It was standard practice in Shakespeare's company for one actor to play many parts. The plays are generally large and expansive, and the company was downsized for maximum profit. The King's men probably had an ensemble of about 15, who had to cover cast lists that often number over 30. So it is with Cymbeline,which lists 37 named characters, in addition to exta lords, ladies, British and Roman soldiers, and musicians. No actor in this show at Shakespeare's Globe would have been off stage very long, and the tiring house (the changing room) would have felt like rush hour for the more than two hours traffic of the stage. Our own production is even more streamlined than Shakespeare's original, since only 11 actors are involved (this is almost double the record set by Fiasco theatre, which last year did the play triumphantly with a cast of 6).
Doubling roles in Shakespeare is not only cost effective, it can yield additional theatrical pleasures. One particular instance of this is the doubling of the play's ostensible leading man, Posthumus, with this opposite, the clownish villain, Cloten (a double that Fiasco somehow missed) . We are told right from the beginning the two men could not be more different. The vile Cloten is a "thing too bad for bad report."
while Posthumus, beloved by Imogen, is "a creature, such/ As to seek through the regions of the earth/For one his like, there would be something failing/ in him that should compare."
The Posthumus/Cloten opposition is enough all by itself to invite double casting. But there is more. The two characters are never on stage together. And we know they look exactly alike--at least from neck down, wearing the same clothes, which they often do. Cloten is determined to revenge himself on Imogen for her insulting him, saying that the meanest garment of Posthumus was worth more to her than all the hairs on his head. So he contrives to get into Posthumus' clothes, go find her in the country, kill her boyfriend, rape her, cut the garments she loved so much to pieces, and then send her home. That will teach her. Unfortunately, Cloten is beheaded before he gets the chance to execute his cunning plan, though not before he tells us how well Posthumus' garments fit him--an amazing thing! And when Imogen finds the headless man, she is convinced it must be her husband: I know the shape of's leg; this is his hand/ His foot mercurial, his Martial thigh,The brawns of Hercules . .. "
Imogen has no doubt this is her husband, and who should know his body better? And though she turns out to be mistaken, her recognition is entirely correct too: the body of the villain is quite obviously also the body of her lover, since they are both being played by the same actor.
There is additional resonance to this pairing too, since it invites us to see comparisions where we have been told there were only contrasts. Just after leaving the stagen in the first scene, the actor reappears as Cloten complaining,"And that she should love this fellow and refuse me!" A lovely moment. But the more you experience the play, the more you see how lines are often blurred between the ostensible hero and the thuggish villain. When Posthumus is tricked into believing his wife has been unfaithful to him, he goes mad--and becomes dangerous; in a jealous fury of betrayal, he rushes to murderous revenge on Imogen, just as Cloten does for her insulting him. Posthumus decides to have her killed. His diatribe against her and against all women is scary, and as a character he now seems "harsh" and "simple"--exactly the words Imogen uses to describe Cloten. Posthumus for most of the rest of the play is subject to violent fits, and as a character he seems a patchwork of snatched emotions jerked from him, tossing him this way and that. And this jerkiness is exactly the rhtythm and tempo of the clownish Cloten. The lines of distinction are blurring from the other direction, too. Cloten, surprisingly, turns out to be a fine singer: not a quality you associate with a thug. And he also has some of the best pride in country lines in the play, lines everyone in the English audience would applaud when the Romans come demanding payment of tribute : Why should we pay tribute? If Casear can hide the sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for light; else, sir, no more tribute, pray you now." These are lines you would think the hero might say, not the villain (in fact the hero does say something similar, earlier, though far less memorably).
The wonderful climax of this blurred meshing occurs in the first scene of the 4th act, when Cloten swims triumphantly on stage wearing the garments of Posthumus. For nearly two hours the audience has been watching the same actor change characters and clothes--at least a half dozen times before now. We have become very comfortable and confident in sorting out the two men, thanks both to the difference in their costumes and the actor's ability to create two distinct personalities. But at this one fabulous moment our minds are happily blown: who is this? Cloten? for sure! Posthumus? He sure looks exactly like him! Both? Well, yes . .. in a way!
And finally, in a kind of happy postcript, at the end of the play Guiderius describes how he cut off the head of the unbcouth Cloten, and says he is "right glad he is not standing here/ to tell this tale of mine." Absolutely true--and not true--since the actor playing Cloten (now only Posthumus) is standing right there on stage with him.
There's nothing like Shakespeare, who doubles our pleasure and intelligence like no other playwright. And what a wonderful play this is, as I am seeing over and over again.