AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
In the early acts of Cymbeline, work is espoused by the play's villains--the Queen, Jachimo, and Cloten. Wickedly bent on incapacitating or killing her step-daughter Imogen and making her boorish son Cloten heir to her husband's throne, the Queen has collected potent drugs from the court physician Cornelius. She proposes to test them on "such creatures as/ We count not worth the hanging (but none human)" (I. v. 19-20). Cornelius knows, however, that the Queen's amateurish Baconian science masks as unknown but deadly purpose. "Those she has/ Will stupefy and dull the sense awhile," he tells playgoers in an aside, "Which first (perchance) she'll prove on cats and dogs,/ Then afterward up higher" (I. v. 36-39). The doctor knows, in other words, that the Queen's avocation, her "scientific" work, serves to screen the operation of her malice. Usually this spite expresses itself in Machiavellian policy. "Here comes a flattering rascal," she says when Pisanio--Posthumus' servant--enters; "upon him/ Will I first work" (I. v. 27-28). Working upon Pisanio entails attempting to persuade him to slander Posthumus and recommend Cloten to Imogen. "Do thou work" (I. v. 48), she entreats Pisanio when she tries to persuade him to become Cloten's advocate. It also involves convincing him that the box which she drops and he retrieves contains life-restoring drugs. (1)
For the Queen, work is essentially verbal, taking the form mainly of deceptive--specifically Machiavellian--utterances. Thus her remark, "and every day that comes comes to decay/ A day's work in him" (I. v. 56-57), made as part of her effort to discredit exiled and presumably idle Posthumus in his servant's hearing, seems out of character. The remark implies that the speaker values the kind of labor that fills up and gives meaning to the worker's days. What the Queen's or Posthumus' day's work in Cymbeline's court is (or was) we have no idea. As a personal attendant of King Cymbeline, a servant of the royal bedchamber (I. i. 40-42), Posthumus, like his counterpart in Jacobean Whitehall, has had no taxing duties. Moreover, the extensive learning to which Cymbeline has subjected his ward has been received without effort. According to First Gentleman, Posthumus took instruction "As we do air, fast as 'twas minist'red,/ And in's spring became a harvest" (I. i. 45-46). Pointedly unlike Pericles in Simonides' estimation, Posthumus is not a labored scholar of the arts; for the Briton, learning was as easy as breathing.
Shakespeare puts the positive valuation of work in the Queen's mouth chiefly to stress by contrast her own debased notion of labor. The Queen craftily drops the box of drugs when she becomes aware from silent Pisanio's facial expression that he does not agree to become a slanderer and proxy-wooer. Thinking the drugs lethal, she intends to kill unswayed Pisanio, "unpeopl[ing]" Imogen "Of liegers for her sweet" lover (I. v. 79-80). When Pisanio automatically, in the trained servant's reflexive stooping, bends and picks up the dropped box, the Queen states, "Thou tak'st up/ Thou know'st not what; but take it for thy labor" (I. v. 60-61). Her word "labor" has two functions in this context. By its contrast with the relatively small amount of energy expended in performing the retrieval of the box, it accentuates the privileged Queen's notion of what constitutes work. By the trained nature of Pisanio's act, it reminds viewers of the unproductive nature of so-called work at court. The Queen's initial lie concerning the box focuses the uncreative nature of court work. "It is a thing I made" (I. v. 62), she tells dutiful Pisanio. Ironically, the devaluation connoted by her term for the box--"thing"--seems appropriate, since the projection of value accompanying the labor of making something has not been part of her experience.
Not surprisingly, the Queen's Machiavellian counterpart, Jachimo, shares her degenerate notion of work. As part of his rhetorical effort to persuade Imogen that Posthumus in Rome has sunk to being a whoremonger, he portrays her betrothed as a lecher who now "gripes with hands/ Made hard with hourly falsehood (falsehood, as/ With labor)" (I. vi. 107-8). Jachimo implies that the dregs of society perform hard physical labor. That whores have to labor to supplement their earnings from prostitution indicts a callous society as much as the remark slanders Posthumus. Jachimo's villainous mind links physical labor and falsehood: those persons driven to eke out a living through lying assurances and vicious deeds perform physical labor. (2) In fact, the "gentleman" Jachimo works on Posthumus and Imogen almost exclusively through false utterances, easy for the speaker to make. Shakespeare draws a parallel between the Queen's pretended interests in scientific experimentation and Jachimo's and Posthumus' contrived trial--their testing--of Imogen's "mettle." Jachimo purports to undertake the kind of work that the Queen says she practices. Yet just as she never performs experiments, so Jachimo never truly and disinterestedly tests Imogen's fidelity. Like his counterpart the Queen, he instead works upon his victim through poisonous language.
Disposed as he is to slander, Jachimo never legitimately labors. Finally, Cloten joins his mother and Jachimo in voicing a debased idea of work. Attempting, as the Queen did, to suborn Pisanio, he crudely exclaims, "Sirrah, if thou wouldst not be a villain, but do me true service, undergo those employments wherein I should have cause to use thee with a serious industry, that is, what villainy soe'er I bid thee do, to perform it directly and truly, I would think thee an honest man" (III. v. 108-13). For Cloten, "serious industry" consists of deceptive practices. His aristocratic contempt of physical labor surfaces in his initial use of the term "villain"; if Pisanio does not wish to resemble (or become) a "villein," a peasant condemned to labor miserably for a bare livelihood, then he should become a villain, a conscienceless knave willing to implement Cloten's design of wrenching Imogen's affection from Posthumus to himself. In his stupidity, Cloten does not comprehend that the "true" villainy of his conception would be morally worse than undergoing villeinage. Left alone on the stage, unshakable Pisanio tells the audience, "This fool's speed/ Be cross'd with slowness; labor be his meed" (III. v. 161-62). Even the good servant Pisanio, bred in the court, cannot imagine that labor might be its own reward. Like other, mostly vicious characters in the play, he conceives of work negatively as barren, painful punishment.
