The Last Roman King

in Critical Survey
Author:
Ian WardProfessor of Law, Newcastle University, UK Ian.ward@ncl.ac.uk

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This article revisits one of Shakespeare’s later, often rather neglected, plays. Shakespeare is thought to have written Cymbeline in 1609 or 1610, at much the same moment, it is commonly surmised, as other so-called ‘problem’ plays such as Pericles and The Winter’s Tale. Critics have rarely enthused over Cymbeline, lacking an obvious lead character, the action moving unsettlingly between Roman Britain and Renaissance Italy. Cymbeline has, though, something important to say about the constitutional politics of Jacobean England. King James I liked to style himself as the ‘new Augustus’. He also liked the absolutist idea of kingship which he discovered in his reading of the ‘old’ Augustus. In writing Cymbeline, Shakespeare sought a delicate balance, paying homage to the affinity, whilst also cautioning against uncritical reliance on Roman conceptions of magistracy.

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