David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s CYMBELINE: A Retelling in Prose — Act 5, Scene 4

— 5.4 —

In an open area near the British camp stood Posthumus Leonatus and two jailors. Posthumus felt guilty because he believed that he had caused Imogen to die.

The first jailer bound Posthumus’ hands and feet and said, “Now you are like an animal whose leg has been bound so that it can graze in a pasture but not wander off and be stolen. Since you are wearing fetters in this field, go ahead and graze if you find pasture.”

The second jailer said, “Yes, if you find edible pasture and are hungry enough to eat it.”

The jailers left, and Posthumus, now alone, said to himself, “Bondage, you are very welcome to me because, I think, you are a way for me to reach liberty. I am better off than a man who is sick with the gout since he will continue for a long time to groan in pain than be quickly cured by the sure physician, Death, who is the key that will open these fetters. My conscience, you are fettered by guilt. You are fettered more securely than my legs and wrists are. You good gods, give me penitence so that I can release the fetter that binds my mind, and then, after I am penitent, I can die and be free of guilt forever.

“Is it enough that I am sorry for causing Imogen to die? By feeling sorry, children appease their Earthly fathers; the gods are more full of mercy than are Earthly fathers.

“Must I repent? I cannot repent better than in fetters, which I desire and so they are not forced on me.

“If the main part of making amends for my sin is to give up my freedom, I can give up no more than my all — my life.

“Gods, I know that you are more merciful than are vile men, who from their broken debtors take a third of what they have, and then a sixth, and then a tenth, letting them ‘thrive’ again on their remaining means so that the creditor can take more at a later date.

“In order for me to pay for Imogen’s dear life, take mine, and although my life is not as dear as her life, yet it is a life. You created and coined it. When money passes from one man to another, they do not weigh every coin to make sure that it has the correct weight. Even though some coins may be light of weight, the men treat the coins as being worth the figure stamped on them. I am stamped in your image, and so, great powers, if you will take me although I am light of weight through having sinned, then take this life of mine, and let it pay my debt in full.

“Oh, Imogen! I’ll speak to you in silence.”

He lay on the ground and slept.

Solemn music could be heard, and Posthumus’ dead relatives and other beings began to appear. First some musicians appeared. Then Posthumus’ father, Sicilius Leonatus, appeared; he was an old man who was dressed like a warrior. Sicilius held the hand of a mature woman who was his wife and Posthumus’ mother. Next appeared Posthumus’ two brothers; the mortal wounds that they had received in battle could be seen. All of these ghosts surrounded Posthumus as he slept.

Sicilius Leonatus said, “Bestow your spite no more, Jupiter, you thunder-master, on mortal flies such as Posthumus. Instead, bestow your spite on the gods. Quarrel with Mars, the god of war, and chide Juno, your wife, who hates your adulteries and criticizes them and gets revenge on them. Has my poor boy Posthumus, whose face I never saw in the world of the living, done anything but good? I died while he was still in the womb waiting for the time he would obey nature’s law and be born. Men say that you act as the father to orphans, and therefore you are Posthumus’ non-biological father. You should have acted like his father and shielded him from the grief of this tormenting Earthy life.”

Posthumus’ mother said, “The goddess of childbirth, Lucina, did not give me her aid. Instead, she took my life when I was supposed to give birth. From my body Posthumus was ripped. He came crying into the midst of his enemies; he was a thing of pity!”

Sicilius, Posthumus’ father, said, “Great nature, like his ancestry, molded Posthumus so well that he deserved the praise of the world — he was the heir of great Sicilius.”

The first brother said, “When Posthumus became a mature man, where was the man in Britain who was his equal or who could be as promising a man in the eyes of Imogen, who best can appraise Posthumus’ worth?”

Posthumus’ mother said, “Once he married Imogen, why, Jupiter, did you mock him by allowing him to be thrown from the estate of the Leonati family and exiled from his dearest one, sweet Imogen?”

Sicilius, Posthumus’ father, said, “Why, Jupiter, did you allow Iachimo, that slight thing of Italy, to taint Posthumus’ nobler heart and brain with needless jealousy, and to become the sucker and scorn of Iachimo’s villainy?”

The second brother said, “We — Posthumus’ parents and his two brothers, who fought and died bravely for our country — came from stiller seats in the happy fields of Elysium, where the blest spirits of the dead reside. We want to maintain with honor our loyalty and the right that King Tenantius, King Cymbeline’s father, gave us. Tenantius gave our family the name Leonatus; for our family honor to be upheld, Posthumus must be treated with the respect he deserves.”

