Snow White According to Shakespeare

Yes, really. There’s a Shakespeare play that is pretty much a version of “Snow White”. I didn’t find that out on my own, I read it somewhere (Wikipedia or something); as it’s not one of the better-known plays, I had never read it or watched it before, so I wouldn’t have twigged to this on my own. The play in question is Cymbeline, which is oddly enough called The Tragedy of Cymbeline, although it’s not tragic at all – it ends in marriage and defeat of the bad guys, which is the hallmark of Shakespearean comedy.

The story is not really Snow White per se – there aren’t dwarfs and witches and magic mirrors. But it’s got some of the essential elements of the Snow White story, which folktale scholars take as a piece of evidence that the Snow White tale has been around for a long, long time – Cymbeline is a good two hundred years older than the Brothers Grimm’s writing down of the story. As far as Shakespeare studies go, this story is a mashup of Snow White with Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Yes, I know it sounds weird… but the elements are all there. I think Shakespeare must have decided that there were certain bits of those plays he liked, so he just recycled them.

It goes like this (sorry it’s a bit convoluted; blame The Bard): Cymbeline is the king of the Britons. He has a beautiful daughter named Imogen. Imogen is married to Leonatus Posthumus; Posthumus gets banned. The queen (stepmother) wants to marry Imogen to her son Cloten, then kill Cymbeline and Imogen so Cloten becomes king. She has what she thinks is deadly poison which, thanks to the doctor who brewed it, isn’t as fatal as she thinks it is; it’s the Juliet poison which produces death-like sleep. She gives it to Pisanio, a servant, telling him it’s medicine to give to the king if he feels ill. Meanwhile, Posthumus, in exile, makes a bet with a guy called Iachimo that he can’t seduce Imogen; Iachomo goes to Britain and steals “proof” that he seduced her. Posthumus is furious and commands Pisanio by letter to kill his “faithless” wife. Pisanio leads Imogen into the woods, but can’t make himself do the killing; he tells her to run into the woods and gives her the “medicine” in case she feels sick. Imogen dresses in boys’ clothes and finds a cave in the woods, inhabited by three men, Guiderius and Arviragus, who are Imogen’s brothers but don’t know it, and Belarius, who kidnapped them as babies and raised them as his own. Imogen takes the “medicine”, falls into death-like sleep; the men are devastated. Cloten comes after Imogen in Posthumus’ clothes, wants to rape her; he gets killed & beheaded by Guiderius, the headless body is placed beside Imogen’s “body”. She wakes and thinks it’s Posthumus. They all go to join the British army to fight against the Romans. They help the Britons win. The queen has died and given a deathbed confession of her evil plans, which opens the king’s eyes. Posthumus and Imogen are reunited, the king’s sons are restored to him, and all live happily ever after.

So, it’s pretty clear: beautiful princess; stepmother out to murder her; servant ordered to kill her in the woods; he takes pity and she runs; she ends up in a cave/house with some males who love her dearly; she gets a poison which makes her fall into a deathlike sleep; she wakes from her sleep and is reunited with her lover. That’s the Snow White elements.

As for the Othello ones, there’s the husband who is tricked by a knave into believing his very chaste wife unfaithful and therefore wants to kill her, and the knave (whose name is even very similar: Iago/Iachomo) who obtains “proof” of the “unfaithfulness” by trickery. With Romeo and Juliet, the parallels are obviously the poison and fake death, but also the husband/lover’s exile, the wife’s despair over it and her refusal to marry someone who is politically more eligible than her lover. Oh, there’s also some hints of As You Like in the  cross-dressing (girl playing a boy in the woods), Macbeth in the scheming character of the queen, King Lear in how Cymbeline doesn’t at first appreciate his loving daughter, and The Tempest in the princess’ persecution by an uncouth suitor. Shakespeare sure liked to recycle his themes…

I watched the 1982 BBC version of Cymbeline with Helen Mirren as Imogen a couple of days ago (she was so young then!). And apparently there’s a new version coming out in 2014 with Ethan Hawke as Iachimo. You know, just in case you’re now desperate to watch this play, your chance is coming up.

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2 thoughts on “Snow White According to Shakespeare

  1. Oh, my modern sensibilities just hate it that Imogen would be re-united with Posthumus after he ordered her death, even if that was the accepted male reaction of the time! And what a name – Posthumus! Now, the name Imogen is interesting to me, because the first really racy romance I ever read as a 14 year old or so was called something like “Wild, Reckless Love” (I think that was the first of a trilogy, with another entitled “Bold, Breathless Love”) in which the heroine was named Imogene. My sister read it too, and we have both referred to Imogene now and then ever since – we were young enough that it made quite an impact on us! Imogene was a real temptress and daredevil for her time (it was set in the 1800’s sometime). She was always getting involved with the most rakishly handsome of fellows…..she sort of set us young girls up for a world of disappointment! LOL

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    • No no no. She’s got to get together again with Posthumus (I know, that name’s a joke. Must have been hell to go to high school with. Then again, I guess ancient Britons/Romans didn’t do high school, so it doesn’t matter). See, the “faithful wife” is her whole persona, it’d be awful if she didn’t get him back. Iachomo, when he tries to seduce her, first tells *her* that *Posthumus” has been unfaithful, which is a flat-out lie – and she buys it, too (they’re incredibly credulous, all of them), and goes all weepy and moany (“Oh, Posthumus! Ah, me!”). But she refuses to take revenge on Posthumus by having it off with Iachomo, as he’s suggesting; Iachomo just can’t get anywhere with her in spite of all his lies. So he resorts to sneaking into her bedroom at night, stealing the bracelet Posthumus gave her, and watching her while she’s sleeping and her nightshirt slips, so he sees a mole under her breast – which is the damning piece of evidence that convinces Posthumus that Iachomo has, in fact, slept with her (else how would he know of the mole?). Just like Iago and Desdemona’s hankie. So for her to not get Posthumus back in the end would replay the Othello story of undeserved tragedy all around; she needs to get him back as reward for her faithfulness. I’m afraid modern or post-modern sensibilities are somewhat misplaced when dealing with Shakespeare. 🙂

      For me, the name Imogen is closely connected with Imogen Stubbs, who played such an awesome Viola in “Twelfth Night”. Very Shakesperean.

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