What then, besides the practice of verbal policy, makes up Cloten's idea of work? The ill-tempered quarreling to which he is addicted, swordplay that so exercises him that he reeks in the nostrils of several lords (I. ii. 1-4), scarcely qualifies as productive work. Nor does the gambling at bowls to which he is drawn. In Cloten, Shakespeare vividly depicts the kind of destructive activity that idleness often fostered in Jacobean aristocrats. Lechery complements Cloten's other vices. After dressing in Posthumus' clothing to rape Imogen, and so take vengeance upon her for her boast that her lover's garments outvalue him, Cloten nastily puns, "How fit his garments serve reel Why should his mistress, who was made by him that made the tailor, not be fit too? the rather (saving reverence of the word) for 'tis said a woman's fitness comes by fits. Therein I must play the workman" (IV. i. 2-7). Sexual intercourse is work in Cloten's corrupt view. Accustomed as the Queen's son to having his way, Cloten brutishly imagines the male, himself in this case, making a woman obedient by fitting her physically to himself and his carnal desires through forced sex. This obscene work of physical fitting amounts to labor in Cloten's twisted mind, a labor in which women involuntarily but naturally cooperate. The coarse male chauvinism heard in his sexual stereotype, "'tis said a woman's fitness comes by fits," implies that her compelled orgasms--her fits--over time physically fit her to the body of the aggressive male. Such physical fitness in Cloten's distorted view sums up his idea of woman's fitness, her qualification to be admitted to male companionship and society at large. The depravity inherent in playing the workman to achieve these aims needs little further clarification. According to Cloten, Imogen was "made by him that made the tailor" (IV. i. 3-4). She, like all other women, exists mainly to be made, sexually exercised and impregnated by men. Cloten imagines that Posthumus, who has "made" his tailor through the expense of a commissioned, rich wardrobe, has already sexually made Imogen. For Cloten, women are made neither by the gods nor by nature, but by self-serving men. The blasphemy of such a belief in craftsmanship seals Cloten's mistaken idea of work--and his doom.
Jacobean upper gentry and aristocrats, exempted for the most part from the work involved in life support, primarily made warfare and childbearing their principal labors (and rationale for being). Significantly, Shakespeare in Cymbeline shows these two kinds of court work to be futile, even self-destructive. In Wales, the old soldier Belarius attempts to instruct Cymbeline's sons in the "toil o' th' war,"
A pain that only seems to seek out danger I' th' name of fame and honor which dies i' th' search, And hath as oft a sland'rous epitaph As record of fair act; nay, many times Doth ill deserve by doing well; what's worse, Must curtsy at the censure. (III. iii. 49-55)
"O boys," Belarius laments, "this story/ The world may read in me" (III. iii. 55-56). Slandered as a Roman confederate by two villains, Belarius instantly became an exile bereft of the martial reputation honestly earned through the work of war. More grievously, Posthumus' father, Sicilius, upon learning of the deaths of this two sons "in the wars o' th' time" (I. i. 35), in the words of First Gentleman, "took such sorrow/ That he quit being" (I. i. 37-38). Indirectly the "toil o' th' ... war" kills not only Posthumus' brothers but his father as well, leaving his mother shortly to die in the labor of childbirth (I. i. 3840). Her nameless character in the play graphically stresses the thoroughness with which her fatal labor stripped her of personal identity. Later, during Posthumus' dream vision, the ghost of his mother stresses in her complaint to Jupiter the seeming fruitlessness of her labor both for herself and her only surviving son:
Hath my poor boy done aught but well, Whose face I never saw? I died whilst in the womb he stay'd Attending nature's law; Whose father then (as men report Thou orphans' father art) Thou shouldst have been, and shielded him From this earth-vexing smart. Lucina lent not me her aid, But took me in my throes, That from me was Posthumus ripp'd, Came crying 'mongst his foes, A thing of pity! (V. iv. 35-47)
Even from the time of his excruciating delivery, Posthumus' life, in the ghost of his mother's opinion, has been a kind of protracted toil: "earth-vexing smart" producing no fruit.
Granted this negative portrayal of work, playgoers wonder whether any productive work is performed at Cymbeline's court. Attempting to convince Imogen to disguise herself as a page and suffer hardships in order to travel to Rome to observe first-hand Posthumus' behavior, Pisanio reveals that he believes that Imogen's troubles spring from her unintentionally having insulted the vain queen of the gods--Juno. In his account, Imogen must "forget/ [her] laborsome and dainty trims, wherein/ [She] made great Juno angry" (III. iv. 163-65). In other words, her wearing the humiliating dress of a male page would amount to penitential behavior that might appease the goddess. Or so Pisanio imagines. While he is generally correct in his opinion that a deity crosses Imogen in order to refine her character, specifically her love for Posthumus, Pisanio errs in identifying the deity and the flaw in Imogen capable of amendment. Nevertheless, the faithful servant strikes close to a truth when he implies that the hardship of traveling as a male page through Wales and across the seas to Rome would rectify a certain softness in Imogen bred by the easy, indolent life of a princess in Cymbeline's court. The term "laborsome" in Pisanio's phrase "Your laborsome and dainty trims" attributes a certain overworked quality to the sumptuous and delicate gowns worn by Imogen--an …