's Tale. When a jealous man publicly humiliates his wife and threatens to have her executed, their son dies of grief, and the mother supposedly follows. At the end of Much Ado and (spoiler alert) Winter's Tale, the men discover their women are alive. The same thing happens in Cymbeline, so we can only guess at why the editors of the first collected works decided it was more tragedy than comedy. 

From the beginning, editors have had trouble grouping the plays by genre. The comedies-histories-tragedies-romances schema we've adopted in English-speaking countries has never worked for oddballs like Troilus and Cressida. (When I taught in Hungary, I was told that they put that play in a convenient category called "other.") More important, though Harold Bloom overstates matters when he claims that "Shakespeare writ no genre," he's right that Shakespeare was never restrained by genre conventions and regularly toyed with them. He made fun of the whole notion of genre when he had Polonius natter on about the players' skill at "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" (2.2.379-82). 

Defining the happy-ending-plays-written-after-1607 as romances is useful shorthand—I'll keep using it—but considering them to be a distinct genre keeps us from understanding how Shakespeare's late writing evolved. Most features that supposedly distinguish the romances—fairy-tale plots, fantastic settings, origins in Greek prose narratives—are found throughout Shakespeare's comedies, beginning with his earliest, The Comedy of Errors in 1592. Twelfth Night—with its shipwreck, neverland setting, uncanny twins, and climax with characters thought to be dead coming back to life—has so many romance features that if we didn't know it was performed in 1602, we might think it was written at the same time as Pericles or Cymbeline.

Shakespeare wrote this kind of play his entire career. He knew what he was doing when he sat down to write the first and lowest-ranked of the four romances. His friend Ben Jonson may have considered Pericles a "moldy tale"—it didn't fit his classicist taste—but audiences loved it and still do. It can be riveting on stage (and would make a great movie). The idea that Pericles isn't as good as the other romances comes from our having only a corrupt text—the original may have had drama and poetry as good as anything in the other plays. 

Unlike Pericles, there's nothing significantly wrong with Cymbeline's text, which is filled with gripping scenes and outstanding dramatic and poetic speeches. These are a match for anything in The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, so why, for over a century, has Cymbeline been consistently ranked below those plays?

I blame its tangle of plots, which didn't appeal to a certain kind of twentieth-century, modernist sensibility. That sensibility—which has its origins in Aristotle's Poetics—put a high premium on what Cleanth Brooks called "the well-wrought urn," a perfection of structure. Critics who value restrained plotting inevitably rank the romances with The Tempest first, The Winter's Tale second, and Cymbeline third. The Tempest is the most unified: it has multiple plots, but Prospero and certain themes connect them, and each plot is relatively simple. The Winter's Tale has a sixteen-year time gap, and we're introduced to new characters halfway through, but it still has more plot unity than Cymbeline

Freed from an obsession with plot unity, we can regard Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale as equal to The Tempest. And we can regard Cymbeline's wacky snarl of stories as a pleasure, not a flaw.

The War Plot

Whatever we think of it, the Cymbeline's plot snarl does present challenges to a filmmaker. He or she can either make a Peter-Jackson-length epic or focus on one or two plots, which is what Michael Almeyreda appears to have done. Besides the jealousy story, he's going to give us the war between Britain and Rome. 

In Cymbeline's third act, we learn that after Julius Caesar conquered Britain, he ordered British kings to pay a tribute of three thousand pounds a year. Cymbeline's predecessor did this, and for a while Cymbeline did as well. (We're probably seeing the paying of tribute at 0:31 in the trailer, when Ed Harris, flanked by biker henchmen, holds out a briefcase.)

Lately, Cymbeline has stopped paying, and now the Roman ambassador demands that he resume (3.1.2-9). The queen says the British will never pay, and her son Cloten chimes in: "Britain's a world / By itself, and we will nothing pay / For wearing our own noses" (3.1.14-16). 

Though we don't hear this short anti-colonialist speech in the trailer, we're seeing Cloten's defiance when Anton Yelchin dumps something—drugs?—out of a garbage bag onto a pool table in front of Cymbeline and the queen played by Milla Jovovich (0:29). We return to this version of the British court at 0:56, when we watch Yelchin's Cloten, now seated by the king and queen, ask rhetorically, "Why should we pay tribute?" (3.1.41).
Defying Rome


When, misled by his stepson and wife, Cymbeline defies Rome, the Roman ambassador says the result will be "war and confusion" (3.1.64), words we hear the actor playing Lucius (who is it?) say at 0:57. We see him finishing the speech at 1:03, saying that the Roman emperor's fury is "not to be resisted" (3.1.65). 

Flashes of the ensuing war appear throughout the trailer. We see the initial clash of armies when Ed Harris fires a machine gun at a police car (1:05), Posthumus's vanquishing and disarming of Iachimo when Penn Badgley puts a gun to Ethan Hawke's head (1:22), and the banished lord Belarius's entry into the fray when Delroy Lindo wields a flamethrower (1:00). We see the war's aftermath with Posthumus's and Lucius's threatened executions (1:07, 1:09).

Femme Fatale
The Queen

The trailer ends with Milla Jovovich's queen, alone at her vanity, putting on lipstick as we hear Ethan Hawke in voiceover saying, "May I live in fear? Hell is here." His words come from the same speech used in the trailer's opening: Iachimo's act two, scene two, soliloquy, which he speaks as he creeps around Imogen's bedroom gathering false evidence.