The first brother said, “We performed daring deeds in battle for King Tenantius, and Posthumus has performed daring deeds in battle for King Cymbeline. Why, then, Jupiter, you King of gods, have you postponed giving Posthumus the honors he deserves, and instead are giving him sorrows?”

Sicilius, Posthumus’ father, said, “Jupiter, open the clear crystal window of your Heavenly palace, and look out. No longer exercise upon a valiant family your harsh and potent injuries. No longer use your power to treat Posthumus so harshly.”

Posthumus’ mother said, “Since, Jupiter, our son is good, take away his miseries.”

Sicilius, Posthumus’ father, said, “Peep through your marble mansion and help, or we poor ghosts will cry to the shining assembly of the rest of the gods against your deity.”

The word “marble” referred to a kind of pattern of light and color seen in the sky — imagine the Sun shining through parts of a cloudy sky so that it is “aglow with lacing streaks,” in the words of Shakespearean scholar Horace Howard Furniss, editor of Othelloand other plays by Shakespeare.

Posthumus’ two brothers cried, “Help, Jupiter; or we will appeal to other gods, and flee from your justice.”

Jupiter heard the Leonati family’s prayers. Thunder sounded and lightning struck, and Jupiter, sitting on an eagle, flew down to Earth as he threw an additional thunderbolt. The ghosts of the Leonati family fell to their knees before him.

Jupiter said to them, “You petty spirits of the low region, the abode of the dead, offend me no more with your complaints. Be silent! How dare you ghosts accuse me, the thunderer, whose thunderbolt, as you know, is planted in the sky and batters all rebelling coasts?

“You poor shadows of Elysium, leave this place, and rest upon your never-withering banks of flowers. Don’t distress yourselves with mortal events. They are no concerns of yours; you know that they are my concerns.

“Those whom I love best I thwart; the more delayed I make my gift, the more it delights when it arrives. Be patient; our godhead will uplift your low-laid son. His comforts will thrive, and his trials are almost over.

“Our majestic star — Jupiter, the planet of justice — reigned at Posthumus’ birth, and in our temple he was married.

“Rise, you ghosts, and fade back to Elysium.

“Posthumus shall be the lord and husband of Lady Imogen, and his afflictions will make him much happier than if he had never endured them.”

Jupiter gave Sicilius a tablet and said, “Lay this tablet upon his breast.”

The outside of the tablet was richly decorated; inside the tablet words were written.

Jupiter continued, “On this tablet I have written Posthumus’ full future. Once you have laid this tablet on his chest, all of you spirits leave. Complain no more, lest you make me angry.

“Climb, eagle, to my crystalline palace.”

Jupiter flew away on the eagle.

Sicilius Leonatus said, “Jupiter came in thunder; his celestial breath was sulfurous to smell. The holy eagle swooped as if to clutch us with its talons. Where Jupiter ascends is sweeter than our blest fields in Elysium. Jupiter’s royal bird, the eagle, trims the feathers of its immortal wings and uses its claws to scratch its beak — this shows that Jupiter is pleased.”

All the spirits of the Leonati family prayed, “Thanks, Jupiter!”

Sicilius Leonati said, “The marble pavement of Heaven closes, Jupiter has entered his radiant home. Let’s leave! And, in order to be blest, let us carefully perform Jupiter’s great command.”

He placed the tablet on Posthumus’ chest, and then the spirits vanished.

Posthumus Leonatus woke up and said, “Sleep, you have been a grandfather and have begotten a father to me, and you have created for me a mother and two brothers. But, this is a bitter joke — they went away from here as soon as they were born, and so I am awake.

“Poor wretches who depend on the favor of great ones for their life dream as I have just done, and they wake up and find nothing. But, alas, I am wrong. Many people do not dream in order to find blessings, and they do not deserve to find blessings, and yet they receive blessings. I am in that situation. I want to die, and yet I have this golden event — this golden dream — and I do not know why.”

He felt the tablet on his chest and said, “What fairies haunt this ground? A tablet? It’s a rare and exceptional one! Don’t be, as is common in our fashion-obsessed world, a garment that is nobler than what it covers. Let the words written within your pages be as noble as what covers them, unlike our courtiers.”

He read the words of the tablet out loud:

When a lion’s whelp shall, to himself unknown, without seeking find, and be embraced by a piece of tender air; and when from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches, which, being dead many years, shall afterward revive, be joined to the old stock and freshly grow, then Posthumus shall end his miseries, and Britain shall be fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty.”

Posthumus did not understand the meaning of the words, but a soothsayer would later explain them.

He said to himself, “This is still a dream that I am having, or else it is such nonsense as madmen speak and don’t understand.

