PCS Blog

The Real Cymbeline?

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 11 February 2012

Cymbeline, King of Britain, one of William Shakespeare’s later plays (and from which Chris Coleman adapted his Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline, currently running in our Ellyn Bye Studio), was probably written around 1610 and then published in 1623 in the First Folio, the first collected edition of 36 of his plays. But did you know that there was a real Cymbeline?
Although his life bears almost no resemblance to that of the “Cymbeline” in Shakespeare’s play, the pre-Roman Celtic king Cunobeline, who ruled in what is today southeastern England from about A.D. 9 until his death sometime before A.D. 43, was the original inspiration for the title character in Cymbeline. Although his existence and rule over ancient Britain has been verified by archaeological evidence (specifically his many inscribed coins) and the works of Roman historians (with awesome names like Suetonius and Dio Cassius), there is quite a bit of debate when it comes to the actual spelling of this king’s name. Popular variations include Cunobelinus, Cunobelin, Kynobellinus and Κυνοβελλίνος, in Greek.
Contrary to what you’ll see in Cymbeline, Cunobeline appears to have maintained good and peaceful relations with the Roman Empire. He used the title Rex, which is Latin for "king,” as well as classical motifs on his inscribed coins, and under his rule there was an increase in trade with the Roman Empire – which was basically all of continental Europe. Luxury goods imported into Britain included Italian wine and drinking vessels, olive oil and fish sauces (yummy), glassware, jewelry and tableware. Britain’s exports included grain, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting dogs.        
Map of the Roman Empire Circa A.D. 14 
In another significant deviation from Cymbeline, Cunobeline had three sons (instead of two) known to history: Adminius, Togodumnus and Caratacus – and it doesn’t appear that any of them were kidnapped as toddlers.
In conclusion, while they may have shared a similar name, it appears that there was virtually nothing in common between the title character of Cymbeline and the historical Cunobeline. So how did the ancient Celtic king get on Shakespeare’s radar some 1600 years later?
As it turns out, Cunobeline was first written about by the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth. Born circa 1100, Monmouth was one of the major figures in the development of British historiography. While his chronicle History of the Kings of Britain was widely popular in its day, you’ll probably recognize him as one of the most significant authors in the development of the enduring legend of King Arthur. In addition to creating the main framework for the figure of Arthur as a semi-historical British king, Monmouth was also the first to introduce the character Merlin.
But back to Cymbeline – or, as he appears in Monmouth’s version, Kymbelinus (gold star to the person who can keep all of these variations straight). According to Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, Kymbelinus was a great king and warrior – a leader who was both on friendly terms with Rome and yet capable of resisting Roman aggression when needed. All tributes to Rome were paid out of respect, not out of requirement. In addition, in Monmouth’s version Kymbelinus has two sons, Guiderius and Arviragus – character names that were directly taken by Shakespare and inserted into his play. However, while Shakespeare’s version of the character Cymbeline as well as the plot were loosely based on Monmouth’s “historical” retelling, Shakespeare freely adapted the legend and added many of his own original subplots.
Hundreds of years later, in 1577, the English chronicler Raphael Holinshed published Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. While the plot of Cymbeline was loosely based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's tale, the historical background came more directly from Holinshed's Chronicles. In fact, Chronicles was used as Shakespeare's primary historical reference for many of his other plays, including Macbeth and King Lear.
After Chronicles was published, fast forward about 3o years, when William Shakespare was busy writing one of his final plays, Cymbeline, King of Britain -- a play that is arguably a compilation of not only Monmouth and Holinshed's works, but of most of the Bard's earlier works as well. 400 years later? Our very own Chris Coleman is adapting his Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline. The story of Cymbeline (or Cunobeline, or Kymbelinus, or Cunobelinus) lives on.
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