As he returns to his trunk and prepares to lock himself in, he hopes that the night will pass quickly and muses on the fact of evil being in the same room with Imogen's goodness:
       Swift, swift, you dragons of the night, that dawning
       May bare the raven's eye! I lodge in fear.
       Though this' a heavenly angel, hell is here.
The angel he speaks of is Imogen, and the hell is the one he's creating for her and Posthumus. The trailer takes the words I've italicized—changing "lodge" to "live"—and applies them to the queen, who is the play's most evil character.

The queen does her best to harm Imogen out of pure malice, tries to poison Pisanio simply because he serves her son's rival, and plans to poison her husband to put her son on the throne. At the play's end, when even Iachimo gets a second chance, she's the only character beyond redemption. (Cloten got what he deserved earlier.)

We never learn her name. It's as if, as with Lord Voldemort, characters are afraid to say it, or like Rumpelstiltskin, she's kept it secret from the world. She's a wicked queen and stepmother straight out of a fairy tale, and seeing her in the trailer in front of a mirror reminds us specifically of the villain of Snow White. Like that character, the queen is both beautiful (5.6.63) and dangerous.

Her equivalent in a crime film is the femme fatale who turns her enthralled lover into a murderer—as in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity—or in some other way leads him to destruction. In Cymbeline, the queen makes the enthralled king behave cruelly toward his daughter and act stupidly in his foreign affairs.
Barbara Stanwyck casts an evil spell
on Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity

Like his daughter and son-in-law, Cymbeline is lucky he's in a romance. Instead of getting what he deserves—never seeing his daughter again, watching his kingdom destroyed by war, dying slowly from poison as his duplicitous wife hovers about pretending to grieve—he gets a reunion and reconciliation with his daughter and a peace treaty with the Romans. Not to mention the bonus of rediscovering his lost sons.

"Romeo + Juliet Meets Sons of Anarchy"

The trailer doesn't hint at play's happy endings and seems to be trying to sell the film by recalling Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, which grossed over $147 million and is still the most financially successful Shakespeare movie by far. It's easy to imagine the Cymbeline producers pitching their project, à la Robert Altman's The Player, as Romeo + Juliet meets Sons of Anarchy, which how people have been describing it since before it began shooting. 

A big star like Sons of Anarchy's Ed Harris would have helped sell the project, but no doubt investors would be wary of putting their money into a movie of what most people consider an obscure play. Such films haven't made remotely the same amount of money as Luhrmann's Romeo: Taymor's version of Titus Andronicus, for example, made $2 million, and Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus made half that. 
Titles from the Coriolanus 
and Romeo + Juliet trailers

The titles in the Cymbeline trailer try to turn the play's obscurity into an advantage by describing it as "WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S . . . UNDISCOVERED MASTERPIECE." They describe Posthumus and Imogen as "TWO LOVERS . . . TORN APART BY BETRAYAL" who "WILL BE UNITED BY VENGEANCE," which gives a false impression of the story. First, while Posthumus and Imogen are lovers, I think describing them this way implies that at least part of their story will take place before their marriage—the titles' "TWO LOVERS" is meant to remind us of Romeo + Juliet's "star-crossed lovers." Second, while Posthumus is emotionally torn apart by what he believes is Imogen's betrayal with Iachimo, and Imogen is torn apart by what she believes is Posthumus's betrayal with a Roman mistress, neither betrayal actually happens. Third, and most important, vengeance doesn't unite the couple—it almost destroys them.

Saying that Posthumus and Imogen are "united by vengeance" contributes to the overall impression that, as in Romeo and Juliet, in Cymbeline we have young lovers forming a common front against a hostile world. People want to see that story on a date night more than they want to see a story best described as "A HUSBAND, INSANE WITH JEALOUSY, SEEKS VENGEANCE BY TRYING TO MURDER HIS WIFE."

People also don't want to see movies that seem like homework, which unfortunately is the way many people think of Shakespeare adaptations. Much of the success of Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet came from people seeing it as different kind of Shakespeare movie. (Leonardo diCaprio hadn't yet attained the superstar status that he would the following year with Titanic.) They considered its contemporary setting an innovation, and in some ways they were right. 

It's true that modern-dress Shakespeare begins with the original performances, which had ancient Romans wearing Elizabethan street clothes. It's also true that since the 1920s, theater directors have regularly set Shakespeare in the present or recent past. But not counting numerous loose adaptations, movie directors didn't start doing modern-dress Shakespeare, using the original language, until the mid-nineties. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) In 1995 we got Ian McKellen's superb Richard III, set in an alternate-history 1930s/40s, followed the next year by Luhrmann's Romeo

Since then, we've had several modern-dress Shakespeare films (e.g., Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus, Joss Wheedon's Much Ado About Nothing, and Almeyreda's own Hamlet), but none has been a blockbuster like Romeo + Juliet. I suspect that the trailer-makers want people to recall that film when they invite us to "EXPERIENCE A BOLD NEW VISION."

They didn't need to sell it to me. I've been excited since I first learned they were shooting it. And the trailer promises us a terrific ride.