Maria Del Sapio Garbero , Identity, Otherness (essenza dell’Altro), and Empire in Shakespeare’s Rome
The transference of the Roman imperium to the western territories of Britain is sanctioned by the favour of the Roman gods in the last lines of Cymbeline, Shakespeare’s last Roman play; a favour expressed by the flight of birds. The transference is achieved through sweat and blood, resulting in a hard-won honourable peace with Rome, but it is licensed by vision and divination.
Transference as it is handled in Cymbeline works overtly as both an event and a signifying practice, a cultural field of contentious metaphorical signification.
We are presented here with “the problem of the ambivalence of cultural authorithy: the attempt to dominate in the name of a cultural supremacy which is itself produced only in the moment of differentiation”.
Shakespeare must have been aware that the mythmaking flight of birds was decisive in the story of the foundation of Rome, the fratricidal legend of Romulus and Remus.
Latin source: Ovid’s Fasti.
I would like to put forward that in conceiving his prophetic finale of for Cymbeline, Shakespeare may have had precisely Ovid’s Fasti in mind, where the augural vision of birds intervenes with a similar function to underline a sense of expectancy (aspettativa) and undecidability before decreeing Romulus’ control of the city.
Significantly, divination is eventually relocated to the court of Britain.
The ending of Cymbeline is framed by images of transference of cultural authority.
Indeed, shortly before the closure of the play, Philarmonus is called to interpret the meaning of Jupiter’s oracle which Postumus Leonatus, on his awakening from the torpor induced by his fierce patriotic pugnacity against the Roman legions at Milford Haven, has found on a tablet on his bosom.
Cymbeline allows us to foreground the combative-emulative intention in respect to “the Roman host” which we can see at work in the rest of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Cymbeline also clearly evokes the related complex gamut (gamma) of ideological concerns which were at stake in the confrontation with Rome in Tudor and Jacobean England.
Rome is also seen as serving to prospect an altogether revolutionary concept of space, a post-Copernican infinite universe – as in Antony and Cleopatra – where it permeates the worldwide imperial geography of the play.
I think the year of production for Cymbeline may be particularly relevant in this context, for in the same year, 1611, Speed’s atlas of “Great Britaine” was issued. And what we find on Speed’s opening map of Britain and Ireland are the images of two coins: Cymbeline and the female figure of Britannia Imperatrix sitting on a globe. Cymbeline, the king who opposed but helps made peace with Augustus, that he enjoyed high currency in Jacobean times as the forefather of a proud and pacified “Great Britain”.
In the theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine , the frontispiece is designed as an Augustan triumphal arch, with two levels of columns and niches (nicchie) for statuary.
Theatre and cartography are linked. The world is like a stage.
Rome was appropriated as both a script for the triumphs of a nascent empire and a setting for problematically staging questions of ancestry (lignaggio), influence, identity and location.