The Quest for Peace: Shakespeare’s Concept of Utopia in Cymbeline

By Cristen Fowler, History Major, ASU Undergraduate Student

Symbolism was a powerful factor in Shakespeare’s plays used to communicate to his audience. The symbolism of Cymbeline is particularly unique in the way it depicts the relation between reality and Shakespeare’s perception of utopia. The chaotic dynamics of the play seek to answer whether a utopia depicted in the play was achievable reality. Shakespeare also deals with the ravaging of the peoples of the New World but also atrocities occurring in England’s neighbor Ireland. The play was used not only as a criticism of current practices undertaken by James I but also a response to the hope that the former policies of tolerance extended under Elizabeth would once again return.

While Shakespeare’s Utopian concepts were concocted from the turbulent times he lived in, his ideology was also shaped by his predecessors and contemporaries alike. One ideological work which likely influenced Shakespeare’s Utopian ideology was that of Thomas More and his fictional work Utopia. A humanist of the Early Modern period, More explored the concept of a perfect society on the fictional island of Utopia. The people here appear to have solved many of the problems that plagued the sixteenth-century world in what can only be described as an early concept of voluntary communism rooted in Aristotelian thought. Justice and peace prevail in this land where the Utopians thrive in harmonic collectivism.

Some of the greatest reflections of More’s thought on Shakespeare can be found in Act 3 of Cymbeline. Shakespeare depicts three men in the wild; Belarius a noble in Cymbeline’s court wrongfully banished twenty years earlier and siblings Guiderius and Arviragus, sons of Cymbeline kidnapped by Belarius. The two brothers symbolize the natives in the New World with them depicted as living in a cave in the wild hunting for food and in no need of money. At first glance, while some might label this return to nature as being Shakespeare’s Utopia, this is not necessarily the case. Guiderius and Arviragus both take to lamenting their present state as the wild is all that they have known. Even Belarius does not describe his life in the wild in language that would suggest that the wild was a Utopia but rather one forced on him by his banishment from Cymbeline. This rejection of the wild as a utopia comes to an end when Belarius is recociled with Cymbeline at the end of the play, thus ending his banishment. If the wild was to be viewed as Shakespeare’s ideal Utopia, then it could hardly be said that Belarius would abandon his primitive life. Like More, Shakespeare rejected the concepts of primitivism as an ideal society and both look forward to a more advanced, peaceful society. However, Shakespeare tends to regard both the native peoples of the New World and the Celts with greater regard than More does.

Shakespeare’s desire for Utopia is somewhat sloppily laid-out in the play at the conclusion with the reconciliation between Britons and the Romans; the evil plots of the protagonists are foiled and the noble Imogen wrongly slandered has her honored restored. The dark themes of the play reflect the hard times suffered not only by the people of England but those who endured persecution under England’s rule. While Shakespeare does present an idea of Utopia, his understanding of human nature itself gives little hope that any Utopia is sustainable. More’s influence on Shakespeare was unquestionably present though they differed on their ideas of Utopia. Despite this, he still gives a small glimmer of hope that his desire for peace in this Utopian world was something worth striving for.

Cristen Fowler is a history major in her senior year with a focus in Jewish Studies and an undergraduate fellow at the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. Her main areas of study are Holocaust history, late medieval Sephardic Jewish history and Early Modern Period Spanish converso history. She focuses on the concepts of “blood purity” in Europe as well as the development and dehumanization of “the other” during the Spanish Inquisition and Holocaust. She has previously studied medieval and Early Modern Period literature and conducted independent research at Oxford University where she hopes to return in 2018 to begin her Master’s degree in history.