“Here are more possibilities: Either it is both of these or it is nothing; that is, either it is the speaking of a madman in a dream, or it is nothing.”

Madmen and “madmen” can speak falsely or truthfully, although what they say sounds like nonsense. The same is true of prophets and “prophets.”

He continued, “But the words on the tablet are a kind of speaking: The words on the tablet are the words of a prophecy, whether false or true. Therefore, either it is senseless speaking, or it is a speaking such as reason cannot untie — such speaking may be full of sense although I am not able to understand it.

“Whatever the words on this tablet mean, the action of my life is like them — difficult to understand, or perhaps senseless — and I’ll keep the tablet, if only because of the words’ resemblance to my life.”

The first jailer returned and said to Posthumus, “Come, sir, are you ready for death?”

“I am more than ready,” Posthumus replied. “If I were a piece of meat, I would be over-roasted; that is, I would have been ready for the dining table long ago.”

The first jailer replied, “Roasted meat is hung up so that its aging improves the flavor, sir. If you are ready to be hung, you are well cooked.”

“So, if I prove to be a good repast to the spectators, then the dish pays the shot,” Posthumus said.

The dish is food, and the shot is a reckoning — the bill. For some spectators, a hanging is a good repast — good entertainment. And before and after the entertainment, chances are excellent that spectators would go to a tavern and buy a drink, thereby giving the innkeeper a very profitable day. Posthumus’ hanging would draw in a big audience and help the innkeeper pay his bills.

The first jailor said, “That is a heavy reckoning for you, sir. But your comfort is that you shall be called to no more payments; you will fear no more tavern bills, which are often the sadness of parting, although the bills also procure mirth. You come in faint for lack of food, and then you depart reeling with too much drink. You are sorry that you have paid too much, and you are sorry that you are paid too much — drinking too much alcohol pays you back with a hangover. Your wallet and your brain are both empty. Your brain is all the heavier in the morning for being too light the previous night. Your wallet is too light because the drawing of beers resulted in drawing out of your wallet the money that had made it heavy. Death pays all bills, so by dying you won’t have to worry about these contradictions.

“Oh, the charity of a penny rope that is used in a hanging! It gives a reckoning of thousands of bills in a trice — a single pull on the gallows and in an instant. You will have no true debit or credit but death. You will be released for all liability for what is past, what is present, and what is to come. Your neck, sir, is pen, book, and counting pieces, so the exoneration of all your debts and the deliverance from all your troubles follow.”

“I am merrier to die than you are to live,” Posthumus said.

“Indeed, sir, he who sleeps does not feel the toothache, but I think a man who was going to sleep your permanent sleep would change places with the hangman who intended to help him to bed — the grave — because you see, sir, you don’t know which way you shall go when you die.”

“Yes, indeed, I do, fellow.”

“Your Death has eyes in his head then,” the first jailer said. “I have not seen the personification of Death so pictured — usually, he is depicted as a skeleton, including an empty skull. You must either be instructed by some who take upon them to know about Death, or you take upon yourself that which I am sure you do not know, or you risk the Final Judgment at your own peril, and I think you’ll never return to tell anyone in the living world how you shall speed in your journey’s end.”

“I tell you, fellow, there are none who lack eyes to direct them the way I am going, but such people close their eyes and will not use them.”

Posthumus was ready to die. He had repented his sin, and he was ready to atone for his sin by dying. Other men and women, if they wanted, could repent their sins and atone for them and so be ready to die.

The first jailer said, “What an infinite act of mockery is this, that a man should have the best use of his eyes to see the way of blindness! I am sure hanging’s a good way of closing one’s eyes.”

A messenger arrived and said to the first jailer, “Knock off his manacles; bring your prisoner to the King.”

“You bring good news,” Posthumus said. “I am called to be made free.”

By “be made free,” Posthumus meant “be hanged.”

“I’ll be hanged then,” the first jailer said.

“You shall be then freer than a jailer,” Posthumus said. “There are no fetters for the dead.”

Posthumus and the messenger exited.

Alone, the first jailer said to himself, “Unless a man would marry a gallows and beget young gibbets, I never saw a man so eager to climb onto a gallows. Yet, on my conscience, there are worse knaves than this Roman who desire to live. This man is a Roman, and Romans are stoic and are supposed to not care about death, but there are some Romans, too, who die against their wills. So should I, if I were a Roman. I wish that we were all of one mind, and that one mind good. If that should happen, then there would be a desolation of jailers and gallows! I would lose my job, so what I am saying is against my present profit, but my wish has a preferment in it — I prefer a better world with better people and a better job for me.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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