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Warriors and ruins: Cymbeline, heroism and the union of crowns

Mottram, Stewart


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Dr Stewart Mottram
Director of Research, School of Humanities, and Reader in English Literature


Willy Maley

Rory Loughnane


Heroism is a key characteristic of Cymbeline’s Britons, and it played a crucial role also in the construction of Britain in the period of the play’s composition, although it is an ethos we tend today to associate more with Henry Frederick than with his father, King James. Recent studies of the play explore Cymbeline’s dramatization of these perceived ideological tensions between Henry and his father.1 In this chapter, I want to argue for a far greater degree of accommodation than previous studies allow between Henry’s headstrong heroism and his father’s ambitions for peace. With a focus on Cymbeline, I argue that martial rhetoric in fact served more to support than stand in the way of James’s plans for Britain’s peaceful union, for the play, as I read it, reflects the tone of other texts by Shakespeare’s contemporaries that sing of warlike heroism in the same breath as they celebrate ‘the pacifist policies of James’.2 In Prince Henry’s Barriers (1610), for example, the rhetoric of war sits side by side Ben Jonson’s paean to the Jacobean peace, and this reconciliation of apparent opposites elsewhere in early Stuart literature also finds its reflection in the themes of Shakespeare’s play. Yet alongside the emphasis on the importance of martial rhetoric within royalist literature of the period, in what follows I want equally to focus on the flipside of heroism in Cymbeline, exploring what I see as the play’s unsettling concern to challenge as well as champion its own celebration of the soldierly. The play betrays significant anxieties about Stuart Britain’s defensibility in the face of invasion, even as it celebrates the brags of Cymbeline’s Queen about the ‘natural bravery’ of Britain and the Britons (3.1.18). Wales in particular was the focus for expressions both of British bravado and anxiety in early modern literature. Its people were a ‘verie warlike nation’ according to Camden, but as Garrett Sullivan highlights, its coastline 1 The ‘great divide’ (14) between father and son is the subject of Roy Strong’s Henry, Prince of Wales and England’s Lost Renaissance (London: Thames & Hudson, 1986). See also Cymbeline, ed. Martin Butler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 40-44 and Marisa R. Cull, ‘Contextualising 1610: Cymbeline, The Valiant Welshman, and the Princes of Wales’, in Willy Maley and Philip Schwyzer (eds), Shakespeare and was at the same time regarded as especially vulnerable to invasion by Britain’s enemies abroad.3 Both these conflicting standpoints are reflected in Cymbeline’s treatment of Wales – the site of Cymbeline’s heroic victory over Rome, but also the scene of his soldiers’ humiliating retreat, ‘all flying/Through a strait lane’ (5.3.6-7) to escape the advancing Romans. Shakespeare’s treatment of Wales has important implications for our understanding of both Welsh and British identity after 1603. Cymbeline celebrates British heroism, but it is also preoccupied with Britain’s potential ruin, and these are preoccupations, I argue, that serve not only to question the strength of Britain’s coastline, but the stability also of the Stuart union of crowns.


Mottram, S. (2013). Warriors and ruins: Cymbeline, heroism and the union of crowns. In W. Maley, & R. Loughnane (Eds.), Celtic Shakespeare : The Bard and the Borderers (169-183). London: Routledge.

Online Publication Date Apr 11, 2016
Publication Date Oct 5, 2013
Deposit Date Dec 19, 2014
Journal Celtic Shakeseare: the bard and the borderers
Publisher Routledge
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Pages 169-183
Book Title Celtic Shakespeare : The Bard and the Borderers
Chapter Number 9
ISBN 9781317169062; 9781409422594; 9781138246782
Keywords REF 2014 submission
Public URL